Northern Lights: The Nordic countries in the modern Japanese political imagination

In 1911, the Japanese public intellectual Uchimura Kanzō held up Denmark as a shining example for Japan and the world. He did so on the background of a growing interest in Scandinavian culture, literature, art, and politics from the 1880s to 1920s, which emerged in reaction to Japan’s trajectory of modernisation. Progressive intellectuals, writers, and feminist activists questioned their country’s quest for great power status and looked to Scandinavia for an alternative modernity. This current peaked in the 1910s and 1920s, weakened in the 1930s, and returned from 1945.

Catching up with Britain

With the Meiji Restoration of 1868, Japan turned from isolationism to international engagement and a struggle for survival in a Western-dominated world. The Charter Oath declared in the name of the new monarch that “Knowledge shall be sought throughout the world.” This would “enrich the nation and strengthen the military.” Since Japan could not beat the encroaching imperialist powers, its leaders chose to join them as an industrialised great power. The unpalatable alternatives were outright colonisation, or the quasi-colonial humiliation suffered by China.

Japan thus modelled itself on the great powers of the day, which is to say Britain, the United States, France, and Prussia. Britain, above all, came to occupy the place China once held as the standard for cultural, economic, and political achievement and the source of ideas and technologies. Japan industrialised, developed a modern military, and projected its power in East Asia: Korea came under Japanese control from 1876, Taiwan was colonised in 1895, and humiliating demands were issued to China. With the symbolically important victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, Japan had become the first non-Western modern great power in a mere four decades. But not everyone rejoiced in the apparent success, and some questioned the wisdom and ethics of imperialism and militarism.


Surrender of the Satsuma rebels. The suppression of the Satsuma rebellion in 1877 marked the consolidation of the new regime and its modernisation strategy.

Image source:

Scandinavia as alternative modernity, 1880s-1920s

In the 1880s, some intellectuals, writers, and political activists began to take an interest in Scandinavia. This undercurrent grew until the mid to late 1920s, fuelled by disenchantment with the mainstream modernisation strategy and a sense that what had been accomplished was shallow and inauthentic. Their search for an alternative modernity led some to Georg Brandes, Harald Høffding, Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, Hans Christian Andersen, Bertel Thorvaldsen, Ellen Key, Søren Kierkegaard, and N.F.S. Grundtvig. Or rather, they found the image of Scandinavian thought, culture, art, education, gender relations, and politics transmitted through German and English-language sources appealing. Nordic language skills hardly existed until the second half of the 20th century.

Mori Ōgai’s (1862-1922) translation of Andersen’s The Improvisatore in 1888 was hence based on a “free” German translation. It had more in common with traditional East Asian prose than with Andersen’s Danish. No matter the accuracy of the translation, it became an instant classic and put Nordic literature firmly on the horizon. In 1889, the philosopher Inoue Tetsujirō (1855-1944) attended a conference in Stockholm and visited Høffding in Copenhagen. In 1892, an article on Ibsen by Brandes appeared in the literary journal Waseda Bungaku, translated by Tsubouchi Shōyō, and Ishida Shintarō’s abridged translation from German of Høffding’s Psychology (1882) came out in 1897, followed by Philosophy of Religion in 1912 and his Brief History of Modern Philosophy in 1917. Høffding’s popularity prompted Kobayashi Ichirō to write an article on “Modern Danish Philosophy” in 1911, based on German sources. In 1915, a translation from English of Brandes’ Main Currents in 19th Century Literature was published. The number of indirect translations and the interest in Scandinavia thus grew steadily after the turn of the century.

Ellen Key’s influence on Japanese feminism

By the 1910s, this burgeoning appreciation of the Scandinavian modern breakthrough set the stage for the massive influence Ellen Key (1849–1926) came to have on Japanese feminism through Hiratsuka Raichō (1886-1971) and Yamada Waka (1879-1957). Japan was first introduced to Key through Ōmura Jintarō’s partial translation of The Century of the Child in 1906.

