History and Repetition Today (2012)

by Kojin Karatani

Last fall, I published History and Repetition translated by Professor Seiji Lippit and others from the Columbia University Press. So, when Professor Lippit approached me to give a talk at UCLA, I thought I would speak about the theme of history and repetition. I chose this topic not simply to mark the occasion of the publication but because I sense repetition in history more strongly these days.

I wrote this book from 1988 to 1990. It was a moment when I faced two endings. One was the end of the Cold War, which came with the collapse of the Eastern European Bloc and Soviet Russia. The other was the death of the Showa Emperor, which marked the end of the Showa era. It is quite obvious which of these events was more significant. The former was a world-historical incident that affected the entire global politics, whereas the latter was a domestic affair limited to Japan. I assume that the latter event was seldom discussed outside of the country.

However, I do not think that the Showa era was strictly a Japanese affair. In fact, analyzing the end of Showa might give us a new perspective on world history. The most popular discourse around 1989 was "the end of history," posited most famously by the neo-Hegelian political scientist Francis Fukuyama. However, there were also plenty of counterarguments, which insisted that history is far from over. Meanwhile, the end of Showa suggested something qualitatively different from these arguments. Not only did it indicate that history has not come to an end, it also demonstrated that history repeats.

The Showa era compels me to think repetition in history. I began to pay greater attention to repetition when I noticed the parallels between Meiji and Showa. If you look at the chronological table, Showa appears to repeat many aspects of Meiji.  They both indicate the process of Japan's transformation into a nation-state of the modern state of Western power status: the establishment of the institutions of the modern state, the achievement of economic development, and the revision of unequal treaties. In Showa era, however, people did not repeat Meiji era intentionally, except the Showa Restoration movement which was designed to reenact the Meiji Restoration.  The Meiji Restoration was meant to restage the ancient imperial rule but actually resulted in a bourgeois revolution, while the Showa Restoration resulted in imperial fascism.


 Table 1: Meiji and Showa

Meiji (1868-1912) Showa (1926-1989)
10 Sienan War11 Feburary 26 Incident
22 Promulgation of constitution21 promulgation of new constitution
27 Shino-Japanese War26 Peace conference, U.S.-Japan Security Treaty
37 Russo-Japanese War35 Ampo struggle / New U.S. Japan Security
 39 Tokyo Olumpics
43 Annexation of Korea, High Treason Incident43 Zenkyoto student movement
44 Revision of treaties44 Return of Okinawa decided
45 General Nogi’s suicide45 Mishima’s suicide



Other repetitions, however, are coincidental. Then what caused these repetitions? This is a difficult question to answer. As a matter of fact, when I published this essay, quite a few people thought I was joking or had gone mad. Initially, I intended to write a literary criticism instead of a historical study because it was the major novelists of Japan including Mishima Yukio, Oe Kenzaburo, Nakagami Kenji, and Murakami Haruki who took up the subject of repetition in modern Japanese history. People may say these are just novels. But novels can capture insightful truths. That is why I chose the form of literary criticism to address the question of history and repetition.

But I was not content with doing just that. I was anxious to consider this question more theoretically, so I turned to Marx. This idea may sound strange because it is generally understood that Marx's view of history is based on stages of development, which seems unrelated to the question of repetition. Yet in fact, repetition was at the core of his study. First of all, he did not perceive communism as something that emerged as a result of linear politico-economic development; rather, it arose as a return of the archaic communism at a higher level. That is to say, a compulsory repetitiveness is involved in Marxian historical materialism.  

Furthermore, Marx directly discussed the question of repetition in history. One repetition concerns the state, while the other concerns capital. He mentions the repetition concerning the state in his early work The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. He opens the essay by writing: "Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce."

Here Marx emphasizes that the entire historical process of the French Revolution from 1789 to Napoleon's coronation was repeated sixty years later in the Revolution of 1848 that established Louis Bonaparte's reign. This repetition was actually repeating something else as well. Namely, the sequence of the first French Revolution followed the patterns seen in the history of ancient Rome. Marx pointed this out in the Eighteenth Brumaire when he wrote: "The Revolution of 1789 to 1814 draped itself as the Roman republic and the Roman Empire." 

