Dialogue to the Future: Interviews with a New Generation of Researchers in the AJI

First Interview

Interview with Dr. Nobuyuki MATSUI

m_en_top  ~~Considering the Ambivalence between Violence and Flexibility Brought about by Social Institutions from a Philosophical Perspective~~

Being a researcher in the era of the "highly-educated-working-poor". From his graduate school days, to wondering whether to adopt a research style like a "retail shop", to entering the "mall" of knowledge.

――First, could you tell me what led you to decide on a career as a researcher?

Matsui: When I was an undergraduate student in the early 2000s, I was exposed to a variety of ideas and philosophies, and I learned the importance and fun of understanding the world in detail and comprehensively. Then, I vaguely wanted to go to graduate school and do research. But, I was not much aware of choosing research as a career. My former supervisor in my undergraduate period advised me to make my own decision after reading books about competing for a career as a researcher such as Highly Educated Working Poor (『高学歴ワーキングプア』) and Academic Survival (『アカデミック・サバイバル』) written by Mizuki Shōdō. I still vividly remember reading those books and being intimidated by the sense of how hard it was going to be to decide.

――Indeed, it was difficult for young researchers to start an academic career at that time, and so difficult to become a researcher even if you went on to graduate school.

Matsui: Yes it was. but in spite of that, I joined the graduate school at the Ritsumeikan University Graduate School of International Relations and completed my PhD. course. Yet, looking back at that period, I still lacked awareness about my career - I was just wondering what was coming next. My supervisor in my doctoral period also advised me to be conscious of standing out in my research to show myself as one of the academic experts, but I was just trying to figure out how I could do that and snatching at straws. Even after completing my PhD., I was slowly and tentatively going on, while working as a part-time lecturer at the university, and I still couldn't grasp the image of making a career as a researcher.

――You told me that you could not get a clear image of a career as a researcher. Do you think that there are many graduate students like you today?

Matsui: Yes, at least, I think there were a certain number of students who suffered the same kind of hard situation during the same period as myself. I think that we all tended to suffer from the conceptual gap between conducting each research project one by one and choosing to be a researcher as a career. In my case, the problem was that "I had many goods but no goodwill". For example, in the doctoral course, one can intensively focus on one's research interests and in my case, as I had plenty of time, I could absorb and stock up a lot of knowledge. In so doing, the inside of my "store" become like a "retail shop", but it meant that I did not have any particular identity as a researcher. Even though visiting the actual retail shop was fun, a "retail shop" is not always good for a researcher as a professional. I realized that I should have located myself in a specific corner of the "arcade" of knowledges with the expectation that students or researchers seeking certain knowledges can read it like a map and say: "Aha! If I go there, I will find what I want". I lacked such a kind of imagination at that time.

――I see. The "arcade" of knowledges sounds interesting. My supervisor also said that a university should be a "department store".

Matsui: That kind of image of a career as a researcher began to become clear after I finished my PhD. degree and became a member of the Asia-Japan Research Institute of Ritsumeikan University. Realistically speaking, while receiving a salary, participating in research presentations, sharing interests with researchers of the same generation, and being partially involved in the management of the research institute, I was gradually able to get an image of what it meant to be a researcher as a profession - the image of having my own noren (a short curtain hung at the entrance of a shop) and putting goods inside my shop in the “arcade”. Through this course, my image of a researcher as a career has taken shape through the accumulation of various experiences, rather than through a major trigger. I think that while it took a long time, I could get ready to do my philosophy behind the noren.

The problems of violence, poverty and discrimination brought by globalization, and unemployment after his father lost his job - seeking a philosophy to investigate for new common values.

―― I think it is a little unusual to study philosophy at the Graduate School of International Relations. What was the background?

Matsui: I've been interested in philosophy since I was an undergraduate. At the same time, I was interested in the phenomena of violence that occurs at the structural level, among groups and within the context of the globalizing process. I became settled down in philosophy from struggling with questions such as how these problems of violence arise and what values are required to overcome the problem of structural violence at the global level. When I was an undergraduate student from 2006 to 2010, the deteriorating predicament of the Iraq War, the historical problems between Japan and South Korea, the tide of "anti-Korea" (Kenkan) in Japan, the Lehman shock, more than 30,000 suicides annually in Japan, and so on were all besetting the situation at that time.

――It sounds like a tough time.

