One of the pioneers of Marxist political economy in Japan.
The eldest son of a lower-ranking samurai who fought against the Tokugawa Shogunate in the 1860s, Kawakami left his native Yamaguchi prefecture to enter the elite Tokyo Imperial University in 1898, enrolling in the faculty of law to study political science. The young Kawakami was deeply impressed by the reformist thinkers in Tokyo at the time who were criticizing the ruling oligarchy from the perspective of "Christian socialism" and other moralistic viewpoints. Already in 1902, the year he graduated from university, Kawakami wrote an earnest letter to the famous socialist (and later Communist) Sen Katayama (1859-1933) expressing an interest in socialism and doubts regarding the "present social organization."
After graduation, Kawakami was hired to teach agricultural economics in the faculty of agriculture at Tokyo Imperial University. Economics was a new subject at the time, which afforded the ambitious scholar a great deal of leeway and the chance to make a name for himself. Although it would still be many years before he began a serious study of Marx, as a new professor he was not completely unfamiliar with Marx. His first contact with an interpretation of Marx's ideas and historical materialism was through reading, and later translating, Edwin. R.A. Seligman's The Economic Interpretation of History (1901). His initial response was skepticism toward what seemed an over-emphasis on economic determinism at the expense of considering the role of human consciousness and will. Kawakami's worldview remained deeply moralistic throughout this period, and he agonized over whether the study of economics was indeed a worthwhile pursuit.
In the midst of a personal crisis, and strongly influenced by the ideas of Tolstoy, Kawakami suddenly resigned his university post in 1905 with the do-gooder's intention of teaching the poor. Not long after resigning he happened to read a religious tract entitled Selfless Love, published by Shoshin Itō, the founder of a communal sect called the Garden of Selflessness. Characteristically, he wasted no time in contacting Itō and joining the group at its commune on the outskirts of Tokyo. It only took two months, however, for him to realize that his own ideals had little in common with the "selfless love" dogma, which encouraged followers to accept, rather than change, the world.
After a couple years supporting himself as a journalist, Kawakami was able to return to academia after being appointed in 1908 to a position at Kyoto Imperial University. Over the next decade Kawakami was in some respects an "establishment" thinker, advocating a state-centered model of capitalism as an alternative to what he considered to be the more individual-centered Western model. He wrote frequently at the time about the cultural differences between Japan and the West, often displaying a chauvinistic attachment to own country's customs. Underlying his nationalism, was a belief that a strong state and a populace dedicated to the nation could somehow mediate the worst effects of capitalism so that Japan might develop without being plagued by an ethos of competition and selfishness. In short, he sought a brand of capitalism without the consciousness that capitalism naturally generates.
A sojourn in Europe from 1913 to 1915 on a Ministry of Education scholarship only strengthened Kawakami's attachment to Japanese customs. But this period also sowed the seeds for his conversion to Marxism just a few years later. Seeing first-hand the widespread poverty in advanced capitalist nations exposed the fundamental contradictions of capitalism. Whereas many had believed that poverty in Japan was an outcome of underdevelopment, Kawakami could see that the development of capitalism can actually aggravate the poverty of workers.
In 1917, Kawakami began a series of articles in the Osaka Asahi newspaper that explored the question of poverty. The articles created a sensation at the time, due in part to Kawakami's accomplished writing style, and were later published in a book entitled Tale of Poverty (Bimbō monogatari). In addressing the question of poverty, however, his view remained a moralistic one. He suggested that poverty stems from "economic individualism" and that this could be overcome through the rich abstaining from the consumption of luxury goods, along with the government playing a more interventionist role through nationalization of industry and wealth redistribution.
Kawakami's Tale of Poverty was criticized by intellectuals who were coming under the influence of Marx, particularly his own former pupil, the economist Tamizō Kushida (1885-1934). For Kushida, the source of poverty should be located in the exploitation of workers rather than the consumption of luxury items by the bourgeoisie. Instead of appealing to the morality of the ruling class, as Kawakami suggested, Kushida emphasized the need to raise workers' class consciousness.
Under pressure from Kushida's criticism, and influenced by the social impact of the "rice riots" in Japan and the Russian Revolution, the forty-year-old Kawakami began to reconsider his own position and study Marx more earnestly. He began presenting his views on Marxism in the early 1920s in the pages of a new journal he established called Research on Social Problems. In the course of the decade he would produce an astounding volume of articles, pamphlets, and books on Marxist political economy, including a multi-volume work introducing the ideas in Capital and an enormous tome outlining the history of economic thought, in addition to working on the translation of Capital.
Kushida continued to criticize his former teacher, particularly for his attempt to combine historical materialism and Marxism with a continued emphasis on morality and the importance of human will and consciousness. Perceiving a weakness in his own understanding of the underpinnings of Marx's thought, Kawakami delved into the study of German idealism, particularly Hegel, during this period.
In the mid-twenties, Kawakami's views came under attack from another prominent figure within the Marxist camp. This time the criticism came from the young theoretician and political leader Kazuo Fukumoto (1894-1983), who took the Communist left by storm after returning from a two-year stay in Europe in the early 1920s where he had met and been influenced by Georg Lukacs and Karl Korsch. Upon returning to Japan, Fukumoto immediately set about criticizing Kawakami's failure to understand dialectical materialism or grasp the relation between theory and praxis. Kawakami, never one to give up easily, plunged into the study of Lenin and dialectics in order to respond to the criticism from the upstart.
In the latter of the 1920s, the government began to crack down even more on leftwing organizations under the so-called Peace Preservation Act. Against the advice of Kushida, who urged his former teacher to stick to his theoretical pursuits, Kawakami was increasingly drawn into the political movement. In 1928 he campaigned for the Labor-Farmer Party, which was a broad coalition that also included Communists, and in the 1930 election was a candidate in Kyoto for the New Labor-Farmer Party. After losing the election, he had intended to return to his scholarly pursuits, particularly his translation of Capital, but he maintained his ties to the Japanese Communist Party. Kawakami used his book royalties to help fund the JCP, which was a criminal offense at the time, and also did translation and editing work for the Party.
Kawakami decided to go underground on August 8, 1932 when he was notified of his imminent arrest. The following day he learned that he had been recommended to become a JCP member. For the next four months he lived in the houses of friends and acquaintances, continuing his work for the Communist press until the time of his arrest at the beginning of 1933. He was released from prison in 1937, after having agreed to not resume his political activities despite remaining a convinced Marxist. In the remaining years until his death in 1946, he spent much of his time working on his autobiography–a multi-volume work that remains in print today–and indulging an interest in poetry.
Those interested in learning more about Kawakami can consult an English biography by Gail Lee Bernstein entitled Japanese Marxist: A Portrait of Kawakami Hajime.