Hiratsuka was inspired by the critique of patriarchy in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and by Key, whose writings she encountered in 1911 and 1912. Both were politically and intellectually minded women from elite backgrounds for whom traditional gender roles were constraining. Hiratsuka found a kindred spirit in Key, whose Renaissance of Motherhood she translated from English in 1919. Thanks to Hiratsuka and her pioneering journal, Seito (Bluestocking), Key is perhaps remembered more in Japan than in Scandinavia today as a founding mother of feminism of equal stature to Mary Wollstonecraft.

raicho seito

Hiratsuka Raichō and the inaugural issue of Seito, Japan’s first feminist journal. The artwork is by Takamura Chieko (1886-1938), a member of the editorial collective of female graduates in their early to mid-20s.

Image source:


Turning Japan into “Denmark on a bigger scale”

At around the same time that Hiratsuka first read Key, the Protestant evangelist, journalist, and campaigner Uchimura Kanzō (1861-1930) met the Danish theologian Carl Skovgaard-Petersen (1866-1955) in Tokyo in July 1911. Skovgaard-Petersen described Uchimura as “a loner by nature and a bit of a Japanese Søren Kierkegaard, whom he likes to cite copiously in the journal he edits.” In October that year, Uchimura delivered the influential and curiously titled lecture A Story of Denmark: A Story of how Faith and Forestry Saved a Nation. In the following years, he continued to spread his enthusiasm for Kierkegaard, Grundtvig, and a vision of Scandinavia as a beacon of ethical politics, religious and ethnic tolerance, mass education, Protestant industriousness, and environmentalism. Uchimura profoundly influenced the next generation of liberal educators and opinion leaders. Tokai University and International Christian University were founded on his interpretation of Grundtvig’s principles, and the political scientists Ōtsuka Hisao (1907-1996), Yanaihara Tadao (1893-1961) and Nanbara Shigeru (1889-1974) were among his pupils.

A Story of Denmark told the uplifting tale of how Denmark rejected power politics after the Second Schleswig War of 1864, focused inward on economic development and outward on international trade. It portrayed Denmark as a nation that in record time had achieved record levels of prosperity by peaceful means despite its modest size and lack of natural resources. It recounts how Enrico Dalgas (1828-1894)–through perseverance, patriotism, and faith–reforested the Jutland heathlands and lifted the national spirit, thereby more than compensating for the loss of Schleswig and Holstein. The account is riddled with inaccuracies, but the purpose was not to teach Nordic history, it was to warn Japan’s “flippant and frivolous statesmen” that they were on the fast track to ruin. The optimistic message, however, was that defeat in war could lead to improvement in the long run. A later article argued that Japan should become “Denmark on a bigger scale” rather than Britain on a smaller scale.

uchimura storyofdenmark

Uchimura Kanzō in 1928 and the 1913 edition of A Story of Denmark. After its publication in 1911, it was reissued in 1913, 1921 and 1924, with a long gap until 1946. Since then it has been republished 19 times and continues to be widely read and referenced.

Image sources: International Christian University and National Diet Library

The Nordic interlude and its aftermath

Hiratsuka, Uchimura and other early 20th century Japanese intellectuals found sources for cultural and political critique in Danish and Swedish thought and history. The peak of their influence coincided with the Taishō Democracy era from 1912 to 1926, after which it waned before returning in 1945. Post-war Japan can be considered a partial realisation of their visions of pacifism, developmentalism, toleration, prosperity, and gender equality.

Uchimura passed away in 1930, just before intensifying repression and international conflict led to 15 years of war, the firebombing of Tokyo, the nuclear annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and finally surrender and occupation. Uchimura’s pamphlet went out of print, and Hiratsuka withdrew from public life while other feminists like Yosano Akiko (1878–1942) turned nationalistic and supported the war. Most of the Scandinavian-inspired reformists kept a low profile and returned as opinion leaders from 1945. With the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, Hiratsuka became a strong voice in the peace movement, arguing for pacifism and Japanese neutrality while continuing to campaign for women’s rights. Uchimura’s disciples Yanaihara and Nanbara served as presidents of the University of Tokyo and shaped the post-war order through their policy influence.

