Utopia: Futuristic Goal or Idealistic Impossibility?

A utopia is, by definition, impossible to achieve. This may seem like a bold statement, but there is good reason behind it. Firstly, the idea of a utopia, or utopian world, must be separated into two distinct forms: religious, and political. In a religious sense, a utopia is therefore the ideal world, a perfect state which an adherent believes they will find themselves in or otherwise attain, whether during their life or after death. On the other hand, a political utopia is defined as the creation of a perfect state on earth, whether through governmental actions or otherwise. By comparing the religious utopian beliefs of the Christian Heaven or Paradise and Buddhist Nirvana or Pure Land with the political utopian goal of Anarchy, this piece will argue that the goal of a utopian future cannot ever be realised in actuality, as it must remain an impossible ideal to give hope for the future and serve as a reminder of one’s place in society and awareness of one’s circumstances.

A religious utopia, as it is understood in both Buddhism and Christianity, is the creation or realisation of a perfect state of both world and being. As Joseph Kitagawa puts it, “Every religion, every culture, and every civilization has a characteristic view of the future as well as a characteristic way of recollecting the past, which together influence its understanding of the meaning of present existence.”1 Kitagawa argues that the Maitreya, the Future Buddha, served as a focus point for the laity, and the belief in the coming of the Maitreya therefore “gave them grounds for optimism and hope”. 2 It is the last past of Kitagawa’s understanding that is the most important, that it is the present existence that shapes an individual’s perception of their world and their place in it, on a cosmological scale. In this sense, religion therefore serves as a positive influence, as believers hold on to the possibility of a better world.

In contrast, Melissa Anne-Marie Curley’s analysis is far more pessimistic, as she outlines the way in which belief in the Buddhist Pure Land ideology in Japan waned over the course of the 20th century. In her words, people became disillusioned with the idea of a better future as “modern people, embarrassed by those hopeful images from the past, are set the impossible task of working toward the transformation of reality even as they are sworn to this world as it is.”3 Her analysis shows that as a society becomes more technologically advanced, belief in a religious utopia correspondingly diminishes, as people turn away from the promise of a heavenly paradise towards the creation of a better world for themselves.

Is there a more positive outlook to be found in the political ideal, then? Curley is even more pessimistic here, pointing out that in Europe, and to a lesser extent in Japan, goals of utopia “repeatedly curdled into totalitarianism”.4 Here, she notes that prominent Japanese Pure Land figures went even further in their views, arguing that the only way to achieve religious utopia was through the total separation and withdrawal of religion from the state. 5

This is not to say that political goal of utopia were equally impossible, per se. Rather, as Arif Dirlik notes in his analysis of the Chinese Anarchist movement of the early 20th century, it largely came down to a lack of planning. Dirlik points to the goal of ‘rural utopianism’ set out by Liu Shipei, noting that revolution was “ultimately a continuing process with no foreseeable end.”6 Curley echoes this view, noting Theodor Adorno’s and Ernst Bloch’s argument that a true utopia, whether religious or political, is thus “defined only in terms of absence”, such as hunger or constraint, and, perhaps most importantly, not here, not now [own emphasis7]. In other words, a utopia can only exist ‘somewhere else’- either in the future, or in a different realm of existence. A utopia is therefore something than cannot exist in the ‘here and now’. It must remain an ideal, always tantalisingly out of reach, neither fully defined nor denied, but out there, waiting to be realised.

  1. Joseph Kitagawa, ‘The Many Faces of Maitreya: A Historian of Religions’ Reflections’, in Sponberg, Alan, (ed.) Maitreya, the Future Buddha. Reissue edition. Cambridge, 2011, p. 7 []
  2. ibid, pp. 15-16 []
  3. Melissa Anne-Marie Curley, Pure Land, Real World: Modern Buddhism, Japanese Leftists, and the Utopian Imagination, Honolulu, 2017, p. 4. []
  4. ibid []
  5. Ibid, p. 12 []
  6. Arif Dirlik, Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution. California, 1991, p. 100. []
  7. Curley, Pure Land, p. 4 []

The Capitalism of Christianity

The opening of Japan in the mid 1800s resulted in an intellectual exchange between Japan and the “Western” world as Western countries vied to establish ties with Japan and to exert their own cultural influence on the country.  While the general model for imposing cultural conventions is through capitalist systems, Christian influences took a different approach.  The prevalence of capitalism in the nineteenth century permeated all aspects of life in the United States and many European countries, including missionary work.  H. B. Cavalcanti uses the case of American missionaries in Latin America to demonstrate that even religion could be commodified and used as a means of exerting capitalist influences on other countries.  He describes the competition between American Christian denominations which “competed openly in the American religious market, vying for ‘shares’ of the country’s faithful (Finke and Stark 2000). Once those churches established foreign-mission programs, it was only natural that they tried to reproduce in host countries similar market conditions to the ones enjoyed at home.”[1]  While the spread of capitalism in the nineteenth century seemed to be an unstoppable force which, among its other political, economic, and social consequences, effectively exported Christianity globally, this was not the case in Japan.

Instead, the diplomatic relations between Japan and Russia led to a transnational exchange of ideas which led to the emergence of a form of religious anarchy.  Sho Konishi argues that this cultural exchange was highly influenced by the popularity of Russian literature translated into Japanese.[2]  Populist Russian literature introduced new, and complemented existing solutions to “social problems” which both countries were facing in the aftermath of their revolutions.  A running theme in translations of Russian literature was that “‘society’ began to be defined in this context as a problem of unfettered capitalism.”[3]  The socialist and anarchist themes in Russian literature built off pre-existing anarchist traditions in Japan, creating an anti-capitalist base among Japanese intellectuals.

