By Steve Light
The Japanese sociologist and left-wing political activist Osamu Mihashi passed away on December 29, 2015 at the age of 79. He was a dear friend and teacher and I will miss him in every way, profoundly. What a wonderful person he was and what a wonderful sense of humor he had! Every time we spoke we would laugh and laugh. In his presence or even during a phone conversation across oceans you felt the twinkle, the sparkle, the beautiful effervescence which were constituent elements of his personality. Yes, he was such a delightful person! You felt happy, glad, enthused in his presence, at the sound of his voice and its cadences, because of his smile and once again and always his absolutely endearing sense of humor which meant that joy was ever available in his presence. And above all he was a good person in the very best sense of the word, of this most important of all human aspects. My, how I miss him!
I met him when I was a beginning graduate student and he had come to Berkeley on a sabbatical to write a study of anti-black racism in the States. He would spend a semester in Berkeley, then at the University of Georgia, and then in New York and Boston and he would return to Japan by way of another stop in Berkeley. He had come to Berkeley and contacted me on the suggestion of his Wako University colleague, the philosopher and radical social and cultural theorist, Tetsuo Kogawa, whom I had come to know a year prior when Kogawa stopped in Berkeley on his return to Japan after a two-year sabbatical in New York.
Mihashi was born in 1936 and grew up in Tokyo in a house in the neighborhood adjacent to Tokyo University. His father was a graduate of the University and Mihashi also would attend Tokyo University. During the war many children were sent to the countryside to protect them from the bombing the city underwent. The family home did, however, survive the bombing raid of the night of March 9-10, 1945 which killed 130,000 or more civilians, injured a million or more, and destroyed a vast portion of the city. But life in the countryside was difficult too. Food was not plentiful and, in fact, the children were often set to digging up roots as a source of food and the main staple he told me was a root that for him had the foulest kind of smell, one he never would forget and in certain respects was one of the sources for his last book, which dealt with the question of smell in the socio-cultural economies, mediations, and mechanisms of Japanese modernity. But speaking of the war, Mihashi told me in the period when I first came to know him that generations in Japan related differently to the American occupation and Americans in general and with whimsy he said it had to do with interpersonal spatial perception. Speaking of the generation preceding his and citing the renowned radical literary theorist, Ichiro Hariu, whom he admired and whom I was able to meet thanks to Mihashi, he said Hariu’s generation was amiable with Americans because they could converse face to face and the generation who were still infants and who could only see Americans at knee level also grew up with amiability to Americans since initially Americans had been but an abstraction. But for his generation, who were no longer infants but not yet adults, they saw the Americans at their waist, as beings of domination and authority and, thereby, had ambiguous feelings and in instances a certain animus depending on biographical circumstance and the like. He laughed in that delightful way of his which showed precisely his delight at the complexities, paradoxes, and puzzles of human existence. Sociology should always carry a certain whimsy without of course relinquishing speculative and empirical rigor and politico-ethical impulse and it certainly did with him.
Mihashi was a character in the best and most endearing sense of the word. I remember the first time I visited him at his home in west Tokyo. He met me and my companion at a bus station (we had taken a bus from the subway station) in order to escort us the several blocks to his home. With his hair always cropped short in a crew cut and his solid build he had the look of a yakuza which was enhanced by his gait, so free and easy, so casual, yet determined too. We mentioned this and he of course laughed and laughed in delight and gave us to understand that he understood the ironies and the superb humor in the paradox which in certain respects he cultivated in the most insouciant and carefree of ways. And he said we were not the first to mention this. Actually, as a student in high school he had studied judo. This was very unusual because judo was the province of right-wing students. Left-wing students were not to be found in this realm. But for Mihashi while he understood the very valid socio-cultural and politico-ethical impetus and signification of the left-wing refusal, a socio-culture and ethics he carried within him and embodied in the best of ways nevertheless his suppleness enabled him to engage in judo and master it and he saw in this one more indication of the comedy of life and of the need to participate in this comedy in ways that would hopefully make the world a more delightful as opposed to less delightful place. And then again, knowing a martial art has its simple and pure pleasures.
