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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Translational Moments: Citizenship in Meiji Japan

  • Author(s): Branstetter, John G.
  • Advisor(s): Pagden, Anthony
  • et al.

I argue that translational thinking is a vital mode of political thinking which harbors a basic democratic potential. I theorize translations as metaphorical relations which do not referentially link terms. Rather, I contend that translation creates an indeterminate relationship which allows words and images to appear where they are not supposed to. In this way, translation verifies the contingency of social order and reaffirms the axiom of equality. I argue that translation is therefore a political practice which creates moments of radical democratic potential.

I demonstrate this by examining four historical episodes, or what I call “translational moments,” in the intense period of cultural and political change that followed Japan’s mid-19th century Meiji Restoration. Focusing on the translation of the word “citizen,” I examine how translation broke down or reinforced Tokugawa worldviews and assess the historical consequences of these disruptions. Moments one and two concretize my theoretical claims by focusing on the intertextual translation of the words “citizen” and citoyen from English and French into Japanese for the first time. I examine Fukuzawa Yukichi’s translation language for “citizen” in Conditions in the West, and Nakae Chōmin’s translation of citoyen in Rousseau’s Social Contract.

Moments three and four demonstrate the expansiveness of translation as a poetic activity by examining the translation of the language of citizenship into actual social practice. I first look at the spread of rhetoric in the debating associations of the Freedom and Popular Rights Movement to understand the ways in which they transformed standards of valid public speech. Finally, I explore the appearance of women in the public sphere through Kishida Toshiko’s speeches and the growth of women’s employment in silk and cotton mills. I show how the Confucian discourse of the family constrained the democratic potential of their appearances in public.

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