This Russian translation culture was not only anarchist in nature, but Christian as well.  Konishi uses the popularity of Leo Tolstoy in particular to illustrate this fact.  Just as “Tolstoy became a dangerous apostate of the Russian Orthodox Church, he was gaining a widespread religious following in Japan, where many regarded him as a prophetic religious thinker and a saint.”[4]  But, the Christian ethic which was popularised by Tolstoy does not conform to either the typical Western Christian theology or the methods of its dissemination.  Instead, “The resulting conversions to what was called ‘Tolstoyan religion’ (Torusutoi no shūkyō) or ‘religious anarchism’ (shūkyōteki anākizumu) in Japan occurred in the total absence of the converter, that is, without a missionary or church institution.”[5]  Unlike the missionary organisations which operated in other countries, Christianity in Japan was not the result of capitalist systems imposing religious doctrines, but a unique religious theory which rejected the very idea of capitalism.  This “religious anarchism” was both a political stance and a utopian dream for a future universal human religion.


[1] H. B. Cavalcanti, “The Right Faith at the Right Time? Determinants of Protestant Mission Success in the 19th-Century Brazilian Religious Market,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 41, no. 3 (2002): 423–38, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1387454, 423.

[2] Sho Konishi, Anarchist Modernity: Cooperatism and Japanese-Russian Intellectual Relations in Modern Japan, 1st ed. Vol. 356 (Harvard University Asia Center, 2013), https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt1x07vz6, 95.

[3] Ibid., 74.

[4] Ibid., 93.

[5] Ibid., 95.

The Value of Education: A Comparison of Confucianist and Anarchist Objectives

A common element of Anarchism and Confucianism is the value both philosophies place upon education, and the role education held, whether theoretically or in practice, in propagating their objectives. In their chapter ‘Propagating Female Virtues in Choson Korea’, Deuchler explores the role of literature for ‘indoctrination’ in promoting Neo-Confucian ideals and virtues among elite women which proved to ensure the stability of the domestic realm, and subsequently the stability of the state and society functioning under Confucian hierarchy. Through exposure to works such as Elementary Learning (1189), Illustrated Guide to the Three Bonds (1432), and Instructions for Women (1475), virtues and morality were to be transplanted into the household, and women were to act as ‘the guardians of Confucian norms in the inner realm’ in Korea.[1] Too, Tocco in their ‘Norms and Texts for Women’s Education in Tokugawa Japan’ discusses the extent of women’s education within Tokugawa Japan, and provides example of a woman’s education as accessed through moral guides and texts whose foundations lay in Neo-Confucian ethical precepts which stressed the importance of filial piety and kinship. Both Deuchler and Tocco illustrate well how the education of women in preparation of their managerial and ethical domestic responsibilities came to play a role in the upholding of a Confucian hierarchical society and ideals of filial piety.

A direct comparison between Confucianism and Anarchism can perhaps be made in their conflicting objectives; the Confucian upholding of hierarchy versus the anarchist aims to dismantle hierarchy and those social institutions which serve it, namely state institutions, and familial structures. The value of education therefore is found and placed in competing goals.

Dirlik in Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution (1991) emphasises the perceived importance of education among early twentieth century anarchists in achieving revolutionary change. Education is presented as an ‘instrument of revolution’, a tool to create a self-awareness/revolutionary consciousness which would in turn allow for a successful, conscious uprising to dismantle those institutions.[2] Education within anarchist philosophy is also presented as the equivalent of revolution, for there is no distinction made between process and goals of revolution: revolution is a necessary condition for the possibility of anarchist education, but revolution cannot be achieved without education. An anarchist education therefore taught truth and public-mindedness – freedom, equality, and the ability for self-governance – as the means and ends of anarchist revolution.

Kanno Sugako (1881-1911), a central figure in the early Japanese anarchist movement, clearly voiced the need for women to develop self-awareness, and is reflective of wider anarchist ideas on the importance of education in achieving this social consciousness:

‘For us women, the most urgent task is to develop our own self-awareness […] women with some education and some degree of social knowledge must surely be discontented and angry about their status.’[3]

Here she also suggests how education may allow for women to think critically of their status within society. Kanno implies the importance of education in achieving self-awareness, and suggests that this self-awareness of women’s status in society is not recognised to a great extent. Yet, she also suggests that some degree of education must be enough to make one critical of their status – perhaps even one of a Confucian grounding. This seems to conflict slightly with one argument presented by Deuchler, that Japanese women, through their ‘indoctrinating’ education, were complicit in and ‘contributed to the perpetuation of the Confucian system’ which in turn served to promote hierarchy and uphold patriarchy.[4] While this may be true on a macro-scale, their use of the term ‘indoctrination’ suggests those educated women themselves were uncritical, and it is this implication I find dubious. With little evidence written by women themselves proving as a limitation in their work, no outright rejection of a system which suppressed the visibility of women at this time does not necessarily mean there was no critique or ‘self-awareness’. Rather, it serves as a reflection on the success of the patriarchal system in limiting women’s purpose to the domestic realm.

Despite the value of education being found competing goals, both philosophies emphasised the importance of moral teaching. The moral aims of Confucian education however were confined within the family, and were to ensure good Confucian household and the teaching of children Confucian moral values, whereas moral education among anarchists aimed to achieve a public revolution of morality as to achieve its humanitarian goals. This apparent divergence from private teaching of filial piety towards a public revolution promoting equal respect across humanity is interesting, and raises the question of whether the popularity of anarchist ideals within China and Japan was viewed as, or came as a rejection of traditional values of Confucianism.


[1] Martina Deuchler, ‘Propagating Female Virtues in Chosón Korea’ in Dorothy Ko, JaHyun Kim Haboush and Joan R Piggot (ed.) Women and Confucian Cultures in Premodern China, Korea and Japan (Berkeley, 2003), p. 152.

