Trans-cultural Mobility and the Changing Notion of “Universality”: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Finding ‘Universality’

Title: 1295 | Trans-cultural Mobility and the Changing Notion of “Universality”: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Finding ‘Universality’
Area: Border Crossing and Inter-Area
Stream: Translation
Presentation Type: Panel Presentation
Norimasa Fujimoto, International Research Center For Japanese Studies, Japan (organizer, presenter)
Gouranga Charan Pradhan, International Research Center for Japanese Studies, Japan (presenter)
Tamara Schneider, Doshisha University, Japan (presenter)
Kenta Funahashi, Ryukoku University, Japan (chair)


The concept of "universality" once played a critical role in our understanding of culture. However, over the years, the concept has been criticized, mainly for its western centric foundation and fantasizing an idealized modernity. It is argued that universality has different meanings at diverse situations, for instance at local and trans-cultural levels, making our understanding of the concept dynamic and plural.

Universality, however remains critical to human activities because of its cognitive and social traits. Especially, in a highly globalized and connected world, it is important to know how the idea of universality is translated in the context of trans-cultural mobility and differentiated historicity. This panel takes a multidisciplinary approach and attempts to trace the historical understanding of the concept from three different fields: literature, religion, and art in the context of Japan’s interactions with the world.

The first paper by Gouranga deconstructs the universal-particular dichotomy, analyzing the global circulation of a Japanese literary text called Hōjōki (1212) during late ninetieth and early twentieth century. He explores the possibility of the role of translation practice to overcome this dichotomy. Then, Fujimoto discusses the history of Christian thoughts mainly in nineteenth century Japan to explore the ideational circulation of universal-particular. His studies show the plural meaning of universality in the trans-cultural contexts. Schneider, in the final paper, criticizes the universal criterion of aesthetics, focusing on the artist’s reactions to catastrophes and disasters. She shows that our understanding of universality is intertwined with social context and emerges from the social needs.

Panel Abstracts:
Can Religion Be Universal?: Tracing the Historical Circulation of Universal-particular Conception of Religion Between Japan and the World
The notion of “religion” has undergone a great transformation in modern Japan due to Japan's bid to modernize its society. To understand this shift, much research has already been done, especially with reference to Western debates over the concept of “World Religions”. This concept categorizes religions into two groups: “universal” or “ethnic,” that in other words is “universal” or “particular”. Although this universal-particular distinction is not intrinsic to religion but is invented, it is introduced into Japan during Meiji era and as a result, the traditional concept of “religion” in Japan has undergone a great change. In this shift, Christianity has brought a typical example of “universality” of religion into Japan. However, at first, Japanese Christians try to grab the concept in the Japanese cultural context. Later they deconstruct it in the circulative way: “particular” and “universal”. This deconstruction exposes the plural nature of “universality” in the trans-cultural contexts and provides a critical view to understand the issues between “universalities”. In this presentation I take up a protestant Japanese Christian “Ebina Danjo” (1856-1937), one of the founders for Christianity in Japan. He understands the universality of Christian God in the context of Japanese religious culture, in view of Cantwell Smith’s concept “cumulative tradition”. Then, he claims his conception of universality of God as a particular way for Japanese Christianity. This claim lead to a demand for universality of “Japanese Christianity” in northeast Asia during 1930’s.

Can Translation Help to Overcome the Universal-particular Dichotomy?: Rethinking From the Japanese Literature’s Global Circulation
Many Meiji era Japanese intellectuals accepted western notions as the universal yardsticks. They interpreted Japanese cultural particularities so as to match western universals in their chase for the so-called modernity. Contemporary western intellectual’s understanding of the Japanese culture, on the other hand, was shaped by the false belief that western ideas are universal in nature, hence superior to others. Thus, while western readers brazenly appropriated Japanese literary works, Japanese intellectuals worked hard to export Japanese cultural capitals like literature to the West not so much as to offer Japanese cultural specificities, but more often seeking Western acceptance of Japanese culture. This process of transcultural circulation and their acceptance was based the premise of universal-particular dichotomy. This presentation traces the circulation trajectory of a medieval Japanese literary text called Hōjōki (1212) during late ninetieth and early twentieth century to explore the western reader’s imposition of the western universal ideas in their understanding of the work. It also discusses how and why the Japanese intellectuals exported Japanese literature by drawing parallels with western notions and concepts anticipating West’s recognition of Japanese culture. However, simultaneously they were concerned about the Japanese cultural particularities being lost in the process of cultural dissemination. Finally, this paper discusses on the capability of translation – a major tool for cultural transference - to overcome the universal-particular binary and make the world literary space equitable where both universals and particulars can coexist side by side.

Aestheticizing Catastrophes?: A Critical View on Universalities in Artworks at the Japan-USA Crossroads
Without doubt climate change increases the chance of catastrophes, natural disasters will become more frequent and impacts on society more severe. Art history studies history, culture, philosophy, politics or economics through the lens of artworks. But is there a universal response to catastrophes art? With respect to the March 2011 triple catastrophe in Japan, criticism has been voiced, that Japanese artists aestheticize and therefore distance the viewer from the catastrophic event, whereas Western artworks e.g. originating from the United States would address catastrophes more directly.Against this background, I will analyze selected artworks dealing with catastrophes and discuss how artists have reacted to catastrophes, what the reasons for these responses were, and how these responses can help in coping with disaster consequences in the future.With respect to methodology, I will follow the iconographic approach, I will describe the way of the artistic representation, the techniques, and the medium used in art creation. Furthermore, however, I will then expand the perspective to an iconological view and have a closer look at how these artworks are deep-seated in the respective culture and society.I will mainly show that after destruction there is an urgent need for creation, not only in material but also in spiritual-artistic terms. I provide a description of how this need emerges, evolves, and manifests in the artist, the artwork, and society, and how it supports societies’ understanding of disaster implications

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