Hamaguchi Eshun’s kanjin: The Janus self (working draft)

In this series of essays, I’ve been exploring how embracing the social aspect of self construction might alter our view of what it means to be an individual. In previous essays, I have introduced the “I/me” model of George H. Mead and the ningen model of Watsuji Tetsuro. In this essay, I introduce the thinking of a late 20th century Japanese thinker who was influenced by both Watsuji and Mead. Hamaguchi Eshun used systems theory to construct a model of the self that preserves the integrity of the internally-constructed self while embedding that self in the context of other people and things. Like Mead and Watsuji, he used linguistic devices to illustrate his understanding of how a self is developed and how it functions. Hamaguchi is often associated with the nihonjinron school of thought because his initial work was focused on explaining how the Japanese self is distinct from the self of Western philosophy. Eventually, he proposed that his construct for the Japanese self might also describe human selves in general.

In 1997 Hamaguchi released an article titled A Methodological Basis for Japanese Studies –With regard to “Relatum” as its Foundation. For many years, Hamaguchi had been arguing that the Japanese self should be described as a kanjin (間人), which might be roughly translated as a “relational person” or “between person.” He coined the neologism kanjin by inverting the two characters that make up the word for person in Japanese. As discussed in the previous essay in this series, Watsuji Tetsuro used the term ningen (人間) to illustrate how the Japanese see the self as something that is constructed in a social context. Watsuji contrasted the Japanese socially-constructed self (ningen) with the Western conception of an individual as something that is constructed separately from other people. Hamaguchi made this comparison even more stark. He contrasted the Japanese kanjin (間人- social self) with the Western kojin (個人- unitary self). Kojin is the typical Japanese translation for the English word “individual.” 

Hamaguchi was active in the second half of the 20th century, a period that saw Japan emerge from the ruins of WWII to become the leading economic power in Asia. By the middle of the 1980s, many even believed that Japan was on the cusp of supplanting the United States as the world’s leading economy. The post-war Japanese success story led to renewed interest both inside and outside Japan in what made Japan special. By this time, the social sciences had changed significantly. Anthropology, sociology, social psychology, and cross-cultural psychology had become firmly established as fields of research that explored the dynamics of social groups and individuals within social groups. Simultaneously, the fields of political science and economics had also continued to evolve. Applications of game theory, rational choice theory and complex statistical analysis were displacing the broad strokes of qualitative analysis and political philosophy that had characterized these fields in the previous century.

As a Japanese social theorist, Hamaguchi expressed concern that the fundamental framing of the social sciences as practiced in the West yielded flawed or even negatively-biased interpretations of Japanese society, people and behavior. He was particularly concerned that the social sciences were built upon fundamental assumptions about selfhood that did not hold for Japan and produced an absurd representation of the Japanese as lacking a mature sense of self.

Jibun ga nai (自分がない) – Some Japanese say they lack a self

Before we explore Hamaguchi’s kanjin model, let’s take a brief look the work of nihonjinron psychiatrist Takeo Doi, who proposed that there was something unique and perhaps even immature about the Japanese sense of self. In The anatomy of dependence Takeo Doi explored whether the Japanese self was constructed differently from that of the Westerner. There are legitimate questions about how accurately Doi’s description of the Western self reflected the actual representation of the self in Western social scientific theory, but since Doi played a significant role in shaping late 20th century discourse about the uniqueness of the Japanese self, let’s take a look at a section of his book called “The lack of self.”

Doi began this section as follows: “The expression jibun ga aru, ‘to have a self,’ or jibun ga nai, ‘to have no self’ is probably peculiar to Japanese.”  Doi went on to discuss the term jibun as suggesting a reflective view of the self. He described the term jibun as carrying a nuance of self-reflection. The point he was trying to make was that Japanese are not aware of themselves in the same way as Westerners. As Doi put it: “The interesting question, however, is why Japanese should go out of its way to remark on this presence or absence; at least in the West, there is no precise equivalent in other languages for such an expression, though ‘he has no personality’ may come closest to it.” He guessed that the reason that Western languages do not include phrases such as jibun ga nai was that “In the West there is a linguistic emphasis on the use of the first person, and the child is awakened to an awareness of the self from a very young age.”

Doi wrestled with Kant’s assertion that as all languages include some word designating self, even small children are forced to take selfhood into consideration. Doi disputed the claim that the existence of a first-person pronoun in a language entails a meaningful consciousness of self: “This merely means that it is potentially so, and is far from saying that in actual practice the ego is being speculated on in a reflective manner.”