Imperial power politics had led to the very disaster Uchimura foresaw, but also the opportunity for renewal. Japan in 1945 was in the same situation as Denmark in 1864–defeated, demoralised, economically ruined, and territorially reduced to a nation state. As Uchimura believed the Danes had done, the Japanese picked themselves up by the bootstraps, renounced war, and embarked on export-led economic development. As Hiratsuka had campaigned for, female suffrage was introduced, and patriarchal family laws were abolished. Uchimura’s Story of Denmark embodied the values of the new Japan, emerged from obscurity to become hugely popular and a staple of the school curriculum. It is often cited by Nordic studies scholars as a stimulus and it continues to inspire thinking about security, development, ecology, and energy policy after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. As in Uchimura and Hiratsuka’s day, scholars and commentators continue to look through a Nordic mirror to imagine a better Japan.

Podcast of “Bullshit Journalism and Japan” – 6th Mutual Images Workshop, Cardiff 1st May 2018

I spoke at the 6th Mutual Images workshop on “Mediatised Images of Japan in Europe” at Cardiff University on the 1st May. The working title of the paper is “Bullshit journalism and Japan: English-language news media, Japanese higher education policy, and Frankfurt’s theory of ‘bullshit’”. It takes a look at a symptomatic case of English-language “bullshit journalism”: The improbable reports in the last half of September 2015 insinuating that the humanities and social sciences would virtually be abolished in Japan. It will be written up and submitted for puFrankfurtVsMediablication soon. In the meantime, the draft is available on Click on the image or follow this link to listen to a podcast of the presentation in Cardiff.

The abstract is as follows:

The last sentence in Andersen’s fairytale There is no doubt about it reads: “It got into the papers, it was printed; and there is no doubt about it, one little feather may easily grow into five hens.” In September 2015 a process very similar to the rumour-mill in Andersen’s satire swept across the internet. An inaccurate – and on inspection highly implausible – report was picked up and amplified by several British and US news organisations. Thus an improbable claim about the Japanese government’s decision to effectively abolish the social sciences and humanities quickly became established as a morally reprehensible truth. Once the “facts” of the matter were reported by authoritative English-language media organisations, the outrage spread to other languages, and an online petition was launched to make the government “reconsider” a decision it had not taken. In light of the “misunderstandings” that had circulated in the foreign press, the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology eventually felt compelled to issue a statement, in English, to clarify that it had no intention of closing social science and humanities faculties.
What transpired in these transactions between Times Higher Education, Bloomberg, the Wall Street Journal, Time, the Guardian and other news outlets is of more than passing anecdotal interest. Consideration of the case offers insights into the dominant role of the English-using media in constituting Asia as an object of Western knowledge and of the part played in this by what Harry Frankfurt (2005) theorised as the sociolinguistic phenomenon of ‘bullshit’. The Times Higher Education article and the ones that followed were all examples of the ‘bullshit’ that arguably increasingly proliferates in both journalistic and academic discourse, especially when ‘circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about’ (Frankfurt 2005: 63).
The presentation will take the case of the purported existential threat to the social science and humanities in Japan to discuss wider arguments about the role of ‘bullshit’ in journalistic and academic knowledge production and dissemination about the non-Western world. ‘Bullshit’ is ‘produced without concern with the truth’, but ‘it need not be false. The bullshitter is faking things. But this does not mean that he necessarily gets them wrong’ (Frankfurt 2005: 47-48).

Pasts Entangled: East Asia in Europe and Europe in East Asia

The 18th April 2018 was an enjoyable day spent in excellent company at a seminar on “East Asia in Europe and Europe in East Asia” at the Centre for East Asian Studies at Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. The three other speakers, the audience, and the welcoming hosts made it a pleasantly memorable visit.