[2] Arif Dirlik, Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution (Berkeley, 1991), p. 90.

[3] Mikiso Hane, Reflections on the Way to the Gallows: Rebel Women in Pre-war Japan (Berkeley, 1993), p. 53.

[4] Deuchler, ‘Propagating Female Virtues in Chosón Korea’ in Women and Confucian Cultures, p. 165.

Russian literature: An important and popular media to disseminate ideas in Japanese anarchism

In the book Anarchist Modernity, the author Sho Konishi reveals the interplay of Japan and Russia in the formation and evolvement of anarchist ideas. On the side of Russian thinkers, like Mechnikov, are fascinated with the cause and result of Meiji Ishin. His view on modernity and civilization is based on the observation of Ishin later influenced Kropotkinism and Japanese intellectuals who would turn this vision into one of the most important conceptual foundations for modern cultural life in Japan.1 On the side of Japan, a huge amount of translated literature flows across the boundary of these two nations and becomes popular and very influential among Japanese thinkers. That’s why Sho Konishi pays particular attention to translation as a methodological strategy. Russian literature is an important medium for the intellectual communication between Russian and Japan. These translated texts are very popular among Japanese readers, even some of the texts are banned by the government, they are still circulated by readers privately. Reasons for their importance and popularity among Japanese anarchists are the unique function of Russian literature and the cultural foundation of Japanese anarchism.

Literature and novels can become important media are not just because they are more entertaining than any other genre. In TSFL, the program established by Mechnikov and continued by Russian revolutionary exiles, translation courses are taught, many graduates from this program later become active participants in translating Russian literature into Japanese. One of the most prominent figures in this group of people is Futabatei Shimei.2 Compared to the literature style in other nations, Russian literature carries the responsibility of educating the people and improving society. Writers in Russia are convinced that literature should contain intellectual and ideological meanings and they will act as the tool of awakening people to fight for a better life and world. Philosophy, ideologies, and thoughts are expressed through literature.3 Futabatei also shared this similar thought: “To awaken the people, they had made the pen into the point of a spear. There was a difference of only one step between the pen and a bomb.”4 The belief in the capability of literature also affected Chinese writer Lu Xun, who imitates Gogol wrote A Madman’s diary in the hope of awakening Chinese people. Russian literature is an honest mirror of Russian ideology, by investigating what kind of Russian literature is popular among Japanese anarchists, Sho Konishi is able to find out what kind of ideology or thoughts was welcomed and embraced by them.

The other reason why Japanese anarchists are attracted to Russian literary works is because of their social and cultural focuses. The themes of Russian literature are mostly social, cultural, and religious. For example, Tolstoy’s Resurrection has a focus on the social and everyday life aspect with religious elements, a nobleman comes to realize the miserable life commoners live in. Japanese anarchists have the focus on people of the society rather than the people of the nation. Both Kotoku’s definition of the concept of heimin and artists Yamamoto’s creative print Ryofu (Fisherman) reflect this idea.((Ibid, p. 169-70.)) Anarchist revolutionaries do not aim to reform the political structure, they believe that only social revolutions can ultimately improve and change the lives of people, and advance the civilization process of humans, any form of government cannot achieve this goal. The emphasis of Russian literature fits the core idea of Japanese anarchists. This similarity becomes the motivation of Japanese anarchists to be more interested in and to promote the reading of Russian literature.

These inner qualities of Russian literature, as the carrier of Russian ideology and the lens of looking into commoners in cultural and social life, are factors of its importance in disseminating ideas in Japan, especially its influence on Japanese anarchist movement.

  1. Konishi, Sho, Anarchist Modernity: Cooperatism and Japanese-Russian Intellectual Relations in Modern Japan, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013, p.32. []
  2. Ibid, p.130. []
  3. Liu, Wenfei, E Guo Wenxue Yanjianglu, The Commercial Press, 2017, pp.185-6. []
  4. Konishi, Sho, Anarchist Modernity, p83-4. []

Kagawa Toyohiko and Kōtoku Shūsui: A Comparison of Socialist Thought in Japan

The overarching backdrop of Leftist political movement in the early 1900s in Japan provided a rich tapestry of different political ideas. The two movements that lend themselves most effectively to contrast is the Anarchist Movement, represented here by Kōtoku Shūsui and Uchiyama Gudō, and the Cooperative Socialist movement, by Kagawa Toyohiko. It is important to note that these figures represented a unique form of each ideology that drew on western intellectual sources but found ways to adapt these ideas to the context of their time and place. At times, the ideas that each side drew on had great similarities. However, the philosophical foundations that each side drew on were significantly different, creating ample space for analysis and comparison.

Firstly, a fundamental difference between the two ideologies was their attitude towards the rate of socio-political change. Kagawa saw slow structural change as the best way to bring about progress for Japanese society and later mankind. Regarding change, Kagawa drew on Fabian and Guild Socialism as inspiration on how to enact change. The namesake of this type of Socialism, Fabian, is a reference to the General Quintus Fabius, who was famous for avoiding pitched battles against the Carthaginians, instead opting to target weaknesses methodically and gradually. Thus, the attitudes that Kagawa held towards the Capitalist system were similar to this and considered “Gradualist” in nature. He promoted a slow, methodical approach towards dismantling what he saw as socially untenable capitalist practices and derided rapid destabilising action. [1] 

Alternatively, Anarchism promoted violent revolt, strikes and acts of political assassination, referred to as ‘direct action’, to bring about radical political change. “Direct action” was the hallmark of the Japanese Anarchist movement and was seen as the most egalitarian and organic form of social change. Kōtoku Shūsui, a key member in the Japanese Anarchist movement, promoted worker’s strikes and promoted his cause through Heimin, an Anarchist Newspaper. He was also later involved in a conspiracy to assassinate the Emperor, his family and key ministerial figures, which eventually resulted in his arrest and later execution in 1911. [2]

On the ground level, figures such as Uchiyama Gudō urged members of the sangha to be armed at all times (“The hand that holds the rosary should also hold a bomb”). [3] Indeed, the Anarchist method of direct action provides more impact in terms of galvanising a political movement. However, the threat it posed to government institutions and the legitimacy of the Emperor meant that it was more likely to be suppressed.

