Atarashiki mura in Interwar Japan

Interwar Japan witnessed the founding of one of the longest running  secular intentional communities in the world, Atarashiki mura. Yet the historiography of twentieth century Japan seldom includes the story of this project. Over ninety years after its founding it continues to operate espousing its original goals of humanism and individualism, albeit in constant financial trouble and in a location different from where it was established. Historians of Japanese political thought generally ignore this movement, focusing instead on either the intrigues of Taisho party politics or the threat (or possibility, depending on one’s disposition) of radical socialist movements and intellectuals. This has led to a dominant narrative of contested liberalization, preceding the authoritarian hypernationalism of Hirohito’s reign. From this picture of the time period the reader is left to conclude that there were at most two distinct sides to the interwar political spectrum, the party/Imperial oligarchy and the socialist movement that was progressively beaten down and wiped out by the state. Once this oppositional element was eliminated, the state could expand unhindered into totalitarianism.

As it fits into neither the socialist nor the liberal camp, the New Village Movement challenges this paradigm. Attracting hundreds of followers domestically and spawning international  counterparts, its leader, Mushakoji Saneatsu, was also one of the most famous novelists of the twentieth century in Japan. The utopian imaginary envisioned by Mushakoji and his followers appeared, at least for time, to be able to undermine the existing order. Hence, I have approached this topic as an instantiation of what German historian Reinhart Koselleck calls “futures past” (vergangene zukunft). This approach entails situating the way in which people conceive of their ideal society, and how they work towards that ideal, in the context of cultural, spatial, and historical specificity. Part of the work in my historical investigation is to sketch the contours of the historical period that is the background for the New Village Movement while telling the story of the Movement itself. I will then describe how it functioned, consider its intellectual roots, and elaborate on what this means for the historical study of utopian politics and interwar Japan.

The Literary Figure and Utopianism

The New Village Movement in general, and Atarashiki mura in particular, can only be understood with a background in the biography of Mushakoji Saneatsu, the intellectual and spiritual father of the movement. Born on 12 May 1885 in Yotsuya, Tokyo to an aristocratic family, he was the youngest of 8. He, like all of the Shirakabaha literary circle that would later help found, attended the Peer’s School (Gakushuin), graduating at 22. He later attended Tokyo University for one year before dropping out to focus on his literary career. Though he attended prestigious institutions he was never very interested in studying. In his teens he occupied himself with a different curriculum than the one the school offered. He read the works of spiritual and political figures like Uchimura Kanzo and Kotoku Shusui. He was also introduced to Tolstoy and the Bible by his uncle. These latter two had a formative effect on him. Mushakoji began reading Tolstoy in 1903 and instantly fell in love with his writings. Discussing literature became an encompassing passion for Mushakoji, and he spent much of his free time discussing literature with his Shirakabaha colleagues and people surround Natsume Soseki in Tokyo.

Young Mushakoji went through a number of phases in his artistic outlook. He would read Tolstoy and then abandon him for Maeterlinck, praise Rembrandt and then Cézanne. Arguably every one of these figures made an impact on his worldview, some more than others. Literary critics who read Mushakoji tend to focus on some of the artistic figures whose influenced his writing style, but I am more interested in the ideologies that he became identified with. These are also the schools of thought that we can trace in his formulation of the New Village Movement. Conventionally, ideologies like humanism and individualism are not treated as politically oriented, and this may be appropriate in most cases. But in the case of Mushakoji and New Village thought, however, these aesthetic ideas were made explicitly social and political, while still retaining their aesthetic appeal.

Both humanism and individualism, then, are categorical concerns for the historian of the New Village Movement, though the two are sometimes treated as being antithetical. The pervasive humanism of the New Village thought is apparent in its social mission to bring enlightenment to all peoples. But Mushakoji was also an affective individualist. In 1913, he declared about himself, “To tell the truth, I seem to have been born under a star that ordained I would become a most interesting man, one of a kind in the world.” So, in a sense his search for an understanding of the great artists of the world could be interpreted as a quest for self-vindication by his inclusion in their community. We will see this exemplified in his emulation of Tolstoy—to an extent also with Soseki. But this misses the point that Mushakoji changed drastically as he matured. In the biographical literature on him that invokes his egoism, all of the evidence comes from the early years of the Shirakaba magazine, 1911-1913. By the time he established the New Village his self-obsession arguably receded. Moreover, his psychological preoccupations and development are beside the point, what is most significant for us now is how Mushakoji as a utopian prophet of sorts envisioned a model way of life that we can read in dialogue with the context of his time.

So, for our purposes the most important aspect of Mushakoji’s biography is not his egoism, but his participation in conducting the transmission of transnational culture. According to John Lewell, Mushakoji’s writing was “transparently mediocre.” According to Hughes, Mushakoji produced 7 novels, 5 books of essays, 15 one-act plays, and 9 long plays between 1908 and 1923.

Establishing Atarashiki mura

Since its founding in the hilly countryside in southern Kyushu, Atarashiki mura has carried the legacy of an immanent utopian sensibility. Though it still currently exists and is shaped by the ideals of its founder, the Japanese aristocrat and literary figure, Mushakoji Saneatsu, it stands on a different site (now in Saitama-ken), a testament to its adaptiveness and perseverance. Atarashiki mura is an intentional community united by their experiment in conviviality, freedom and individual self-discovery. Throughout the years the specific expectations and procedures that give shape to its daily life have changed to correspond with shifting circumstances, but the fundamental principles remain firmly in place since their inception.

