‘Radiation and Revolution’ by Sabu Kohso reviewed by Philippe Blouin

Radiation and Revolution

Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2020. 216 pp., $24.95 pb
ISBN 9781478011002

Reviewed by Philippe Blouin

About the reviewer

Philippe Blouin is an Anthropology PhD candidate at McGill University. …


Forty years before Japanese neoconservative Francis Fukuyama announced the end of history with the triumph of liberal democracy and capitalism in 1989, French Hegelian philosopher Alexandre Kojève had asked himself which country best embodied the form all societies were poised to adopt after the end of the world. He first considered the American way of life to epitomize the return of humanity to an animalistic ‘eternal present’, to which all industrial societies – communistic included – only appear to lag behind. Visiting Japan changed Kojève’s mind, as he found that ‘all Japanese without exception are currently in a position to live according to totally formalized values – that is, values completely empty of all “human” content in the “historical” sense’ (1980: 162). Impressed by the ‘pure snobbery’ of Noh Theater and tea ceremonies – just like Barthes (1962) was fascinated by how Japan’s ‘empire of signs’ severed the link between signified and signifier – Kojève prophesized that after the United States shaped post-war Japan, the onus of the end of history was crossing back to the other side of the Pacific, and called for history-bound Europe to block its catastrophic course.

Born in Japan, having lived in New York for the past forty years, and well-versed in French philosophy, Sabu Kohso thus possesses an ideal vantage point to interpret the Fukushima nuclear disaster. With regard to radiations, the United States, France and Japan happen to be the three countries with the greatest number of nuclear reactors. As for revolutions – a chiefly French notion – Kohso addresses both the upsurge of revolts in Japan to counter the effects of the nuclear disaster, and those which Kohso witnessed in New York City’s Zucotti Park when Occupy Wall Street was at its zenith. Just like his anthropologist friend the late David Graeber, a prominent Occupy activist whose books he translated in Japanese, Kohso is first and foremost an activist. Before translating Radiation and Revolution into French, I personally met Kohso through Liaisons, an international journal of ‘transoceanic partisan research’, for which he coordinated the collective writing of accounts on the state of social struggles in Japan, drawing on the militant work of the Living Assembly, which organizes pan-Asian activist gatherings every year. Yet Kohso is an activist of a certain kind, less concerned with ideal causes than with the pragmatic effects of metaphysical mindsets and ways of living in the world, an idea he coins as ‘life-as-struggle.’

Radiation and Revolution is organised into four chapters, progressing from event to context, mechanism and struggle, before converging into the epilogue’s invitation to ‘Forget Japan’. The first chapter starts by delving into the Fukushima disaster itself, an event which disrupted social continuity by suffusing unmanageable, invisible and invincible radionuclides with the surrounding environment. The initial earthquake created a tsunami, which after damaging Fukushima’s reactors created an irremissible ‘parallel chain reaction’. At each step Kohso assesses the incompetence of Japan’s technocratic apparatus to block its catastrophic course. The chapter carefully follows the course of events to highlight the fissures in Japan’s post-war nuclear regime – a task Kohso had already taken on in the blog J-Fissures as the events were unfolding. A complex scaffold of technical, administrative, economic and political boondoggles mutually weakened each other in the face of the accident, as both TEPCO (the company responsible for Fukushima’s nuclear facilities) and the Japanese government kept passing the buck to each other, the latter finally admitting that the nuclear meltdown had been a ‘man-made disaster.’ Recounting his visit to Tokyo after the events, Kohso recalls the uncanny feeling of traversing areas whose quiet emptiness had become synonymous with a lethal threat. He sets out to show how the Japanese population, obliged to take precautions in the face of the radiation’s imperceptible mode of dissemination, cultivated a fear of some of the most staple elements of Japanese culinary culture – Fukushima’s renowned rice, sake, and seafood – while seeking comfort in processed, artificial products. Yet in contrast with the panicked ‘radioactive brains’ of the population, an oppositional movement also emerged. Kohso shows how this wave of post-Fukushima protests opposed two strategies: the zero-becquerelism of ‘those who go West’ to flee the radiation, and ‘those who go North’ to help the irradiated populations. Makeshift radiation monitoring stations, the establishment of new communities away from radiations, and urban protests soon sprawled across the country – following a mode of dissemination Kohso consistently associates with radioactivity, inasmuch as it ignores the borders between regions and nations, rather following atmospheric planetary movements. In reaction, the powers that be attempted to recapture the event in nationalistic terms, through campaigns promoting the consumption of radioactive products as a gesture of patriotic solidarity.

Chapter two traces back the history of the nationalization of Japan through examining how national borders were superimposed onto what was previously a largely free and open territoriality, marked by intense mobility and circulation between the stretches of Japanese islands, the Korean peninsula and continental China. Guided by Caribbean author Edouard Glissant’s notion of the ‘archipelic’, Kohso’s philosophy is at its best when mobilizing this geohistorical approach. Upon this archipelic, non-hierarchical and open circulatory pattern was invented and placarded an abstract entity called ‘Japan’, into which the borders confined the Japanese population by the policy of national enclosure (sakoku). This system prevailed from 1633 to 1853 in order to repel Western influence, as foreigners could not penetrate the Japanese territory, nor the Japanese leave it. The 1868 Meiji Restoration represented a turning point where Japan, now subsumed under the divinized figure of the Emperor watching over the interests of a superior race, rapidly caught up with Western technology before turning its gaze outwards, endeavoring to take control of the Asian continent. Finally, when the two American atomic bombs brought the Emperor to an unconditional surrender at the end of World War II, US authorities such as general MacArthur were instrumental in drafting a new constitution for the country, swiftly converting the trauma of Hiroshima and Nagasaki into an enthusiastic embrace of nuclear energy’s ‘atoms for peace’. Thereafter, Japan’s destiny was firmly attached to the Janus-face of the atom, both as a means of production and of destruction, a duplicity that pertains to the very physicality of nuclear fission, which acts as an allegory throughout Kohso’s book.