The intellectual foundation underpinning Anarchist thought for figures such as Kōtoku Shūsui and Uchiyama Gudō seemed to stem more from socialist egalitarianism and Anarcho-syndicalism rather than Nihilism. This is demonstrated by the ties that Kōtoku had to Peter Kropotkin, who famously advocated for a societal system based on mutual aid in The Conquest for Bread. [4] This brand of Anarchism, which advocated for direct action without the underpinning philosophy Nihilism, is interesting. The justifications for violence and direct action i.e. the willingness to die for a cause, would not be based on the notion of “negation of all” but rather tied to the simpler revolutionary ideal that martyring for a cause was to enact change. The reasons behind promoting direct action were tied more to the idea that fighting and dying for the Anarchist cause was accessible to all, and not limited by any profession, position or age. [5]

In contrast, Kagawa Toyohiko, the main proponent of the Cooperative movement, was obtusely against the prospect of violent revolution due to several reasons. His first objection was simply that people would die, as a result of violent actions in itself, and the disruption of food production that followed. Kagawa critiqued prior violent movements such as the French and Russian Revolutions to highlight what he saw as political short-sightedness and needless death. [6] Based on his ‘seven elements of economic value’, violent overthrow of an existing government would only solve at most two of out of seven elements and would even be counterproductive to reaching the goals of the other five. In essence, the destabilising effects of a violent revolution did not appeal to Kagawa, as he viewed it as being more harm than good. Kagawa is ultimately viewed as a utopian pacifist that sought to create a world order that benefitted all consumers. [7] Thus, his views on violence generally were negative, and he attempted to find alternative ways to reform politics and society that were more consistent with his Pacifist ideal.

What is interesting is that despite the fundamental differences in the two approaches to socio-political reform, there are some striking similarities in the two movements. Although it is evident that the core beliefs on the Anarchist and Cooperative sides were very different, the concept of mutual love and cooperation is something that both movements shared.
Kropotkin’s concept of mutual aid that Kōtoku envisioned for society was very similar to the ideas that Kagawa had for structuring his cooperatives. [8] Drawing inspiration from Kōtoku, Uchiyama Gudō’s concept of a society based on the Buddhist Sangha, or temple community, also had strong features of the kind of utopian cooperative that Kagawa envisioned. [9] Although Gudō’s Sangha based community was not fundamentally based off a Cooperative framework existing within a capitalist one, it nonetheless highlights that the concept of mutual care and development are present in both philosophies. 

Another notable similarity between the Anarchist and Cooperative is the anti-war outlook that Kagawa and Kōtoku shared. Kōtoku’s perspective was more focused on the ruinous impacts of Nationalism and Imperialism and thus leaned more towards a political criticism of war. In “Monster of the 20th Century”, Kōtoku references the egalitarian socialism of the French Revolution as being the ideal form of government and that many other European nations had perverted the French ideal of Socialism to suit their own Nationalistic needs. [10] In the Japanese context, he pointed towards the encroachment of military figures such as Yamagata Aritomo upon the trajectory of Japanese politics and foreign policy, as a gravely dangerous development that would put Japan on a Nationalistic track. [11] Kōtoku’s criticisms were fundamentally political and ideological in nature, something that Kagawa’s anti-war outlook lacked. Kagawa makes limited reference to the ideologies of Imperialism and Nationalism and instead opted to make Capitalist economic practices and systems his target of critique. Kagawa criticised Nationalism and Capitalism for moving the focus of national development away from food production and welfare, and instead towards the production of war materiel. This criticism was rooted less in an intellectual critique of Nationalism and Capitalism and employed a practical approach citing the diversion of resources as harmful to the people. [12]

The more practically driven ideas that Kagawa proposed were more palatable to the government at the time, and he was never quite suppressed or sanctioned by them. Ironically, he was removed from the Kansai labour movement, which he led, for not being radical enough. [13] He continued to advocate for his form of Cooperative Globalism after the Second World War and died in 1960 from a heart condition. On the other hand, the political and drastic nature of Kōtoku’s ideas were perceived as dangerous and he was eventually hanged for his involvement in the High Treason Incident in 1910. [14]

The way that the thought of Kōtoku Shūsui and Kagawa Toyohiko converges and diverges is a fascinating aspect of early 20th Century Japanese Socialist movements. Despite the differences in methodology and practice, the ultimate motivation for both figures was to enact positive change for Japan and the world. The movements that they represented provides valuable insight into alternate realities that may have existed if they had succeeded. Nonetheless, both Kōtoku and Kagawa’s ideas can still be relevant in today’s world in how they critique structures of power, politics and society.