The focus of Doi’s discussion was on how Japanese are aware of the self. Doi was not questioning the philosophical assumption that Japanese have selves. This is a universalist claim about the human condition. Doi was setting aside the issue of the universal existence of the self and asking us to explore the particular way in which an individual may construct a picture of that self. This is where his linguistic analysis takes on meaning. When he contrasted Western languages with Japanese he was attempting to uncover differences in awareness. “In the West there is a linguistic emphasis on the use of first person pronoun…In Japan, on the other hand, the first person pronoun is often omitted, with the converse result, it would seem, of making people clearly aware of this question of the presence or absence of self.”

Doi was associating two features of Japanese usage and drawing an inference from them. The Japanese language is structured to allow the omission of the subject, and the Japanese lexicon includes the phrase jibun ga nai. From these two linguistic features Doi inferred that the Japanese think of the self as something that one does or does not have. He was claiming that this awareness of the potential for a lack of self is particularly evident in Japanese culture or perhaps even unique to it. He presented the Japanese as in some sense unique and the Japanese awareness of self as conditioned by a state of possession or non-possession and contrasted this with a Western sense of self that does not frame it as something to be possessed.

Submersion into the group

This brings us to one of the central tropes pervading discussions of the Japanese self: submersion into the group. According to Doi, “an individual is said to have a jibun when he can maintain an independent self that is never negated by membership of the group.” If this is the condition for selfhood, then it must indeed be a difficult thing to achieve. He provided two illustrations of situations in which a Japanese become conscious of a lack of self. The first is that of submersion of the self into the group. Since he defined the self as something that exists only in so far as it is independent of the group, obviously a person who submerges that self into the group is giving it up to the group. 

The second situation in which a Japanese may become conscious of a lack of self is when the individual is isolated from the group. He illustrated this situation with a story about how he chose to separate himself from a hospital where he had once served. His students were baffled by the decision to cut himself off from the hospital and one commented, “But that would mean losing your identity completely, wouldn’t it?” He used this story to illustrate his belief that Japanese individuals do not have access to a context in which they can develop an awareness of themselves as distinct from the group. Whether submerging the self into it or standing up against it, the individual is constantly constructing the self in relation to the group. Doi contrasted himself with other Japanese people. He claimed that he had realized an authentic jibun by cutting himself off completely from membership in a group.

According to Doi, the Japanese prize the absence of self, while in the West, “one finds a completely reverse phenomenon in which the individual while in his heart of hearts harboring an extremely complex feeling toward the ‘absence of self,’ or being in some cases aware, essentially, that he has no ‘self,’ behaves as though he does in fact have one.” He put forth contemporary discussion of the “organization man” in the West as an illustration of how increased awareness of the importance of social setting was beginning to impinge even on the Western belief in an independent self: “In short, despite the precedence he gives in theory to the individual over the group, there must exist inside him a psychological desire to ‘belong.’  This is, in other words, amae.”

Questions emerging from Doi’s discussion of self

Doi brought up several points that are relevant to an examination of Hamaguchi’s kanjin. He did not reject the ontological reality of a self. His point was not that Japanese do not exist as selves, but rather that Japanese are acutely aware of the self as something which one does or does not have. He was discussing awareness rather than existence. Doi described himself as having realized the Western ideal of possessing a self that was not dependent on the group. This may be seen as indicating that his thought was grounded in a system of thought that posited an internally-constructed self along the lines of that described in Western philosophy. He was not arguing that there was a Japanese way of constructing selves and a Western way of doing so. He assumed that the Western internally-constructed self was the only true form of self, and that any deviation from it constituted a failure to construct a self. He was arguing that the Japanese awareness of this difficulty of achieving selfhood finds expression in phrases such as jibun ga nai or jibun ga aru. Based on this argument, he presented the Japanese as psychologically immature.

On one level, Doi can be construed as putting forth a nihonjinron position that the Japanese sense of self is unique. On another, Doi can be seen as holding a universalist view of the self as something that is by definition formed through a process of separation from others. I find it interesting that Doi described himself as having realized the independent self so prized in the West. By doing so, he associated himself with the self-possessing individuals of the West, while separating himself from his self-lacking groupist Japanese students. (The way Doi differentiated himself from his Japanese students raises interesting questions about the degree to which he was really comparing Japan to the West as opposed to using the East-West framework as a device to buttress the story of his own identity as someone who had “risen above” the limitations of Japanese society, but that is a topic that might be better explored in a different essay.)