If we were to set a date for the inception of the New Village Movement, it would be Spring 1918. In March of that year Mushakoji published a series of essays on Atarashiki mura in the Osaka Mainicki Shimbun. Beginning with “ There Is A Country” and later “Embarking on the Road to the Happy Life,” which appeared in two parts, these provided a set of goals and a detailed program to pursue these goals through the creation of an agricultural village. Mushakoji appealed to sentiments of pacifism, compassion, and rationality to make his case. He expected his readers to be motivated by these ideals and to come forward to make the utopia a reality. This was not a call for a decentralized New Village Movement, however; the effort was really only to be attempted under the direction of Mushakoji himself. He was optimistic about the responses his transformative platform would solicit, though only eight people contacted him about the Atarashiki mura that spring, three of whom he had already known. Nevertheless, Mushakoji seems to have appreciated the fact that this would be a long and slow process, an outlook that seemed to be vindicated before too long. In 1920 he wrote a poem that reflected back upon the initial stages of the project with satisfaction:

Fire from a single match
is capable of kindling everything flammable in the world.
It’s simply a matter of brothers and sisters the world over
becoming earnest and working together.

That spring Mushakoji wrote three articles in all and reproduced them in Shirakaba in the following months. Though, as we will explain below, many of the elements for this type of project were present in Mushakoji’s early writings and thought, this was still an inaugural moment towards the actualization of the project. Aside from penning the essays for the newspaper, Mushakoji had no clear way forward for the movement. Within a couple months they way became clearer as he began working with a modestly-sized but committed group of organizers that began to hold meetings in Tokyo. In July Mushakoji and this group began publishing Atarashiki mura magazine, which would be the centerpiece of their outreach strategy. Simultaneously, the founding of Atarashiki murasignaled Mushakoji’s withdrawal from the Shirakaba project, though he continued to appeal to his Shirakabaha colleagues to join him on his new venture. The activist turn in his career is consonant with a response to his critics, which we will discuss later.

In August the Atarashiki mura organizers consolidated their operation at a makeshift headquarters in Hongo, Tokyo. Seven members begin living at headquarters full time. Over the course of the next month they drafted a list of goals and operating procedures for the movement. The list bears the imprint of Mushakoji’s humanist individualism very strongly, but it is also notable for how it divides membership into two levels:

Our ideal is that everyone in the world has a right to live a natural life, and to attain self-enlightenment. In order to accomplish this, one must not do harm to others. One should live honestly, for the sake of one’s own happiness and freedom, and should not destroy the happiness of others. One who seeks such a life, who believes in the possibility of such a life, and who exhorts others to lead such a life—such a one is a member of the New Village, and is our brother and sister.

There are two classes of membership: the first consists of those who come and live under our principles, actually putting them into practice; the second, of those who are not in a position to practice these principles, but who agree with them. The number of first-class members is limited, but anyone may become a second-class member.

First class members contribute all their money to the Village unconditionally. They are given one year in which to dispose of their previously-owned property. After a year’s residence in the Village, one who stays on must turn over all his property to the Village, without reservation.

First-class members are required to work voluntarily. Members have no right to command or direct each other. The work of the Village is decided by a general meeting of the members. A member may insist upon his own ideas so long as they are not opposed to the spirit of the Village.

Second-class members shall do their utmost to spread the ideals of the Village, to support its work, and to further the realization of its ideals by deeds of moral support. They shall each contribute no less than one yen per month to the Village, unless doing so prove [sic] to be a definite hardship.

After the preliminary meetings of organizers had drafted this statement they were ready to solicit more membership. They thus began to hold general informational meetings starting on September 14. By the next week Mushakoji and three committee members were on a train trip bound for Totoro (later to become Nobeoka). The aim of this trip was two-fold: aside from planning to purchase land they took the opportunity along the way to visit supporters in the major cities. On this trip Mushakoji delivered lectures on the aims of Atarashiki mura and the status of the work they had done so far. The reception was warm and new branches of the New Village Movement were set up in Osaka, Kyoto, and Kobe.

The troupe reached their destination on October 10th but there was still a lot of work to be done. The journey between Tokyo and Totoro in Hyuga prefecture took them over two weeks because of all the stops they had made along the way and they were tired from the effort. Additionally, there were a few complications with purchasing the land. The budget they had set of 50 Yen per tan (0.245 acres) was difficult to meet on the market. Moreover, some of the locals they had arranged to meet with were apprehensive about selling to Tokyoites. It was later revealed the some of the resistance by the local peasants was cause by intervention by the local police. Without meeting with instant success in the venture, they were soon joined by two female committee members (including Mushakoji’s first wife, Fusako) and a few supporters who wanted to facilitate the purchase.

Eventually a willing seller was found and the Atarashiki mura group acquired land in the heavily forested hills in rural Hyuga. The land was within budget and boasted a diverse topography. There was enough wetland for a rice paddy and enough arable land to grow wheat and plant a vegetable garden. Additionally there was enough free space to erect a pair of modest dwellings. Thus, the story of the establishment of Atarashiki mura concludes within two months of this first meeting. Mushakoji had convinced around 160 members to join the movement, but most of these were simply sympathetic city dwellers. It would take a dozen committed residents to begin the arduous process of building houses and planting the crops that would sustain the village. Mushakoji memorialized the atmosphere of the moment in verse:

Some dozen of us
walk along a midsummer forest path.
Men and women. Some talking. Some silent
Some walking fast. Some walking slow.
Each thinking his or her own private thoughts.
We head, however, toward the same goal….

The choice of location was both practical and symbolic. The conventional story told about the choice of location in Hyuga prefecture (present-day Miyazaki Prefecture) is that Mushakoji had been introduced to a person from this area and then the next night had dreamt of locating Atarashiki mura there. From this dream came a mandate. This narrative may be true, but other factors were involved. For one, the land surrounding what would become the village was lush, verdant hillside. The remote location suited Mushakoji’s preference for bucolic living, removed from city life. Finally, Hyuga was referenced in legend as the originary home of the nation, since one of the mountains in the hills surrounding Atarashiki mura was were the archipelago’s gods had first emerged.

