A Japanese public intellectual

TOKYO—I finally accomplished last Friday one of the things I had planned to do during my 2-week stay in Japan: to visit the grave of a dear friend, Yoshiyuki Tsurumi, who died of cancer in 1994. Accompanied by his former student, Prof. Yasushi Fujibayashi of Saitama University, and Ms Izumi Hirano, an archivist from Rikkyo University where Tsurumi’s papers, notes, and personal library are deposited, I went on a personal pilgrimage to Sagami memorial park in Kanagawa Prefecture, two hours by train from Tokyo. Tsurumi was such a nonconformist all his life that I could not imagine him being buried in a row of black and gray tombs of unrelenting uniformity.

Our friendship goes back to the early 1970s, when he first came to the Philippines asking questions about Japanese investments. He had been an active member of “Beheiren,” a New Left group of writers and intellectuals that protested Japanese assistance to America’s war in Vietnam. From that experience, Tsurumi drew the crucial insight that it was necessary to ground anti-imperialist advocacy in actual field research, so that the ordinary Japanese might begin to understand how their own everyday lives were dependent on the labor and resources of the rest of Asia’s people.

Not being an academic, Tsurumi had to gather his own students and researchers, promising them no academic degrees or certificates at the end of their apprenticeship. Young undergraduate students, and sometimes kids fresh out of high school, who were intrigued by his occasional newspaper commentaries, sought him out, asking to be instructed on issues that were not being discussed in the university. Tsurumi had tapped into the rebellious mood of a generation that was rejecting conventional career paths, preferring the uncertain road of volunteer work and apprenticeship in independent research and publishing outfits run by maverick intellectuals like him.

Many of the young Japanese who trained with Tsurumi eventually landed in academe.  So rich and varied had been their experience in field research that they stood out almost naturally in an academic environment that had been dominated by bland scholarship. I met most of them on this trip.  Even as they now hold important ranks in famous universities, they continue to trace the spirit that animates their pursuit of knowledge to a public intellectual who himself often scoffed at the petty preoccupations of the academic world.

I met Tsurumi for the first time in early 1973. He came to my office at the University of the Philippines, accompanied by one of his young associates, Mamoru “Rico” Tsuda, then a graduate student at the sociology department. Tsurumi asked if he could be introduced to Renato Constantino, my father-in-law, who was then still under house arrest because of martial law. When the latter asked me if I knew Tsurumi, I remember simply saying that he seemed like an interesting journalist.

I found out later that in the Japanese context, the term “journalist” says less of what a person is actually doing than of the exclusive circle of university-based academics he is typically prevented from entering. Tsurumi himself embraced the identity of “journalist” and reflected this on his name card. But he was definitely not an ordinary journalist. He was a rare public intellectual performing a valuable critical task in a society that thrived in the internalized conformity of its people. He translated many essays of Constantino that were critical of Japanese capitalism.

I would much later have a chance to do research with Tsurumi in Mindanao. He had initially planned to study the yellow fin tuna, which was being consumed in large amounts in Japan as sashimi and sushi.

But when he learned that the Third World Studies Center of which I was then the director had an ongoing study on the banana export industry in Mindanao, he promptly set aside his own topic. He offered to organize a parallel team in Japan that would look at the elaborate distribution network that brought the much-sought-after fruit from the plantations of Davao del Norte and General Santos into Japanese homes, restaurants, and hospitals.

Tsurumi’s topics would seem uncontroversial at first glance, but, in fact, a clear perspective consistently informed all his studies. He was obsessed with the way in which the Japanese way of life and the economy that sustained it affected the way of life of the Asian peoples. Most Japanese, he used to tell me, did not know where the bananas they put on their tables come from, how these are grown, and what kind of life the farmers who grew the fruit live. The same was true, he said, with the tuna, or bonito, or the sea cucumber, and the thousand and one things that the average Japanese person consumes in daily life.

Whether he was studying bananas, or the sea cucumber, or coconut oil, or export processing zones, he was guided by a consistent perspective. Beneath the detailed description of the commodity or the system he was examining was a subtle attack on the aggressive impulses of Japanese capital, the unexamined complicity of an uninformed public, and the heritage of chauvinism that sustains these.

My fondest memories of Japan are those I spent in Tsurumi’s company. He interpreted his country for me, showed me its great qualities as well as its weaknesses. He was Japanese in every way, but he also seemed like an outsider in his own society—a detached observer who could look at his country and his fellow Japanese with a critical eye, indeed, a sensitive scholar and intellectual who belonged not to one country but to all of humanity.

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