Mihashi completed his undergraduate studies at Tokyo University in the late l950s and his graduate work there in the early l960s. Already as an undergraduate he was an active participant in the founding of the Japanese New Left and the radical Japanese student movement and he was at all the significant ANPO demonstrations in 1960 which opposed and sought to prevent the renewal of the security treaty between the United States and Japan. Eisenhower’s planned visit to speak to the Japanese parliament was cancelled because of the massive and sustained nature of the demonstrations which in the summer of 1960 constituted the culmination of a decade-long opposition to the treaty. One activist, the 22 year old Tokyo University student, Michiko Kanba, whom Mihashi knew, was killed during one of the demonstrations either by riot police or by right-wing groups who habitually attacked the demonstrators. And Mihashi remained active in all the struggles throughout the 60s and then and ever thereafter was at the absolute forefront in fighting racism and discrimination (of which in Japan the primary target groups have been the “untouchable class”, the Hisabetsu-buraku, and Japanese of Korean ancestry) and all other forms of social, political, racial, and economic injustice in Japan and elsewhere. The goodness of his person was expansive, with a beautiful and abiding social conscience, social commitment, and social generosity and — always it is the most admirable combination — with a deeply abiding empathy, care, and generosity in his interpersonal relationships.
His was an exemplary itinerary, the very best kind of itinerary. Recently the physicist, Yoshitaka Yamamoto, who had been a student at Tokyo University a few years after Mihashi and who became a principal leader of the Zenkyoto current in the left-wing Japanese student movement in the l960s, wrote a memoir which includes an account of his political activism, Watakushi-no 1960-nendai [My 1960s] (Tokyo: Kin’yobi, 2015). It is good to have his narration and reflections, but it is a pity that Mihashi didn’t write such a volume. His politics were always among the most nuanced and wise — he always avoided orthodoxy, dogmatism, and sectarianism — among those in the Japanese New Left, indeed, in the New Left in any other country too, and therefore his optic would have been so much the more valuable in a sustained narrative. It was my good fortune in my dialogues with him over the years to be able to receive his political and politico-historical reflections, analyses, and wisdom. I actually suggested to him once that he write a volume about his political activity and about his political reflections but he said that his role was but a modest one. I replied that modest or not it was the wisdom of his socio-political thinking and the beautiful fidelity and commitment he showed to social struggle and social justice that was paramount. I could tell he appreciated this but I also knew that his modesty, never false, probably did preclude him from writing such a memoir and account.
In the 1960s after completing his graduate degrees he worked as a sociological researcher but in the early 1970s he was invited to take up a position at Wako University. Wako had been founded as an alternative university, one that sought to be less rigid, less bureaucratic, less hierarchical in its pedagogical and administrative practices and Mihashi was naturally attracted to this. The founders of the University had been on the Left and had suffered imprisonment and in instances torture during the war. Of course many political prisoners perished. The Marxist philosopher, Jun Tosaka, and the Existential Marxist philosopher, Kiyoshi Miki, are but two of the more famous examples, Tosaka dying a month before the war’s end from mistreatment and malnutrition and Miki a month after the war because of the same circumstances. This was of course but a continuation of the repression and decimation of the Left carried out by authoritarian and militarist Japanese regimes in the first half of the century. The murder in prison by secret police of the anarchist theoretician, Osugi Sakae, and his companion, the anarchist and feminist writer, Noe Ito, under the cover of the pogroms carried out against Japanese of Korean descent in the days following the massive l923 Tokyo earthquake, and the execution of the leading anarchist of the pre-World War I period, Shusui Kotoku along with 12 other anarchists and socialist comrades upon the conclusion of their trial on fabricated charges of having “plotted against the Emperor” being but the most well-known examples. The courage and steadfastness of Wako University’s founders could not but add to Mihashi’s esteem for them and for the University’s project. He told me that while their politics belonged to the Old Left and increasingly to the accomodationist Left, of which of course he was not a partisan, that mattered not at all because it was their personal courage and politico-ethical fortitude that was above all what counted and resonated within him.
