Beyond Nation
Time, Writing, and Community in the Work of Abe Kōbō
Richard F. Calichman



In the English-speaking world, Abe Kōbō (1924–1993) is primarily known today as a Japanese writer whose fictional works explore the theme of alienation through focusing on the individual’s actions within a repressive society that seeks to deprive him of his freedom and autonomy. It is the aim of the present book to complicate this image, to show that Abe’s text seeks to problematize such received notions as alienation, freedom, and autonomy, unsettling the simple opposition between individual and society, while also placing in question what it means to be “Japanese.” My reading attempts to bring to the fore the disturbing implications of Abe’s thought for any interpretation that would identify him too quickly and narrowly, without examining its own methodological presuppositions. Such presuppositions can begin to be shaken, I believe, by sustained reflection on the notions of time, writing, and community as they appear in Abe’s work.

This work took various forms over the course of Abe’s career: novels, essays, short stories, plays, poetry, as well as scripts for film, radio, and television, etc.1 And yet these writings might all be considered “art” in the particular sense given this word by Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, as the medium that “is only identified as that which cannot be identified.”2 For Abe, the notion of identity must be forcefully problematized by reconceiving the relation between movement (idō) and fixity (teichaku). Traditionally, these concepts are seen as existing in a strictly oppositional sense. In Abe’s understanding, however, movement is to be considered primary, with the result that fixity must now be grasped as a derivative effect of movement, that which is inscribed within the general space of this latter. If identity is to be conceived in terms of an entity’s selfsameness, the intrinsic unity it possesses that serves to establish its presence to itself and thus difference from other entities, then the fixity of such identity must henceforth be regarded as fundamentally displaced. This displacement of identity requires that thinking turn its attention to that which precedes identity, both allowing for it and destabilizing it from within.

We can see this insight operating powerfully throughout Abe’s corpus, as for example in his 1946 poem “Jikan to kūkan” [Time and Space]:

Haru kureba haru no yosooi When spring comes, the appearance of spring
aki kureba aki no yosooi When autumn comes, the appearance of autumn
yasashisa ga omote ni haete Gentleness shines on the surface
kaku mo omae wo kaeru no ka Does it thus change you?
mori no kōji wo samayoinagara When my secret thoughts stop
tatta konoha no ichimai ni At a single leaf on a tree
hisoka na omoi wo tomeru toki As I wander on a forest path,
“shizen” ni kakurete mienakunatta Then the earth, invisible and hidden in “nature,”
daichi ga kaette yomigaeru Indeed returns to life.
Kono honshitsu no yakusoku wo When I begin singing to the sunlight
chikara ni michita mu no keishō wo Of this essential promise,
hizashi no kage ni utaidasu toki Of the powerful figure of nothingness,
ō ninjū yo Oh, surrender!
kono mi wo daichi ni tatoeuru nara If this self can be compared to the earth,
kyō kureba kyō no ono ga mi Then when today comes, the self today
asu kureba asu no ono ga mi When tomorrow comes, the self tomorrow.3

Here Abe aims to dislocate the borders that have traditionally determined the genre of poetry by introducing concepts and terms that derive specifically from the discourse of philosophy. In question, however, is not simply how we determine the poetic and literary in their difference from what is held to be the non-poetic and non-literary. By investigating the nature of time and space, Abe explicitly raises the issue of how we are to conceive of the self in its experience of change. Is the self exposed to the movement of time and space once it has been formed as a self? If so, then spatiotemporal inscriptions must be considered to be derivative of the self’s identity as such. However, if the self is marked by the difference of time and space from the initial moment of its appearance, then identity can only be constituted retroactively. This retroactivity introduces an irreducible element of contingency to the determination of self-identity. Regardless of whether this self be determined individually (I am “I”) or collectively (e.g., I am “Japanese”), the turn to the past from the vantage point of the present draws attention to the instant of decision, which resists any empirical grounding and requires for its occurrence a singular time and space.

In this poem Abe can be seen to offer two divergent conceptions of time. In the first, time is presented in quite classical fashion as circular. Following nature’s rhythms, spring turns to autumn only to then return to itself the following year. These opening lines of the first stanza are then repeated with a slight alteration in the closing lines of the second stanza. There it is the unit of the day that is foregrounded: this day today vanishes at the end of its allotted time and yet is reborn the following day as a new tomorrow. Time is thus represented as governed by the cyclical movement of nature. This requires that identity and difference be determined as repeating one another in a series of constant alternations, for the seasons change only to then reappear, just as a day changes while nevertheless remaining a day. Abe skillfully mimics this natural movement through repetition of the verb “to come,” thereby joining the beginning of the poem to its end: “When spring comes, the appearance of spring / When autumn comes, the appearance of autumn / [ . . . ]Then when today comes, the self today / When tomorrow comes, the self tomorrow.”