The Model Village as Utopia

We should not suppose that the food produced at Atarashiki mura was sufficient to keep things going, for two reasons. Most immediately, upkeep costs of the village were higher than anticipated. In a 1919 plea to supporters we learn that the average monthly budget ran around 300 yen and hence a 1 yen monthly contribution was requested from all members. More fundamentally, surviving on the farm was only a pretence to the real mission: to provide aesthetic and spiritual fulfillment to the residents. Accordingly, a few policies were enacted to keep residents healthy, happy, and in an egalitarian relationship to each other. Despite financial kinks, the village prospered in the first year, doubling its membership by fall 1919. Its propaganda campaign succeeded in raising awareness and drew subscriptions from across Japan and even in China, where the novelist Zhou Zuoren attempted to transmit Mushakoji’s teachings to the revolutionaries of the May Fourth Movement.

First of all, resident members in the New Village were to pool resources. The land was communally held, and all were to share the use of machinery and the library, which contained textbooks and literature. A couple days a week every resident was given the liberty of dedicating time to artistic expression and study. (Mushakoji, who worked the same amount as everyone else, took this time to pen poems and paint pictures of pumpkins. According to John Hughes, Mushakoji produced 7 novels, 5 books of essays, 15 one-act plays, and 9 long plays between 1908 and 1923, most of these were produced during his leisure time at Atarashiki mura) Further, medical supplies were provided to each member. They practiced a modified form of consensus decision making, which was criticized for having “anarchic implications”. Mushakoji viewed it as the most just form of social process that they could possibly develop. It was designed so that it neither impinged on each individual’s conscience nor did it allow one person to make decisions for the whole group. In these reforms we can see the fruits of Mushakoji’s vision. Now, let us spend some time to examine how the philosophical foundations of Mushakoji’s thought constituted the New Village Movement, and what this philosophy was.

From the outset the New Village Movement was supposed to spark a movement of broad social transformation that would follow the example set at Atarashiki mura. Consequently it is crucial for historians to understand the intellectual background that informed this movement and to assess its success under the rubric of comparative social movements. Categorizing Atarashiki mura is a necessary step in this process. Anthropologist David Plath visited Atarashiki mura (at its post-1939 Saitama location) in 1965 in order to interview Mushakoji and observe the functioning of the village. In the mid-60s Mushakoji was still very active in the movement, though he had ceased living in the village in 1926. Plath defines a commune as a shared domestic establishment or household with collective work-sharing, and according to this standard sociological definition Atarashiki mura has never been incongruous. But how sufficient is this category of commune when applied to the historical movement? I submit that Atarashiki mura was more specific than Plath’s definition may be able to capture. Notably, Atarashiki mura established two levels of membership, one for residents and one for supporters who shared in the humanist and individualist ideals. This inclusive definition blurs the distinction between a commune and a social movement.

Though Atarashiki mura is generally relegated to obscurity, even among scholars of utopianism, in comparison to other communes it has had a long life. Most communes are fortunate to survive their first year, and only a few live to see their tenth. Among the longest lasting we see that almost without exception they are religious in orientation: the kibbutz, the Hutterites, the Shakers, the Bruderhof, etc. While Mushakoji’s reverence among New Villagers might be interpreted as religious, and his poetry often refers to God, Atarashiki mura functioned without an explicit religious creed, hence it is notable that his communal idea continues to be relevant to people into the 21st century despite its secularity.

The idea to establish a communal village arguably originates with Mushakoji’s study of the works of the Russian aristocrat and author, Leo Tolstoy. As he wrote later in life, as a young man Mushakoji was introduced to Tolstoy by his uncle who gave him a copy of “The Kingdom of God is Within You”, a work that blends pacifist anarchism with an idiosyncratic Christian theology. This same uncle also turned Mushakoji on to the Bible and throughout his school years Mushakoji was enraptured by the Christian teachings of compassion and humanism. Mushakoji’s first published work, dating from 1908, Wasteland, contains a short story called “Two Days” in which we can get a picture of the Tolstoyan impression on his mind. The two days referred two in the title represent the contrasting experiences of a day spent in the city and a day spent in the country. The protagonist’s preference for country life is evident as we see him spend his second day in his small village hut working in his garden and dedicating the rest of his time to cultivating his artistic talents. This blend of rural authenticity complemented by aesthetic practice is indicative of the aims of what would later guide Atarashiki mura, though that would come a decade later.

Modernization, Modern Art, and Utopia

In 1938 an electrical-generator dam was built near the village. The reservoir from this project made the farmland unworkable and the villagers were forced to move. The bulk of the group eventually resettled in a new village not too far from Tokyo, in Saitama prefecture. It was an ironic consequence for the residents of Atarashiki Mura. They had at first been attracted to the remote hill country in southern Kyushu but were forced to move by an embodiment of the industrial modernization they were trying to sidestep. When they relocated to Saitama they may have been trying out a more accessible location, though in the 1920s it was still at least a day’s trip from Tokyo. (Currently it might take only an hour to get from urban Tokyo to the farm.) This reveals that a certain amount of distance from mass society was desired in the choice of location.

Anthropologists of utopian communes generally view utopianism as serving a structural role in society: it is an outlet for dissent or antinomian attitudes to the inevitable process of modernization. Thus, utopianism is essentially a romantic reaction to capitalism. As such, some anthropologists argue (alongside many utopians) that capitalism’s success should be assessed by how discontent is expressed in utopian thought and practice. Plath, who studied utopian communes in Japan continues this tendency by arguing that we can thus generalize about the correlative development of modern industrialization and utopianism and compare them diachronically and globally. He suggests, “temporally, utopian movements first emerge in the U.S. during the early decades of the 19th century, in Japan during the early decades of the 20th.” To clarify, he is not saying that utopianism is limited to these time periods—simply that this is when we can identify the emergence of utopian thought.

The event described at the beginning of this section is sufficient to illustrate the point that interwar Japan was modernizing quickly and industrialization transformed the landscape of even the most remote locales of the archipelago. We can now see why, in the years (1916-1920) when Japan sustained an average annual growth rate of population of 1.24 and its average annual GNP grew at an astounding peak rate of 4.77, alternative, especially atavistic forms of sociality could seem appealing. Japanese industrial engineers were adopting and mastering foreign-developed technologies like hydroelectric turbines, circuit-breakers, and generators. But the process of implementing these technological changes was prone to hazards. While Japan was slowly modernizing and industrializing in this period, even though it was not in an advanced stage, it was obvious that the country was being transformed by technological processes and infrastructures.Where was the corresponding spiritual shift that could mitigate the adverse effects of this modernization? Mushakoji seemed to ask. He and his colleagues spent their careers trying to answer this question. In the process they pioneered the reading of global literature in Japan.