Indeed, the French Revolution from 1789 to Napoleon's coronation is similar to the ancient Rome's shift from the republic to the empire. But this similarity is not merely a matter of people imitating the past events for it emerged from the structural resemblance between these historical moments. Both cases involve a transition from the city-state or republic to empire. 

The assassination of Caesar after his bid to become the emperor of Rome epitomizes this process of transition. When Marx wrote, "Hegel remarks somewhere," he had this event in mind. Most likely, he was alluding to Philosophy of History where Hegel wrote: "By repetition, that which at first appeared merely a matter of chance and contingency becomes a real and ratified existence." Hegel was referring to the coronation of Octavian as the first Roman Emperor after his adoptive father, Caesar, had been assassinated for his attempt to crown himself the emperor. Those who chose to defend the republic, including Brutus, murdered Caesar for seeking to become the sole ruler when the city of Rome could no longer maintain the republican principles because of its territorial expansion. It was only after the death of Caesar, however, that the Roman people accepted the empire and emperor as their inevitable reality.  

Then how did this process repeat in the French Revolution? The French Revolution at first was only a revolution in the city of Paris but it spread throughout France thanks to Napoleon. Also, Napoleon tried to export the revolution all over Europe through the formation of the European federation designed to contain British industrial capitalism. However, this was nothing but a war of conquest by which Napoleon envisioned to transform France into an empire of the land against Britain, which was at the time, an empire of the sea. This led to Napoleon's defeat: his attempt ended in tragedy.

Then how about the French Revolution of 1848? It draped itself precisely as the revolution of 1789. Luis Bonaparte made full use of the fact that he was Napoleon's nephew. He propagated Napoleonic Ideas (des id?es napol?oniennes), which was supposed to make France more prosperous and efface class struggle permanently. But the plans he implemented were counterfeits of the earlier ideas. This is why Marx added: history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.

In my History and Repetition, I located in modern Japanese history what Marx meant by repetition. Firstly, it was political repetitiveness. As I stated earlier, the Meiji Restoration of 1868 realized a bourgeois revolution premised on restoring the ancient direct rule of the emperor. The ongoing Restoration led to a civil war in 1878 (the 10th year of the Meiji era) called Seinan War during which the democratic leader Saigo Takamori killed killed himself in battle, making him a martyr who died for the perpetual Meiji Restoration. Meanwhile, despite claiming to restage the Meiji Restoration and to inherit the spirit of Saigo Takamori, the Showa Restoration of the 1930s paved the way for a fascist take over of the state. The February 26th incident in 1935 (the 10th year of Showa era) symbolizes this transition. In this regard, we can also say that history repeated itself; the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

The second repetition Marx grasped was an economic one. This is the business cycle, which is intrinsic to the process of capitalist accumulation. In fact, this can be found in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. The backdrop of this political process was an economic crisis that required powerful leadership, i.e. the emperor. Already in his early work, Marx saw the repetitive structure inherent in the modern world system of state and capital, or in the domains of politics and economics. 

However, Marx dealt most comprehensively with the question of repetition, meaning, with the question of crisis in Capital. Nevertheless, his theory of business cycle was not sufficient because the cycle he observed in Capital lasted only 8 to 10 years, which was later called the "Juglar wave." The Marxist theorist Nikolai Kondratiev later observed a longer wave of business cycles lasting 50 to 60 years. Business cycles of nearly 60 years have now become the general standard of world capitalism.

It is safe to say that the cyclical nature of the history of modern world system can be attributed to these business cycles. Naturally, this applies to Japan as well. Moments ago, I mentioned that I happened to notice some correspondence between the Meiji era and the Showa era but this was no mystery. When combined, the Meiji era and the Taisho era spanned nearly 60 years. So the correspondence between the Meiji era and the Showa era is not a question particular to Japan for it is determined by world capitalism and its 60-year cycles.

When we say that history repeats itself, what counts is not the events that repeat but the structure of repetition. Sometimes, the structure of repetition may accompany the event. For example, the events in the Meiji era and the Showa era resemble each other. What remains crucial is not to focus on the mere similarities of events, for they can be deceptive, but to comprehend the repetitive structure behind them. For instance, many people talked about how the Lehman Shock of 2008 resembles the crisis of 1929. In addition, the incident was deemed the worst financial crisis in a century. But these superficial observations are only capable of identifying phenomenal events and remain ignorant of the underlying structure of repetition.  