This circularity of time, as demonstrated by an entity’s departure from itself only to subsequently return to itself, is contrasted by Abe to an other thinking of time, one that must be regarded as rigorously non-circular. By presenting this other notion of time within the circularity of the poem, Abe implicitly poses the question of the relation between identity and difference (or “fixity” and “movement”) in terms of borders. If these borders contain a non-circular conception of time, Abe asks, are they truly capable of containing that time? Is there not perhaps something within this notion of time that threatens the very possibility of containment in general, hence forcing us to rethink the relation between inside and outside, internal identity and external difference? For Abe, time is to be conceived ecstatically, implacably outside of itself. Time must be understood as departing from itself since it disappears at every instant of its appearance, and yet such departure strictly proscribes the possibility of return. This strange movement of disappearing in the very event of its appearing is necessary for there to be any temporal movement at all. From Abe’s perspective, such movement can be glimpsed even in the rhythm of nature’s repetition. In the passage from spring to autumn no less than in that from today to tomorrow, what is foremost at issue is a “coming” (kureba). This word, which Abe repeats in the brief span of his poem a remarkable four times, names the exposure to temporal alterity that must take place in order for any entity to maintain itself as such. Identity requires this coming and yet dissimulates its threat. For Abe, however, anything that exists must be essentially temporal, and this means that it stands continually exposed to the coming of other times and other spaces in order to be at all.

Abe returns to this notion of a non-circular coming of time in his 1962 essay “‘Kyō’ wo saguru shūnen” [The Tenacity to Search for “Today”]. Just as the self in “Jikan to kūkan” can have no existence outside of time, which thereby redetermines it in its singularity as “this self” (kono mi), “the self today” (kyō no ono ga mi), and “the self tomorrow” (asu no ono ga mi), so too does Abe now reveal man’s yielding to the coming of the future: “Even if the future is created by the accumulation of ‘todays,’ it doesn’t necessarily belong to ‘today.’ For example, if someone from the Stone Age were to appear in our present day, it is unclear whether he would regard this present as hell or heaven. No matter what he thought, however, it is absolutely the case that what judges is not him, but rather the era itself. To live, ultimately, might be to envision oneself in the future. The future always comes. Nevertheless, it is not necessarily the case that one will appear within that future in the manner one expects. Even if one were to devote every ‘today’ for the future, tomorrow might well be something reserved strictly for the people of tomorrow.”4

Even before man belongs to himself, Abe insists, he belongs to time, which is to say he remains essentially exposed to the coming of an alterity that repeatedly overtakes him and determines him otherwise. Typically time is understood as a continuum, with each now following one another in an infinite chain, but Abe draws attention to the interruptive force of each future moment. Even though “the future is created by the accumulation of ‘todays,’” that future “doesn’t necessarily belong to ‘today.’” In its difference from all that has preceded it, the future continually resists the present, jeopardizing the solidity of all forms of knowledge and ways of understanding the world. For Abe, this alterity of the future demands that we rethink the question of judgment. Judgment is generally regarded as a function of human consciousness, but Abe points to the limits of subjective interiority by placing the site of judgment in the future. No determinations can be made purely in the present since the present is constantly slipping outside of itself into the future. If, as Abe says, “the future always comes,” this coming does not take place simply after the present has constituted itself as such; on the contrary, the future repeatedly disrupts the present, threatening its unity and integrity. This explains why “the tenacity to search for ‘today,’” to in other words cling to present conceptions of reality, must be seen as a failed project.

It is in this context that Abe specifically attacks the nostalgia that informs the desire for community. As he argues in a 1967 roundtable discussion (with the literary critic Sasaki Kiichi and filmmaker Teshigahara Hiroshi) entitled “‘Moetsukita chizu’ wo megutte” [On The Ruined Map], “For example, when people speak of ‘human relations,’ they tend to advocate the restoration of man, a proposition virtually no one questions. Man is alienated because of the complexity of contemporary society. To restore man, one has to restore the human connection; that is what they seem to imply. However, it is precisely this notion that I find to be extremely negative.”5 Abe’s dissatisfaction with the concept of the “restoration of man” (ningen kaifuku) must be grasped on the basis of his understanding of time. If time in its ecstatic nature is never fully present to itself, then man in his existence within time can never be exempt from such lack of self-presence. As Abe observes, man’s divergence from himself is frequently reduced to the sociohistoric phenomenon of alienation (sogai). In this way, what is rigorously a general condition of impossibility (i.e., man can in principle never be fully adequate to himself) comes to be historicized as a mere empirical aberration. According to this narrative, it is contemporary society in its excessive complexity that has made man less human. In order to return man to his proper humanity, then, there must be a restoration of the human bond or connection (ningen no tsunagari). This involves a nostalgic return to the past with the aim of locating a more authentic form of community, one that allows man to realize his full potential as human.

