Drawing on the traditions of Japanese Marxism, your work has played a distinctive role in bringing the insights of a Marxian political economy to bear on ecological questions—and proposes a novel ‘green’ reading of the Moor himself. Could you tell us first about the personal and intellectual journey that took you to Marx’s thought—your family background and your education?

I was born in 1987 and grew up in Tokyo. Japan is a pretty conservative society and my family was not very left-wing. At high school, I was mostly into playing football. What first made me think about international politics was 9/11—I was fourteen at the time—and then the build-up to the invasion of Iraq, which came eighteen months later. There was a lot of debate about Koizumi’s decision to send Japan’s Self-Defence Forces to join the occupation of Iraq and there was a big demonstration. I began to read Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, that kind of thing. But it was only when I entered the University of Tokyo in 2005 that I met people who were reading Marx—and professors who were teaching his work. This was also the moment when Koizumi was pushing through his neoliberal agenda and there were growing numbers of precarious workers and rising inequality. I started getting into those issues and began to realize that capitalism was a root cause of these problems and that I needed to study it more carefully.

It’s interesting that 2005, when you became interested in Marx, was probably when he was most out of fashion in the West, at the height of the globalization bubble. Were there any particular teachers at the University of Tokyo who were important to you?

Yes, 2005 did see a sort of revival of radical interest in Japan, although the economy had followed a different trajectory to the West—there was no 1990s boom, just the continuing downturn after the crash of 1989. At university, I was introduced to the school of Marxism founded by Samezō Kuruma. In the 1950s, Kuruma was the director of the Ohara Institute for Social Research—founded in 1919, it was somewhat analogous to the Frankfurt School. Kuruma had done important work in the 1920s and 30s on theories of surplus value. He had a famous debate with Kōzō Uno on the value form in the 1950s. Though Uno and Kōjin Karatani are more famous in the English-speaking world, the Kuruma school has played an important role in Japan. Kuruma died in 1982, but his students—Ryuji Sasaki, Tomonaga Tairako—were my teachers. One of his most prominent students was my professor, Teinosuke Otani.

Yet you then left Tokyo to complete your bachelor’s degree at Wesleyan University, in the us ?

I’d won a scholarship to go there and it seemed important to understand the country, given its role in the world—although I ended up studying philosophy and social theory. I did witness the scale of economic inequality in the us, though—it’s far higher than in Japan. Then with the 2008 financial crisis, I became deeply convinced of the unsustainability and injustice of capitalism. I wanted to study Marxism, so I decided to go to Germany for my post-graduate education—first the Free University in Berlin, then the Humboldt. The Kuruma school had always read Marx in German and placed great importance on reading the manuscripts, letters and notebooks, too—unlike the Uno school, which read him in English. I was fascinated by this approach, because it was trying to do something very different from Soviet Marxism. They focused on the theory of reification, which became central to my understanding, too.

I’d become more involved in ecological issues while I was in the us, but after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, I became active in the anti-nuclear movement and really started to think hard about technological questions and the relationship between humanity and nature. I had to challenge some of my naïve ideas about only focusing on the working-class movement, without really paying too much attention to ecological issues. I began to reflect on how Marx would have responded to these questions. But luckily in Berlin, I had access to the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe project, ‘mega2 ’—producing scholarly editions of the entirety of Marx and Engels’s collected works. I began studying Marx’s natural-science notebooks and, based on them, wrote my dissertation on the ecological dimension of Marx’s critique of capitalism. That became my first book, Natur Gegen Kapital, published in German in 2016. Monthly Review Press put out an English translation, Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism, in 2017, which I’m happy to say won the Deutscher Prize the following year.