A couple of weeks after he first came to Berkeley he was able to sublet an apartment in the same building in which I lived with my companion. So in the weeks following on many evenings we would get together and talk into the night. How much we learned from him in this period! And he was always very interested in our views and reflections not just in relation to the topic and themes of his research on racism, discrimination, and race in the U.S and the tradition and present circumstances of the black radical political movement, subjects which were central to my own interests and trajectories, but also in relation to the broad span of his interests and my own and my companion’s and of course socio-politics and socio-culture were themes to which we were attached and our socio-political views were very much in tune. But again and always, first and primary, how much we laughed! His humor touched on so much and in such lovely and exhilarating ways. And I always come back to so many memories of this or that moment in which his humor was at its vivifying best. Yes, often I return in memory and in narration to the story he told us in this period about how he came up with the title of a book he had written on the sociology of the body. The title of the book was Tobenai Karada [The Body Which Does Not Fly]. In the evenings when he would go up to his study to read, write, and prepare for classes, he would drink whiskey. The study was on the second level, a mezzanine. One night, late, his wife and son already asleep, he came out of his study in order to descend the stairs and prepare for bed. But his inebriation got the better of him and suddenly over the mezzanine rail he stumbled. At this point he looked at us with his smile of smiles and his twinkle of twinkles and waving his arms as if wings, and already laughing, exclaimed: “Suddenly I was flying!” He fell to the first level and there was a resounding crash awakening his wife and son. But he was unharmed, luckily. Was it because his inebriation took away the possibility of resisting the fall and thereby exacerbating its impact or was it an instinct of his judo training or both or merely just pure luck? It didn’t matter really and while he liked the notion of pure luck a great deal, he delighted even more in the notion that he had gained his safety by virtue of the sweet reverie of inebriation. And so was born the title of the book in question. Yes, I have narrated this story over the years to friends and relatives and my delight in it has never ceased, indeed, grows with each telling, which is to say my delight in him, my vivid and profound affection and love for him, always warms me in the most special and beautiful of ways.
There are people who can tell stories, funny stories, seemingly about anything. And often the humor produced is not just a function of the story, but of the manner of presentation, of the intonation not just of speech but of the person’s entire being. With Mihashi, who had the wondrous gift of sparkle and twinkle in his personality and a wondrous gift for the humor and the comedy of life, the stories would give one to sweet and invigorating laughter and especially because one was participating in his delight and laughter in which he made you a very special intimate. And his turns of phrase and speech and their resonating charm were such that they were unforgettable and they would come to me and I would repeat them in various contexts and at various times for the pleasure they gave me, the warmth they gave me, as a way of bringing him into immediate presence. “It was beyond my expectation” he would sometimes say and his cadence, not quite in idiomatic English (and he was actually here translating directly in his speech the Japanese phrase, kitai-o koetamono datta) would make me smile every time. Or even more the way he would sometimes say, “I wonder”, a direct translation into English of the Japanese, dokana, and in which phrase would reverberate the openness of the particular topic or question or the comedic or paradoxical elements there-in. And this was also true of another favorite expression of his which I loved and which he uttered with a grin of the sweetest and most impish kind, “maybe” (tabun) at once signifying possibility, paradox, and a kind of discretion which simultaneously brought you into even closer intimacy with his thinking on the subject.
His stories stayed always fresh. In the 1 960s he was at the wedding of a friend. There was a demonstration planned for that day, but he was obliged to attend the wedding. Yet, when it was concluded there was still time to get to the demonstration. And he did so. But he was carrying with him the gifts given to wedding guests and which traditionally are wrapped in a silk cloth, a furoshiki, with which you carry the bag or package. At the demonstration there was a moment when he felt as if it would be necessary to use the furoshiki to fend off or protect himself from the advancing police, or perhaps throw it at them as a gesture of protest but he felt he could not for if he threw it or if it were knocked from his hand the police would be able to identify the wedding party on the basis of the furoshiki, and thereby he would involve others in trouble that was in no way their’s. And so he knew there was nothing for it but to retreat quickly so as to save the tell tale sign. He told me this story in the earliest days of our friendship and as was the case with so many of his stories, his laughter would precipitate him immediately into another story, and another episode of our laughter and our appreciation of our ever available human comedy if also and necessarily of life’s tragedies too. On and on into the night we would speak and laugh. How much we laughed over the years and how much I learned — and above all how much pleasure, wonderful pleasure, he brought to me and to my life and, doubtless, to so many others too.