Paradoxically, Doi’s discussion of the organization man implies that the independent self of the West is in some sense not real. In the same discussion ontological, cultural and psychological aspects of self are being examined, but the boundaries between these aspects are not clearly defined. Part of the problem seems to arise from the source of the ideas with which he was working. As a psychiatrist, Doi was working within a Western epistemological framework. His discussion of the Japanese self was thus conditioned by its reliance on Western concepts. While he seems to have had doubts about the legitimacy of the “independent self,” he nonetheless used it as the basis for portraying Japanese as unable to construct such a self. His adherence to a particular Western conception of the self fundamentally independent and separate from other people colored his discussion of the Japanese self. One can legitimately question whether Westerners truly posit an “independent self” as Doi claimed. As he himself noted, there seems to be a school of thought in the West that is suspicious of this paradigm.

This raises the question of whether there might be alternative ways to construct the self. If the independent self is just one example of how we can conceive of the self, would replacing the independent self with something else enable us to better interpret Japanese behavior? Might such a reformulation of the self lead to a better understanding of cultural variation? Could it provide a better understanding of the human condition in general?

Hamaguchi Eshun:  The self as relatum

Hamaguchi Eshun used the kanjin to address two of the central problems that make Doi’s discussion of the self confusing. First, he offered the kanjin self as a model that accounts for the existence of a self that is not fundamentally independent. Second, he proposed that the kanjin construct yields a better understanding of the Japanese self and culture.

Early versions of Hamaguchi’s kanjin received mixed reviews. Some objected to the suggestion that Japanese people did not have an internally-constructed self. Some felt that the kanjin implied that Japanese individuals lacked the ability or drive to develop a self that could exist independently of other people. Some felt that the kanjin concept just played into the usual stereotypes of modern Japan as a society of conformists who sacrificed their individuality to the groups to which they belonged. Some went so far as to suggest that the kanjin was just a convenient device for justifying a culture that makes Japanese individuals particularly vulnerable to control by leaders of groups. 

Despite these objections, Hamaguchi continued to promote the kanjin concept as a useful device for adding a Japanese perspective to the social sciences. In the introduction to his 1997 article, he decried the images frequently used to describe the Japanese. “Up to now comprehensive analyses of Japanese culture, civilization, society and nationality have been done by using several well-known key concepts such as groupismshame culturevertical societygroup ego, and amae (dependency). Here the Japanese have been characterized as a quite homogeneous people who lack autonomy in their actions and therefore have no unique opinions of their own and tend to bury themselves in the group or organization to which they belong.” Hamaguchi did not object to characterization of the Japanese as groupist per se. What he did object to was the negative connotations associated with groupism. He felt that given the success of the Japanese economy, it did not make sense to characterize Japanese people in such a negative light. As he put it, “If Japan as a nation lacked autonomy or independence, how are we to interpret the high economic growth that Japan has achieved?”

The defining feature of Hamaguchi’s 1997 articulation of the kanjin is the integration of systems theory into the discussion. By anchoring his kanjin in systems theory, he directly addressed an issue that Doi only flirted with, the assumption that the self is by nature an independent entity. Hamaguchi proposed a formulation of self that is both internally and externally-constructed.

Addressing cultural bias in the social science of the self

Hamaguchi objected to the patronizing characterizations of Japan that seemed to emerge from an individual-centric framing of the social sciences. The problem according to Hamaguchi was that “Japanese social scientists have until now accepted unconditionally the analytical paradigm of Western origin with its heavy emphasis on individual-centeredness.” This paradigm assumes that: 1) individuals act as individuals and form societies as a matter of contracts, 2) there is a dichotomy between the individual and society, with the two in some sense opposed, and 3) by being group-oriented the Japanese are sacrificing the individual to society.

Hamaguchi disputed all three of these assumptions. He objected to the framing of individualism as something that stands in opposition to connection. He suggested that to understand Japan we need to reconsider the typical Western definition of what it means to be an individual. “Such analyses depend on methodological individualism in the comparative study of societies and do not necessarily reflect the emic nature of the Japanese. This paper aims to correct a methodological problem in Japanese studies by shifting the paradigm from methodological individuum-ism to methodological relatum-ism.” Hamaguchi proposed that to understand the Japanese self properly we have to consider how selfhood is framed within Japanese culture. He claimed that Japanese individuals perceive themselves as relatum (social beings) rather than individuum (private beings); Japanese construct the self as something that exists in relation to others rather than separate from others. 