Mushakoji and a group of his classmates from the Peer’s School founded a literary journal called Shirakaba [White Birch] in 1910. The Shirakaba group was an elite society of aesthetically minded aristocrats. It included, besides Mushakoji, Arishima Takei and Shiga Naoya. As one of the first generations of Japanese intellectuals to internalize their Western-oriented education they were very critical of Japanese tradition. Their magazine focused almost exclusively on European artists and writers. Within a few years of establishing their magazine, they became established as literary figures in Japan. But they had also come under criticism for being dandyish dilettantes. Consequently, some of the Shirakaba writers wanted to make their romanticism into a more practical and social movement. They wanted their vision of life to be relevant. In this we can see the beginning of an aesthetic activism.

In 1913 Mushakoji would write that “Literature must be concerned with human life but it is not necessary for it to be concerned with society. Indeed, it would be closer to the truth to say that there should not be any interference with it.” By the end of the First World War, however, Mushakoji had changed his view considerably. He had been criticized for remaining aloof and not applying himself to social problems. This criticism, which came from the rise of the “Proletarian” school of literature may have contributed to Mushakoji’s turn towards activism. The Proletarian writers were from a generation who were much more political, being informed by the War, the Russian revolution, the depression, and the socialist movement. Their ascendancy challenged the dominance of the Shirakaba movement. It forced the Shirakaba writers to assess their own social impact; they began to construct an activist identity. As Mushakoji would later write: “Shirakaba highly valued the will of nature, the will of man, and was a movement which sought to find out how the individual could best live.” Moreover, in 1918, the Shirakaba writers were laying plans for the establishment of an art museum. The dream was never realized, however. This reveals not only a broad shift in social sentiment but also in Mushakoji’s personal life. We can see in the debates occurring within literary circles a key dynamic in the constitution of Mushakoji’s utopianism.

Immediately prior to this period, Mushakoji published his first collection of stories, entitled “Wasteland.” One of these stories, “Kare”, focuses on the trouble involved in pursuing a pure love in that time period in Japanese culture. Jennifer Cullen aptly summarizes: “In this story, Mushanokoji breaks the links between virtue and nationalism and between the aristocracy and refinement. Instead, nationalists and the upper class are tied to exploitation and corruption, in direct opposition to the Meiji government’s construction of samurai culture, practiced only by the elite during the Tokugawa era, as Japanese ‘tradition,’ both morally pure and refined.” Here we can see an example of the struggle with his aristocratic obligations that was to be a recurring concern expressed in his writings. Mushakoji was uneasy with his place in society. This is a personal problem for Mushakoji, and thus requires an individualistic response. But it is also an indictment of Meiji culture and society as a whole.

His distaste for the preoccupations of urban life is also expressed in a poem from 1924, revealing that he continued to feel an antipathy towards the modernized world well into his adult life:

I can’t imagine that what we call the city
stands on a firm foundation.
Vaguely in a flurry,
city folk appear neither considerate nor deliberate.
They live by external stimuli,
apparently indifferent to what burgeons from within.

Mushakoji, who was raised in the most urbane and structured way; could “What We Call the City” be interpreted as anything other than an indictment of the urban aristocracy? All of the writers were from either aristocratic or otherwise privileged backgrounds. Significantly, the contributors to the Shirakaba literary magazine were all opposed to the Naturalist school of literature. Naturalism, which emphasized the forces which over-determine the individual’s life, left a bad taste in their mouth because they saw this as cynical. Conversely, the Shirakaba writers chose to portray their literary protagonists as internalized individuals longing for a way to express themselves.

It should also be kept in mind that the Shirkabaha almost exclusively admired Western art. A flood of Western literature was being translated into Japanese starting in the 1880s and Western moralistic frameworks were being introduced in an appealing way. In fact, the Shirakaba writers were the first to introduce William Blake to a Japanese audience. Additionally, many Japanese intellectuals were educated in Christian schools. Takeo is a perfect example of this. However I’d like to point out that this Westernization did not make Western subjects of interwar Japanese intellectuals in a sense that would be recognized by their contemporaries. For example, Mushakoji understood the Bible as a morality tale, not a sacred text. Nevertheless, the Western-ish doctrines of humanism and individualism made an indelible imprint on these writers.

It is often remarked that the only label that neatly fits the Shirakaba writers’ collective social views is humanism. This is equally true of Mushakoji the individual, yet when historians comment on his social views they tend to emphasize his individualism I would argue that Mushakoji juggled these two sensibilities together. This was not wholly duplicitous, however, and his synthesis of his individualism and humanism is one of the most compelling features of his thought. Let us look at Mushakoji’s thought through its development under the influence of Natsume Soseki’s individualism and Leo Tolstoy’s humanism to find out.

Soseki, the famous Japanese novelist, had the most direct personal influence on Mushakoji and the Shirakabaha. During the first years of the life of theShirakaba magazine, after Mushakoji had dropped out of university, he and his colleagues would regularly attend Thursday night gatherings at Soseki’s house where guests would discuss modernist literary, impressionist painting, and contemporary politics. At meetings like this Soseki would privately expound on his personal philosophy and engage in debate with the younger writers. When asked to identify his philosophy he would often define it as “kojinshugi”, or individualism; though of course his was an idiosyncratic conceptualization of individualism. Nevertheless, his term has become a standard translation for the concept. This was a privileged group of elites, to be sure, but they had made a lasting impression on Japanese cultural and intellectual life. Much of the public knowledge of Soseki’s theory comes from when, in 1914, Natsume Soseki was invited to give a lecture at the Gakushuin which was to become his famous “My Individualism” speech.