Following Hegel, Francis Fukuyama pronounced the end of history around 1990, but I was convinced that history would repeat itself. The state and capital are bound to repetition due to their inherent contradiction. History would remain repetitive insofar as these contradictions remain unresolved.  So in the 1980s, I anticipated that the coming decade of the 1990s would repeat the 1930s.  However, I began to think in the 1990s that my speculation might not be entirely correct, although my hypothesis did not completely miss the mark. For example, the Grossraumwirtschaft or the Third Empire proclaimed in Germany in the 1930s and the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere in Japan, were, in a certain sense, restaged in the 1990s. European Union materialized in Europe and a variety of groups in East Asia expressed their desire to form an economic and political alliance. In one form or another, the events that took place 60 years ago were repeated.  

At the same time, however, drastic difference between these contemporary phenomena and those of the prewar period cannot be denied. For these reasons, I was dissatisfied with the contents of my thesis, which was essentially based on observations I made in the 1980s. Yet it was not long before that I realized there was no need to make any fundamental correction-for it was only a matter of doubling the span of repetition in history to 120 years from 60 years. To put it concretely, the significant events following 1990 resembled the patterns from 120 years ago and not 60. For instance, the politics and economics of post-1990 have been referred to as "neo-liberalism," but they, in fact, mirror the post-1870 imperialism.

Undeniably, there are 60-year economic cycles but what caused the 120-year political cycles to appear? Immanuel Wallerstein sheds a light on this matter. It is generally believed that the period in the middle of the 19th century is liberalist, which became imperialist toward the end of the century. But Wallerstein no longer regarded liberalism and imperialism as successive and unrepeatable stages. In other words, he observed "liberalism" and "imperialism" as cyclical processes rather than linear historical stages. According to him, the world system operates as "liberalism" when there is a hegemonic state. In contrast, the age of "imperialism" is how the world system functions when the hegemonic state enters a period of decline yet no state is powerful enough to take the lead - hence, a period of struggle continues.  

According to Wallerstein, only three nations have achieved hegemony in the modern world economy: Holland, Great Britain, and the United States.  When the hegemonic Holland was liberalist, the fledgling England was a mercantilist (protectionist) nation. In addition, Holland was a republic and not an absolute monarchy. The nation's capital Amsterdam was an exceptional city where Descartes and Locke went into voluntary exile and where Spinoza was able to live in peace. This also explains why the Tokugawa government of Japan permitted trading with Holland despite its strict isolationist policy. 

According to Wallerstein, a state gains economic hegemony, first in the domain of manufacturing, then in commerce and finance. It is quite rare for a state to gain superiority in all three domains, as it is also difficult to sustain. But it means that the hegemonic state never collapses easily, because it is able to maintain hegemony over commerce and finance even if its dominance in manufacturing weakens. That was the case with Holland and Britain. The same can be said of the United States since the 1970s.

However, imperialism is not unique to the period after 1880. When Holland lost its hegemony, there was a period of political and economic strife between England and France to become the successor. As I mentioned before, the French Revolution must be seen in this context of imperialist phase when Napoleon tried to establish an empire against Britain. But with France's defeat, it was Britain's turn to be the next hegemon. The stage of liberalism (1810-1870) began.

Lenin considered imperialism after 1880 as "the highest stage of capitalism," but deducing from the above historical case, this imperialism can be described as the stage when Britain began to lose its hegemonic grasp as a result of the rise of other nations such as Germany, the U.S., and Japan, among others that fiercely competed for its hegemony. And this led to the victory of the United States around 1930. Thus, the liberalist and imperialist stages take place alternately. And each stage lasts for about 60 years. That is why similar aspects appear in modern world history every 120 years. I am not sure if this law would hold up in the future but I think this hypothesis is heuristically useful. 


