Tag Archives: Civil Society

Art and Civil Society in Tokugawa Japan

6 Apr

With an extension to graffiti in late 20th Century

rainbow CEAZE in the industrial zone

I first published this in The Valve back in 2007 under the title “Tokugawa Blogging: Best of 2006.” I’m republishing it here because it relates to the role Transition Teams are playing in moving our societies to a new, more sustainable, and more human way of life.

Back in September of 2006 I was looking through the current issue of Science and saw a book review (requires subscription) entitled “Through Art to Association in Japanese Politics” by one Christena Turner. Given my interest in manga and anime, the title caught my attention. That Science was reviewing a book on such a topic, that really caught my attention. So I read the review, of Bonds of Civility: Aesthetic Networks and the Political Origins of Japanese Culture (Amazon.com) by Eiko Ekegami.

According to Turner, Eikegami argued that

Japanese sociability is characterized by an extensive repertoire of practices for handling the problem of how to interact with strangers. Somewhere between friends and enemies lies the domain of strangers. Somewhere between intimacy and danger lies the domain of civility. “The degree of ‘strangership’ may be an indication of the degree of civility in a given society,” she claims. Civility permits ordinary people to be confident in interactions with those of unknown or different backgrounds, making it possible to form social bonds in the absence of friendship or kinship.

This is important because modern democracies requires a civil realm where individuals can form voluntary associations “outside the realms of both the political institutions of the state and the intimate ties of the family.” Ikegami argued

that networks of people engaged in interactive artistic and cultural pursuits created the bonds of “civility without civil society” that prepared the population of pre-modern Japan for its strikingly rapid transformation into one of the first and most successful modern nations outside of the West. Art created politics when participation in aesthetic networks taught people technologies of association among strangers that eased the transition toward institutions of a modern political economy.

That had me hooked. Not only would this book serve as “deep background” for my interest in manga and anime – “deep” because it’s about a period, roughly 1600 to 1850, well before the emergence of those forms – but it also promised to be a volume that argued for the social value of art on an empirical basis, as opposed to asserting ideals. Since I’d already argued that it was music that made apes into humans, I was eager to read a more empirical, less speculative, argument broadly, if only loosely, consistent with that. Finally, it seemed that Ikegami’s argument might be generally useful in thinking about how social networks function in the larger society.

Continue reading