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Kayoko Koyasu

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Ability to Imagine Others

Kayoko Koyasu
Professor, Faculty of Economics, Chuo University
Areas of specialization: Contemporary Chinese Literature, Folklore

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Are we forgetting how to imagine others?

I heard a funny story from one of my seminar students one day. She told me that she and another friend in the course were riding the train, both of them chatting over the popular LINE application on their cell phone for about an hour. When they stood up to get off the train and looked over, they were surprised to find that they had been sitting next to each other the whole time.

Gone is the sight of people opening up newspapers on the train; these days everyone is staring intently at their tiny terminal screens. This has been commonplace for some time now. We live in what has been dubbed the information age—a time where anything we want to know can be retrieved in a flash and sent far and wide with a simple touch. We can even share our private lives by getting into “conversations” with complete strangers.

But no matter how much information we amass and exchange with one another, we may not even notice the fact that our friends may be sitting right next to us if we don’t have the ability to clearly picture the people with whom we interact. Imagining others is more difficult than you might think. Even in our everyday lives, as in academics, it is difficult to know the true nature of something without directly facing the subject. So what should we do? I think we stand to learn a lot from the work of those who came before us; namely, the pioneers in a field that asks revolutionary questions about our relationship with the subjects of our investigation—folklore studies.

Conflicts with the West in the modern era

The discipline of cultural studies is one of the methodologies of academic inquiry that have made the greatest strides forward in the fields of law, education, history, languages, and literature. Cultural and postcolonial studies have put questions of cultural identity of the modern non-West in the spotlight—questions dealing with issues of race, the body (such as Chinese foot-binding or circumcision in Africa), and gender, to name a few.

When we began reconsidering things that were once criticized as uncivilized according to modern Western values through an academic lens, we needed a more flexible perspective that can relativize the modern western value systems. This is clearly shown in the fact that scholars called for the necessity of thinking from the standpoint of those involved

In taking a fresh look at the people deemed barbaric under the modern Western value system, we also began to see that we needed to listen more carefully to the voices of those who are being marginalized by the current social push towards globalization. Indeed, this is a perspective from which we can truly understand people—a position that we have no choice but to adopt if we are to meaningfully approach others.

In China in the early twentieth century, there was already a person who, while receptive to modern Western value systems, simultaneously rejected (relativized) the views of the contemporary West. He is Zhou Zuoren, one of the representative scholars of modern China.

Zhou Zuoren

There is hardly a Japanese person who does not know the name Lu Xun. Zhou Zuoren was Lu Xun’s younger brother, and can be said to have had a closer relationship with Japan than did his elder sibling. Just recently (on March 25 of this year), a large volume of written correspondence addressed to Zhou Zuoren from Japanese authors, scholars, artists, and others was discovered—upwards of 1500 missives from over 350 people penned from the 1910s through the 1960s. The Japanese media picked up the story widely, so it is still fresh in people’s minds.

Zhou Zuoren studied in Tokyo for five years at the close of the Meiji era, from 1906 to 1911. During that time, he started with anthropology and from there broadened his interests to include ethnicity, religion, mythology, customs, and sexology. His entire academic experiences in Japan were a process whereby he gradually and deeply resonated with modern Western knowledge. At the same time, he maintained an unadorned appearance and took on sparse living conditions in a single room of just four and a half tatami mats, experiencing many aspects of Japanese culture firsthand as he made his way to festivals or entertainment venues in traditional kimono and geta clogs. As Zhou engaged directly with Japanese folk customs, his interest was naturally drawn to Japanese folklore studies—specifically, the work of Kunio Yanagita.

Zhou Zuoren’s encounter with Kunio Yanagita occurred in 1910 when Zhou, then studying in Japan, headed out to a shop to purchase Yanagita’s seminal publication Tono Monogatari. Zhou continued to buy Yanagita’s major works, developing a deep interest in them that would last a lifetime. Zhou, who was receptive to modern Western academic methodology (including Yanagita’s folklore studies), attempted to study the state of Chinese folklore once he returned to China. He would later become one of the originators of the Chinese Folklore Movement.

Zhou’s woes (at a turning point 70 years after the war)

But Zhou Zuoren ran into serious difficulties when he tried to break into Chinese folklore. The first issue was that yawning gaps alienated the intelligentsia from the common people both mentally and physically. Other than being conceptually aware of (imagining) China’s everyday folk, Zhou had no way of approaching them. This process began alerting him to the fact that an unavoidably political nature (the logic of exclusion) haunts the telling (textualization) of a cultural other (self). For Zhou, the work of imagining a cultural other ran parallel to his receptivity to the modern West; it was the work of questioning the West-versus-Asia, progress-versus-backwardness, civilization-versus-barbarism structure that might be considered the essence of the modern age.

Zhou’s another woe lay in his relationship with Japan. He ended up in Japan-occupied Beijing, assuming the Dean of the College of Humanities of “Peking University” and later an important post equivalent to the Minister of Education under Japanese control. On the eve of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, Zhou had already declared that he would quit his Japanese research. Therefore it must have been his purposeful decision to remain in Beijing, but the issue of so-called “Japanese collaboration” would threaten his future life in politics.

While Zhou Zuoren took his leave of Japanese culture, he made a pointed exception when it came to talking about Japanese folklore. It is no easy task to reach an answer of how to evaluate his way of thinking that featured lasting attention to Japanese folklore. But, as Taro Tsurumi has pointed out, we may be able to regard that Zhou, facing the establishment of a totalitarian regime, firmly retained his creative way of remaining separate from that regime—separate in his deep consciousness, even though he did not show his resistance in any conspicuous way—in his commitment to folklore (Taro Tsurumi, Ardent days of Folklore Studies [Minzokugaku no atsuki hibi], Chuokoron-Shinsha, 2004).

After the war, even speaking about Zhou Zuoren has long been taboo in China. The Japanese have a historical responsibility to understand the significance of Zhou getting involved with the “other” that was Japan and interacting with Japanese folklore. Seventy years after the war, I believe we should take this opportunity to try and imagine the agony of this “other” to us—the Japan expert Zhou Zuoren.

Kayoko Koyasu
Professor, Faculty of Economics, Chuo University
Areas of specialization: Contemporary Chinese Literature, Folklore
Professor Koyasu was born in Tokyo and graduated from the Faculty of Humanities, Wako University in 1996. In 2000 she went to Peking University to study at the Department of Chinese Language and Literature. In 2004, Koyasu left Ochanomizu University after completing her doctoral coursework at the Graduate School of Humanities and Sciences. She is a doctor of humanities (Ochanomizu University). Koyasu worked as a full-time lecturer on the Faculty of Education and Regional Studies, Fukui University before taking up her current post in 2007. In her research, she is now attempting to question anew the relationship between the formation of knowledge and nationalism in early twentieth-century China through case studies on Zhou Zuoren’s folklore research. Her major publications include The Genealogy of Folklore Studies in Modern China: Citizens, Intellectuals, and the Masses [Kindai Chugoku ni okeru minzokugaku no keifu: Kokumin, minshu, chishikijin] (Ochanomizu Shobo, 2008); major research papers include “Zhou Zuoren in Japan-occupied Beijing: “Japanese collaboration” and speaking of the common people” [Nihon senryoka Pekin ni okeru Zhou Zuoren: “Tainichi kyoryoku” to minzoku wo kataru koto] in Michihiko Sato, Ed. A Multifaceted Approach to China III [Chugoku e no Takakuteki Apurochi III] (Chuo University Press, 2014).