Franklin & Marshall’s weekly online newsletter
A Historian’s Take on Japanese Social Psychology
Richard Reitan, assistant professor of history
As Richard Reitan reflects on his junior faculty leave in Japan, he talks about issues of social consciousness in Japanese society during the early 20th century. He discusses folk psychologists, crowd psychologists and the notion of collective spirit. And then, he pauses.
“So, why is a historian looking at social psychology in Japan?” he asks.
The answer is that Reitan, assistant professor of history at F&M, focuses most of his burgeoning research on Japanese intellectual history. He recently returned to F&M after spending the 2009-10 academic year in Japan during a fellowship he received from The Japan Foundation. It was his latest stint in a country that has been his home away from home for much of the past decade.
“The junior faculty leave is a nice experience that F&M makes possible,” says Reitan, who has spent approximately seven years in East Asia since earning his undergraduate degree from the University of Washington in 1987. “I was fortunate to be able to work with outstanding people at the University of Tokyo and research a range of topics. It was such an enjoyable year.”
Reitan is particularly interested in Meiji Japan, the period between 1868 and 1912. The period was the focus of his book, Making a Moral Society: Ethics and the State in Meiji Japan, published by the University of Hawaii Press while he was on leave last year. In his recent work, Reitan explores an ideology of social consciousness in Japan during the early 20th century.
“There were folk psychologists and crowd psychologists committed to fostering patriotism and loyalty to the state,” he says. “There was more to it than objective, academic inquiry. What interests me is how crowd psychologists diagnosed people who went on strike as ill. Some even suggested the best course of action might be to prevent pathological people—the poor, and people who went on strike—from having children. I’m looking at how legitimate protest actions were regulated by crowd psychology, by the idea that anti-state activity implied a pathological condition.”
Reitan explored crowd psychology and folk psychology in articles published in January and October of this year. His most recent submission for publication, completed last month, is a critique of neoliberalism in 1970s and 1980s Japan. However, social psychology and its impact on Japanese history remains his primary interest.
“Today, people talk about a common spirit in Japan,” he says. “To understand that, it’s important to think about how that idea has been shaped by an early 20th-century discourse on spirit. The German conception of Geist, the mind or spirit of a folk, had a powerful impact in Japan. People began to ask themselves, ‘What is our folk spirit?’”
Reitan, who is fluent in Japanese, is trying to learn German to understand the influence of German social psychologists on Japanese society. Away from his research, he has also picked up some experience in the martial arts; he even practiced judo at the Kodokan Judo Institute in Tokyo, the global hub of judo.
“I haven’t done much [judo] since I broke my finger in a match a few years ago,” he says. “My opponent was big and strong, and I was small and quick. My finger got caught in his gi [training uniform], and it really hurt.”
Reitan also tried sumo once, an experience that he calls “unfortunate” and “painful.” So for now, the professor will stick to Japanese intellectual history—an area, given his ever-growing research, in which he is slightly more comfortable.