Qinyuan Lei

Assistant Professor, School of Creative Media, City University of Hong Kong
Faculty Adviser: Atsuko Ueda
Independent Filmmaker

Towards a Materialist Conception of Science—Science Debates in Interwar & Wartime Japan, 1920-1945


In the wake of imperialist wars and cultural revolutions in the late 1910s and 1920s, intellectuals and activists in Japan and China faced the immediate task of finding their positions vis-à-vis the scientific innovations originated in the West. To many, these scientific innovations and new discourses represented both opportunities to intervene dominant national political discourses, and at the same time, a trap for them to continue dealing with their troubled relationship with modernity which was deemed “Western.” In my dissertation I focus on the debates between the materialist and idealist schools on issues surrounding science in Japan, although similar debates in China will be discussed for contextualization purposes. In particular, I examine how different groups of Japanese Marxist thinkers successfully and unsuccessfully defended a materialist concept of science in direct opposition to idealist movements at the time which advocated spiritualism, aestheticism, romanticism and a return to the Japanese Spirit. This study seeks to illuminate how the evolvement of this materialist criticism reflected the need of the Japanese materialist discourse to engage with new scientific developments in Japan and to pursue more precise definitions of science. A few key historical moments I examine include the Manchurian Incident in 1931 and the change of the socio-political environment and scientific discourses in Japan thereof, the dissolution of the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) followed by the establishment of the Materialism Research Association (Yuibutsuron Kenkyūkai) in Japan in 1932, and the “Overcoming Modernity” symposium in Japan in 1942. In these historical moments, some Japanese intellectuals have successfully affected change in the political and ideological arenas, and undoubtedly, some have failed.