Hamaguchi objected to what he saw as implicitly patronizing characterizations of Japanese culture and people. He felt that social science presented implicitly-biased interpretations of Japanese society precisely because most of the dominant social scientific models had emerged in the West. He pointed out that perhaps at one time Western models could be used for analyzing Japan since it had not caught up with the West. “But Japan today is, in a sense, already in the process of constructing a super-modern civilization, and this paradigm may no longer be appropriate in explaining Japan as it is today…what is called for, is a fundamental shift in our analytical point of reference.”  

He invoked Yasusuke Murakami’s claim that modern Japanese were unable to cope with foreign criticism specifically because their thinking was trapped in Western paradigms. He quoted Murakami as follows: “The Japanese have been looking at themselves through the spectacles of other people since the time of rapid modernization of the Meiji Era. They are thus unable to see their own logic due to those foreign spectacles which are the transcendentalistic-progressive views of the Western tradition.” Hamaguchi was not satisfied with social science that seemed to be based on a set of assumptions that almost by definition presented modern Japan in a negative light.

How do we reconcile the paradox of atomistic and holistic views of the world?

To gain a more accurate sense of how an individual self is constructed, he suggested that we adopt the emerging “hermeneutic approach in social science,” in which “the observing self and the self observed are constantly overlapping each other.” He argued that accepting the paradoxical co-existence of the observed and observing selves entails embracing the possibility of “ever-growing multiple images of the world” which co-exist, calling the possibility of objectivity itself into question. Hamaguchi contrasted Western transcendental objectivity (which he saw as specious) with a Japanese worldview that allowed for multiple subjective views. He offered correlative dualism as the solution to the puzzle of the self. Correlative dualism is a systems theory principle that allows an agent to operate according to seemingly contradictory principles depending on the context or level on which the agent is acting. Rather than constructing a model of self based on either/or thinking “we must first examine what combination of models may prove to be meritorious in terms of methodology and what other combinations may hamper us from overcoming the demerits inherent in the conventional paradigm.” Rather than constructing the self as either social or private, we need a model that allows for the integration of both aspects of the self.

The Self as Holon

Hamaguchi’s kanjin applies correlative dualism to the formulation of the self. He suggests that the self is an agent that works with seemingly contradictory principles depending on the context or level of the action. It manages this feat because it is composed of two inter-connected elements:  individuum and relatum. Hamaguchi defined these elements as follows: “The ‘individuum,’ as an existent form, is equivalent to an ego or self where an actor-subject (the concerned system itself) attempts to control arbitrarily the territory secured by severing intentionally the concrete and specific relationship with the situations in which it exists. It is a completely independent individual system.”

He differentiated the individuum from the relatum: “The ‘relatum’ is an existent form of actor-subject, the kind of referential ‘holon’ or self-organizing system where the concerned actor-subject takes in the concrete and specific relationship with the situations wherein it exists as a given and unavoidable, and attempts to act by controlling referentially the mutual self-other territory (a situational self). This is a case of the actor-subject system constituted by the human nexus itself.” The relatum exists as the commonly held space between the inner self and the outer world. Depending on how it is constructed, the relatum may exist on the edge of the self or it may subsume the self. It is not totally clear which sort of relatum Hamaguchi was arguing for.

When we have worked through the various pieces of this puzzle we end up with a bi-polar holon self. This self comprises an individuus looking inward upon itself as a complete self-organizing system and a relatus looking outward conceptualizing itself as a part conditioned by its role within a greater system. With the addition of the concept of a holon we have a new model for the self. The holon as formulated by Arthur Koestler is neither a whole nor a part, but rather a connector between different levels of a system. “Somewhat like Janus, the god in Roman myth with two faces, one looking upward and the other looking downward, a holon can show an image of a complete whole against the subordinate units in the structure of a system, while also showing a dependent ‘part’ submitting to the upper system that includes the system. Any given system within the stratified structure tries to maintain a dynamic balance between its whole-ness (self-assertive tendency) and part-ness (integrative tendency).”  

The outer face of the holon functions as kanjin (contextually-constructed person), while the inner face functions as kojin (internally-constructed person). While seemingly contradictory, the kanjin and kojin coexist as two sides of one entity to constitute a holon self: a self that is at once social and private; a self that even in its individuality sees itself as integrated into society rather than positioned against it. By constructing the person and society as systems interacting on a hierarchy, Hamaguchi presents a workable alternative to the Western formulation of the individual as independent from and resisting society.

