Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Debate and Dissent in Late Tokugawa and Meiji Japan

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Debate and Dissent in Late Tokugawa and Meiji Japan

Article excerpt

Japan has often been portrayed as lacking traditions of rhetoric, public speaking, and debate. Acccording to this view, as expressed by Roichi Okabe, "Japan has not witnessed the development of any indigenous rhetorical theory and practice." (187). Both Western and Japanese communication scholars have argued that the supposed dearth of indigenous Japanese rhetoric is the result of strong cultural proscriptions, deep currents of resistance to "Western" logic, public discourse and the clear expression of opinion. Debate seems an especially alien activity from the essentialist view of Japan as a harmonious and homogeneous culture.

The modern appearance of speech and debate activities in Japan is often attributed to contact with the West during the Meiji era (1868-1912) and to the efforts of Yukichi Fukuzawa and other "popularizers" of Western culture. Klopf and Kawashima, among others, insist that Japan's practice of debate is "based on its century-old history of Western speech education" introduced by Fukuzawa. (4). Becker also portrays debate as an alien activity introduced to Japan during periods of political Westernization in the Meiji era and again during the American occupation after World War II. As culture-specific transplants in strange soil, Becker argues, "these movements did not spread widely" or extend beyond periods of intense contact with the, Limited States. (Becker, "Japanese" 144).

Such characterizations of Japanese history and culture as arhetorical or antirhetorical are based on myths of homogeneity and essential harmony that conceal centuries of ideological conflict, dissent, struggle, and repression in Japan. For the Japanese ruling elite and its supporters, the notion that dissent is somehow un-Japanese has along been used to justify the suppression, even execution, of those who engage in it. (Hane, Reflections 1-28).

Myths of Japanese unanimity have real consequences. For the United States government, whose sponsorship and dissemination of "national character" studies during and before World War II continue to inform rhetorical scholarship on Japan,(1) pan, I portrayals of Japanese homogeneity have been used to justify "total war." Belief in Japanese predisposition to the "irrational" and "illogical," and in their supposed antipathy toward reasoned deliberation, strengthened American insistence upon area bombardment and unconditional surrender. (Dower 94-117; Hikins 379-400). More generally, characterizations of Japanese culture as hostile to argument, logic, declamation, exposition, and debate have fueled judgments of cultural inferiority when viewed from within a culture that equates such activities with civilization itself.(2)

But in the past decade historians such as Mikiso Hane, Tetsuo Naiita, and J. Victor Koschmann have reviced the portrait of Japan's past. What has emerged is not the "relatively peaceful" arhetorical society described by Becker ("Reasons" 90) and others, but a country whose past three hundred years have been marked by great ideological and often physical conflict, and whose disputes have often been conducted and recorded in the form of debates.

In this paper I will demonstrate that: (1) Japan had a rich and well-documented tradition of debate for centuries before its "opening to the West" in 1853; (2) Fukuzawa and other proponents of public political debate in the Meiji era had little meaningful exposure to Western theories or strategies of debate; and (3) The spread and subsequent decline of public political debate during the late Tokugawa and Meiji periods should be understood not as proof of "essential cultural qualities" or their absence, but as internal political developments grounded ill the turmoil of the times.

Japanese Debate Traditions

Notions persist that debate is somehow antithetical to Japanese culture or even that it is impossible to conduct in Japanese language. Even so respected an observer of Japanese culture as Edwin Reischuer note the absence of much genuine debate on the floor of the Diet and conclude that it is absent from Japanese culture in general. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.