A moral beacon in Japan’s darkest days

by David Williams

YANAIHARA TADAO AND JAPANESE COLONIAL EMPIRE: Redeeming Empire, by Susan C. Townsend. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon, 2000, 296 pp., 50 British pounds (cloth).

Scholarship can be a dangerous vocation. The ideological witch-hunt against Tadao Yanaihara, holder of the prewar chair of colonial policy at Tokyo Imperial University, began with a military ambush across the sea in China. The same nighttime clash that plunged Japan into war on the Chinese mainland in September 1937 also set in motion the academic ruin of one of 20th-century Japan’s most remarkable intellectuals.

If Osip Mandelstam, the great Soviet poet, invited imprisonment and death by composing a sonnet against Stalin in 1934, Yanaihara exposed himself to the wrath of the Japanese establishment by giving a sermon-as-lecture titled “The Kingdom of God” in October 1937.

Refusing to shelter any longer behind ivory-tower disinterestedness and the mixed blessings of the Japanese gift for ambiguity, he declared: “The nation’s leaders are false; they listen without hearing, see without perceiving and speak without comprehending . . . All value judgments are turned on their heads.”

In case anyone was unclear about his intentions, Yanaihara then stuck the knife in. Breaking with Japan’s pro-war consensus, he concluded, “If you have understood my remarks, please bury our country for a while so that her ideals may live.” With predictable but indecent haste, the university authorities, encouraged by the Ministry of Education, forced Yanaihara to resign. Public prosecution of his writings followed.

It is on this note of high drama that Susan C. Townsend concludes this impressive biography of ideas. This is a scholar who is not afraid to exploit the powers of narrative drive and the satisfactions of lucid writing to make the life and times of an inspired thinker come alive.

One conundrum dominates Townsend’s intellectual portrait. If the Asia-Pacific War was fought to secure Japan’s overseas empire, it was a disastrous folly: The empire was lost because of the war. But if the war was so obviously a folly, why was there so little opposition to it within Japan, particularly from policy thinkers, while it was being waged?

For over half a century, Japanese intellectuals and foreign scholars have debated this issue. Indeed, this question has been so exhaustively examined that it should now be clear to all sides to this argument that we may have been grappling with the wrong problem.

The real issue is not why was there so little domestic dissent, but rather why was there any public criticism at all? Back in 1893, before Japan’s empire project had been successfully launched with the Sino-Japanese War, Basil Hall Chamberlain, that exponent of the sweeping Orientalist generalization, tried to identify the core difficulty in a famous letter to Lafcadio Hearn.

On the subject of Japanese nationalism, Chamberlain insisted “Patriotism comes before everything, before Christianity, before humility, before even fair play and truth.” It is the phrase “before Christianity” that gives pause because Yanaihara anchored his dissent from Japan’s policy of Asian military expansion in his resolute Protestant faith.

Townsend rightly concentrates on Yanaihara’s decisive encounter with Christianity. Inspired by the example of Kanzo Uchimura, perhaps Japan’s most influential Protestant thinker, Yanaihara rapidly became a pillar of the anti-institutional “no-church” movement in this country. This faith gave him the moral fiber to criticize the Japanese state while his more timid colleagues pretended to be above “mere politics.”

In one of this book’s key conclusions, Townsend observes that “Though [Yanaihara] was intensely patriotic and professed great love for the Emperor, his Christian faith made his political loyalty conditional and deprived the Emperor system of legitimacy since ultimately he was loyal to God alone.”

The larger point must be this. The ranks of Japan’s handful of wartime dissidents were dominated by “true believers”: Marxists, anarchists, Christians and the odd liberal who embraced universal faiths that transcended and therefore ever so slightly deflected the otherwise irresistible claims of what Chamberlain called Japanese “patriotism.”

Yanaihara was a patriot with a difference. If Masao Maruyama, the master political thinker, and Hisao Otsuka, the great economic historian, have been celebrated as two of “the pillars of Japan’s postwar democracy,” Yanaihara was a self-proclaimed pillar of liberal flowering known as Taisho democracy between 1912 and 1926. He was a committed cosmopolitan who had studied abroad and was at home in English, French and German.

Like Otsuka, Yanaihara was committed to the two “J’s”: Jesus and Japan (some “Christian” patriots reverse the order). But it was neither his Christianity nor his nationalism that ensured that the “Yanaihara Incident” rocked the Japanese academic community. Rather it was his prominence as one of prewar Japan’s most important thinkers about the destiny of this country’s overseas empire.

Over six carefully crafted chapters, the core of her book, Townsend provides a penetrating overview of Yanaihara’s imperial scholarship and political analysis. Her chapter titles illustrate the scope of his social-scientific concerns: “Taiwan: A Theory of Dependency,” “Korea: A Plea for Justice,” “Manchuria: A ‘Slighter Gesture of Dissent’?,” “The South Sea Islands: A Moral Question,” “China: Capitalism and Colonial Development.” All these themes are used by Townsend to illuminate what she calls Yanaihara’s “Theory of Colonization.”

In “The Heart of Darkness,” his famous novella of 1902, Joseph Conrad insisted that European imperialism could only be redeemed by an idea: “not a sentimental pretense but an idea.” Townsend’s book is a sustained meditation on Conrad’s insight, one that compels us to see Yanaihara’s bold adventure of mind as a courageous struggle against the forces of racist sentimentality in favor of the idea of empire as a civilizing (because modernizing) agency.

If only the Japanese authorities had been less blinded by their desperate “empire-or-die” logic (Imperial Japan’s answer to America’s later obsession with “falling dominoes” in Southeast Asia), they might have been more receptive to Yanaihara’s vision of the “Great East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere” as a benign Pacific imitation of the British Commonwealth.

A successful Japanese commonwealth on the British model would have required withdrawal from China, autonomy for Manchuria and, finally, something that even Yanaihara emotionally resisted — Korean independence.

For at least two centuries, sentimental pretense has undermined the clarity of nationalist reflection on this country and its place in the world. History made Yanaihara the sworn foe of such self-delusion. Townsend wants us to revere his intellectual and moral legacy. It is as relevant today as it was during the darkest days of the 1930s.