[1] Bickle, George, Utopianism and Social Planning in the Thought of Kagawa Toyohiko, Monumenta Nipponica, 1970, No. 3/4, pp. 447-453 

[2] Tsuzuki, Chushichi, Kotoku, Osugi and Japanese Anarchism, Hitotsubashi Journal of Social Studies , 1966, Vol. 3, No. 1, pp. 37

[3] Rambelli, Fabio, Zen Anarchism: The Egalitarian Dharma of Uchiyama Gudō, Hawaii Distributed Press, 2014, pp. 30

[4] Tsuzuki, Chushichi, Kotoku, Osugi and Japanese Anarchism, 1966, pp. 37

[5] Ibid, pp. 31

[6] Kagawa, Toyohiko, Brotherhood Economics, Harper Brothers (Kindle Edition), 1936, Loc. 700

[7] Ibid, Loc. 720

[8] Tierney, Robert Thomas, Monster of the Twentieth Century: Kōtoku Shūsui and Japan’s First Anti-Imperialist Movement, California Scholarship Online, 2016, pp13

[9] Rambelli, Fabio, Zen Anarchism: The Egalitarian Dharma of Uchiyama Gudō, 2014,  pp. 42

[10] Tierney, Robert Thomas, Monster of the Twentieth Century: Kōtoku Shūsui and Japan’s First Anti-Imperialist Movement, 2016, pp. 22

[11] Ibid, pp. 24

[12] Kagawa, Toyohiko, Brotherhood Economics, 1936, Loc. 1589

[13] Bickle, George, Utopianism and Social Planning in the Thought of Kagawa Toyohiko, 1970, pp. 448

[14]  Tsuzuki, Chushichi, Kotoku, Osugi and Japanese Anarchism, 1966, pp. 35

How Ibsen came to influence the revolutionary movements of China

Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen has been hugely influential in the history of theatre and his plays are among the most performed ones in the world. Not only did Ibsen infuse the world of theatre with a more realistic and character-driven style but his plays are also very political – which is indeed the case with his perhaps most famous work, A Doll’s House (1879). The political significance of Ibsen’s plays travelled across Eurasia to Japan and China in the early twentieth century and ended up influencing not only new radical movements such as anarchism and feminism, but its significance also garnered significant critique from far-right movements in China, showing that Ibsen’s writings had a meaningful role in the tumultuous political climate of China in the first half of the twentieth century.


Edward Krebs’ book Shifu, Soul of Chinese Anarchism, shows how the anarchist faction within the New Culture Movement embraced Ibsen’s A Doll’s House not only as a feminist critique of the institution of marriage and a call for women’s liberation, but also as a call for the emancipation of love in Chinese society.1 For anyone familiar with A Doll’s House, the most obvious interpretation of the play is the perhaps more practical side of female emancipation from the structural limitations of life as a woman. That is, the limitations of marriage and family life where the woman has little room for freedom and expression, which, in the play, leads the protagonist, Nora, to reject all of this by the end of it. Interestingly, it seems that the New Culture and May Fourth movements in China not only embraced this but also used the, now perhaps taken for granted, search for love as a concept of both female emancipation and rebellion against the old way of life by a new focus on individuality, as is pointed out by Haiyan Lee. Indeed, Lee claims that ‘[n]o other translated text electrified the May Fourth generation more than Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House’.2 Lee goes on to write that it was not before anarchist takes on the play emerged that the inherent critique of bourgeoise domestic life in particular of A Doll’s House was used politically. Naturally, the combined implications of female emancipation and rejection of bourgeoisie life was then used as a rebellion against the Confucian family ideals. Moreover, the anarchist interpretation developed into a rejection of love as an ‘ideological camouflage’ for the lies of the Confucian family ‘covering up the unnatural and unjustified private ownership of sex’.3


Curiously, the apparent rejection by Nora of bourgeoisie life touted by the anarchists was used against them by the far right and the New Life Movement (NLM). As the illustration titled ‘Nora after Leaving Home’ from the magazine New Life Women’s Monthly implies, Nora’s rejection of family ideals leads to immorality, and in opposition to the leftist interpretation, she continues to embrace the capitalist bourgeoisie or perhaps a sleazier underground life.4 Obviously, the NLM, promoting a fascist and highly conservative ideology, was staunchly against the ideals of the New Culture and May Fourth movements and their rejection of the Confucian family ideal. As Clinton points out, the NLM critique highlights the futility of Nora leaving the traditional family structures given the lack of opportunity for independent women in Chinese society, which would lead her to a life of degeneracy.5 Thus, A Doll’s House did not only act as a critique of the Confucian family in China, but the open ending also allowed for some rather easy refutation of the leftist interpretation.


A Doll’s House was not the only Ibsen play that proved to be influential among leftist revolutionaries in China in this period. In The Birth of Chinese Feminism, Liu, Karl and Ko highlights how The Lady from the Sea, which was first translated into Japanese then into Chinese in 1920, fits perfectly into the anarcho-feminism of a significant figure in anarchism and feminism in China as He-Yin Zhen. The passage they focus on is one where Ibsen is very critical of the whole institution of marriage, which he describes as an arrangement similar to prostitution.6 This passage in itself is perhaps a more direct and radical critique of traditional family structures than most of what is said in A Doll’s House. By being so direct in the description of marriage as a form of prostitution, The Lady From the Sea might even have put off some not so radical leftists at the time, which might explain why A Doll’s House was more popular, and thus more influential.


The curious case of Ibsen’s influence on revolutionary movements in China is another proof of Ibsen’s skill as a playwright and it shows the relevance of his writings across cultures and time, which is furthermore exemplified by his continuous significance today. Ibsen, who may or may not have been an actual feminist himself, did write plays – such as those mentioned above and Hedda Gabler – which presents rebellion against society in the form of female rebellion. This made him a favourite among anarchists and feminists, and also an ‘easy’ target for more conservative voices. However, plays such as A Doll’s House obviously did not only inspire the most extreme leftists at the time since the message can be easily applied to wider society as a whole. It is for that reason Ibsen’s story of Nora’s rebellion became the most ‘electrifying’ foreign piece of writing in the eyes of the May Fourth generation.