Mushakoji also began to advocate a type of individualism along the lines of Soseki’s. But what did both of these men mean by individualism? As Soseki defines it: “Individual liberty is indispensable for the development of individuality…. And the development of your individuality will have a great bearing on your happiness. Thus, it would seem to me that we must keep for ourselves and grant others a degree of liberty such that I can turn left while you turn right, each of us equally unhindered so long as what we do has no effects on others.” Hence, individualism must be based on a concept of liberty, and individualism must be seen as a holistic philosophy of life.

In the course of his “My Individualism” lecture, Soseki outlined for his audience the story of his philosophical development in the context of his career in literature. As a student he was encouraged to follow a certain course of study that took him abroad to England. However, this was an unsatisfying experience and even upon his return to Japan he was still at pains to find a job placement that garnered enough money to survive. He began to questions his place in the society. The conclusion he drew from this ended in “the conviction that I was the single most important person in my life, while others were only secondary.” Soseki, like Mushakoji, struggled with giving voice to his creative vision. The restrictive force of societal norms and expectations was felt to be incompatible with their creative spirit. For Soseki the realization that he was the most important person in his life was like an epiphany that came to him only in old age. But for Mushakoji it was a belief inculcated in him since his school days and his time with his peers at Soseki’s Thursday Night Club.

This early 20th century anomie, or, as Soseki described it, “a fog” and “a dull ache,” was a barrier that could only be overcome by basing one’s happiness on oneself. Strangely, but perhaps logically, this lecture was a request for his audience to pursue their own goals on their own terms. He was not appealing to any other form of abstract duty: “I urge you to accomplish this not for the nation’s sake, nor even for the sake of your families, but because it is absolutely necessary for your own personal happiness.” Soseki admits that he gave this lecture out of compassion. He “knew that a part of [his audience’s] future happiness is at stake,” and he was taking the opportunity to offer them hope in the form of individualism.

The similarity in Mushakoji’s ideal New Village polity is striking. On almost every point we see a consonance with Soseki’s lecture. In an entry that might be the most explicit poetic expression of his plan we can certainly appreciate this significance:

You must at once know your responsibilities and be attentive to your rights.
You must at once work for all people and make the most of the individual.
You must supply the most constructive model for human living.
You must illustrate through your living how humans ought to exist and how they ought to cooperate.
You must respect the person and the individuality of every human being….
Our village may not be a sphere of luxury, but it must be a place where nobody deliberately causes others to suffer….

Soseki’s individualism has a corollary: discovering one’s own individuality must be combined with encouraging others to develop their own subjectivity. The power over others that comes with strength and privilege must not be used as a weapon against others, but must recognize the duty to others that each individual in society is born into. To illustrate the backwardness of forcing others to do something, Soseki relates a story of two brothers:

I know two brothers, the younger of whom likes to stay at home reading, while the elder is fanatically devoted to fishing. The elder is disgusted with his brother’s reclusive ways, his habit of staying bottled up in the house all day long. He’s decided that his brother has turned into a world-weary misanthrope because he doesn’t go fishing, and he does all he can to drag him along. The younger brother hates the idea, but the elder loads him down with fishing gear and demands that he accompany him to the pond. The younger brother grits his teeth and goes along, hoping he won’t catch anything. But luck is against him: he spends the day pulling in disgusting, fat carp. And what is the upshot of all this? Does the elder’s plan work? No, of course not. He ends up hating fishing all the more.

Soseki’s individualism, then, is not blind to power, but it suggests that only in an environment where each individual is free to develop with a minimum of coercion can each and all prosper. This environment is precisely what Mushanokoji strove to engineer in Atarashiki Mura. To emphasize, Soseki exclaimed the classic liberal formulation, strikingly reminiscent of John Locke: “I can only believe that so long as others grant us liberty, we must grant equal liberty to them and treat them as equals.” This axiom seems consonant with European liberalism and libertarianism, but in Japan it was a critical comment on the state of Meiji democracy. We can see this very clearly in one of Mushakoji’s poems, entitled “Government Officials”:

Government officials are great fools, you know.
They figure they have the authority to order people around….
The temperament that moves officials to meddle in everything
outrages me.

When Mushakoji began advocating individualism, he defined it, like Soseki, in a specific way. This individualism was based on responsibility: the responsibility to the self to find satisfaction and to cultivate a self-hood, and the responsibility to not obstruct others as they do the same. Again, “I simply believe that freedom without a sense of duty is not true freedom, for such self-indulgent freedom cannot exist in society. And if, for a moment, it did, it would quickly be expelled, stamped out by others. I sincerely wish for all of you to be free. At the same time I want to make very certain that you understand what we mean by ‘duty.’ I believe in and practice individualism in this sense, and I do not hesitate to declare this before you now.” This suggests that the decision-making processes outlined by Mushakoji for the New Village were inspired partly by Soseki and did not stem directly from Tolstoy.

It seems to be received wisdom among most historians or literary critics who write about Mushakoji to say that he was influenced, above all, by Tolstoy. Alone, this statement is not controversial in the least. However, it hides the fact that Mushakoji appreciated many other artists and writers, and even his interest in Tolstoy was only a “phase” in his younger years, according to his own admission. Still, the influence that Tolstoy exerted on Mushakoji is profound and it is worth considering at length. Tolstoy provided a model for an aesthetically-minded aristocrat to achieve a sort of salvation through educating and uplifting others who were less fortunate. Tolstoy practiced his social gospel both in his writing and in his work at the school at Yosnaya Polyana. Let us consider how these elements affected Mushakoji through his study of Tolstoy.

First of all, Tolstoy was a personal role model for Mushakoji. Tolstoy was a prolific writer and critic of literature. But he, like Mushakoji, did not start out like this. Both men were born into affluent aristocratic families. Tolstoy was a count, Mushakoji the son of a viscount. Tolstoy was an independently minded adolescent. He rejected many of the rules enforced on his own education and the lessons taught to him by his tutors, his family, and his university. In response, Tolstoy began to form his own thoughts about how education should be libertarian. Mushakoji took from his reading of Tolstoy a desire to reform the corrupt system he had been brought up in. And in a way his Atarashiki mura functioned as an educational project just like Tolstoy’s work at the school at Yosnaya Polyana.