About six weeks before he was to leave Berkeley for Georgia, his wife and his son, ten years old at the time, came to Berkeley. They were going to spend time in the Bay Area, then visit Los Angeles and then Mexico. It did surprise me, however, given the calm and serene aspects of his personality, when speaking of the impending visit of his wife and son and their trip to Los Angeles and Mexico, and his concern to make sure they would have a wonderful time, he said, his face turning serious ,”I have anxiety”. He said this in seriousness but there was such sweetness in it too and once again I had a vivid sense of his lovely and encompassing empathy and care. His wife, Yoko Mihashi, a charming woman, was a poet, a very fine and marvelous poet. Her two volume collection, which she brought out in 2001, Madobe-no Gariba (Gulliver at the Window) [Volume 1: Kasa Tatemaseru (To Have the Umbrella Closed)]; Volume 2: Kaze-no Haishin (Winds of Betrayal)], in its affective and ideational registers gives rise to that kind of resonance within us whereby we immediately recognize that poetry’s most sought after promise has not only been offered but has been kept in sounded depths and expansive charms. I remember this visit with such fondness. During the days they stayed in Berkeley the three of them and my companion and I had dinners together many times and the gaiety, warmth, and laughter of these evenings stays with us always. We all knew that a lifetime friendship was burgeoning, indeed, already firmly existed among us. What gaiety, what splendid times! And every time thereafter when we would get together.
Before their departure for Los Angeles and Mexico, we all took a trip to Yosemite and spent two days there. More gaiety, more joy. And the several hours drive there and back was a duration of time we scarcely noticed since Mihashi regaled us all with stories and his ever abundant observations which would so very often find the most humorous kind of expression. On the way back I remember we were talking about Japanese novelists and when Mishima came up, Mihashi said, “Ah, well, for us in Japan, Mishima is someone who we know is celebrated in the West but we are not sure why!” The concluding part of the phrase struck me immediately because Masao Miyoshi, a marvelous professor in the English Department at Cal, and with whom I had very friendly relations, had not too long before that used the same phrase in a different context. He was speaking of a former doctoral student of his (he had been her dissertation committee chairman), who now, by great luck and circumstance (her husband was a tenured professor in another department) had been awarded a position in the same department in which she had received her Ph.D, a practice that is generally avoided by university departments. “She won’t talk to me anymore,” he said, and then he added: “She thinks she is somebody, I don’t know why!” Miyoshi too had a great sense of humor and was an absolutely splendid fellow and I brought Mihashi to meet him knowing they would surely hit it off and be very much in tune in humor, in personal tenor, and in the incisive and vibrant left-wing radicalism of their politics and their spirit. Yes, when they spoke the laughter would always be doubled — a wonderful pair, and wonderful to be in their presence. They admired and liked each other greatly and each would always thank me for having effectuated the introduction. In fact, subsequent to Mihashi’s sojourn in Berkeley, Kenzaburo Oe came for a semester. And Oe and Miyoshi were also wonderfully in tune and above all in humor and laughter. And had Mihashi been in town at the same time, well, Mihashi, Miyoshi and Oe would have formed the most wonderful and beautiful kind of trio!
And, then, Mihashi’s books were absolutely sui generis, sagacious, and sparkling. They should be better known in Japan and particularly elsewhere. Sabetsu ron Noto (Notes on Discrimination)(Tokyo: Shinsensha, 1973, revised 1986) was his first book. It was a brave and incisive book. In it, as I mentioned before, he took up the cause of the “untouchable caste,” the Hisabetsu-buraku and also the cause of another group that had historically and continuing in contemporary times faced discrimination and second-class citizenship, Japanese of Korean ancestry. The Hisabetsu-buraku Liberation League welcomed the book and welcomed him as an estimable and courageous partisan of their cause. And his second book was the aforementioned, Tobenai Karada: Shintai-sei no Shakaigaku (The Body Which Does Not Fly: A Sociological Essay on Contemporary Japanese Society)(Tokyo: Sanseido, 1982) followed by Konchikusho Ko: Edo no Shinseishi (On Konchikusho: A History of Mind in the Edo Period)(Tokyo: Sukuru Shuppanbu, 1992), Meiji no Sekushuariti: Sabetsu Shinseishi (Sexuality in the Meiji Period: A Psychological History of Discrimination)(Sukuru Shuppanbo, 1999), and his last book, to which I alluded earlier, Sakkawa Nanio Kaidekitaka: Nioi Aruiwa Kansei-no Rekishi (What Writers Have Smelled: Smell and the History of Sensibility) (Gendai Shokan, 2009). I loved the way he would tell me in his characteristic combination of intellectual rigor and existential humor about his books and how he had come to them. Certainly he was the most supple and sagacious of social thinkers, but his books had a very special flavor not often found in scholarly books and in social theories, because, not surprisingly, ever and always his books and analyses where imbued — and this enhanced the incisiveness of his thinking — with that very special humor of his. Has there ever been such a beautiful union of conceptual grace and rigor and a humor in which life and existence are brought into greater immediacy and greater resonance?! Certainly in this respect and in others his was a contribution of the most marvelous “rhapsody, verve, and improvisation!” And it would be splendid if one or more of his books could be translated into English and into other languages as well. Where start? Perhaps with his last book in which he analyzes works by some of Japan’s leading 20th Century novelists, i.e. Akutagawa, Kawabata, Mishima, etc. in relation to the depiction of smell in the various novels so as to decode changing aspects of Japanese sociological and cultural modernity since the time of the Meiji era.
