Ken Kawashima Translates Uno Kozo's Theory of Crisis

August 30, 2022 by Doyun Kim

Professor Ken Kawashima, of the East Asian Studies Department at the University of Toronto, recently published a translation of Uno Kozo’s Theory of Crisis, with Brill Publishers (2021). Initially published in Japanese in 1953, Theory of Crisis is now out in English, with a hardcover copy available currently and a paperback copy to follow in 2022 from Haymarket Books

Doyun Kim, Masters student with the department of East Asian Studies, had the chance to sit down and chat with Professor Kawashima about the process of translation and the fundamental theory expressed through Uno’s book. 

Professor Kawashima first encountered Uno Kozo’s Theory of Crisis while writing his dissertation on inter-war Korean workers in Japan. His dissertation, now published as The Proletarian Gamble, discusses the exploitation of Korean workers in the Japanese labour and housing market from the 1920s to the 30s. This analysis drew heavily on Marxist theory, examining the exploitation and racialization of labour-power and the formation of class struggles under imperialist and colonial regimes. His mentor and advisor at the Ohara Institute of Social Problems at Hosei University, Yutaka Nagahara, recommended he read Uno’s work in relation to questions of anti-imperialism, anti-racism, and colonialism. From this first encounter Professor Kawashima continued to think deeply about Uno Kozo, resulting in his now-published translation. 

The core theories of Uno Kozo, according to Professor Kawashima, lie in Uno’s ability to distinguish between “labour” and “labour-power,” as a re-centering of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. One should be careful to avoid conflating the two terms. Labour is the metabolic process of working that crystalizes a product or service into being; labour-power is the physical and mental capability of the human to carry out acts of labour. The titular crisis that Uno lays out is in the realm of the commodification of labour-power, or as Professor Kawashima labels it, the fundamental cause of crisis. The core problem of capitalism, according to this theory, lies in the fact that it is impossible for capital to produce labour-power as a commodity directly, since it inheres in the human body only; at the same time, capital must consume labour-power as commodity in order to produce surplus-value (and hence profits). This is capital’s historical ‘double-bind’. For Uno (following Marx), the moment of buying and selling one’s labour-power as a worker thus becomes the world-historical pivot around which capitalism and modern subjectivity is established. Uno’s intervention is to bring the focus back, concretely, to the question of how labour-power is ‘impossibly’ yet inevitably commodified. 

This ‘impossibility’ of the commodification of labour-power is written as muri (無理), which carries many deep meanings. It can be translated as “no way,” or “impossible,” but also as an absence of reason. Within these meanings, in specific relation to labour-power, muri can mean a compulsory force to commodify one’s labour-power. This precious commodity cannot be created or produced by capital directly, yet it must be bought and sold on the labour market as a commodity. Thus, the muri represents a strange, violent, force acting on the population and bodies of the working class. This is the muri; a multi-faceted concept interwoven through the core of capitalist production. Muri is core to Uno’s theory, concretely centering the problematic of labour-power in critiquing capitalism, and in particular by showing how capitalist crises are inevitable and periodic. When we conjecture on the necessity and cyclicality of capitalist crises, Uno urges us to consider the intersections of crises with the form of labour-power as a commodity.

Professor Kawashima hopes that this translation and understanding of Marxist theory can be useful for students in and out of the classroom. He expressed his desire for students to take such theories in finding their footing with relation to entering the workforce. Workers should be able to confront the cyclicality of capitalist crisis and identify the concrete aspects of its logic within their everyday life. For instance, problems of low wages, food prices, rent, and unemployment can be examined through Uno’s lens. Theory, such as Uno’s work, can help guide workers and individuals through such difficult times and help them better understand their present situation.

Another strength of reading Uno’s work is his ability to simplify the difficult text of Marx’s Kapital, which can be difficult to read. He sheds light on relevant aspects of Kapital, bringing to the forefront Japanese research in Marxism, allowing for a greater scope of understanding the universality of capitalism’s problematics. For instance, Professor Kawashima sees Uno’s research and methodology as a way to bridge the research of Marx and Michel Foucault in the field of critical theory and historical analysis. Marx’s Capital and Foucault’s Discipline and Punish can be linked through the analysis of the body of the worker who labours under threat of violence; Uno gives us the basic principle to analyze this historical process.

Such acts of translation are difficult, of course. Professor Kawashima noted that it was an arduous process (not least due to the particulars of translating cultural concepts), taking many years of work. Yet, he finds great value in being able to bring this work to a wider readership. By studying such texts and ideas, we may be able to create knowledge in a useful way for the current situation. For instance, a greater exposure to Japanese research in Marxism has the potential to help reshape the field of area studies away from Eurocentric traditions, creating new knowledge that will better serve the present moment.