The Career of Professor Shuichi Kato

Shuichi Kato Collection

加藤周一先生のイメージ

Professor Shuichi Kato (1919-2008) is one of the post-war leading international intellectuals in Japan. He graduated from the Faculty of Medicine at the Imperial University of Tokyo in 1943. He developed a fondness for Japanese lyric poetry in his early teens during which time he actively read various anthologies of Japanese poetry: the Manyoshu (collection of ten thousand leaves), the Shin Kokin Wakashu (new collection of ancient and modern Japanese poetry), the Shui Guso (meager gleanings), the Kinkaishu (golden pagoda-tree collection of Japanese poetry), the Sankashu (collection of poems by Saigyo), and the Kenreimonin Ukyono Daibushu (poetic memoirs of lady Daibu).

While studying medicine at the Faculty of Medicine, he frequently spent time in the classrooms of the Department of French Literature at the Faculty of Letters and studied under Professor Kazuo Watanabe. Kato also met Takeyoshi Kawashima during this period, who was a student at the Faculty of Law.
Becoming acquainted with Watanabe and Kawashima gave Kato courage to face the war years without losing his sanity.

Kato's thoughts were characterized by an appeal to rationalism and a great capacity for rational analysis. However, he distanced himself amidst the trend toward fanatical nationalism during the wartime period. After the war, he was one of the first person to criticize the imperial system and the intellectuals of the time.

In 1951, he went to France to pursue medical research (hematology) while also studying French literature. During this time, he learned new approaches to literary research and passionately explored European art and culture.

An article titled "Japan as a hybrid culture" that he published in 1955 immediately upon his return from France evoked a great deal of controversy in the literary world of the time. Studying in France had a lot of influence on him; however, he did not pursue research into French literature but decided to take up Japanese cultural studies.

From 1960 he gave lectures on Japanese literary history and Japanese art history at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada over a period of 10 years. He refers to this decade in his life as a "time of accumulation", a period when he spent days writing vast quantities of notes focusing on Japanese literary history and Japanese art history. After this 10-year accumulation period, he managed to "perfect himself", and in 1968 he wrote an autobiography covering half of his life, "a sheep's song". He then published his representative works: "A history of Japanese literature" (Vol. 1 in 1975 and Vol. 2 in 1980), and "Japan: spirit and form" (in 10 volumes: the first five volumes in 1987 and the second five volumes in 1988).

In 2007, he wrote a book, "time and space in Japanese culture", as a compilation of his studies on Japanese culture. Furthermore, although he never managed to finish a book on the subject, he had an idea to write an intellectual history on modern Japanese intellectuals such as the fellow doctor-literary scholars Ogai Mori, Mokichi Saito, and Mokutarou Kinoshita.

Kato spent much of his life writing and teaching at universities. In Japan, he taught at the University of Tokyo, Meiji University, Sophia University, Ritsumeikan University, and Bukkyo University. He was also invited to teach at The University of British Columbia, Free University of Berlin, Yale University, University of Geneva, Brown University, University of Venice, El Colegio de Mexico, Peking University, and the University of Hong Kong.

He was a man of rare intellect possessing both the sensitivity of a poet and the knowhow of a scientist. His speech and behavior were deeply affected by the loss of close friends to the war. Thereafter, he expressed a persistent fierce opposition to any movements favoring war. This stance was exemplified during his final years by his active participation in the Article 9 Association.

Today, we live in difficult times. Kato, however, never lost hope no matter how difficult the situation he faced was. As long as we keep hope, we have not lost. What we can learn from Kato is surely this "spirit of hope".

Twenty-thousand books and unpublished materials that Professor Kato left behind were donated in 2011 by his family to the Ritsumeikan University library. Part of his collection is being organized in preparation for its display to the public in 2015.