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Overview of the Notion of the Individual in Modern Japan

p. 72
Cet article est une traduction de :
Parcours de la notion d’individu dans le Japon moderne

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Source: La lettre, no. 39, March 2015

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1The keyword of the lectures I delivered at the Collège de France in June 2014 is a notion that has haunted Japanese intellectuals since the mid-nineteenth century, and continues to do so today: that of the individual.

2It seems to me particularly timely and necessary to deal with that theme, since Japanese society is currently freeing itself from the obsession that individuals are lacking. Moreover, in the eyes of a constitutionalist like me, the notion of the individual relates to the fate of democracy, understood not only as a way of deciding in the name of the demos, but above all as a civilization that has to manage the res publica while respecting the individual’s value and dignity. The relationship between modernization and democracy thus defined – what I would call constitutionalism – is one of the crucial problems of our time.

3The issue is not limited to the Far Eastern archipelago. Belief in the individual, which is also linked to the universalist philosophy of the Enlightenment, seems largely outdated in Western intellectual circles, which tend to argue for the end of modernity. That is why, in my contribution to the World Congress on the Bicentenary of the French Revolution, I dared to subtitle my presentation as: “The deeper meaning of 1789 for the development of Western constitutionalism in the world”. In this context, in his closing address, the great historian Maurice Agulhon answered me: “This surely ought to encourage the French, at least those who have remained friends of the law and freedom.” But the situation is not simple outside the West either, as it is not simply a matter of those accusing Western cultural imperialism. What was and is now Japan’s position in this chassé-croisé picture? What is the Far Eastern archipelago’s geo-cultural position? This is the question I tried to answer.

4There are too many cases of “modernization” taking place despite a lack of constitutionalism, or even because of this evident lack. Defining democracy as “the mode of political organization of an individualist civilization”, the constitutionalist Bernard Chantebout identifies three types of reactions, by extra-Western civilizations, to democracy understood in this way. Alongside “refusal” and “failure”, he described the Japanese experience as a “synthesis of democracy and tradition”. Without falling into the trap of a certain patriotism, I for my part have a rather positive assessment of “post-war democracy” under the 1946 constitution, which proclaimed respect of the individual and of certain honourable achievements of “Taisho democracy”, including under the 1889 imperial constitution. Still, we need to ask ourselves whether the term “synthesis” is relevant here.

5Briefly recalling the country’s tormented modern history, I referred to the standpoints of representative intellectuals, who are caught in the continual rivalry between that which is open to the universal and that which is characterized by a certain “Japaneity”. Following a tragic adventure, and finally freed of the constraint of the military-theocratic power of 1935-1945, young intellectuals tried to learn from their painful experiences.

6Masao Maruyama (a historian of political ideas, 1914-1996) distinguished between two kinds of freedom, the simply liberating freedom of desire and the creative freedom of norms, to reveal a severe lack of the latter in Japan’s cultural tradition. He warned that “post-war democracy” would not be feasible if it was not rooted in that freedom. The notion of basso ostinato, which he proposed, helps us to understand the difficulty we have experienced in seeing individualist voluntarism taking root. The persistence of a deep voice, inherent to the climate of this culture, metamorphoses the dominant melody, which comes from the outside. This may be what makes the charm of Japanese culture (see the example of Buddhism since the seventh century). But there was also the risk of ending up crushed by the basso ostinato which became deafening (the constitutionalism of the 1930s). Shuichi Kato (a writer and critic, 1919-2008), to whom Nobutaka Miura devoted most of his lecture at the Collège de France in March 2013, developed the idea of a “mixed” or “hybrid” culture to overcome the idea – erroneous according to him – that modernization amounts to Westernization. He saw this as a necessary challenge never again to repeat the terrible isolation of intellectuals, who ultimately had not been able to prevent the great disaster.

7Will the individual manage to gain ground in this small corner of north-east Asia? It is very difficult at present to give a precise answer to that question.

• Prof. Yoichi Higuchi was invited by the Faculty, on Prof. Anne Cheng’s suggestion.

• Videos of these lectures are available at, on Prof. Anne Cheng’s page.

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Référence électronique

Yoichi HIGUCHI, « Overview of the Notion of the Individual in Modern Japan », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 9 | 2015, mis en ligne le 28 septembre 2015, consulté le 26 mars 2017. URL :

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Professor of Constitutional Law, member of the Japan Academy

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