Yes, I loved the way he would tell me about his books, but then it could not be otherwise, because he was a conversationalist, a raconteur, and, once again and always, a humorist of the first order. And how vivid and marvelous were his descriptions of his travels among which was a trip he and his wife took to Venice and Istanbul. I should have transcribed his descriptions! They would have made the best kind of travel memoirs. But then this had been true from the very start, from his commentary about our Yosemite trip, his depiction to me and my companion of the trip to Mexico with his family when first we met, and so on and so forth through the years. And Istanbul and Venice became the topics of two of Yoko Mihashi’s poems, poems that were among her own favorites. At one point Mihashi took part in a research visit with several sociology and other social science colleagues to Mongolia. They produced a book which in addition to the scholarly articles contained travel narrations and many pictures. With great delight Mihashi told me that so soon as he set foot in Mongolia, because of his physiognomic features, people immediately welcomed him as a brother returned home! He delighted in this as he did in so much else in the world and in the life he lived.
In his final years at Wako before retiring from teaching he was asked to become the president of the University. He didn’t feel suited to this position by virtue of personality and politics, but he felt a debt to the University and to its founders, and so he took up the position and worked to the utmost to acquit the necessary tasks and to contribute in whatever ways possible to an institution he felt valuable. His politics and his ethical fortitude were of the highest character and were carried by his deep understanding and commitment to producing in all his interactions the very best kind of intersubjective community and enhancement.
After retiring from Wako, he continued to write — his last book was the product of this period — and he continued to contribute articles to various publications. He also wrote a study in which he presented a politico-historical and socio-cultural analysis and critique of the trajectories of Japan’s social and media orders in the opening decade of our present century. The study rested in part on a politico-semiological analytic of mediatistic iconographies at once pictorial and discursive. But unfortunately the editor-in-chief of the publisher which was going to bring out the book discovered that costs in relation to copyright restrictions on a plenitude of images which were to be included in the book were too great to permit publication. Mihashi did, however, present his theses and his analyses in a series of lectures in various places. In addition to his writing projects he also gave himself to teaching classes in adult schools, again in keeping with his character and politics. And in addition to lectures in various academic venues he also gave lectures in popular venues related to his teaching at adult schools and the like. And he took up painting! He went to painting classes and he would send me images of his paintings. They were in the realist vein and those of, as he said, an amateur. But when he sent me the first images I leaped up from my seat, my! how vivid the colors and what, yes!, sparkle and verve in his paintings! I will be honest, “it was beyond my expectation!” There was a wonderful painting of an older woman resting on a bench outside a temple holding a parasol and another superb painting of a black couple sitting in a romantic embrace on a park bench in Tokyo. And his nudes transcended the normal art student depictions in the vivacity of an uncanny of cheer and conviviality so characteristic of his humor and joie de vivre. And then there was his startling and marvelous self-portrait. All his verve, all his humor, all his twinkle and whimsy were in this portrait which yet carried in it that resonating depth of feeling and encompassing socio-existential comprehension and somber affection which were hallmarks of his character and beautiful solidity and in which one felt the entwining of the seriousness of life and its tragicomic reverberations. What would have happened had he taken up painting when young?! But it was marvelous to have the paintings he created in this period of his life.
I will miss Osamu Mihashi ever and always. But always I feel the vibrant warmth of his friendship, the splendor of his incisive, intricate, and brilliant mind, and the marvels and joys of his humor and his person. Yes, his person, this good man, this very good man, this best of persons, this most delightful of persons.
Steve Light, a basketball point-guard following upon Nate Archibald, Pete Maravich, and Willie Somerset — and akin as well to Steve Nash, Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, and Earl Boykins — is also a philosopher and poet.