Don's diary: Taking leave of Tokyo

November 8, 2002


The last week of my time as visiting professor in the department of culture and representation at the University of Tokyo in Komaba. First autumn tints in the sky. My work here is largely done, so I get stuck into a conference paper and some external examining.

Today is also the first day of term, two weeks later than most Japanese universities. The tree-lined avenues of the campus are thick with students. Megaphones blare, attacking Japanese prime minister Junichuro Koizumi's support for US president George W. Bush. Great expanses of stationery have suddenly appeared in the shop. They seem almost outlandish in such a formidably and intricately networked city. Some teaching has started but, otherwise, staff give short talks on courses to the students due to take them. In the evening, the jazz musicians who sounded cool on hot summer nights are practising in the distance, as usual.


Spend the day reading the work of some of my research students back in England, then off to hear Daniel Ben-Said lecture on Carl Schmitt, Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt. The list of foreigners who have visited the university in recent years is rather awesome. Todai (as it is known) is Japan's premier university. Its intellectual vitality is palpable, though I am told that, in the humanities at least, the academic climate at the Hongo campus is more orthodox than at Komaba. The government has started marking out an elite group of institutions, offering massive funding to match. This university is truly about to become a powerhouse.


But perhaps only if it gives its academics more time to do what they are best at. Talking with Japanese colleagues after Etienne Balibar's lecture tonight, I am reminded how many of them seem very conscientiously to spend a dismaying amount of time on administration and in meetings. I am told this is true of all the national universities: government involvement leads to bureaucratic overload, even Kafkan obfuscation. My own experience has borne this out. Reluctantly, I wonder whether Todai could do with a research assessment exercise, if only to protect its scholars. On the cards, it seems.


I pack and post some books, take a lot more back to the library. Am consulted on details of Jim Knowlson's biography of Samuel Beckett by one of the Japanese translators. Read a Todai research student's work on the clandestine political agendas surrounding the postwar British Council. Meticulous, fluent, astute. I work on an essay on melancholy, but it seems an odd thing to do here. Tokyo now is unmelancholic, whatever was the case in the novelist Soseki Natsume's time.


I love Japan, and not just because I am mesmerised by its dynamism. (Economic crisis? The West likes to think so). I have been here quite a lot over the years and, in many ways, it is obviously a much more civilised country than England: the efficient, airbrushed smoothness of things; the exquisite, mutual service; the scarcity of crime, the lack of menace, stridency and violence (this is "the safe society"); above all, the collective ethos, the shared sense of civic and communal responsibility. (The vestiges of any English equivalent of that have long since been extinguished, thanks to more than 20 years of dreary neo-liberalism). "Like the old Soviet Union," says a western colleague, "but rich, featherbedded and without repression." Much of this is as true of Komaba as of anywhere else in the city.

Tokyo has pointed my sense of how miserably and tensely monadic Londoners often seem. At an entertaining dinner tonight with some expatriate academics, however, I get a negative account of life here. It comes from a western woman, and I have met other non-Japanese women with the same kind of view.

Andrew Gibson is professor of modern literature and theory, Royal Holloway, University of London.

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