As one of the keystones of his aesthetic political platform, education was not simply academic for Tolstoy. As Tolstoy wrote, “everywhere the greater part of one’s education is acquired not at school but in life.” Throughout his life he developed a habit of learning skills from the peasants and craftspeople he knew. This is how he learned how to farm, repair broken items, and sew. Obviously as an aristocratic landowner he could have kept himself comfortable without engaging in these activities himself. Yet this was a moral project for Tolstoy, who believed that social and moral changes were interlinked. This was the core of his humanism. As evidence of the humanist sensibility of the two authors, both Tolstoy and Mushakoji found this type of education necessary complements to aesthetic cultivation.

In 1918 Mushakoji, sensing a tension between his artistic involvement and the social climate of the time, began advocating for a communal living project. Mushakoji was criticized for his apolitical stance towards art and culture. But in Tolstoy he found a figure who put his ideals into practice. Tolstoy was also from a privileged background wanted to use his authority at Yosnaya Polyana to subvert the authoritarian relationship. He made education a goal of his communal project with the Serfs. As both artist and activist, Tolstoy was a perfect exemplar of the type of leader that Mushakoji envisioned himself to be. What this tells us about interwar Japan is that education could be treated as the root of political activism and social change that exerted power outside of the state, as education was directly linked to culture. Additionally, Tolstoy had a rural orientation. The school at Yasnaya Polyana was inspired by the Cossack schools that Tolstoy visited in the 1850s. Tolstoy opposed private ownership of land. In his famous short story, “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” Tolstoy points out the irony and folly of greed that motivates the hoarding of resources. Fellow Shirakaba writer Arishima Takeo compared Mushakoji’s plans for the Atarashiki mura to the Dukhobors. This provides another powerful parallel between Mushakoji and Tolstoy.

However, Mushakoji was not always enraptured by Tolstoy. In the Preface to his 1922 “Kare no seinen jidai,” Mushakoji explains that many of his writings dating from 1907 reflect views from “the height of [his] Tolstoy craze,” views which he had supposedly outgrown by 1922. I take this to mean that around 1907 he had read a puritan moralism in Tolstoy. For example, as Jennifer Cullen suggests in her dissertation, Mushakoji was obsessed with virginity and purity. Over the course of his life, Mushakoji was indeed troubled by certain aspects of the Tolstoyan moral framework, as Cullen convincingly argues. We can see, for example, how he later criticized Tolstoyan, and his own, sexual chastity. Yet, I would suggest that this did not entail a rejection of the rural thematic in Tolstoy’s thought nor his social vision.

What is the exact ratio of humanism to individualism in Mushakoji’s thought? Some literary scholars like Cullen mark this shift in Mushakoji’s thought away from Tolstoyan moralism towards an enlightened individualism in 1912, two years before Soseki’s lecture. She points out that we can see this clearly in the essay “Jinko no tame” [In Defense of the Self], which appeared in Shirakaba in 1912. Cullen writes: “While Tolstoy advocated reason, social activism, and communality as methods to realize the “Kingdom of God Within You”, Maeterlinck validated the insular, contemplative life, allowing Mushanokoji to make a literary inward turn toward autobiographical fiction.” That is, Mushakoji moved away from politically engaged writing. I disagree with this analysis. Many of Mushakoji’s writings for the Atarashiki mura focus on moral education, as we will see.

In this framing, Atarashiki Mura, is spite of its disavowal of what it saw as passing for activism, was a specific form of political activism, aesthetic politics, which will be discussed later. It was a form differentiated from both mainstream party political and anarchist or socialist politics. As noted above, party politics were very problematic for Mushakoji, who saw nationalism, patriotism, and modernization as negative consequences of modernity. Socialism and anarchism, were likewise considered flawed modes of engagement. Yet it was clear that Mushakoji and the other New Villagers could unite around a mutual respect for each other’s individuality. As he was to write in a poem in 1924 on government intervention in educations, “The temperament that moves officials to meddle in everything outrages me.” What he preferred was a laissez fair approach to individual development.

In 1925 the Japanese government drafted the infamous Peace Preservation Law which made any threat to extant political institutions illegal. Thus it was a method of legally protecting the hegemony of the Taisho political party apparatus. This law also forbade advocating the abolition of private property. It was basically an anti-communist law. Editor of Long Corridor, Robert Epp writes: “The fear of attracting undue attention effectively inhibited idealist and other writers from involvement in political activity. Nor were they in the least motivated to wrest democratic rights, liberties, or concessions of any kind from the state. They concentrated rather n arresting the attention of their readers and raising awareness on issues like responsible individuality.” In the context of Japanese politics, the New Village Movement held a special place.

There were many similarities between the socialist and New Village movements, as well as some crucial differences. Of course Mushakoji was critical of revolutionaries—in the poem, “Revolutionary” we read that “I dislike the life of a revolutionary.//I like the lives of people//who move steadily ahead to finish their work”—but the radicality of his thought was observed by more than a few socialists. The crucial difference ws one of method. As noted above, Mushakoji had been an admirer of Kotoku Shushui, the famous Japanese anarchist who was executed for his involvement in the High Treason Incident. But there is a problem with this connection. Shirakaba magazine, unlike other literary journals of the time, kept itself aloof from the debates over the High Treason Incident. Though the Shirakaba writers wished to remain aloof from socialist politics, they were noticed by the most famous anarchist of the day. Osugi Sakae commented on the tension between the Shirakaba writer’s aristocratic cosmopolitanism which might be a limit to the amount of suffering they were exposed to and their potential influence in progressive social change. “While reacting on the one hand against the evil practices of their forefathers, they have also opposed themselves to the upstart bourgeoisie. Whenever we look at Shirakaba we are always reminded of the young Tolstoy or Kropotkin. Were not Tolstoy and Kropotkin young noblemen, like those of the Shirakaba group, who had taken one step further?” I would argue that Osugi points out an apt parallel between Shirakaba’s individualistic/humanistic cosmopolitanism and the anarchists. Further, I would argue that this was an established genre of political action taken internationally. We can see the most representative example in Kropotkin’s “An Appeal to the Young.” Keene points out that Osugi suspected and hoped that the authors “might covertly be anarchists, like Tolstoy and Kropotkin, as bridges to the society of the future.”