Table 2: Stages of Global Capitalism

Global capitalism MercantilismLiberalismImperialismLate capitalismNeo liberalism
Hegemon Mode (Imperialist)Great Britain (Liberalist)(Imperialist)United States (Liberalist)(imperialist )
CapitalMerchant capitalIndustrial capitalFinance capitalState monopoly capitalMultinational capital
Global commodityWoolen textilesFiber textilesHeavy industryDurable consumer goodsInformation


AbsolutismNation-stateImperialismWelfare stateRegionalism



Based on these historical examples, it may be said that the imperialist period came to an end in the late 1930s, when the U.S. established its hegemony. And we swing back to the imperialist stage after 1990, when the United States lost its dominance. This view may seem counterintuitive. Germany and Japan challenged the United States in the 1930s and Soviet Russia challenged the United States after World War II. The Cold War ended with the victory of the United States. So it was generally accepted that the United States achieved an overall hegemony at last. That is one reason that compelled Francis Fukuyama to declare the end of world history.

But the truth is that the U.S. was hegemonic only prior to the 1990s. As illustrated by the removal of the dollar from the gold standard, the U.S. economy has been declining since the 1970s because of the increasing competition from Germany and Japan in manufacturing. The U.S. still remained dominant in finance and commerce after 1990s but this is a common experience for a declining hegemonic nation, as demonstrated by Holland and Britain. 

To repeat, the American hegemony from 1930 to 1990 made a liberalist period, which is usually regarded as the Cold War period. Yet, the Cold War era was in fact a peaceful and liberalist period.  During that time, the various advanced capitalist nations cooperated in opposing the Soviet Bloc as a common enemy.  On the domestic front, they adopted the policy of regulating financial capital and monopoly capital and advancing social welfare and the labor protection laws, because they feared that otherwise, socialist revolution could very well take place in their own country. Thus, despite their hostile and revolutionary outward stance, the Soviet Bloc and the domestic socialist parties, far from presenting a threat to world capitalism, worked to supplement and stabilize world politics. 

After World War Ⅱ, postcolonial nations constituted the third world besides the Soviet Bloc (the second world), but this did not drive the first world nations into a corner because the accumulation of capital was achieved within the first world. More important, the center of manufacturing shifted from heavy industry to durable goods such as automobiles and electric appliances after the 1930s. As a result, affluent consumer societies in which workers purchased products they themselves produced began to take shape. The Cold War regime never actually posed a serious threat to world capitalism steered by American hegemony, allowing liberalism to flourish.

However, this period of liberalism did not last for long. It reached a saturation point in the early 1970s. The decline of the average rate of profit became more visible - which continues to this day - and the lack of viable places to invest caused chronic superabundance of capital. World capitalism has harbored a serious crisis ever since.  

The first step taken by capital to procure higher profit to make up for the low average rate of profit is to cut taxes, which translates to reducing social welfare and public works. The second step is to deregulate financial capital. The third step is to export capital, that is, to seek cheap labor and new consumer markets abroad at the expense of domestic workers. The export of capital, according to Lenin, is the characteristic of imperialism but the same is true of new liberalism and globalization. These policies are responsible for the growing disparity between the rich and the poor and the increase in unemployment.

It is clear now that neo-liberalism is a new form of imperialism, and not a new liberalism. Hannah Arendt observed Britain's shift from liberalism to imperialism and remarked that capital, liberated from the yoke of the nation, achieved supreme power in imperialism. This applies to neo-liberalism, which carried out tax cuts, deregulated and exported capital. Ideologically, neo-liberalism is similar to imperialism. The key notions deployed in neo-liberalism are "self-help", "free competition," "winners," and "losers." This is no more than an updated Social Darwinism - that espouses the survival of the fittest - which held sway after 1870. 

Globalization has managed to abate the crisis of world capitalism since the 1970s by shifting territories and resources that once belonged to the third and second world into the world market. China and India, among others, helped world capitalism to survive. This cannot last much longer. As a result of rapid economic growth, China is already facing the hike of wages and the saturation of consumption and an aging society with a declining birthrate. Competition and opposition between world capital and nation-states have intensified and conflicts among states and regions are worsening.

