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Chōkōdō Shujin explores the definition of “culture” and delves into the contrasting traits of Eastern and Western societies, while expressing concern about the fading influence of Goethe’s philosophy in modern Western society, which is increasingly driven by materialism and technology at the expense of spirituality and other traditional values.

Let me begin by explaining the meaning of the word “culture.” In the 1871 treatise Primitive Culture, English anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor described culture as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”

The English word “culture” was derived from the same Latin root as the German word Kultur and the French word culture, but there is no need to examine this at the moment. The Latin cultura stems from colere, meaning “to cultivate.” It refers to the process of comparing human life to the soil and applying all kinds of ingenuity and effort to raise it from its primitive state to an ideal state. So, then, how should we interpret the word “culture?” Rousseau held that culture affects political life by either fostering or discouraging civic virtue. However, it must be made clear that although the concept as expressed in words comes from the West, its substance is not something that exists only in the West and not in the East. In other words, just as the West has its own Western culture, and just as Western culture is unique to each country while having some similarities, each country in the East has its own unique culture, and in the East, as in the West, it is a special concept that has been defined in a certain way for a long time. It is just that the East has not always expressed it in a certain way as a special concept, as it is thought of in the West.

By the way, there are some fundamental differences between the West and the East in the ideal form of human life. In particular, cultures rooted in Confucianism and Taoism have a strictly defined cultural ideal; this is present, though less prominent, in Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Shinto. It is encouraged that all people strive towards a beautiful and noble ideal with sincerity and wholeheartedness. There is an ideal of life that goes far beyond the ideal of individual life, an ideal of life in all eight corners of the world. Eastern culture is rooted in this spirit and consists of the conviction, passion, and wisdom of the entire nation to utilize and further develop the spirit of the sublime. In his diaries, Dostoevsky wrote, “Neither a person nor a nation can exist without some higher idea. And there is only one higher idea on earth, and it is the idea of the immortality of the human soul, for all other ‘higher’ ideas of life by which humans might live derive from that idea alone.” Truly, it is lamentable that the modern West, influenced by an American milieu that can best be described as neo-Leninist, has strayed so far from the philosophy of Goethe. “Piety is not an end, but a means: a means of attaining the highest culture by the purest tranquility of soul,” Goethe wrote. “Hence it may be observed that those who set up piety as an end and object are mostly hypocrites.” Indeed, the modern leftists have created their own perverse definition of “piety,” and woe be unto anyone who dares question their ideological purity, even as they continue to live in flagrant violation of their own tenants.

Modern Western culture has taken the world by storm under another name: “civilization.” In twenty-first-century America, specifically, this concept is viewed with near reverence; it is precisely this concept that modern American atheists substitute for divinity. In other words, in the Anglosphere, technology and “civilization” have replaced both God and culture. Materialism has supplanted mysticism. The word “civilization” is more specific in meaning than “culture” and refers to the opposite of the words “barbaric” and “uncivilized,” but in reality it is literally a mechanical civilization as a result of the extreme scientific overdevelopment that accompanied it. Moreover, the goal of this “civilization” was to facilitate social life based on the happiness of the individual, and this ideal itself contained contradictions – namely, the collectivism so strongly espoused by many proponents of the progressive agenda. The fact that there is no end to human desire, and the fact that life, which on the surface seems so convenient and enjoyable, is, when one looks behind the scenes, an unbearably ugly and painful spectacle, have made it clear to all that mankind is not progressing, but is rather becoming a slave to materiality. To quote the Taishō novelist Takeo Arishima, speaking of his several miserable years spent in America, “He could not help but feel a certain bitter uneasiness in entertaining a world that looked so noble and dignified to outsiders but was so ineffectual to insiders that they felt a certain diffidence.” Modern “civilization” was, after all, originally a government. The novelist Sōseki Natsume described this phenomenon as “a national nervous breakdown,” while his disciple Ryūnosuke Akutagawa called schizophrenia “the American disease.”