Aesthetic Politics

The New Village Movement is unique to the history of social movements and communal studies because of its connection to international modern literature. Especially in the figures of Mushakoji and Zhou Zuoren in China we can study a socio-political utopia that is ostensibly fully consonant with a gestalt of aesthetic ideals expressed in literature. This connection points to what might be the defining and uniting element of New Village theory and praxis, aesthetic politics. Granted many histories have been written about the aesthetic practice of ideologies like fascism, Maoism, and Stalinism, but I contend that these were not primarily aesthetic political movements. Only in the utopian tradition stretching back to Charles Fourier and Robert Owen can we see the lineage of this sensibility. To investigate this link I suggest that Tolstoy is the most salient point of reference. So, before returning to Tolstoy’s influence on Mushakoji, let me describe what I mean by aesthetic politics.

Aesthetic politics is an understanding and subtle manipulation of the transformative power of cultural production to suit political or social ends. One salient contemporary example—perhaps the dominant one—is late capitalist consumer culture. There are two moments in the development of an aesthetic politics. We can see the first very clearly early in his career when Mushakoji, in criticizing the Naturalist school of literature, wrote that “I don’t want to get a sense of life from art, but I would like to get a sense of art from life”—the pertinent point of this being that the phenomenal world is suffused to aesthetic meaning that can be accessed through the correct livelihood. The second moment of aesthetic politics involves constructing such a platform on which access to latent meaning of life. My argument is that Mushakoji developed an aesthetic politics that was both heuristic and propadeutic. The content of this form of political activism may have altered throughout his career, variously emphasizing humanism, individualism, and rural simplicity, but it was a pattern that concerned Mushakoji throughout.

For Mushakoji, his form aesthetic political activism was differentiated from typical political activism. In the poem, “Tolstoy’s Words”, for example, Mushakoji prophesies that the aesthetic political sensibility will prevail once people begin to live the right livelihood:

Most of the time when I read Tolstoy
I indeed agree with him.
The day is coming when
the seeds that Tolstoy sowed
will surpass the seeds that Marx sowed.
First there’s the need to know truly how to love and reverence human life.

Cullen, following Shugo Honda, claims that Mushakoji separates his aesthetics from his politics, but that even then, his “‘pure politics’… were also non-confrontational, those that ‘do not obstruct the humanist instinct,’ and therefore not recognized as political by many, but as turning away from the world.” But obviously the politicality of Atarashiki mura was recognized by opponents, such as the civil administration which flooded them out in 1938, and even by sympathizers like Zhou Zuoren. Moreover, if Atarashiki mura was simply a “turning away from the world,” why would Mushakoji expend as much energy on publicizing the movement. I find it unconvincing to explain his activist writings as simple fundraisers.

Utopias are ideal moral standards that are meant to reflect the inadequacy of daily life. This is hardly better illustrated anywhere than in the Mushakoji’s vision of Atarashiki mura. Atarashiki mura represents a response to this tension between value judgments about the present and the constraints put on the efficacy of this judgment by its historical context.

Scholars tend to emphasize the futility of utopian thought, neglecting its heuristic and propadeutic meaning which is very real. Similarly, utopianism is often linked to Stalinism and Fascism, though this is obviously inaccurate. As David Graeber argues, Stalinists and fascists were notoriously short on imagination. Rather, utopian thought can play a progressive role, though surely there is a hint of authoritarian politics in Mushakoji’s relationship to the other villagers. We need to read critically as we tread the ambiguities of Mushakoji’s project. Also suggestive in the genealogy I have constructed is the potential aristocratic nature of Mushakoji’s philosophy. In the sense that Soseki and Tolstoy both traveled in elite social circles, Mushakoji may have been attempting to popularize the haut couture intellectualism of these figures.

To consider the New Village as the instantiation of a utopian sensibility in contrast to a political dogma is very helpful for the historian. It frees us from having to treat Mushakoji as a sort of systematic political theorist, which he most emphatically was not. Yet his work still coincides with our definition of utopianism as a tension within the imaginary.

Aesthetic Education at the New Village

In the eight years when Mushakoji resided in Atarashiki mura (1918-1926), he spent his free time composing poetry and writing novels for the benefit of his cohorts. The lack of distraction and the programmed part of the day set aside for such activities helped him to be prolific. Though he is known to have been a very productive writer—in fact one who may be remembered more for the quantity of his verse than its quality—nearly half of all his published works were crafted at Atarashiki mura. These writings were not simply manifest expressions of Mushakoji’s creative spirit as many exhibit a pedagogical orientation. Atarashiki mura was supposed to be a moral standard by which to judge social life, a quiet reminder of the humanistic values that are supposed harmonize individual desires and social security. These stories he wrote often involved or took the forms of sermons to New Village members.

In his summary of collective life on Atarashiki mura, Plath wrote, “every member of the village is expected to share the work but also to share his works.” Artistic production was not a frivolous concern for the New Villagers; it was part of a social program. One of Plath’s informants explains how both art and artistic living are needed, “artists like to talk about self-expression, but by that they usually mean rampant individualism. I admire Beethoven and Rembrandt because they were truly alive as artists but I wonder if they truly lived as human beings. All past civilizations have been built on the sacrifices of slaves; it inevitably ends in warfare. How can man truly feel alive, how can he be happy to have been born human, so long as a single slave remains? This village is tiny [38 members at the time of this interview], but it shows that there is a way out.” In the above we see how an anonymous informant explicates some of the key themes of Atarashiki mura philosophy.