Hamaguchi claims that the kanjin model also yields a more accurate picture of how we come to see ourselves as kojin. Hamaguchi argues that while a ko is a self-contained entity does not rely upon a group to substantiate its existence, “such an ‘individual’ as this exists neither in nature nor in the human world.” While Western social science assumes a priori that the individuus is the fundamental unit of human existence, he sees it as a convenient fiction that Western social science has unquestioningly inherited from the Western philosophical tradition. From Hamaguchi’s perspective, it was Doi’s unquestioning acceptance of the Western atomic self that led him and many modern Japanese to sense that the Japanese lack selves. Both Doi and his student’s had selves, they just needed a better model for explaining their experience of those selves.

Bio-holonics as the key to the paradigm shift

Having dismissed the individuus as a convenient fiction, Hamaguchi added another concept to his kanjin model to clarify how both Japanese and Western people make sense of the seemingly paradoxical experience of the self as both private and social. He proposed an alternative formation of the holon developed by Hiroshi Shimizu that affirms the existence of the individuum by explaining how it takes shape due to processes occurring on the level of relatum. In Shimizu’s formulation “the holon in its original form, is a free ‘individual’ with individuality and autonomy, where the choices (freedom) of whether or not to cooperate may be freely decided. At the same time, because of its freedom the individual joins voluntarily in the formation of the order within the entire system, thereby making up a ‘whole.’” 

“Shimizu, as an advocate of bio-holonics, emphasizes the fact that a systemic order as a universal trait of life is formed gradually within the functional relationship between the individual and the whole or, in other words, within the information feed-back loop connecting the focal holon with the whole system including it.” Within this conception of the holon, the self holon is a complete, self-organized system, but at the same time it by nature enters into a set of relationships making up another larger system. Below I paraphrase the stages of how this larger system takes shape:

  1. Individuus pumps in matter and energy from outside to activate itself.
  2. The activated holon takes on agency to affect, cooperate with other holons.
  3. Through a process of interaction among holons, an upper system develops, but that system is flexible and sensitive to the agency of member holons.
  4. Individual holons react to the emerging system by either cooperating with or resisting it. Self-transformation occurs as a result of this interaction. This is a relatus function, but it is voluntary, and the agency of the holon is not compromised.
  5. The whole system sends information inward into the holons, affecting them but not robbing them of agency. In cases of yuragi (dissonance), agency is practiced by the holon.
  6. The holon continues to maintain the internal order it set up for itself at the level of individuus. At the level of relatus, it cooperates with the upper system, but also exerts influence on it. It assumes that other holons exist within itself on the level of relatus. It is simultaneously autonomous and integrated with the external world and technically there is no self-other distinction.

The exact wording Hamaguchi used in number six is interesting, so I include it here: “Within this feedback loop of information, the holon exists as a determinant of its large order, while cooperating with it. It also assumes that others exist within itself, while maintaining its own order by the order it formed at the beginning. Strictly speaking, therefore, there is no longer self-other distinctions here, as the ‘holon’ is now an ‘individual’ and a ’whole’ simultaneously.” 

As long as the outer system into which the holon is tied (relatum) and the inner one (individuum) are in harmony, there is no consciousness of a self as an inwardly-focused individual, but only as an outwardly-focused part of the group. As long as there is no dissonance between the part and the whole, there is no autonomy as such. In fact, any information that is received is accepted unconsciously because it is taken as a natural occurrence by the holon. In contrast, when there is dissonance between the holon and the greater system, the individuus is awakened and asserts its free will. Hamaguchi’s argument is that most of the time there is harmony between the holon and the greater system, so the individuus aspect of the holon self is less active than is assumed in Western social science.

Is there free will?

There is much more to Hamaguchi’s article. However, for purposes of this essay, the above summary will do. In the first part of the article, he expressed an urge to develop a paradigm that found the inherent good aspects in Japaneseness rather than condemning those aspects as bad. He subsequently, proposed the holon self as a means of reconciling the seemingly contradictory co-existence of inner and outer aspects of the self. In his initial formulation of the holonic self based the systems theory of Arthur Koestler, Hamaguchi indicated that the individuus was a fiction, thus privileging the relatus over the individuus. This appears to be a refutation of the Western concept of the self-contained individual and perhaps even of free will itself in that the holonic self is not constructed independently of the outside world. He thus implicitly recognized the wisdom of the Japanese system of social organization which posits a group composed of cooperative selves. He seeks to further enhance the status of Japanese social organization by arguing that the individuus, which Western social science treats as a given in fact does not even exist. 

