Monday, April 21, 2008

The world's top public intellectual

Voting is open in Foreign Policy magazine and Prospect magazine's contest to choose the world's top public intellectual.

The magazines chose a list of the top 100, available here, on the basis of the following criteria: "Although the men and women on this list are some of the world’s most sophisticated thinkers, the criteria to make the list could not be more simple. Candidates must be living and still active in public life. They must have shown distinction in their particular field as well as an ability to influence wider debate, often far beyond the borders of their own country."

Sixty-six are from North America or Europe. Not one is from Japan. The last time FP/Prospect conducted this survey, Ohmae Kenichi and Ishihara Shintaro were included in the top 100, at 97 and 100 respectively. Is Japan really so far removed from global intellectual currents that not one Japanese merits inclusion on this list? I suppose that English ability might have something to do with it: how else does a public intellectual "influence wider debate...beyond the borders of their own country" today than by being a proficient or fluent English speaker?

Beyond that, another point that many on the list have in common is an interest in regional, transnational, and global problems. Japanese public discourse, however, tends to be inward focused, meaning that Japanese public intellectuals make their names discussing Japan's problems, often looking at international problems solely in terms of how they affect Japan.

Part of it too may be selection bias on the part of FP and Prospect. India and China combined for ten of the 100, reflecting the focus of global media on the two Asian giants. But does that translate into influence for its public intellectuals?

I urge you all to choose a Japanese public intellectual (Oe Kenzaburo, Murakami Haruki, Funabashi Yoichi, whoever) as your write-in vote.

14 comments:

Derek said...

I think if anyone from Japan qualifies, it's Ogata Sadako.

She heads up JICA, served as UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and speaks English as well as anyone. Her world influence is hard to deny.

AC said...

Ishihara Shintaro is an intellectual?

Janne Morén said...

I live in Japan, I spend a lot of my time (too much, perhaps) following strands of conversation about our world in various forums, and I can not mention any Japanese intellectual that would fulfil those criteria. I am in fact hard pressed to name any Japanese intellectual of the outward-facing kind that this contest is about.

And Ishihara Shintaro? Public office does make you an intelelctual; if Ishihara is a public intellectual then so is Jesse Ventura.

M-Bone said...

Ishihara Shintaro was notable as a novelist before his political career. His "Japan that can say no" has been taken as a model in China and other countries for technologist discourses of national power.

"I can not mention any Japanese intellectual that would fulfil those criteria."

Tobias is 100% correct - Murakami, Oe, Miyazaki Hayao (globally recognized filmmaker, puts forward anti-war and anti-violence messages), Ueno Chizuko, Honda Katsuichi, Oda Makoto, etc. Ikeda Daisaku should make it if all of those clerics are going to be put on there. There are at least a dozen Japanese intellectuals and opinion-makers who belong on that list more than a parochial neo-con clown like Fukuyama, Robert Putnam the author of the very provincial American "Bowling Alone" (much criticized to the point where you could even call it "disgraced"), or Drew Gilpin Faust. They even threw in William Easterly, a frequent contributor to Foreign Policy!

There are also a variety of people on that list whose sole reason for being there is providing a voice of criticism in an authoritarian society that ALSO happens to be a voice that circulates in English.

That 85% of those on the list operate primarily in English makes the whole thing pretty silly.

Janne Morén said...

M-bone: Operating primarily in English is rather a prerequisite for being a "world intellectual". If you're writing and speaking primarily in Japanese - or Swedish, or German - you're unlikely to reach most of the audience that is implied by the term (those few that have managed anyway do so only by stint of translation).

When I said "I am in fact hard pressed to name any Japanese intellectual of the outward-facing kind that this contest is about." I meant that quite literally, both about it being me (as opposed to a general thing) and name (as opposed to knowing about them but not think they fit).

There are a large number of parallel worldwide conversations going on, with people like those on the list as central figures in one way or another. For example, we have Dawkins, Dennet, Hitchens and Benedict (and others not on that list) on the conflict between evolution and creationism, and religion and atheism specifically, and them and others like Ramachandran (and perhaps Umberto Eco, Lawrence Lessig and others) about the role of science and rationality in general. You could make similar lists for environmentalism, developing economies, biotechnology, the Middle East and so on and so forth.

Now, nobody follows all those conversations, or even a majority of them. But for those conversations that you do follow, it will gradually become quite clear who are the main characters, who are driving the exchange, who have influential voices in the debate. And in the conversations I do follow, there is no Japanese (or Swedish for that matter) influential voice present.

And M-bone, those people you list may be quite unsavory - but that is beside the point. It's not whether your ideas are likeable or even sensible (or Björn Lomborg would not be there), but only if you are an influential voice in those particular conversations. We may greatly rue that Fukuyama will be listened to by anyone more influential than his dog, but it would simply be wrong to say he doesn't have (or had, fortunately) a strong voice in his field.

Ikeda Daisaku by contrast (who I had to google) - what international conversations is he a voice in? As he gives a speech, writes a debate article or publishes a book, are people in other parts of the world reacting to it, discussing it, writing articles of their own in response? He may well be highly influential in some conversations I do not follow (not at all unlikely), but if so I don't know of it.

You may criticise that this whole concept is little more than an exercize in fame - a gauge of these people's relative worldwide name recognition and nothing else. Sure - but being well known is rather a big part of being influential in public conversations. Again, you may not like the ideas overmuch, but that is not the question here.