First of all, art must combine with artistry—this is the definition of aesthetic politics. Secondly, individualism must be affirmed and taken to its logical conclusion. Yet an enlightened individualism must resist exploitation and can even show the way of living that can be created without coercion. Third, the goal of Atarashiki mura is to educate and enlighten, to spread the humanist message globally. And finally the method is to sow the seeds of a new, humanist civilization within the shell of the old society.

Severe critics of Mushakoji’s literary production—of which there are a handful—dismiss his artistic significance because his works tend to resemble a litany of banal platitudes about love, life, death, and goodness. This may be so. However, it is essentially this very quality—i.e. Mushakoji’s uncritical self-confidence—which makes for informative reading while dissecting his social views. Let us look now to one of his literary productions. From this we can gauge the shape and contours of the utopian imaginary in Mushakoji’s thought.

The encyclopedist Hisamatsu Sen’ichi summarizes this quality in Mushakoji’s work very well: “For all their simpleness and directness of expression, one feels that his works are constantly grappling with the fundamental problems of human existence….” Let me expand this to the point at which it meets our purpose. I am not at all concerned with the question of artistic merit. Rather, I am interested in cultural history. This is what makes my examination of Mushakoji a history and not exercise in literary criticism. I believe Atarashiki mura is significant for our understanding of Japanese modern history, though perhaps Mushakoji’s lack of literary appeal for Western scholars is one reason for his neglect. Hence, only a fraction of Mushakoji’s writings have ever been translated from the original Japanese, and of this translated fraction much of it has been published only after his death in 1976.

Thus, what might be equally as informative is not what actually happened in Atarashiki mura, but what Mushakoji had continued to fantasize about while living there. In 1919 he wrote the story “The Happy Man” (Kofuku mono) about a sagacious teacher he cultivates a coterie of young disciples. His teachings revolve around humane benevolence and simple living. In the text this sensei is compared to Christ, Buddha, Confucius, and Socrates. This teacher figure was partially autobiographic, though it is only safe to assume that it was an idealized version of the author. Still, Mushakoji used this character throughout the story to deliver his own moral parables to his audience in the form of fictional sermons that the teacher gives.

In her book, Meeting the Sensei: The Role of the Master in Shirakaba Writers, Maya Mortimer devotes a whole chapter to this story. It is representative of the propadeutic method of the New Village project. The master arrives in a village, mysteriously from an undisclosed point of departure, with an evangelizing mission. His message is one of humanistic compassion and individualist expression. At first he is ridiculed by the elders who represent the conservative faction of the village, though this does not dissuade the young people from listening to him preach. Just the opposite—more and more people begin to take heed as the master delivers weekly lectures on his utopian philosophy. Eventually the entire village is won over and they begin to evangelize in turn. Then, just as quickly as he appeared, the Master in a manner that is unclear whether or not he has been martyred. In “The Happy Man” we see an allegory of Mushakoji’s ideal social movement and commune. It signifies every element of the New Village Movement itself: humanism, individualism, aesthetic politics, and aesthetic education.


Sho Konishi, in his dissertation on Japanese-Russian transnational intellectual relations describes a discourse of “cooperatist modernity” that could be qualified as one of the major currents in modern Japanese cultural and intellectual history, albeit one that is often ignored. In this sense my project does not uncover a second major discourse as much as it shows how a minor one could be seen to weave itself into and alongside the major movements. Like Konishi, I am looking at how interbellum political ideologies emerged and operated within a regional context. Transnational culture was not a unilateral process of ‘influence.’ It was a variegated exchange, of course, since certain ideas were often better transmitted from one cultural context to another, but even in these cases, as with the European influence on Mushakoji, it was more a matter of domestic re-transmission of foreign ideas than one of hegemonic control. Mushakoji was a synthesizer of modern ideas, both Western and Japanese.

Without understanding the atmosphere of apprehension that prompted the government to crack down on so-called “subversive” socialists we lack a position to understand Mushakoji’s withdrawal from politics. Mushakoji was the son of a Viscount, a member of one of the most prestigious aristocratic families, and his brother was ambassador to Germany. He, along with several other Atarashiki mura members, was educated at the Gakushuin, or Peer’s School, and attended it at the same time as the Hirohito. Convention would have expected him to be active in these same circles. The problem was: he was also a social radical and admirer of anarchist revolutionaries. His position within society troubled him throughout his adolescence and adult years, though he searched for solutions in art and in Atarashiki mura.

Conversely, if we write Mushakoji and his sympathizers out of the history books, as most generally happens, or if we relegate his legacy to his artistic production, we are left with a political narrative of Japan that privileges liberal party politics. As we know, Taisho democracy maintained itself only at the expense of increasingly conservative social policies such as the Peace Preservation Law of 1925 and similarly restrictive measures of national security. The militarization of the state and society which occurred throughout the 1920s is a powerful narrative, especially since it was successful in eliminating or at least repressing most forms of dissent. Yet, Atarashiki mura as a historical fact does not fit this narrative. It was a political and social vision which operated outside of the state, and still survives over ninety years later.

The New Village Movement, is a challenging case of historical possibility. Historians are sometimes presented with the task of determining whether or not a utopian effort was destined to fail, though in this case I don’t know if we can answer conclusively. In reference to Atarashiki mura’s success, Arishima Takeo, member of the Shirabakaha and communal pioneer in his own right, had this to say to Mushakoji: “…Failure does not mean a total waste. Projects of this kind have up to now always ended in failure, but this is not failure in the usual sense of the word. Indeed, if it seemed that your project had succeeded it would be a most suspicious kind of success, for people would certainly detect behind it the foul odor of compromise.” To people across the world at the time and even to the present the possibility of a different future seems real. This challenge has been dismissed as romanticism, voluntarism, and, yes, utopianism, but I feel that to do so risks an important historical fallacy, to see the present as Pangloss did, “the best of all possible worlds”. On the other hand I don’t want to overstate the case for historical possibility. Obviously the deck is stacked against the utopians as far as historical precedent goes. Still, we should be interested in probing the possibilities of “futures past”.


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