So, I have been encouraging people to look back 120 years if they would like to know where we are currently. At the least, this repetition applies to East Asia. The geopolitical structure in East Asia today was originally formed around the time of the Sino-Japanese War of 1894: Okinawa, Taiwan, South and North Korea, China, Japan, Russia and, last but not least the United States were formed during that period. About 120 years ago, the US entered East Asia by taking Hawaii and the Philippines, and maintains a military presence in Okinawa to this day. It should be noted that around that time the Unites States and Japan were more complicit than hostile in their imperialist ambitions, just as they are today. That is why we should look back to 120 years ago rather than to the 1930s in order to resolve the conflicts in this area,

That having said, I must admit, I realized after the 3.11 Earthquake in Japan that I have not paid enough attention to the history of that time. This occurred to me when I visited UC Irvine to give a series of talks in early April of that year. It was a horrible period after the great earthquake but I could not cancel the visit. I presumed I would be immune from thinking about the disaster during my stay in Southern California but that turned out to be not the case. It was rather distressing to find out that there is a nuclear power plant close to campus. Needless to say, the area is prone to earthquakes.  

Among the topics I covered in my lectures was the stages of world capitalism I mentioned minutes ago. But there was no particular response to it. So I was rather surprised by a taxi driver's comments on my way back to the airport. The driver said he was an immigrant from Soviet Russia. Noticing that I am Japanese, he began to talk about the earthquake. "You really had a hard time," he said, "but it's not Japan alone. There will be disasters everywhere from this year to the next. I am thinking of going back to Russia. If I have to die, I would like to die in my country."  

Curious as to what more he has to say, I asked him why he thought more disasters would strike in 2011 and 2012. He answered: "History repeats itself every 120 Years." I was flabbergasted by his comment: "Who said that?" He replied: "Everybody's saying so." "What happened 120 years ago, for example?" I asked him. He answered: "I don't know, but I guess there were a lot of things happening."

This was news to me. As far as I know, intellectuals normally do not say such outlandish things. But I had a hunch that there may be some truths to this taxi driver's observation. Back in Japan, I began to research events from 120 years ago. I did not come across any significant natural disaster in the United States but I did find out that the first May Day was held in 1890. The Haymarket Square case took place four years prior in Chicago. There was a mysterious explosion among the cops who were violently suppressing the demonstrators.  Then many workers were shot dead, and 8 anarchists were arrested and sentenced to death. The first May Day in 1890 was a culmination of these events that triggered a nation-wide anti-capitalist movement.

Then I dug deeper into the history of Japan and discovered that the Nobi Earthquake (the region including Gifu and Nagoya) in 1891 killed more than 7,000 people. In politics, the Imperial Constitution was promulgated in 1889 and the diet was established the following year as a result of the long-standing movement for freedom and people's rights. Yet, ironically, this very process to recognize democracy obfuscated the initial political aspiration. Most democrats became nationalists or imperialists. 

In addition, something else caught my attention. It was the case of the Ashio Copper Mine, whose runoff poisoned the farmlands along the Watarase River. The first farmers' demonstration against the Ashio Copper Mine was organized in 1890. I was already familiar with the case to some extent because it has been the constant source of reference for the environmentalist movements in Japan. But this time, I saw the case in a new light. I heard on the news that the earthquake on 3.11 cracked the spoil bank in the copper mine laid some one hundred years ago. As a result, poisonous waste was released into Watarase River again. Tochigi and Gunma prefectures, adjacent to Fukushima Prefecture, were affected by this leak. All of a sudden, the Ashio Copper Mine case of 120 years ago loomed up and overlapped with the Fukushima power plant accident.

The Ashio Copper Mine case is different in kind from the Minamata disease or other cases involving environmental pollution because it resembles the case of the Fukushima nuclear power plant. In the first place, the poison that seeped out of the mine was hard to remove and still remains there to this day. Of course the nuclear waste from the Fukushima power plant is far worse because it will remain in the area for tens of thousands of years. In the second place, 120 years ago, some tens of thousands of people in the area along the Watarase River were forced to leave their village for Hokkaido or somewhere else. This will also be the fate of the people in Fukushima. Farmers and fishermen have lost their home forever.