Matsui: Yes, it was. At that time, students in my university often talked with each other on campus using words such as “neoliberalism”, “American imperialism”, and “Japanese identity”, and in lectures on history, students easily got excited, because of the differences of historical understanding in Asia - it was like the famous political TV show in Japan, “Kitano Takeshi's TV Tackle”. Experiencing these moments were, in some sense, fascinating. Also, speaking from my personal experience, my father lost his job. Facing this problem, while I read a lot of books about Marxism, contemporary European philosophies, liberalism, conservatism and so on in a random manner, I had no idea what was going on around me. This brought me to the decision to go to graduate school to make things clearer. Of course, my parents told me, “Why you want to graduate school when our family is in such a tough situation”. Nonetheless, they have kept supporting me at any cost. Then, I decided to study the philosophy of Charles Taylor at my graduate school, following the advice of my supervisor. I also decided because I read his wonderful book, The Source of the Self, and I wanted to comprehend his philosophy. In retrospect, through reading his philosophy, I was trying to understand the relationship between structure and value in the world today by looking at the relationships between the historical transformation process of human consciousness of value as imagination and the structural transformations in history. In particular, I chose Taylor’s philosophy as the subject of my research, because I had a question as to whether the value system of modern secular society could generate the background of its rule by itself, or if people need a deeper source for their value system.

――Do you mean the question of how values and norms can be established in the contemporary world that is drastically changing due to globalization?

Matsui: Certainly. However, as expressed in the slogan of postmodernist philosophy, "The end of the grand narratives”, it was relatively difficult in the 2000s to elaborate “how the coming post-capitalist society should be” in the Marxist manner. Today, this kind of question has newly become one of the imminent issues since the late 2010s, thanks to Paul Mason’s Post Capitalism and Kohei Saito’s The Capital in the Age of Anthropocene (『人新世の資本論』). However, in the 2000s, political theories have been elaborated over identity politics in the manner that there is a reality created based on intertwined cultural attributes with classes and genders, and globalization does not make the world “flat”, but a mosaic of diversity is visualized and ethnic and racial problems come to the fore. In this situation, the issue of Eurocentrism over the progress and modernization comes to the center. Charles Taylor is a Canadian Catholic Christian, and deeply rooted in the intellectual tradition of western philosophy like Hegel, which seemingly makes him “Eurocentric”. However, in my case, I leaned from him the philosophical struggle and the posture to overcome the problem of “Eurocentrism” in the diversifying world, while each of us are limited to the internal values and norms including religious and traditional ideas. Keeping it in my mind, I presented the view in my dissertation that the only way to revoke people for something universal in globalization today is to retrain and reconstruct each tradition of rhetoric that is rooted in a particular historical context that had been formed through facing a multitude of individual problems.

What is needed now is the revitalization of the "common sense" and the creation of a common place where everyone can freely exchange ideas - opening Japan to Asia and global society through philosophy to this end.

―― Please tell me about your recent research topics.

Matsui: Sure, I have drastically shifted my research theme from Taylor to Japanese philosophy in the past three years. From my reading of Taylor, I learned to simply, "Know thyself". I am not Canadian, not Catholic, and honestly speaking, by learning only though reading materials, I have not yet fully understood the rich intellectual context that underpins Western philosophy. However, my concern is consistent. I mean, I continue to reevaluate the relationship between rhetoric and inclusive values and norms, and to cope with structural changes in the globalizing situation. However, rhetoric does not work well without a particular "place". In Japan, the philosopher, Nakamura Yūjirō, is the one who tackled the significance of rhetoric. He is, as it were, an "old postmodernist" and can be called a "postmodern right winger", because he tried to update the genealogy of Japanese philosophy since Nishida Kitarō. Aside from the labeling of his position, what is noteworthy in Nakamura's philosophy is the importance of constantly being aware of our tension with the institution and elaborating the ground of rhetoric.

―― That is very interesting!

featur_photoDr. Matsui, talking with colleagues about research Professor Matsui
Matsui: Thank you. "Institution" is quite a vague concept. According to Nakamura, it sometimes operates inflexibly and sometimes operates flexibly by incorporating human activities. However, as we can see from Nakamura's works, it is difficult to make the institution flexible even if we insist: "Let's make the system flexible!" Rather, reconstructing an institution directly can yield distances from the realm of human activities, because various interests are involved in it, and competition makes the situation complicated instead of an optimal system. Moreover, a uniform rule can be introduced into the system's operation. Conversely, we can read Nakamura's argument in the way that it would be more effective for the institution if we have open minds and interactions with culturally and individually diverse people, because an institution that has an autonomous operation can be more sensitive to human beings through our open activities that sometimes deviate from institutional standards.

――It is a quite fascinating reading of Nakamura Yūjirō.

Matsui: Rhetoric, rooted in what he calls the "common sense", is considered to exert its power in this context. In short, in these conversations, the "common sense" that tends to be inactivate is gradually revitalized, various knowledges and events are embodied as memories, diverse ideas and actions permeate oneself, and one's own view spreads from him/her to the surrounding world and people. That's how rhetoric gains power in "place". Based on Nakamura's philosophy, I'm currently researching the relationship between the "place" of such rhetoric and institutional autonomy.