Abe realized that such a restorative project depends for its success on a fantastic projection of an idealized image of the human into the past. Through this projection, a true form of humanity could come to be retroactively created, and this image might then be utilized as part of the effort to purify contemporary society of elements that are seen to be responsible for preventing man from achieving his proper self. For Abe, the historical entity that constantly mobilizes this ideology of authentic communality is the nation-state. In the context of modern Japanese literature, it is this fundamentally critical view of the nation that above all distinguished Abe from Mishima Yukio, the writer with whom he is frequently compared. In a 1969 lecture entitled “Zoku, uchinaru henkyō” [The Frontier Within, Part II], Abe himself calls attention to this important difference. Reporting Mishima’s boast that “I participate in the Self-Defense Forces for my country,” Abe contrasts this attitude to his own work of creating “the art of a ruined nation” (bōkoku no geijutsu).6 He explains this relation between art and the nation-state as follows: “When discussing the question of the usefulness of art, for example, there is nobody in Japan, for better or worse, who claims that making art more useful will help rally a spirit of patriotism. Nevertheless, art was often used for this purpose in the past, and there are still countries that use art in this way. In general, however, art is intrinsically not something that serves the state; rather, it must ruin the nation. I don’t believe that art that ruins the nation exists alongside art that makes the nation flourish. In speaking with Mishima, I again realized that what we call ‘art’ must ruin the nation.”7

Abe is unequivocal in his view that art be understood as a form of resistance to the nation-state. The nation-state operates according to an ideology of identity that transforms individuals into national subjects. Rather than questioning what it means to be “Japanese,” for example, Mishima allowed himself to be appropriated by this ideology, determining himself according to the most classical whole-part relation strictly as a member who forms part of the totality that is the nation-state Japan. If, as we noted earlier, art “is only identified as that which cannot be identified,” then Abe’s call for an “art of a ruined nation” involves at its core a resistance to all forms of national identification.

Yet how is such disidentification to be conceived? Here we might find a hint in Abe’s understanding of time in its particular relation to the notion of belonging. As he writes, “Even if the future is created by the accumulation of ‘todays,’ it doesn’t necessarily belong to [zoku shiteiru] ‘today.’” In the context of the ideology of national identification, an individual’s past consists of the markings of such determinations as birthplace, family affiliations, linguistic background, site of residency, etc. No individual arrives at the present without such markings, for these testify to one’s participation in a larger social world whose operations vastly exceed the control of any one person. Yet if the individual in his present identity is, to use Abe’s words, “created by the accumulation” of these past determinations, it is nevertheless the case that no individual can simply be reduced to them. At every instant—that is to say, in every spilling forth of the present into the future—reality opens itself to being remarked. The notion of belonging functions to conceal this constant interruption of time in determining the individual strictly on the basis of those markings that have gradually fixed the sense of his present identity. In modernity, such markings have come to be powerfully shaped by the presence of the nation-state, not simply with regard to nationality, but in terms of the discursive categories of race and ethnicity as well. In order for these markings to retain their validity, however, they must constantly be repeated. It is at each moment of repetition that an individual’s identificatory belonging to the nation can potentially be disturbed, remarked otherwise. If such belonging requires repetition in order to be confirmed, then it is nevertheless also the case that each occasion of this repetition provides a chance to actively intervene in this cycle of identity.


1. For a recent attempt to survey the full breadth of Abe’s corpus, see the collection edited by Toba Kōji, Abe Kōbō, media no ekkyōsha (Tokyo: Shinwasha, 2013).

2. Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Portrait de l’artiste, en général (Paris: Christian Bourgois, 1979), p. 14.

3. Abe Kōbō, “Jikan to kūkan,” in Abe Kōbō zenshū (Tokyo: Shinchōsha, 1997–2000), v. 1, pp. 169–170.

4. Abe Kōbō, “‘Kyō’ wo saguru shūnen,” in Abe Kōbō zenshū, v. 15, pp. 436–437.

5. Abe Kōbō, “‘Moetsukita chizu’ wo megutte,” in Abe Kōbō zenshū, v. 21, p. 318; trans. in Andrew Horvat, Four Stories by Kobo Abe (Tokyo: Hara shobō, 1973), pp. 130–132 (translation slightly modified).

6. Abe Kōbō, “Zoku, uchinaru henkyō,” in Abe Kōbō zenshū, v. 22, p. 337; trans. in Richard F. Calichman, The Frontier Within: Essays by Abe Kōbō (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), p. 162.

7. Ibid., p. 338; p. 163.