In his second formulation of the holon, based on Shimizu’s bio-holonics, the individuus is given a new lease on life and free will is restored. However, even in this formulation free will only comes into play when there is an occurrence of yuragi (dissonance) alerting the individuus to a lack of harmony between the inner and outer worlds. Thus, free will is confirmed but not unmoored entirely from the stimuli of the upper system. In stage one of the system, the holon pumps in stuff from the outside to activate itself as a self. It is only in stage two that the holon becomes a self-possessing agent. Our selves exist as multi-level systems. When we look inward we experience ourselves as kojin; when we look outward we experience ourselves as kanjin.  

If Doi were to base his analysis of the Japanese self on Hamaguchi’s kanjin, he would no longer interpret the term jibun ga nai to mean that the individual in question lacks of self. He would instead interpret it to indicate the individual’s realization that in the current situation, the outer system is in harmony with the inner one, so there is no yuragi (dissonance) and thus no need for the individuus to take initiative. This reinterpretation does indeed put Doi’s argument that Japanese individual’s lack selves in a new light.  

At the same, time this model can be used to explain the human condition in general, in that we all construct our selves within social systems. Thus, he has created a model that may be used to reinterpret not only Japanese but also non-Japanese self-construction and behavior. He has dealt with the fundamental problem at the root of Doi’s discussion of the lack of self in that he has described a self that is socially constructed rather than inwardly or independently constructed.

The kanjin model allows for a society in which groupism and conformity do not stand in contradiction with individuality. The appearance of conformity merely indicates that the community of holons have managed to interact with each other in such a way that there is little yuragi and thus little need for kojin initiative. Hamaguchi suggests that the Japanese form of individualism is just as valid as the Western form. It is just Japanese have learned how to co-exist in ways that make the individuus less prominant than the relatus. The harmonious nature of Japanese society obviates the need for frequent emergence of the individuus.

Moreover, the model that Hamaguchi provides can just as easily be applied to non-Japanese societies. A society in which non-conformity and individualism thrive can be explained as indicating that the various holons are interacting in a way that creates yuragi leading to more individuus initiative. The model does not provide specific information about why a certain kind of individual variation emerges in a specific place, but it does provide mechanisms for explaining how such variations might emerge. The holonic kojin/kanjin self does seem in some ways to be more useful than the self-contained independent self for interpreting human behavior in social context.

In previous essays in this series, I presented models of the social self proposed by G. H. Mead in the early years of the 20th century and Watsuji Tetsuro in the middle of the 20th century. All three models depart significantly from the Western philosophical concept of the self that is something internal and separate from the rest of the world. Mead’s I/me model illustrates the mechanism by which we construct individual selves in the context of our relationships with other people. Watsuji’s ningen and fudo models embed self-construction in the evolution of cultures, which are themselves embedded in physical environments. Although it is at times hard to make sense of some aspects of the logic underpinning Hamaguchi’s holonic kojin/kanjin, the final product also seems quite useful for explaining the nature of the relationships that bind individuals to each other and society.

It is not difficult to imagine oneself as bring simultaneously an inward-looking self and an outward-looking self. Still, before encountering Hamaguchi’s holonic kojin/kanjin self, I had not encountered linguistic or conceptual constructs allowing me to describe myself as being simultaneously independent and inter-dependent. While I suppose there must be contradictions and paradoxes that undermine the viability of a holonic kojin/kanjin self, the concept nonetheless makes intuitive sense to me, and it seems to fit well with many strains of evolutionary biology, social neuro-science and network theory. 

In recent years, Japanese cultural capital and soft power have increased even as some have argued that its political and economic power have been declining. My own take on this is that Japanese cultural forms such as literature, manga and anime explore many social aspects of individual existence in a way that resonates for many people around the world. Technology has enabled the emergence of a world that seems in many ways to be much more inter-connected than anything experienced or imagined by the great philosophers of past eras. As Western societies passed through the enlightenment and industrial revolution, we seem to have drifted into a conception of the individual as something that is in an everlasting conflict with other independent individuals. Within this framework, the only way we can co-exist is by negotiating our interests and forming contracts. 

The kojin/kanjin holon model allows for a more nuanced range of options for explaining the relationships that bind individuals. Perhaps harmony and coherence are just as natural as conflict and negotiation. Whatever its flaws, Hamaguchi’s holonic kojin/kanjin model of the self allows for an alternative way of explaining the existence of individual selves, one that assumes that we have evolved in connection with rather than separately from each other and that our relationships with each other are not necessarily or exclusively characterized by the negotiation of conflicting interests. Thinkers like Watsuji and Hamaguchi seem to have been primarily interested in articulating new ways to explain the social aspect of the Japanese self, but in the process they have provided us with new ways to explain the social aspect of humans in general.  