In the third place, in most striking similarity, both the Ashio Copper Mine and the Tokyo Electric Company are intimately linked to national policy. A man named Furukawa Ichibei ran the Ashio Copper Mine but it was hardly a private enterprise. This is the reason why the core powerbrokers of the Meiji State such as Mutsu Munemitsu and Hara Kei stubbornly denied and concealed the truth regarding the actual damages. Likewise, Tokyo Electric Power and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) continue to evade responsibility and hide the facts concerning the nuclear accident.

The Ashio case first drew attention around 1890. But despite the farmers' protests against the mine, the company continued to operate the copper mine that continuously discharged poison for a prolong period of time, lasting through the Sino-Japanese War in 1894 and the Russo-Japanese War in 1904. The Ashio Copper Mine was also directly linked to these wars. These connections provide a useful hint to think about nuclear power plants in Japan, where these facilities were constructed primarily for developing nuclear weapons. It was not simply for the sake of electricity that the state promoted nuclear power.

Finally, the most important aspect of the Ashio case is the protest movement that lasted for twenty years. The leader Shozo Tanaka is usually credited for organizing the movement but it was farmers who occupied the center of the struggle. Socialists composed the other center. One could say that Shozo Tanaka was the link between these two centers. 

The farmers kept up the tradition of peasant uprising going back to the Tokugawa Period. At the same time, citing the right of petition guaranteed by the Imperial Constitution, they attempted to rally all the way from Gunma prefecture to Tokyo. Their peaceful demonstration was brutally suppressed and hundreds of people were arrested, but the clash helped turn the nation's attention to the cause. 

Meanwhile, the socialists committed themselves to the Ashio case. When Tanaka resigned his seat in the Diet and attempted to appeal directly to the emperor, it was Shusui Kotoku who drafted an appeal on behalf of Tanaka. Upon Tanaka's request, the young anarchist socialist Kanson Arahata composed a book called The Fall of Yanaka Village. 

The meeting of Tanaka and these socialists was not accidental. Tanaka was a radical democrat who won a congressional seat in his first election. Behind the pro-democracy movement stood the political philosopher Chomin Nakae, who translated Rousseau and advocated freedom and popular rights. Most democrats converted to imperialism after the constitution and Diet were somewhat awkwardly founded in 1890, but Nakae Chomin maintained his position and became a socialist. And his disciple and secretary was Shusui Kotoku, who was later framed and hanged for high treason.

The first farmers' demonstration against the mine and the government took place in 1890. This is the Kawamata case. As I mentioned earlier, this is the year when the Diet opened its doors. In this regard, the Ashio case is not simply the beginning of environmentalism but also the origin of modern social movements in Japan. The protest movement against the Ashio mine was completely defeated with the fall of Yanaka village and K?toku Sh?sui was executed in 1911. These events took place soon after imperialist Japan annexed Korea. But the long-running protest movement against the Ashio mine did not end in vain, for it laid the foundation of the so-called Taisho democracy.  

Shortly after I returned from California last April, I came across a large demonstration against nuclear power. Unlike previous gatherings, this was a spontaneous and unexpected assembly. I began to join the demonstrations. Protest against nuclear power was not seen the United States but the Occupy Wall Street movement erupted in New York City in the middle of September and spread across the country and the rest of the world. One columnist for a Los Angeles newspaper impressed me in particular. The columnist wrote that contrary to the general perception that these events may be linked to the 1960s or 1930s, they reminded him instead of the social movements of the 1890s. 

I absolutely agree with this view but I would like to add that this is not unique to America. In the 1890s, that is, during the period of imperialism, similar events took place in numerous locations, namely India. The social movements spread across the world but more prominent of the incidents at the time were imperialist wars such as the Sino-Japanese War (1894) and the Spanish-American War (1898). These wars led to the First World War. Social movements could not prevent these major conflicts.

I am not saying that similar things will take place in our near future. In fact, it is highly likely that similar events would not take place. But I would like to reiterate this one last point: we must comprehend the structure of repetition instead of focusing on the similarity of phenomenal events. So long as we are subordinated to the repetitive structure of capital and state, we would find ourselves doing more or less the same thing. Therefore, we ought to be aware of the structure of repetition in our past unless we wish to see history repeat itself. 

(UCLA、April 5, 2012)