MTC said...

While trying to add a Japanese name to the Foreign Policy list seems pointless--there is no discernable criteria for nomination other than perhaps "individuals those of us on the editorial board of Foreign Policy have either met or have read about in The New York Review of Books"--the narrower task of compiling a list of the 100 most influential Japanese public intellectuals would be a fruitful one for the readers of this and similar blogs.

M-Bone said...

"Operating primarily in English is rather a prerequisite for being a "world intellectual"."

Nothing on that list that requires that you be a world intellectual. There are several people on that list who are clearly not and the criteria only say "an ability to influence wider debate, often far beyond the borders of their own country." That "often" seems to have given a free pass to some very parochially concerned Americans but not to Japanese.

Let's face it, you could describe Oe Kenzaburo as "A Nobel Prize winning author translated into more than 30 languages whose writing about Hiroshima has communicated Japanese anti-nuclear perspectives internationally and who is the central figure in the Japanese pacifist movement / move to resist change to Article 9." International conversation? Yes - more than at least 2 dozen people on the list. Honda Katsuichi and Oda Makoto have been centrally involved in anti-war and anti-discrimination movements (not international discussions?) and on reconciliation with Japan's neighbors.

Fukuyama is a laughingstock since his "It's still the end of history" article. He is no longer taken seriously by intellectuals, but why not put one more American on the list, right?

You should know who Ikeda Daisaku is if you follow Japanese public discourse. He's the head of a religion of tens of millions active in nearly every country who promotes pacifism and environmental protection. And there are (in my eyes) average Washington Post columnists on the list instead of him (and he wouldn't even be in my top 5-10 choices for Japanese). And "Bowling Alone"? How on earth would you justify that? Also, why no Dalia Lama? They must be looking forward to upping their sales in China.

In any case, have another look at the list - there are certainly several figures from the Middle East who have zero participation in international discussions (unless just being from the Middle East and talking about it counts as being international because Americans are concerned about it as well). It is almost like they had a "quota" with Asia getting the short end and Japan (and Korea) getting the short end of that.

Janne Morén said...

I didn't say I liked the existing list - in fact, I agree completely that a lot of the people probably do not belong there either. I can't really judge this since they may be third-rate columnists there as a favour from a friend - or they are high-profile people in one area or another that I do not follow.

But again, by the same token, I can't honestly say that Japanese people I have not heard of are better placed on that list either.

Not an endorsement of a quite silly competition, and not a critique of the Japanese public discourse; just an observation that in those fields I do follow, Japanese voices seem to be absent to a surprising degree.

M-Bone said...

"Japanese voices seem to be absent to a surprising degree."

Cool. For creationism and the religion debates I think that it is a good thing that Japanese are absent.

So do you guys want to try to come up with a Japanese top 100?

Anonymous said...

Cannot think of a single Japanese intellectual that deserves to be on the list.

On the other hand, the Foreign Policy list is a sham, a pathetic popularity contest among the Establishment elite. Think of it as self-congratulating as the Oscars...

Bryce said...

"Cool. For creationism and the religion debates I think that it is a good thing that Japanese are absent."

Yes, this was the point I wanted to make. Does advocating that science be taught in schools instead of magic really make you an 'intellectual' or does it merely make you a sane person engaging in an insane debate? I'm glad that in Japan such a debate doesn't exist and the notion that science without magical qualifications should be taught in schools is not controversial.

When I first saw this list both Oe and Ogata did pop into my mind.

What has Umberto Eco done lately? He wrote his last book four years ago. Has he been active in recent political discussions? If so, he hasn't been particularly prominent. And yet he sits at number two in 2007. Does the fact that someone translated a four year old book of his recently earn him his place?

Anonymous said...

There will be no Japanese intellectuals if Ian Buruma is on the list.However,he did raised awareness about absence of Japanese voice in global intellectual sphere.But then again,kind of voice Buruma pick up always have something to do with perverted sex,ultranationalism and Nihonjinron.He never talk about Maruyama Masao,et al.

"I live in Japan,I spend a lot of my time (too much, perhaps) following strands of conversation about our world in various forums, and I can not mention any Japanese intellectual that would fulfil those criteria. "

Perhaps,because you are here studying the Japanese as a group and not getting to know the individuals? One things I learned about Japanologist is that they rarely translates Japanese ideas and spend more time quoting fellow foreign Japanologist on the issue.

Aceface

M-bone said...

"One things I learned about Japanologist is that they rarely translates Japanese ideas and spend more time quoting fellow foreign Japanologist on the issue."

I think that this is changing with the "young generation".

Don't like Buruma. "Inventing Japan" reads like an extended undergrad essay - the kind that the professor hands back with a comment like "too much reliance on Carol Gluck's work, B-." We went over Buruma's "I'm too good to speak Japanese" attitude over on Mutantfrog as well - sickening.

Martin J Frid said...

Tobias, you may want to change your settings so that not only the time of commenters is shown, but also the day.

It makes a difference in terms of relevance.

I agree with derek that Ogata Sadako certainly should be on the list, as well as Oe Kenzaburo, who recently successfully fought a Osaka court case on the Okinawa issue.

Hmm...

Having said that, I feel compelled to wonder about FP's criteria. The Pope? Kasparov?? Bjorn Lomborg???

Most Japanese would probably consider it an honour not to be on this list.