To begin by answering the first part of your question, about the translation and reception of Japanese Marxist thought outside of Japan, I must say that there has been comparatively little, especially when we consider the incredible breadth and volume of Marxist writing in Japanese since the 1920s. Of course, certain figures of the early to mid 20th century, such as the cultural critic and philosopher Tosaka Jun or the theorist of political economy Uno Kōzō, have had partial receptions in English, as have various figures in diverse domains, ranging from history to the study of religion to Japanese literature. But these latter figures have not necessarily been seen or categorized as representatives of the tradition of Marxist theory in Japan. In English and other European languages there has been a series of small, localized receptions – the unique though partial and idiosyncratic reading of Uno pioneered by Thomas Sekine in Canada in the 70s and 80s, the more “orthodox” reading of Uno (and more direct connection to the lineage of Uno) of Makoto Itoh in his early and important Value and Crisis (recently reissued), the role of Marxist historians like Toyama Shigeki, Takahashi Kohachiro, and others in the international debates on the transition from feudalism to capitalism, the role of prewar Marxist philosophers such as Tosaka or Miki Kiyoshi in the rather narrow and largely Orientalist Western reception of Kyoto School philosophy. But all this amounts to only a very small and eclectic sub-section of a vast tradition. Then there are those figures outside Japan, but active in other languages who are themselves of a broadly Marxist orientation, and therefore trace a certain legacy back to the Japanese genealogy of Marxist thought, most prominently Harry Harootunian. Perhaps the largest connection to the Marxist tradition in Japan in the Western world is concentrated in the figure of Kojin Karatani, about whom I think we’ll speak later. Now, particularly in collaboration with the Historical Materialism book series as well as other places, we are trying to increase the number of translations of canonical texts from this tradition. It is a crucial task.
The second part of your question – why the intellectual history of Marxism in Japan is so deeply linked to the Japanese reception of Marx’s work – is a much longer and complicated story, one that has not really been told as such, and that we cannot even really adequately investigate here for reasons of length, but which is foundational to the formation of the modern human sciences tout court in Japan.
First, the early reception of Marx in Japan, beginning in the late 19th century and achieving a remarkable degree of influence by the 1920s, had a deep effect on the rest of Asia due to the culture of prewar Japanese imperialism in Asia and therefore the hegemony of Japanese as a language in the translation and dissemination of texts from the rest of the world. In this context, there developed three parallel elements:
- the analysis, beginning from the historical scenario developed in Marx’s Capital, of the transition from feudalism to capitalism, a process that was not easily understood as fully “achieved” in Asia, but rather as ongoing. This was essentially a mode of inquiry into the historical development of Asian societies, which had formed modern nation-states for the first time in the wake of the experience of imperialism and the encroachment of capitalism, in terms of world trade, in “internal” terms of the sharpening of class struggles in the countryside and the development of social forms particular to capitalist society, and this inquiry therefore treated Marx’s work as a scientific means by which to understand the local process of development within a world in which capitalism was already becoming globally hegemonic;
- the development of Marxist philosophy and speculative critique, in which Marxism furnished a mode of social analysis suited to the understanding of specifically modern sentiments, cultural forms, and aesthetic life;
- the work of translation, editing, and publishing, which was fundamentally supported by the anchoring of Marxism in the university.
Second, the peculiar specificities of the postwar period meant that the Marxist tradition was repressed from overseas representation. Following the end of World War II, the Japanese – in a convenient collaboration between Japanese conservatives and the American occupation – were historically “recreated” as a “homogenous ethnicity” limited more or less to the first imperial expansions of the early Meiji period (the Ryukyu Kingdom, incorporated as Okinawa, and Hokkaido, the native land of the indigenous Ainu people). This newly created, supposedly homogenous archipelago, retrojected into eternity, was in fact simply a form of disavowal of the prewar empire, whose existence profoundly marked the Asian twentieth century, resulting in a strange situation of a new inward-facing Japanese ethnocentrism in ‘domestic’ Japan, while American imperial hegemony more or less inherited hegemony over much of the Japanese empire. The “representation” of Japanese thought outside Japan, driven by “area studies” programs, existed in complicity with a new, heavily Orientalist vision of “Japaneseness,” and this history of Marxism, modern philosophy, and the intellectual undersides of empire came to be replaced in official support in the West with UNESCO-driven translations serving this image of the “pure” Japanese ally: crypto-fascists like Watsuji Tetsuro, or ethnic mysticism like D.T. Suzuki came to be widely disseminated, painting a picture of the new Japan as totally compatible with the Pax Americana in the Pacific.
This archetypal structure of the “postwar” US-Japan relationship has played an outsized role in determining the dissemination of the Marxist tradition of Japan in the rest of the world. Of course, after the end of the Cold War, this structure began to fall apart, and new moments of internationalization have emerged in relation to Marxist theory in Japan. However, there remains tremendous work to do to place this enormous body of work into discursive relations with its counterparts – and it is genuinely no exaggeration to say that Japanese language is perhaps the most important linguistic repository of Marxist theory after German, French, and English.