  1. Krebs, Edward S., Shifu, Soul of Chinese Anarchism (Lanham, Md, 1998), p. 162. []
  2. Lee, Haiyan, Revolution of the Heart: A Genealogy of Love in China, 1900-1950 (Stanford, 2007), p. 109. []
  3. Ibid., pp. 182-183. []
  4. Clinton, Maggie, Revolutionary Nativism: Fascism and Culture in China, 1925-1937 (Durham, 2017), p. 154. []
  5. Ibid., pp. 152-155. []
  6. Karl, Rebecca, Ko, Dorothy and Liu, Lydia, The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Text in Transnational Theory (New York, 2013), p. 93. []

Anarchism as Modernity: The Arishima Cooperative’s Contribution to a Global Narrative.

On Arishima Takeo’s liberation of his tenant farmers in 1922 and declaration of cooperative ownership, he created a space for the proliferation of anarchist thought in a completely new and undefined sphere.[1] Consequently, the Arishima cooperative farm in Hokkaido can be used to redefine traditional notions of anarchism as ‘anti-modern’ and trace the movement of Japanese anarchism into a global sphere.

20th Century anarchism was characterised by a total rejection of state in favour of social revolution.[2] Revolutionary discourse focused on a cultural transformation with emphasis on the individual. In historiography, therefore, it has been misunderstood as introspective and anti-modern due to anarchist’s intellectual isolation from the recognised structure of the state.[3] Furthermore, the proliferation of isolated Japanese anarchist communities has resulted in depictions of these groups as remote spheres with little connection to the globalised world or political trends.[4]  These ideas were reversed by Sho Konishi, who traces the expansion of anarchism to the ‘opening’ of Japan in the 1950s (Kaikoku) where the cultural and intellectual spheres of Russia and Japan merged.[5] He believed that anarchism adopted a transnational and global character which propelled it into modernity.

This is exemplified in the development of the Arishima cooperative farm and its creation of a new space and time. This did not isolate the community but distinguished them from their origins as tenant farmers and consequently propelled them into the sphere of modernity with a new identity. The Cooperative Living Handbook contained a history of the farm and was used to affirm membership in the cooperative.[6] As such, it became a physical demonstration of the connection with a shared heritage that had been constructed around the new freedom of the cooperative. The book served to create a new timeline of history as a reconstruction of the past that legitimised their liberation and placed them firmly in a trajectory of modernisation.

Additionally, the division of space was significant in the construction of a new space and time. Monuments and objects commemorating original members of the cooperative were placed in the centre of the community and used to mark out meeting forums.[7] These were viewed as symbolic objects which affirmed the overturning of the old ideological order in favour of liberation. They reflected the desire for a similar process in the wider political structures of Japan. The physical demarcation of space with such objects suggests that tenants sought to separate their new freedom as a new sphere of possibility which had no relation to the community’s past constraints as tenant farmers. It further implies that for the Arishima farmers, time renewed and began again upon their liberation. As such, this demonstrates that, far from internalised, the cooperative saw itself at the forefront of progress, looking forward into a devolved era of change.

Moreover, the Arishima cooperative did succeed in integrating itself into a wider global narrative. The farm held festivals, including the Autumn Harvest Festival and children’s Olympic festivals, which were open to outsiders and became known throughout the region.[8] Not only did the cooperative look forwards, but it aimed to do so in conjunction with surrounding communities. The proliferation of anarchist thought across the region is exemplified in the adoption of Anarchism by the Hokkaido-wide industrial cooperative in 1926.[9] Additionally, the Agricultural Industrial Cooperative Association published its journal ‘Kyoei’, which sought to promote ‘world thinking’ amongst agricultural labourers. Within this, we can see the Arishima anarchist thought centred within global anarchist thought as the communities sought to educate and connect with the wider world as their practices of mutual aid ‘sogo fujo’ united with wider global narratives of mass liberation.

The Arishima anarchist cooperative can therefore be used to trace the evolution of anarchist thought from a local sphere to global narrative. The vision of the farmers at the forefront of progress allowed for the creation of a new space and time through physical means. This allows for a revision of Japanese anarchism as modern and international. Throughout its evolution, the Arishima Cooperative remained engaged with the intellectual spheres around them as they forged their community to become a vehicle of progress which symbolised a new modernity.

[1] Sho Konishi, “Ordinary Farmers Living Anarchist Time: Arishima Cooperative Farm in Hokkaido, 1922–1935.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 47, no. 6, (2013), p.1845.

[2] Arif Dirlik, Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution, (London 1991), p.29.

[3] Sho Konishi, “Ordinary Farmers”, p.1848.

[4] James Scott in Sho Konishi, “Ordinary Farmers”, P.1848

[5] Sho Konishi, Anarchist Modernity: Cooperatism and Japanese-Russian Intellectual Relations in Modern Japan, (Massachusetts 2013), p.2.

[6] Sho Konishi, “Ordinary Farmers”, P.1858.

[7] Ibid, P.1867

[8] Ibid, p.1878, p1882.

[9] Ibid, p.1884.