I was invited to speak on Uchimura Kanzō’s 1911 lecture/article “A Story of Denmark: A Story of how Faith and Forestry Saved a Country”, which I argue was – in Karl Mannheim’s sense of these words – an originally utopian tract, which later became a defining text of postwar ideology and which has lately come to be reinterpreted in utopian ways.Pasts Entangled: East Asia in Europe and Europe in East Asia

The story has been an enduring source of the generally favourable, albeit stereotypical, Japanese image of Denmark and the wider Nordic region. Its original purpose, however, was to construct an idealized image of Denmark in order to criticize certain aspects of the political reality of Meiji Japan and to suggest that following the Danish rather than the British example was more appropriate for Japan and all modern states. Denmark, as imagined by Uchimura, thus became a Christian, pacifist and liberal utopia with universally applicable lessons in normative political theory and public policy to teach the world. This notion that Denmark after 1864 offered an alternative to Anglo-American militarism and imperialism that could turn Japan into a truly great global power with a spiritual world-historical mission was an idea that stuck in Uchimura’s mind. As he would go on to argue some years later, in 1924:

Denmark by reducing her armament to the strength (or rather weakness) of mere police never thinks to have put herself in danger of losing her independence. Denmark in her martial weakness and rural strength is now per capita the richest country in the world, and essentially the strongest…

Now is the time for Japan to awake from sleep. This Western civilization with its big budget for fighting machinery is to be completely disowned. She is to start a new civilization, a civilization which is civilization indeed, a warless civilization, Denmark on a bigger scale, an army and navy on police-standing, an empire founded on the goodwill of the world, a secure, industrious, peaceful nation, the leader of “Christian” Europe and America, in the divine policy announced by God’s prophet, twenty-six centuries ago” (Uchimura 1932 [1924]: 572-573).

The text uses the story of the war veteran and engineer, botanist and patriot Enrico Dalgas’ lead role in the afforestation and regeneration of the depleted heathlands in the Jutland Peninsula to argue for faith-based ethical politics, freedom of religion, ecologically sustainable capitalist modernisation, pacifism, anti-colonialism, international trade based on comparative advantage, and a conception of citizenship that includes religious and ethnic minorities as full members of the polis. This, he believed, had all been achieved in Denmark in a mere four decades, and his wish was for Meiji Japan’s “frivolous and flippant statesmen” to change course and turn the country into a “Denmark on a bigger scale”. Following the British example, Uchimura warned prophetically, would only lead to disaster.

Uchimura’s warning fell on deaf ears, and it would take years of war and devastating military defeat for Japan to abandon the militarism, imperialism and great power ambitions it had pursued since the Meiji Restoration. Japan in August 1945 found itself in the same state as Denmark after the Second Schleswig War – defeated, demoralised, impoverished and territorially reduced to a small nation state. And it was in the post-war context that “A Story of Denmark” began to be read again as a prescient warning that had not been heeded, but which could now guide a new Japan to become a pacifist, religiously tolerant country that would pick itself up by its bootstraps as the Danes had done. The new Japan would base its security and prosperity on human development, peaceful relations with the outside world and international trade in the sectors in which it excelled. Because the text spoke to the concerns of the post-war era, it quickly re-emerged from obscurity and became established as a classic studied by generations of middle school pupils. In this sense, it became one of the ideological pillars of the post-1945 trading and developmental state.

“A Story of Denmark” has been reprinted on average every three and a half years since 1946 and seems to enjoy renewed popularity after the 2011 seismic and nuclear disasters. And now, at the close of the Heisei era, it is arguably being read for purposes of utopian critique, particularly with regard to energy and security policy. The aspects that are seized upon today are thus its spiritual, ecological and pacifist arguments. From the vantage point of post-Fukushima Japan, the text and Denmark’s later development illustrate that it is possible and desirable to power an advanced economy without nuclear energy. And with some disregard to post-cold war Denmark’s participation in US and NATO-led military operations, the pacifist ideals of the text rather than actual Danish history are tools with which to argue against remilitarisation and revision of the constitution.

