Dewey In Japan

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 7:40 pm

Naoko Saito takes John Dewey’s visits to Japan as a starting place for questions about “Education for Global Understanding” [registration required; I do like the way TCR seems to be branching more towards Higher Ed and international education lately, but it might just be a summer blip] and finds challenging material.

In his visit to Japan, from February 9 until April 28, 1919, Dewey was confronted with a severe challenge to his hope of attaining mutual understanding and universal democracy beyond national and cultural boundaries. Japan at that time was between two world wars and had undergone a democratization movement called Taisho Democracy – a movement that was soon to give way to looming nationalism and militarism. Dewey saw a flickering hope for liberalism in Japan, but he left the country in disappointment. He tried to approach Japan through his principle of mutual national understanding. During the short period of his stay, he struggled to penetrate below the surface of the culture. As a philosopher who was thrown into an abyss that existed between two cultures, Dewey acknowledged that “Japan is a unique country, one whose aims and methods are baffling to any foreigner.” He communicated with Japanese liberal intellectuals, gave a lecture at the University of Tokyo, and was exposed to the left-wing democratic movements among college youth. But he learned that “such higher criticism is confined to the confidence of the classroom” (JL, p. 174). Dewey realized that the “popular mind,” to which he wished to communicate his idea of democracy as a personal way of living, was dominated by “nationalistic sentiment.” He observed that “the growth of democratic ideas” and “the growth of liberalism” were hampered by the inculcation of “the emperor cult” (LJ, pp. 170–173). Especially in contrast to China, where “[e]very articulate conscious influence [was] liberal,” Dewey noticed the obstacles to “the development of an enlightened liberal public opinion in Japan” – “the conspiracy of silence,” patriotism, and the institutional religion that prevented “critical thought and free discussion.” Dewey was troubled by the authoritarian, nationalistic ethics indoctrinated in primary education (LJ, pp. 167–168). He could not find democracy in Japanese people’s way of living.

Furthermore, Dewey was confused by an inconsistency involved in Japanese modernization – a combination of the “feudal” and “barbarian” ethos of the warrior with the worship of western industrialization (LJ, pp. 160–161). As he put it, “There is some quality in the Japanese inscrutable to a foreigner which makes them at once the most rigid and the most pliable people on earth, the most self-satisfied and the most eager to learn” (LJ, p. 168). In the country’s “opportunism,” Dewey found it “difficult in the present condition of Japan to construct even in imagination a coherent and unswerving working policy for a truly liberal political party” (POJ, p. 259).

This experience of Dewey leaves us with a philosophical question: what happens if one’s democratic faith is not totally accepted in a different culture? [footnotes removed]

Actually, that last sentence should be, based on her description of Dewey’s responses, “what happens if one’s democratic faith is entirely rejected in a different culture?” A bit later, Saito notes that “In the series of lectures that Dewey gave at the University of Tokyo, the number of participants decreased from around a thousand to less than forty towards the end.” And, of course, there’s little evidence of Dewey’s influence in Japan’s educational or political systems to date. Clearly his visit failed to transform Japan, unrealistic as that standard of judgement might be. Clearly Japan as a society is not fully accepting of differences and others (are any societies?) and has a civil discourse which is more limited than many of us would consider ideal, or even healthy.

I’m mostly struck by the tension between the idea of Taisho Democracy, which was indeed in full swing when Dewey dropped in, and what Dewey observed as rigidity, obscurantism, chauvinism and authoritarianism. Given what we know of the course of history, Dewey’s observations ring true, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he didn’t miss something important. The 1920s were a heyday of internationalism in Japan, not just in the sense of the Shidehara Diplomacy but also in terms of translated literature and scholarship, travel overseas, international visitors to Japan, and the penetration of commodity culture carrying both domestic and international products and modes. Dewey should have seen some of that potential; instead he (and his followers in the present) deny that the eclectic and dynamic 1920s were more than epiphenomal. There’s a consistency to this narrative that I find troubling, possible evidence of a cultural determinism which is untenable, historically.

2 Responses to “Dewey In Japan”

  1. tak says:

    As a person who knows next to nothing about Dewey, it also begs the question: were the 1920s U.S. counterpart to the popular constituency also practicing democracy in the way he defined it?

    Also the term “democratic faith” needs some explanation (maybe Saito elaborates in the rest of the essay). Saito, perhaps through Dewey (though I don’t know), seems to define “democratic faith” as that which means something like a modernist mindset in which individual citizens operate independent from a traditional authority. Yet there is also a sense that “democratic faith” simply means “western industrialization,” which again, as Jonathan pointed out, may be something that needs a little teasing out.

    But this is the conundrum, right? — that following any sort of “democratic faith” blindly seems quite “undemocratic.”

    So perhaps Dewey had something more specific in mind than defining democracy as something like a freedom of the mind from feudalism.

  2. domitori says:

    I have doubts about the terminology.
    What is patriotism? What does it mean, to be loyal?

    The main article reads:
    [Dewey noticed the obstacles to “the development of an enlightened liberal public opinion in Japan” - “the conspiracy of silence,” patriotism, and the institutional religion that prevented “critical thought and free discussion.”]

    While authors do not specify these terms applyng to the situation in Japan. While the article is in English, I use the definition by Mark Twain:
    [.. all political power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority and instituted for their benefit; and that they have _at all times_ an undeniable and indefeasible right to _alter their form of
    government_ in such a manner as they may think expedient."
    Under that gospel, the citizen who thinks he sees that the
    commonwealth's political clothes are worn out, and yet holds his peace and does not agitate for a new suit, is disloyal; he is a traitor.]

    According to this terminology, the “yes”-citizen shouls not be considered as patriots.

    Sincerely, Dima.

    P.S. Example:
    One Chairman asks a girl “Do you think that we can have
    a war against 3 biggest countries on the Earth and wine it?”,
    and the girl answers “Yes, of course, my Sunny Prince,
    our soldiers are so brave!”.
    Such an answer does not mean that she is patriot. She is just a “yes” girl. In various situations such answers brings some benefits to the “yes” persons. Please do not cocfuse this with

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