‘Bushido’ anarchists: The irony of rebellious martyrdom in Imperial Japan

Post-Meiji restoration Japan is known for being a highly nationalistic society with limited freedom of expression and little room for other ideologies than the nationalistic ideology promoted by the state. In Mikiso Hane’s Reflections on the Way to the Gallows we meet, among others, Kanno Sugako (1881-1911) and Kaneko Fumiko (1903-1926) – two women who lived in this time of nationalism and who ungrudgingly gave their lives for their beliefs and rebellions against the Japanese state and society. What struck me the most when reading the stories Kanno and Kaneko is their unyielding faith in their ideological cause right up to their deaths and, their honesty and transparent witness statements, and their bravery. Ironically enough, the way in which Kanno and Kaneko met their deaths can be argued to be exemplary of the values propagandised by the Japanese government at the time. Indeed, as Kanno was executed and Kaneko committed suicide in prison they displayed similar characteristics to the modern ‘Bushido’ values1 which had been integrated into Japanese society in this period as they fostered a ‘Japanese spirit’.2


The perhaps most famous anarchist in this period was Kotoku Sushui, who’s idea of anarchism was rooted in various critiques of imperialism, nationalism and militarism – he also had a complicated personal relationship with Kanno Sugako. Kanno’s and Kaneko’s anarchist beliefs were more personally motivated and more shaped by their individual animosity towards the authorities and hierarchies of the Japanese society they lived in, unlike Kotoku who was arguably more ‘intellectually’ motivated. Kanno exemplifies her opposition towards the existing society by writing, during her time as substitute editor of the newspaper Muro Shimpo, that ‘[w]omen in Japan are in a state of slavery. Japan has become an advanced, civilized nation, but we women are still denied our freedom by an iron fence’.3 Her critique is clearly a personal, and radical feminist one, attacking Japan’s modernity for not being thoroughly modern – particularly when it comes to its treatment of women. This feminist anarchism is particularly personal to Kanno since the social pressures and expectations put on women in this Japanese society instilled her with shame and guilt as she was raped at age 15. Kaneko’s beliefs were, likewise, shaped by her difficult upbringing where she was the subject of abuse and neglect from both her parents and grandmother. This led her to reject the contemporary ideals of the family hierarchy and filial piety – which was also supposed to permeate Japanese society as a whole. During her interrogation she explicitly draws the connection between what she sees as the unjust morality expected from the weaker part, both in society and in the family when she says:

From the standpoint of the weak, morality means an agreement that calls for one’s submission to the strong. This moral principle is common through all ages and all societies. The primary aim of those in power is to preserve this moral principle as long as possible. The relationship between parents and children is also based on this principle. It is only coated over with the attractive-sounding term ‘filial piety.’4


For their spreading of radical ideas and their alleged participation in conspiracies to assassinate the emperor, they were both tried and sentenced to death. It is not entirely clear whether these conspiracies were real or not, but they nevertheless both unrepentantly admitted to their involvement. Kanno, in her final statement, articulated that she had no regrets, she likened herself to a martyr giving her life to a higher cause, that she would ‘die without whimpering. This is my destiny’.5 Kaneko also admitted to the accusations levelled at her. In her interrogation she states that, because of her own experiences with ‘oppression by all sources of authority – I decided to deny the rights of all authority’ and ‘[f]or this reason I planned to eventually throw a bomb and accept the termination of my life’.6

Kanno was executed along with 11 other conspirators in 1911. Kaneko was, together with her ‘co-conspirator’ Pak Yeol, initially sentenced to death. However, the emperor pardoned them and they were offered life sentences in prison instead. Pak Yeol accepted the offer but Kaneko tore the pardon to shreds and committed suicide instead. Both of these faithful sacrifices to the cause of anarchism and defiance to Japanese society are, tragically and ironically, very similar to the warrior ethos promulgated by the very same society they were rebelling against.

  1. Christopher Ives, Imperial-Way Xen: Ichikawa Hakugen’s Critique and Lingering Questions for Buddhist Ethics (Honolulu, 2009), p. 32 []
  2. Ibid., p. 13 []
  3. Mikiso Hane, Reflections on the Way to the Gallows: Rebel Women in Prewar Japan (Berkeley, 1988), p. 53 []
  4. Ibid., p. 119 []
  5. Ibid., pp. 56-57 []
  6. Ibid., p. 122 []

Abandoning Family for the Cause – A Look at Kanno Sugako and Kaneko Fumiko

Though historian Arif Dirlik recognized anarchism as a body of widely varying ideas, he argues that all anarchist thought contains a ‘repudiation of authority, especially of the state and the family’.1 By this definition, anarchists must reject connection to their own families for the cause of total social revolution. While many would find this task difficult, looking at the lives of two anarchist thinkers, Kanno Sugako and Kaneko Fumiko, one can see why they may have been driven towards anarchist thought; at the least, one can see how the spurning of family could be so easily accepted by these revolutionaries. I’d like to make it clear that I’m not suggesting an individual must have had a difficult homelife in order to become an anarchist, but I would like to draw attention to its role in the lives of these particular anarchist women.

Both Kanno and Kaneko faced a great deal of hardship in their youth, which contributed to the shaping of their worldviews as teenagers and adults. In the case of Kanno Sugako, she lost her mother at ten, which soon left her at the mercy of a cruel stepmother.2 By the time she was fifteen, Kanno was the victim of rape by a miner who worked for her father. This experience, possibly encouraged by her stepmother, left Kanno with a deep-seated sense of shame, which she coped with by reading Sakai Toshihiko’s essay, ‘in which he counseled rape victims not to be burdened with guilt’.3 The comfort she found through Sakai’s work led her to read his other essays on socialism, therefore exposing her to the ideology for the first time. If it had not been for the cruelty of her stepmother and her sexual assault, Kanno may not have read any of Sakai’s works and may have been less likely to join in the movement as a young adult. What’s more, if she had grown up in a loving family environment, she would have been less likely to agree with the devaluation of family that is essential to anarchist thought. Instead, Kanno proudly claimed that ‘even among anarchists I was among the more radical thinkers’.4 That she found comfort in socialist/anarchist thought rather than in her familial network can only be taken as guiding her towards a more radical way of organizing society. However, how much of Kanno’s radicalism could be attributed to her personal background cannot be determined by this short of an examination.