The third chapter unfolds this duplicity with regard to the administration of nuclear power in Japan. Provided that TEPCO systematically advocated that once the blasted reactors disseminated radionuclides in the environment, they could longer be considered to have an owner. Here Kohso unfolds the concept of 無主物 (mushubutsu, masterless object) as fostering an ‘ontological anarchy’ analogous to the threat posed by unemployed workers vis-à-vis social order. Sharing properties with the Marxist notion of the ‘commons’, the target of ongoing attempts to enclose them to ensure the primitive accumulation of capital, the radioactive mushubutsu unleashed in the atmosphere and the waters, regardless of the boundaries fixed by modern politics, announced the arrival of a new era, which also yield new forms of insurgency.

The passage between struggles aiming towards a dialectical unification of the world and today’s immanent logic of planetary reverberations is further explored in the fourth chapter, which tackles the shifting forms of revolutionary struggles in Japan since 1968. This transition between a linear logic of unity based on geoterritorial politics and a fractal logic of multiplicity based on planetary reverberation is explained through George Katsiaficas’ Marcusian concept of the ‘eros effect’, which portrays the contagious enthusiasm of revolts as a climatic, climactic and arithmetic phenomenon, in contrast with previous spatiotemporal geometrical perspectives. Having been active in Maoist groups in his youth, Kohso recalls the deep sorrow that choked the fire of the many far-left groups that stemmed out of the Japanese 1968, as violent infighting between and inside factions ended in episodes of bloodshed the Japanese remember as the uchigeba. These groups’ reliance on centralized nation-derived notions of belonging brought them to neglect the erotic manner in which revolutionary sympathy reverberated, pushing them towards a fatal closure.

Following the defeat of the New Left in Japan, struggles took more quotidian, local and carefree overtones, with punk culture pervading Japanese youth at the same time that the country became a laboratory for high-tech neoliberal policies. On one side, a loose counter-culture group called Dame-ren (the Alliance of Good-For-Nothings) started addressing the desperate state of mind of Japanese youth in the 1990s, endeavoring to build local communes, life spaces and activities under the slogan ‘Commingle!’ On the other side, the precarious day-laborers who flocked from the countryside to the urban shantytowns called yoseba, developed networks of mutual aid and support against the dissolution of the welfare state. The implicit reverberation between both of these tendencies intersected after Fukushima, in certain neighborhoods like Kamagasaki, in Osaka, giving way to a new conception of struggle as linking together a series of local autonomous zones through their mutual reverberation. Kohso takes this convergence as an invitation for post-Fukushima struggles to surmount the opposition between ‘those who go West’, evacuating contaminated zones and sharing means to avoid radio-contamination with the objective of abandoning atomic power altogether, and ‘those who go North’ in order to assist the impacted populations and organize underpaid, often foreign, workers responsible for cleaning the contaminated zones. In his view, the political ontology called upon by radioactive permeation requires abandoning militant purism, as national, gendered, racial and class identities give way to the common, yet plural, condition of ‘planetary inhabitants’ who face an impersonal, invisible and submaterial threat.

With regard to its apocalyptic epilogue, which invites its readers to come to terms with the ontological revelations of exponential disasters in terms of planetary commonality, Radiation and Revolution ventures far beyond the events it describes. More than a physical phenomenon, radiations are taken as a prism through which a new light is shed onto the contemporary world. As a matter of fact, it is striking how one could replace all the book’s references to radiations by references to a virus such as Covid-19 and preserve its meaning almost integrally. The contemporary world seems bound to experience an increasing number of such faceless and pervasive threats. Yet at the same time that it marshals the contemporary dissolution of modern distinctions, Kohso’s work ushers an untimely aperture of archaic forms, as the open-ended, capillary and porous archipelic space for which a preexisting Japan reemerges under the form of a constellation of communal lives-in-struggle. With regards to the creativity both of its content and its form, Radiation and Revolution constitutes a unique work, fullfilling Deleuze’s call for philosophy to invent ready-made concepts which could seize the singularity of reality. Kohso’s notions of ‘life-in-struggle’, ‘transmutations’ and his opposition between the ‘World’ and the ‘Earth’, will assuredly find echoes in other contexts, all marked by the radiation-like planetarization of politics. This is true because Kohso’s thought is wholly contemporary – which in a Nietzschean sense also means wholly untimely. Through the conjunction of radiation and revolution, his book provides an imago mundi of the current epoch. All the while, his recourse to both occidental and oriental political ontologies, matched only perhaps by the brilliant work of Hong Kong philosopher of technics Yuk Hui, places the book’s stakes on a wholly planetary scale.

7 December 2020


  • Barthes, Roland 1982 The Empire of Signs trans. Richard Howard, New York: Hill & Wang.
  • Fukuyama, Francis 1992 The End of History and the Last Man New York: Free Press.
  • Hui, Yuk 2016 The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Katsiaficas, George 2013 Eros and Revolution Radical Philosophy Review 16, No. 2: 491–505.
  • Kojève, Alexandre 1980 Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit trans. James H. Nichols Jr. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

One comment

  1. The reviewer extremely ahistorically refers to “the Marxist notion of the ‘commons.'” The commons have existed since the beginning of humanity. They were certainly not invented by a German economist in the nineteenth century.

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