Summary of “The Enlightenment of Modern Japan” by Soseki Natsume(現代日本の開化)

 This article presents Soseki Natsume’s “The Enlightenment of Modern Japan” in summary form.

 In 1911, Natsume gave a lecture in Wakayama entitled “The Enlightenment of Modern Japan”(現代日本の開化). The following is a summary.

 Summary of “The Enlightenment of Modern Japan”

 First, Natsume wanted to start by defining “The enlightenment or the civilization”(開化). In doing so, he first points out a problem with the definition itself. That problem is, “to define something subject to change as rigidly as if it were not allowed to change”.
 Natsume explains this problem with the example of a locomotive. Suppose a locomotive is running. You take a picture of that moment. What would you think if you were told that this photograph contains everything about the locomotive? It is true that there is a locomotive in the picture. However, its movement, which is an indispensable characteristic of a locomotive, is not seen in the photo. Therefore, the locomotive in the photograph and the actual locomotive are completely different things.
 Locomotives and people move, act, and change by themselves. Nevertheless, it is a failure to cut out only one scene and understand that everything about them is there. So, in such a case, we must anticipate the change and make a definition that takes the change into consideration.
 So, what is the enlightenment? Natsume’s definition is this: “The enlightenment is a pathway of the expression of human vitality”. Natsume admits that this definition is very vague. Let’s take a closer look.
 Natsume says that human life is the expression and continuation of vitality. Vitality can be paraphrased as energy. A person with this vitality responds to external stimuli. By looking at the way they respond, we can understand the state of their daily lives. The enlightenment is the process by which a group’s state of daily life has evolved from the past to the present. Thus, the enlightenment or civilization is the collective state of daily life that has been created by human vitality in response to external stimuli up to the present day.
 According to Natsume, the enlightenment consists of two movements. One is active and the other is passive. The active one is the type where people willingly consumes vitality whereas the passive one is the type where people conserves vitality.

 As for the active movement, one does what one prefers. In this case, we willingly expend energy to do it and get pleasure from it. It can be billiards, chess,painting or studying. Natsume describes all of these as “pleasure”(道楽). The more the society is civilized, the more extravagant things for pleasure increase. For example, elevators are installed in sightseeing spots for people who want to see the scenery from high places. By promoting pleasure, human activities go deeper and wider.
 As for the passive movement, its representarive case is that one receives an external stimulus of obligation from others. This is a case in which one is obligated by others to do something that one would not usually want to do. In this case, if it were possible, one would not want to do it in the first place. However, because it is an obligation, it must be done. But we want to do it easily and with as little energy as possible. Such a labor-saving and efficient mentality is the passive type. Because of this mentality, people will devise ways to save energy. Therefore, this is a major driving force for civilization or enlightenment.
 For example, trains, automobiles, telephones, and telegraphs are such results. These are the products of our desire to make travel and communication easier and with less energy. Or, they were created to make it as easy as possible for people to do the work necessary for survival. In this way, a means was created to shorten time and distance and reduce the number of steps required.
 The complex development of these two intertwined movements leads to civilization or enlightenment.
 Here, Natsume points out a certain paradox. Human beings have been developping with the desire of doing what is pleasurable and avoiding what is unpleasant and necessary, which has caused civilization. If that is the case, our present life should have been easier than in the past. In reality, however, we are “living under a degree of suffering that is not at all better than that of the people of the past”.
 Furthermore, “it seems as if life will become increasingly difficult as competition becomes more and more intense as civilization develops”. It is true that the two mentalities have raised the level of daily life in Japan. But what about the degree of happiness or unhappiness? The anxiety and effort that arise from the competition for survival have not become any easier. In fact, it may even be worse than in the past. Both mentalities cause competitions which involve us. So we are caught up in suffering more than before. Here we see a kind of contradiction.

 From Here, Natsume finally enters the theme of Modern Japan’s Enlightenment. Natsume says he also intends to finish his speaking as soon as possible according to the law of saving energy, so it is not too long from here on. And he asks us to be patient and listen to him.
 Natsume says that in the past, the civilization of Japan was a spontaneous process. Usually, civilization is a spontaneous process just like Western one. It is like a plant that spontaneously buds and blossoms. Natsume says that in the past, the Japanese one was spontaneous. It is true that Japan was once influenced by China and Korea. Nevertheless, in general, Japan’s enlightenment has been relatively spontaneous.
 However, the enlightenment of modern Japan is imposed from outside. According to Natsume, Japan had not yet experienced such a powerful pressesure from outside when Japan suddenly jumped up due to stimuli of Western culture after two hundred years of anesthetizing itself with an atmosphere of isolation and exclusion. This influence forced drastic changes in the Japanese civilization. Japanese civilization was forced to progress by the external force of the West in a manner that followed the Western style.
 Why? Western civilization is such one with dozens of times more labor-saving institutions than ours. It is also with dozens of times more ways to pursue pleasure than ours. Just when we were developing spontaneously and reaching 10 levels of complexity of civilization, 20-30 levels of complexity of civilization suddenly emerged from the West and suddenly attacked ours. As a result, for the past 50 years, modern Japan has been forced to progress in an unnatural way due to intense external pressure.
 Therefore, modern Japan has not been steadily climbing up the stairway to enlightenment step by step. It is as if we are spiritedly taking the stairs up ten at a time. This state of affairs may, in some cases, continue forever.
 What is the downside of this imposed civilization of Japan? Natsume points to the psychological side of the Japanese people. The people who are affected by this kind of civilization always feel a vague sense of emptiness, dissatisfaction and anxiety.
 What is the cause of this adverse effect? In the case of spontaneous enlightenment, people have had understood enough the advantages and disadvantages of their current state of life and move on to the next stage. Therefore, people do not feel any lingering regret for the previous stage of life. Nor do people feel that we are borrowing the new stage of life from others.
 However, in the case of the externally imposed one just like Modern Japan, we somehow jump to a new stage of life without having a firm understanding of the old stage of life. It is like this, for example. Various dishes are brought to the table in front of you, and you eat them in haste. Plates of food are pulled down and new dishes are brought in one after another before we can clearly understand what we are eating. Nevertheless, Japanese people today must continue to eat these Western dishes.
 Why? Because modern Japan must have relationship with the West to survive. The West is stronger than Japan. If we associate with the stronger, we must follow its customs. Therefore, it is necessary to follow the Western style, even if it is forced. As a result, at least in part, modern Japanese enlightenment has become a superficial one. Because we are forcibly borrowing from the West, modern Japanese always feel a sense of emptiness and dissatisfaction. It is both false and frivolous to see this as if it were an spontaneous enlightenment.
 So, what should we do? Some may say that modern Japan should try to progress spontaneously. Natsume responds as follows. Even if that were possible, Japan would suffer a nervous breakdown and become so exhausted that it would die at any moment. The reason is that we are trying to accomplish in 50 or 10 years what “Westerners, who are more vigorous than we are in both physical strength and brain power,” have accomplished in 100 years.
 Natsume himself does not have a good idea of a solution. All he can say is, “It is better to change spontaneously, to the extent possible without suffering a nervous breakdown”. Natsume himself admits that this is a dark and tragic conclusion. The purpose of this lecture is to reveal this bitter truth, not to offer a solution. Thus, this lecture came to a close.