Watsuji scholars may feel that I do a disservice to concepts like ningen and fudo by pulling them out of the Japanese context and applying them to humanity as a whole. Those who find meaning in contrasting Japanese kanjin with Western kojin may feel that describing all people as holonic kojin/kanjin somehow misses or even abuses the work of Hamaguchi Eshun. From my perspective, though, once an idea has been articulated and thrown into the world, it enters an ongoing state of evolution. 

As the world changes, ideas change; as ideas change, they sometimes change the world. G.H. Mead, Watsuji Tetsuro and Hamaguchi Eshun only knew the worlds that existed around them during their lives. They could know no other world. The details of their lives were different, and their ideas took form in the emergent processes of those lives. At the same time, they all seem to have noticed something fundamental to all humans. Even when we imagine ourselves to be separate from others and the greater world, we are in fact deeply intertwined with everyone and everything else. 

As an individual trying to make sense of how to make the most of this individual life, I find their ideas comforting and inspiring. Taking a step back from the entanglements of my kanjin existence I am able to notice that I am also an emergent kojin engaged in an unending internal journey of self-development. Taking a step back from the isolation of my kojin existence I am able to notice that even when it feels that I am alone and isolated, I am actually moving together with multitudes of other people as we constantly create and re-create the conditions that shape each other’s journeys. If this is what Hamaguchi meant by correlative dualism, then I’ll take more of it. I suspect that the world might be a better place if we all learned to embrace the holonic kojin/kanjin nature of our lives as individuals moving alone and together through time and space. 

Sources related to my initial research project comparing the thought of G. H. Mead and Hamaguchi Eshun:

Dana Cogan, 1998,  The Social Self: How is it constructed and what does it mean? – This article builds on a paper I wrote as part of a graduate course in Anthropology of Japan taught by Takie Lebra at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in 1998. I’ll happily share the paper with anyone who is interested in reading more about the topic.

Here are some of the resources I referred to as part of that project. Some of these sources are frequently categorized as fitting into the category of nihonjinron studies. Others might be more accurately described as criticisms of nihonjinron. All of them are in some sense attempts to “explain Japan”:

Doi, Takeo, 1981   The anatomy of dependence. Tokyo:  Kodansha International. 

Hamaguchi, Eshun, 1997. “A Methodological Basis for Japanese Studies – With Regard to ‘Relatum’ and its Foundation.”  Japan Review  9: 41-63.

Kondo, Dorinne, 1990.   Crafting selves: Power, gender and discourses of identity in a Japanese      workplace. Chicago:  University of Chicago Press.

Lebra, Takie, 1992    “The Self in Japanese Culture.” In Japanese Sense of Self. Nancy Rosenberger R. ed. Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press.1984. Review of Kanjin-shugi no shakai: Nihon in Journal of Japanese Studies 10 (2): 462-468.

Lebra, Takie Sugiyama, 1976.  Japanese Patterns of Behavior, University of Hawaii Press

Odin, Steve 1996. The Social Self in Zen and AmericanPragmatism.  Albany:  State University of New York Press

In a future essay, I’ll explore how advances in the social sciences and neuroscience seem to support a theory of self that is closer to the Kojin/kanjin model than to the traditional isolated, unitary self of Western philosophy. For now, here are some interesting articles on how the brain, body and external environment seem to come together to form the foundation on which we build our sense of self:

For research on the mechanisms through which the brain balances the need to collect new information and the need to build on previously collected information see:



For research on how observation, thinking, intention and action seem to be encoded in tandem with movement and other physiological phenomena see:


“Our brains did not evolve for us to just sit there and passively watch something without doing anything about it.”  – Cris Niell, University of Oregon neuroscientist

“Our brains aren’t just thinking in our heads. Our brains are interacting with our bodies and the way that we move through the world,” Niell said. “You think, ‘Oh, I’m just thinking,’ or ‘I’m just seeing.’ You don’t think about the fact that your body is playing a role in that.” So it makes sense that a mouse might need to integrate movement signals early on (though exactly how, say, the movement of a whisker helps with vision remains unclear).

For research on how our brains uses filtering and spotlighting mechanisms to engineer the miracle of attentional focus see:


“The attentional searchlight metaphor was backward: The brain wasn’t brightening the light on stimuli of interest; it was lowering the lights on everything else…

There’s an obvious weakness in the brain’s strategy of tossing out sensory information this way, though — namely, the danger that the jettisoned perceptions might be unexpectedly important. Work by Fiebelkorn suggests that the brain has a way to hedge against those risks.