As for the life of Kaneko Fumiko, she suffered through multiple years of poverty in her early childhood due to her father’s alcoholism before being put under the care of her grandmother.5 While living with her grandmother as Japanese colonists in Korea, Kaneko’s extended family treated her as little more than a maid and often physically abused her. This treatment compounded with her anger over ‘the arrogant manner in which the Japanese occupiers treated the native Koreans’.6 Like Kanno, Kaneko ‘s childhood experiences certainly primed her to accept the anarchist rejection of family’s authority in society. It is no wonder that she questioned why one should remain loyal to a person simply because they are a relative, when hers had always treated her so heartlessly. Instead, she would seek to revolutionize society to equally respect all people. This view in turn connects to her refusal to recognize the authority of the state. After viewing firsthand the abuses enacted on the Koreans, it is understandable that Kaneko would desire a nonhierarchical society based on mutual respect.

Anarchism’s tenet of individual abandonment of family as a central authority, according to Dirlik’s definition, doubtlessly drew in the loyalties of Kanno Sugako and Kaneko Fumiko. As two women who had received years long abuse at the hands of their biological families, it should be no surprise that they were drawn to a social framework that decentralized the family. While all anarchists may not have had comparable experiences, it remains intriguing that both of these Japanese anarchists did share this background. With more comparison of anarchist thinkers’ personal lives, we could learn more about why they were drawn to this seemingly impracticable social ideology. As for now, this observation is interesting but simply coincidence.

  1. Arif Dirlik, Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution (Berkeley, 1991), p. 12. []
  2. For all biographical information found here see Mikiso Hane, Reflections on the Way to the Gallows: Rebel Women in Prewar Japan (Berkeley, 1988), pp. 51-2. []
  3. Hane, Reflections, p. 51 []
  4. Ibid., p. 56. []
  5. For all her biographical information see: Ibid., 75-79 []
  6. Ibid., p. 78 []

The Twelve-Point Pledge of Liu Shifu’s ‘Conscience Society’ and its Moralistic Anarchism

Liu Shifu (劉師復) (1884 – 1915) was an influential figure in early twentieth century revolutionary movements in China and regularly cited as the intellectual Father of Chinese Anarchism. In 1912 Liu and several of his comrades founded the ‘Conscience Society’ and a twelve-point pledge that would form the core of the covenant of the Conscience Society. Effectively, the twelve points are rules which members of the Society are expected to adhere to. The points are:


  1. Do not eat meat
  2. Do not drink liquor
  3. Do not smoke tobacco
  4. Do not use servants
  5. Do not ride in sedan-chairs or rickshaws
  6. Do not marry
  7. Do not use a family name
  8. Do not serve as an official
  9. Do not serve as a member of a representative body
  10. Do not join a political party
  11. Do not serve in the army or navy
  12. Do not believe in a religion[1]


What strikes me a particularly interesting is how the majority of them seem to be only tangentially related to anarchism, if we understand anarchism as simply a commitment to the abolition of government. The twelve points suggest a heavily moral aspect to Liu’s anarchist thinking, it seems to me to be a common theme in early twentieth century Chinese revolutionary movements to aim not just for political restructuring but a moral restructuring of all of society and in some cases the world. For example, the concept of Datong (大同) (‘Grand Unity’) at a surface level is about eliminating nation-states and founding a world government, however, this was arguably just a logical extension of the core of the concept which was the radical democratisation of all human social interaction and the elimination of hierarchical institutions that governed social interactions like class and gender divisions. Liu was acutely aware towards the end of his life that political assassination was not a good long-term strategy for radical social change, rejecting the tactic of political assassination fully in 1912.[2] Of course, the problem is, what happens after the assassination? Many of Liu’s comrades would have supported the idea of attempting to assassinate Yuan Shi Kai (袁世凱) (1859-1916), the man who betrayed the revolution of 1911. Liu understood that, the physical person of the political tyrant is not the problem, the problem is the whole system. History would proceed to prove Liu correct as a decade of Warlord despotism engulfed China following the death of Yuan.

For real radical change, Liu knew, the whole moral, political and social order must be restructured, and this is why so many of the points in the pledge concern person moral behaviour. At least in the West, when thinking about libertarianism, which advocated for severely limited government rather than no government, its common to associate it with “live and let live” thinking; that people should just be free to do as they like without the government interfering with them. Of course Liu did not advocate for anyone or any group to force anyone to abide by these moral standard, but the points reveal a strong commitment on Liu’s part to self-government, not in the sense of collective popular sovereignty,  but in the literal sense of an individual governing themselves, not just acting according to instinct or succumbing to base desires.

The prohibition against alcohol exemplifies this point. Alcohol impairs judgement and would therefore go against Liu’s vision of a sober, independent, free-thinking individual. The point prohibiting the consumption of meat exemplifies a deep commitment to non-violence, a point that should encourage students of radical thinking to expand their conception of the meaning of anarchism, an ideology so often associated with assassination and violent revolution. The fifth point prohibiting the hiring of sedan-chair or rickshaw rides shows the importance of symbolism on Liu’s moralistic anarchism. Whilst in theory, if a person voluntarily chooses to work as a rickshaw-puller, there should be no problem, it’s the symbolism behind this demeaning labour that Liu finds unacceptable. Liu once quoted Bakunin in saying “If others are not free, I am not free either. If others are slaves, I also lose my freedom”.[3] This shows that Liu was not an individualist in a crude sense, he understood that people are social and interdependent, meaningful reform of society must be encompass of sections of society to be meaningful at all.




[1] Krebs, Edward S. 1998. Shifu, soul of Chinese anarchism. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. p.102

[2] Ibid. p.103

[3] Ibid. p.104