Civilization was never meant to be civilized. A civilized country must have at least all the conditions of a great nation, and its morals, laws, and customs must be of high human value and universally accepted. True civilization is the technical manifestation of culture, but as I have said, Western civilization to date has been too hasty in its formulation and too slow in its spirit. This is because that spirit was not built on a solid national history, but was instead caught up in floating titles such as the vague ideals of “equality” and “progress,” while in reality it was only concerned with satisfying its own individual desires. Kitarō Nishida, influenced variously by Aristotle, Plato, and Immanuel Kant, said in his final writings, “When mankind, however, maximizes the human standpoint in a non-religious form, in a purely secular direction, the result is that the world negates itself and mankind loses itself. This has been the trend of European culture since the Renaissance, and the reason that such a thing as the decline and fall of the West has been proclaimed… The world then becomes mere play or struggle, and the possibility of a true culture is undermined.”

Nishida wrote during the first half of the twentieth century, when his own nation was in turmoil. But earlier in Japan, we also see an extreme example of what he describes, in which the Meiji Restoration brought about a change in the long-standing policy of national seclusion and the introduction of foreign literature, which was a united effort by the government to seek knowledge from all over the world. This happened exactly as the Emperor Meiji himself had intended. At that time, the phrase “civilization and enlightenment” was en vogue as a banner against what would soon come to be regarded as old-fashioned and perverse. Japan was neither barbaric nor uncivilized by nature, of course, but it had adopted the lead of Western civilization and was rapidly reforming its institutions and customs. This is what led to the slogan “civilization and enlightenment,” if only in a Western way. Even the word “culture” was a foreign import: the phonetic karuchā, as opposed to the usual bunka. Moreover, this imitation tended to be based on inadequate understanding. In a word, the Meiji Restoration brought about only an external and superficial modernization. Thus, the intellectuals of the time, while aware of the unobstructability of Western civilization, could hardly have derided their fellow countrymen’s externally motivated worship of the West as “the frivolity of civilization and enlightenment.”

The philosophical term karuchā came into use in Japan much later. To clarify the meaning of the word once more, “culture” is by no means a synonym for the previously mentioned “civilization and enlightenment,” but a century ago was interpreted in Germany and elsewhere as essentially “spiritual culture” as opposed to “material civilization.” However, this is the view of the scholar of German literature and medicine, the novelist and surgeon Ōgai Mori, and may not be the case in general. In France, for example, the word “civilization” is used instead of “culture.”

The definition of “culture,” then, is a matter of some difficulty when considered philosophically, but in the simplest terms possible, it can be said to be “”the development of all human mental powers and their harmonious development.” It can also be called “any expression of life in which man strives to devise and pursue his ideals.” Culture in the broad sense of the word should include history, mythology, literature, art, politics, economics, military affairs, diplomacy, education, religion, entertainment, and all other aspects of daily life. It was Nietzsche who said, “Every culture that has lost myth has lost, by the same token, its natural healthy creativity. Only a horizon ringed about with myths can unify a culture.” A culture that sacrifices the ephemeral for the concrete cannot rightly be called such. By the way, culture in the narrowest sense of the term refers to the technical “mindset” or “practice” in which human spiritual power is highly exercised in its purest form. This is the essence of culture.

Leaving the academic explanation for now, the meaning of the word “culture” in its most common usage can be summarized as “the mindset and methods of our entire lives that we continually build upon and enrich with our traditions in order to achieve the ideals of our people.”

The “life” of which I speak refers to, of course, both material and spiritual life. If food, clothing, and shelter are the material aspects of life, then the workings of intellect, emotion, and will are the spiritual aspects of life. This “life of the mind” – thinking, learning, believing, loving, fighting, suffering, respecting, and feeling beauty – is the most human manifestation of man, but it is also where man’s most precious power lies. The arts, morality, and religion are all designed to enrich, strengthen, and purify this “life of the mind,” and, conversely, from a rich, powerful and pure spiritual life, deep learning, beautiful art, high morality, and a rich religion can be born.

Moreover, it is this “life of the mind” that is the driving force of material life and gives it at least a semblance of order and dignity. This is because, even if we take art as an example, human beings do not simply appreciate a work of art selected at random. And the artist, or at least one of any competence, does not simply paint something at random. It is necessary for him to choose a subject, to create a composition based on his own aesthetic criteria, and to have the mental work and “skill” of painting, which is already in the realm of mental activity. In addition, while the artist should be beholden to neither the state nor to the masses, he must also develop the habit of appealing to some sort of audience, even if he is an artist for art’s sake. Moreover, there is the etiquette of gallery showings, which should include his gratitude for those who express appreciation for the art he has created. In this light, it is difficult to say that the issue of art, alone, is separate from spiritual life.