When people think about the searchlight of attention, Fiebelkorn says, they think of it as a steady, continuously shining beam that illuminates where an animal should direct its cognitive resources. But “what my research shows is that that’s not true,” he said. “Instead it seems that the spotlight is blinking.”

According to his findings, the focus of the attentional spotlight seems to get relatively weaker about four times per second, presumably to prevent animals from staying overly focused on a single location or stimulus in their environment. That very brief suppression of what’s important gives other, peripheral stimuli an indirect boost, creating an opportunity for the brain to shift its attention to something else if necessary. “The brain seems to be wired to be periodically distractible,” he said.

For an exploration of the nature and even the existence of conscious thought see:


‘It turns out that thoughts such as decisions and judgments should not be considered to be conscious. They are not accessible in working memory, nor are we directly aware of them. We merely have what I call “the illusion of immediacy”—the false impression that we know our thoughts directly.’ – Peter Carruthers, Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy at the University of Maryland, College Park


‘Even our most reasonable thoughts and actions mainly result from automatic, unconscious processes.’

Research on the unconscious mind has shown that the brain makes judgments and decisions quickly and automatically. It continuously makes predictions about future events.

According to the theory of the “predictive mind,” consciousness arises only when the brain’s implicit expectations fail to materialize.

Higher cognitive processing in the cerebral cortex can occur without consciousness. The regions of the brain responsible for the emotions and motives, not the cortex, direct our conscious attention.

For a discussion of how we seem to be designed to construct what might be described as a simulation of the world that enables us to proactively act in the actual world see:


“Instead of perception depending largely on signals coming into the brain from the outside world, it depends as much if not more on perceptual predictions flowing in the opposite direction. We don’t just passively perceive the world; we actively generate it. The world we experience comes as much if not more from the inside out as from the outside in.” – Anil Seth

For an exploration of how we are designed to operate in a relatively automated state until we experience dissonance see:


“Let’s take the example of zebras, borrowing from Robert Sapolsky’s great book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. Zebras in the wild spend most of their time in a state of relative well-being. Sometimes they’re hungry, but often they’re in a fairly relaxed place; they’re eating grass, they’re with each other in the herd. They’re in the responsive mode of the brain, what I call the green zone. Then all of a sudden, a bunch of lions attack. All the zebras go into to the reactive mode, they have this burst of fight-or-flight stress, they go into the red zone, and then this episode of stress, as Sapolsky writes, ends quickly one way or another. And then they go back to the responsive mode.” – Dr. Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist, a member of U.C. Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center’s advisory board, and author of the book Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence,

For research on how our brains seem to be designed specifically for the purpose of making use of the outside world as a core part of the process of thinking see:

“How to Think Outside Your Brain” by Annie Murphy Paul, NYT.COM, June 11th, 2021


For an article exploring how our bodies are designed to give us hints about how we should respond to the world through sensations (before we are able to do so through cognition) see:


“Interoception lies behind our sense of intuition, when something just feels “right” or “wrong” without us being able to explain why.”

“Interoception may be less well known than the “outward facing” senses such as sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell, but it has enormous consequences for your wellbeing.”

“It makes sense: if you are more adept at accurately detecting your bodily signals, you will be able to form more nuanced interpretations of your feelings about a situation, and this in turn should help you to make wiser choices about the best ways to respond.”

“Interoception includes all the signals from your internal organs, including your cardiovascular system, your lungs, your gut, your bladder and your kidneys. “There’s a constant communication dialogue between the brain and the viscera,” says Tsakiris.

Much of the processing of these signals takes place below conscious awareness: you won’t be aware of the automatic feedback between brain and body that helps to keep your blood pressure level, for instance, or the signals that help to stabilise your blood sugar levels. But many of these sensations – such as tension in your muscles, the clenching of your stomach, or the beating of your heart – should be available to the conscious mind, at least some of the time. And the ways you read and interpret those feelings will have important consequences for your wellbeing.”

For an exploration about the limitations of much of the neuroscience cited above see:


“Misleading headlines notwithstanding, no one really has the slightest idea how the brain changes after we have learned to sing a song or recite a poem. But neither the song nor the poem has been ‘stored’ in it. The brain has simply changed in an orderly way that now allows us to sing the song or recite the poem under certain conditions. When called on to perform, neither the song nor the poem is in any sense ‘retrieved’ from anywhere in the brain, any more than my finger movements are ‘retrieved’ when I tap my finger on my desk. We simply sing or recite – no retrieval necessary.” – Robert Epstein, senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology in California and former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today

© Dana Cogan, 1998 and 2022, all rights reserved.

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