Yoshimoto was born in 1924, in Tsukishima, Tokyo. His family were boatmakers who had moved from Amakusa, Kumamoto prefecture, making small rental boats. In his teens Yoshimoto came under the influence of literature while receiving the private tutoring, and began to write poetry in his teens. He was influenced by the work of Takamura Kotaro and Miyazawa Kenji. He was a 'militarist youth' during the war, but experienced the end of the war while mobilized for manual labor, and thereon became fascinated by Marxism.
Yoshimoto attended Tashima Elementary School in the Kyobashi Ward of Tokyo, Yonezawa Engineering School (Now Yamagata University), and graduated in 1947 from the Engineering Division of Tokyo Institute of Technology with an a degree in Electrochemistry. During his studies, he became acquainted with the Mathematician Toyama Satoshi.
After graduatation, Yoshimoto moved to industry, became a research student in 1950, and in 1952 took a position at Tokyo Ink Manufacturing Company Ltd. He continued his poetic output, writing his first representative works, Dialogue with Particularity and Ten Works for a Change in Position, and won the Arechi prize for new poets. He published a work of criticism, On Takamura Kotaro.
Yoshimoto, who had pursued a theory of war responsibility of the literati, supported the movement against the 1960 ANPO treaty as an expression of the contradictions of the postwar order fifteen years after the end of the war. He was said to be number 2 of the intellectuals in semi-support of the Zengakuren, and gave a lecture at the June 15th, 1960 resistance assembly inside the National Diet. Yoshimoto was arrested in the incident which followed, which resulted in deaths from clashes with the police who had arrived to suppress it.
Afterwards, Yoshimoto founded the magazine Shikkou with the like-minded Tanigawa Gan and Murakami Ichiro. The journal published articles by Miura Tsutomu, who had been expelled from the Communist Party after the critique of Stalin, his disciple Takimura Ryuichi, Nango Tsugumasa, and others. Edazawa Shunsuke and others made their debuts as critics in Shikkou.
Yoshimoto developed a positive theoretical discourse in the midst of the collapse of the Communist Party's heroic status and splits in the new left. Yoshimoto was widely read and supported by students and intellectuals, for his work in "The Decline of a False System" (1962), which developed an independent theory of the arts in the face of criticisms of the Communist Party and sectarian literary theories, emphasizing the aesthetics of language and psychological phenomena, and "The Common Illusion," which emphasized a theory of the State. This became a refuge for students and intellectuals exasperated by the then-current sectarian and bureaucratic Marxism. Yoshimoto's collected works were published beginning in 1968.
As a result, Yoshimoto's antisectarian philosophy of independence became a major influence and theoretical resource in the 1960s and 1970s for the Zengakuren, Zenkyoto, and other 'non-sect' New Lefists, and Yoshimoto came to be seen as an ancestor for some New Left activists. Yoshimoto gave qualified support to the activities of Zenkyoto.
Beginning in the 1980s, Yoshimoto published a theory of the masses, "The Mass Image," and particular a theory of the city in "The High Image I-III." At this time, Yoshimoto appeared in the Women's magazine AnAn wearing clothing by Comme Des Garcons. Criticized by Haniya Yutaka as "wearing capitalism itself", Yoshimoto was criticized for turning right. Indeed, afterwards Yoshimoto did become more politically conservative, becoming a supporter of Ichirō Ozawa.
In the latter part of the 1980s, Yoshimoto criticized the anti-nuclear power and anti-nuclear weapons movements started by intellectual advocates of postwar democracy such as Kenzaburo Oe as 'Anti-Nuclear Fascism."
In the 1990s, after characterizing the Yoga practices of Asahara Shoko of Aum Shinrikyo as expressing the inner core of early Buddhist asceticism, Yoshimoto was criticized along with Nakazawa Shin'ichi as a defender of Aum following the Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway.
In August 1996, Yoshimoto was in critical condition after falling unconscious while swimming in Toicho, Shizuoka Prefecture, but survived. After the mid 1990's his work has tended towards informal essays.
Yoshimoto is known as a giant of postwar thought, and had an enormous influence in the 1960s and 1970's in Japan. He has published many dialgoues with overseas intellectuals visiting Japan, such as Michael Foucault, Felix Guattari, Ivan Illich, and Jean Baudrillard.
Yoshimoto, who does not hold an academic pedigree, has supported intellectuals who have devoted themselves to solitary study.
There have been many critiques of Yoshimoto's thought on this basis. He has also engaged in a number of perhaps excessively belligerent exchanges. Famous among these have been his dispute with Hanada Kiyoteru, with New Testament scholar Tagawa Kenzo, and his former friend and critic Haniya Yutaka.
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