It is no exaggeration to say that if one travels to other countries to see the distinct artistic traditions, one can already judge an aspect of a country’s “culture” from that alone. Profit should not be an issue, nor is the degree of wealth or poverty. However, I have often experienced how a person’s cultural level or characteristics can be clearly demonstrated by their conception of art, the manner in which art is displayed, the esteem with which it is regarded, and the overall atmosphere.

Let me now touch on the issue of “spirit and technique.” The word “spirit” has been used a great deal since ancient times, but sometimes it is used only vaguely to mean “mind,” and more often it is used with a limited meaning, such as “morality,” “will,” “brain,” or “thought.” Furthermore, some sometimes use the word “spirit” instead of “disposition,” “measure,” or “guts.” I think that, in other words, words such as “spirit is the key to success” could easily be interpreted as meaning “will.”

At one time, during the Victorian era, the term “spiritualism” was also popular. It is of course similar to the old term “spiritualist,” but it has a kind of derisive connotation. If, for example, it is spiritualism to disregard the material and formal aspects and try to solve everything with the mind alone, then it is extreme “unspiritualism” to be preoccupied with immediate, material interests.

This brings us to the question of spirit and technology. Although the two are not originally opposed to each other, the fact is that spirit alone is not accompanied by technology, and the phenomenon is often seen in many areas where only technology is respected and the spirit is forgotten. The spirit in this case is, to put it simply, the soul, an extremely subtle and solemn thing that alone has no power in the real world, and without which everything would be spiritless.

Human actions and words all have a different value depending on how this “soul” is put into them. Politics, economics, diplomacy, military affairs, education – all of these are specialized skills related to the development of a country, but just like literature, art, or religion, if they do not have a soul, they will remain lacking in any real value, no matter how well presented they may be.

The word “technology” is also used in a very broad sense. There is nothing that cannot be called technology, including engineering technology through the application of physics and chemistry, research technology in the humanities, the operation of laws, business management technology, the handling of national affairs at large, and book-keeping at small scale. I need not mention the abominable theocratic, medical and technological totalitarianism that has influenced the whole of society beginning in 2020. “In a time of deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act,” George Orwell wrote in 1984. During “these trying times,” revolutionaries were few and far between, and so for three years, medicine became, essentially, a state-mandated religion.

In short, while technology can at times be the most rational means of achieving an action through human knowledge and experience, it is not something that can completely and thoroughly achieve its purpose simply through knowledge and experience, and moreover, it is easily subject to human manipulation. As I have said before, depending on how the soul, or spirit, is put into it, the technology can be said to live or die. In this way, when we consider the issue of “spirit and technology,” it can be said that the height of “culture” is determined by the way the two are connected. Especially in nations with little respect for their own history, namely America and Australia, for three years, machine ruled over humanity, and humanity embraced what can only be described as a technocratic anti-culture.

Where technology is born, there is always a relationship with nature. Where technology develops, it is always connected to the conditions of human life. The Eastern view of nature brings technology extremely close to the forms of nature, whereas the technology of modern, progressive Westerners is more a reverse of the laws of nature and ends up overpowering nature. Indeed, during this three-year period, science attempted to defy death itself; to deify life, regardless of any human cost. “The press, the machine, the railway, the telegraph are premises whose thousand-year conclusion no one has yet dared to draw,” Nietzsche wrote. Perhaps even more presciently, Aldous Huxley wrote, “People will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”

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Chōkōdō Shujin

Chōkōdō Shujin is an artist in the tradition of the Shirakaba-ha,or White Birch School, of Japanese literature. As such, his work is strongly grounded in aesthetics, pessimism, and a strong skepticism towards modernity and technological “advancements.” A believer in art for art’s sake, Shujin is a poet, essayist, novelist, and hack writer of short stories. His translations of Japanese literature into English can be found on his substack:, and Twitter account: @CShujin. His hobbies include smoking cigarettes and thinking unpleasant thoughts. He resides in Aomori, Japan.

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