――You put an emphasis on the contribution of Japanese philosophy to the world, its resonance with Asia, and global dialogue. What do you think about this point?

Matsui: Yes, I would like to commit to it. Contributing to the world does not mean communicating the Japan-centered idea to the world. Rather, I regard philosophy as a circuit for opening Japan to the world. There are many levels of divisions in many societies around the world. Japan is no exception, and we might say that the social division in Japan is more serious than in other societies. This makes it difficult for Japanese society to believe in the importance and potential of freedom at the individual level. In this situation, Nakamura's philosophy provides us with a view that relaxes the mind and the intellect and activates the "common sense". Therefore, this philosophical view has global significance. There is a need to create a place where we can set ourselves free before we can have frank discussions with each other based on rationality and truths.

―― That is important. If we take it for granted that there is a place, and we think that we can interact with each other through dialogue there, it is not really true dialogue. So, I think it is very important to think carefully of the deeper condition of the dialogue.

Matsui: Right. And regarding the resonance with Asia, Nakamura says that the power of "place" is necessary for words to have power. He went to Bali in Indonesia and found a form of knowledge that was based on the physical nature of the "southern type of knowledge" that is based on the surrounding environment, and placed it against the rational form of knowledge which is called the "northern type of knowledge". In addition, in his argument on "clinical knowledge", he argues that knowledge to overcome illness and suffering is developed from a relationship based on a pre-verbal level of physicality. In Japanese society, there might still remain such a sensibility, however, in order to open up the possibility of mutual freedom, I think that we have to learn the importance of creating a place where these physical relationships are possible. Dialogue is important to create this physicality and relationships, and I believe that philosophy can play the role of a "massage" that regenerates the "common sense".

――I heard that the international workshop for young researchers you organized in January 21, 2021 was wonderful. How was it actually?

Matsui: That was so exciting. I could have encounters that made me happy to be a researcher. This workshop was held under the theme of "common sense", and I invited several young researchers from other parts of the world. As it was held through a webinar, I was not able to meet the participants on site. Despite that, we were able to have a very productive conversation. This workshop was supported by the Asia-Japan Research Institute and invited these researchers, each of whom has a deep understanding of Japanese philosophy. The topics of the workshop ranged from philosophical reading to actual issues in the contemporary world such as the "Anthropocene", digitization, and capitalism. I was surprised to learn that Kitarō Nishida and Kiyoshi Miki's philosophies provide us with many hints to rethink the relationships between humans and nature and between humans and technology. I also made a presentation about Nakamura's philosophy on "common sense" and the relationship between technology, nature and institutions, which is not well known overseas. I could learn a lot and have quite active dialogues with them.

――What especially are you interested in, and what do you most enjoy about your research recently?

Matsui: First, as for my own research, I think that it is interesting that old problems overlap new ones. For example, in recent years I have dealt with issues over the transformation of capitalism as a result of digitization and the development of artificial intelligence. Digitization is bringing major changes in the existing industrial structure. We can search for information immediately, communicate in real time, and enjoy many contents for free. One piece of information can be shared instantly. This is the first time in history that the flow of information has become so abundant. However, as the philosophy of media technologies have proposed, it has been argued referring to Plato that technology like writing systems are storage media that render human beings unable to think and easily forgetful. While Plato seemingly thought that a storage medium like writing clouded our vision of truth, today we face the problem that having an abundance of information doesn't always set people free. I am now thinking about the problem of what kind of informational environment can make people more free by referring to the philosophical texts of the past.

――Today, information and knowledge can be easily confused, which can cloud our thinking.

Matsui: Right. As for the field of my research, you mentioned that I am engaged in philosophy and International Relations, and one of the joys in my research is that I can meet researchers from various fields. Recently, when I met one of my research colleagues, I found out something very interesting, because we had a conversation like this. He asked me: "What are you doing these days?", and I replied: "I'm working on digitization". So he asked me: "Why don't you join my research group next time?", and I said, "Why not!". It's a sense of groove that comes from the daily habits of our thought.

――What kind of plans for the future do you have in mind now?

Matsui: Well, I have a lot on my mind…but my nearest goal is to make a habit of making a specific plan first so as not to keep trying improvise. Anyway, aside from joking, the Asia-Japan Research Institute provides a lot of support, particularly supports for building networks on Japanese and Asian philosophies. For this aim to be feasible, I would like to construct as many connections as possible with people with various interests through philosophy. In one aspect, philosophy is a matter of thinking-alone. However, I think it would be great if the Asia-Japan Research Institute could create a way for opening Japan to the world through philosophy, and in order to do so, it would also be necessary to create a community or platform where people interested in philosophy can gather in various ways.

――We need not only to open philosophy, but also to open our relationships with philosophy. It sounds quite interesting. I am looking forward to learning about your activities in the future. Thank you very much for sharing your ideas and experiences with us today.

Previous Interviews