The political reception history of this text, or what in German is called its Wirkungsgeschichte (“history of effects”), is a fascinating example of how ideas thought and written in a particular historical context acquire a life of their own and in ways neither imagined nor intended by the author. What is also curiously interesting is the way in which Uchimura’s arguments here prefigure Francis Fukuyama’s idea of “getting to Denmark”, which was published a century later in his 2011 book on The Origins of Political Order. Both conceive of “Denmark” as “the logical endpoint of social development” and “Denmarkness” (“stable, peaceful, prosperous, inclusive, and honest societies”) as something to strive for.

I am grateful for having had the opportunity to discuss this with such an engaged and insightful group of scholars and students as I had in Madrid.


Well-done Steak or Gyū Sashi? “Sacred Cows” and “Thickening” in Japanese-English Philosophical Translation

My article on Japanese-English philosophical translation is now out in Tetsugaku: International Journal of the Philosophical Association of Japan.


Abstract: The influential and prolific philosopher and translator of philosophy James Heisig has argued for “desacralizing” translation into Japanese, and against “perfect translation” and for “thick translation” in Japanese to English translation. Heisig prioritizes broad appeal and readability over accuracy, bringing the translated philosopher into the reader’s space and facilitating an encounter on the latter’s terms rather than treating the author as a “sacred cow”. This article discusses Heisig’s programmatic statements on translation strategy in the context of the global dominance of English, the effects of declining language capabilities and unequal distribution of translation capabilities among Anglograph philosophers, the tendentially conservative and “domesticating” Anglospheric regime of translation, and the “foreignizing” alternatives found in Japanese translation history and in Schleiermacher, Nietzsche, Benjamin, and contemporary translation theorists. It suggests that learning from professional practices in the translation industry could help translating philosophers strike a suitable balance between domestication and foreignization.

Click on the image above or follow this link to read the article on the journal’s website.

Questions and comments on it are welcome via the contact form.

Podcasts from Modern Politics and East Asian Thought symposium

Thank you to all of those who came to the symposium on East Asian Thought and Modern Politics held at UCD on the 3rd April. The event was well attended and we had a great day of discussion.

For those who were unable to attend or who would like to hear the talks again, audio recordings are now available.

In the order of presentation, they are:

A short video of the event will be uploaded to this site in the near future.

Modern Politics and East Asian Thought Symposium in Dublin on 3rd April 2018

Graham Parkes, David Williams, and Ouyang Xiao will be visiting Dublin and spending the afternoon of Tuesday 3rd April presenting and discussing their work on various aspects of Chinese and Japanese political thought.

A poster and programme with biographies and abstracts is available to download here.


Please register on Eventbrite, and if you require further information, please email me.

If you are in Dublin on the day, you are welcome to attend in Room B154A on the first floor of Science Centre West:




From “Far East” to “East Asia” lecture at Trinity College Dublin

For a few photos from the public lecture on 6th November, please visit Trinity Centre For Asian Studies on Facebook. The slides have been uploaded to and a podcast of the lecture should become available to listen to soon. A link to it will be posted here and on In the meantime, this is a brief account by the Trinity Centre for Asian Studies:


Our thanks to this evening’s guest lecturer, philosopher Dr Kenn Nakata Steffensen from UCD, for an informative and wide-ranging talk on historical usage and translations of the terms Far East and East Asia in the context of Japan and Europe. This event formed part of a series of activities taking place in Trinity College Dublin in 2017 celebrating 60 years of Japan-Ireland diplomatic relations. We are grateful to the Embassy of Japan in Ireland for their endorsement of this evening’s lecture.

I will be back at TCD on the 1st December to speak about Japanese-English translation of philosophy at the international symposium on Japanese Studies in a Global Context. I will address the same theme, with slightly different emphases, at the “Frontiers of Phenomenology” conference at University College Dublin on the 14th December.