Aufheben: candidate for Japanese buzzword of the year

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"Japan’s buzzwords of 2017 cover everything from politics to poop", by Tomoko Otake, The Japan Times (11/9/17).

To me, the most intriguing candidate out of the top thirty is Aufuhēben アウフヘーベン(from German Aufheben).

There are many German words in Japanese, but the first one that always springs to my mind is arubaito アルバイト (< Arbeit), which means "work; job" in German, but, as borrowed into Japanese, means "part-time job, especially for students; part-time worker").  A typical arubaito for Japanese students would be as "pusher" on the Metro.

Now, all of a sudden, we have this highly esoteric term aufheben becoming a candidate for buzzword of the year.  It seems to me that you almost have to be a philosopher to comprehend the meaning of aufheben:

Aufheben or Aufhebung is a German word with several seemingly contradictory meanings, including "to lift up", "to abolish", "cancel" or "suspend", or "to sublate". The term has also been defined as "abolish", "preserve", and "transcend". In philosophy, aufheben is used by Hegel to explain what happens when a thesis and antithesis interact, and in this sense is translated mainly as "sublate".

The German philosopher Walter Kaufmann argues that the word Aufhebung literally translates into English as "pick up" and that it is quite common in ordinary German speech: "it is what you do when something has fallen to the floor. Something may be picked up in order that it will no longer be there; on the other hand, I may also pick it up to keep it." When Hegel uses the term in its double meaning, he usually expressly informs the reader that he does so. Kaufmann also claims that "Hegel may be said to visualize how something is picked up in order that it may no longer be there just the way it was, although, it is not cancelled altogether but lifted up to be kept on a different level."

How did it happen that something so esoteric and ineffable as aufheben became a serious candidate for Japanese buzzword of the year?

Aufheben, a concept by German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, also made the cut. The word, which has several contradictory meanings such as “lift up,” “suspend” and “cancel,” was until recently not in the lexicon of most Japanese, but it took the spotlight after Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike used the German word in reference to various plans to repair Tokyo’s venerable Tsukiji fish market. After leaving many reporters and much of the public confused, she said: “It means to stop once and go one level up next.”

So we see that the philosophically elusive word aufheben emerged from the prolonged, vexed discussions over how to renovate the world's largest and most famous fish market, TukijiGovernor Koike knows Arabic, so it's a bit of a mystery to me how she would be familiar with this recondite German word, unless it is one of those Western philosophical terms that became partially indigenized during the Meiji period (1868-1912).

In any event, I hope that aufheben wins.

[h.t. Ross Bender]


"Tsukiji Fish Market: All You Need to Know", by Louise February 2, 2017


  1. Evan Harper said,

    November 13, 2017 @ 9:25 pm

    I had the impression that Hegel (and Hegel-via-Kojeve-or-is-it-just-Kojeve) was "Big in Japan" in the way that minor Western bands sometimes are. Not that Hegel is a minor figure here, but relatively much bigger in Japan, like he's the Yardbirds here and the Beatles in Japan.

  2. Bathrobe said,

    November 13, 2017 @ 9:54 pm

    I didn't even have to look this one up. I heard "aufheben" from a professor of conservative Japanese linguistics in Japan when I was an undergraduate there almost half a century ago. It's philosophical and intellectual but seems to get a certain amount of use, at least among intellectuals in Japan.

  3. Jim Breen said,

    November 13, 2017 @ 9:58 pm

    I don't know when アウフヘーベン was borrowed into Japanese, but it was at least 50 years ago. I have a copy of 広辞苑 from the 1960s and it has an entry for it. In Japanese it only seems to have the "sublation" meaning.

  4. ardj said,

    November 14, 2017 @ 6:15 am

    Many thanks for this link, which I have passed on to my daughter who is learning Japanese. I was amused, sorry, vastly informed to read, in the OED definition of 'sublate' as used in translating aufheben in Hegel:
    1865 J. H. Stirling Secret of Hegel I. 354 Nothing passes over into Being, but Being equally sublates itself, is a passing over into Nothing, Ceasing-to-be. They sublate not themselves mutually, not the one the other externally; but each sublates itself in itself, and is in its own self the contrary of itself. Ibid. 357 A thing is sublated, resolved, only so far as it has gone into unity with its opposite.
    And thank you too for the, er, illuminating gloss by Walter Kaufmann

  5. Zeppelin said,

    November 14, 2017 @ 6:32 am

    In English you "lift" bans and "suspend" laws, so the pick-up-to-remove metaphor shouldn't seem all that foreign.

    I've read that Nietzsche, too, is very popular in Japan. Which I find a bit disconcerting, because he's basically untranslatable. I can't imagine you'd get much out of his aphorisms if you lose the dense, culturally-specific wordplay and the ability to distinguish the more serious ones from those that mainly exist for the sake of a good pun. Do Japanese philosophers typically study German?

  6. Anonymous Coward said,

    November 14, 2017 @ 6:48 am

    Quite known in China too, written àofúhèbiàn 奥伏赫变; the final biàn (not ben) points to a Japanese origin.

  7. Noah Kurland said,

    November 14, 2017 @ 7:28 am

    English has the cognate "upheave", although it's rare except in the form "upheaval". I wonder if Japanese upheaving is anything like Bush-suru?

  8. Rodger C said,

    November 14, 2017 @ 7:53 am

    Nothing passes over into Being, but Being equally sublates itself, is a passing over into Nothing, Ceasing-to-be. They sublate not themselves mutually, not the one the other externally; but each sublates itself in itself, and is in its own self the contrary of itself.

    Sounds like the Shingyo on acid. How appropriate.

  9. Matt said,

    November 14, 2017 @ 8:30 am

    Ironically enough given that Koike was the one to repopularize it this year, I believe that aufheben was originally popularized in Japan via Marxism (much like Hegel himself, I imagine). Certainly the first cite in Nikkoku is from Kobayashi Takiji's story about the March 15 incident:

    When that discrimination itself is emphasized to a certain height, it will necessarily be aufheben-ed.

  10. WSM said,

    November 14, 2017 @ 5:37 pm

    "Aufheben" actually made it into a major Japanese videogame, Persona5, last fall. I was… surprised by the learned reference to Hegelian dialectics.

  11. Suburbanbanshee said,

    November 14, 2017 @ 9:59 pm

    There's a Hegel fantasy novel, you know. Freedom and Necessity, by Steven Brust and Emma Bull.

    It was basically an exercise in seeing how minimalist the fantasy element could be, and was set in a slightly alternate past of Earth. There was also a sort of dialectic writing structure, which I wasn't much interested in, and a lot of Hegel Stuff. Very experimental, but an okay read.

  12. Joon said,

    November 17, 2017 @ 8:25 pm

    Do Japanese philosophers typically study German?

    If your interest is in European philosophy, yes:

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