Japan politics in the ‘short 20th century’


MARUYAMA MASAO and THE FATE OF LIBERALISM IN TWENTIETH- CENTURY JAPAN by Karube Tadashi, translated by David Noble. I-House Press, 2008, 212 pp., ¥2,500 (cloth)

Masao Maruyama was one of the most influential contemporary Japanese intellectuals. Tadashi Karube is his heir in the sense that he is a professor in the School of Legal and Political Studies at the University of Tokyo, the institution from which Maruyama retired in 1971.

Maruyama both embodied and formed the development of political thought in 20th-century Japan. With the book under review Karube presents his intellectual biography.

Born in 1914, the year of the outbreak of World War I, and dying in 1996, Maruyama’s life spanned almost exactly what historian Eric Hobsbawm has called “the short 20th century,” which, according to him, was characterized by the disastrous failure of state communism, capitalism and nationalism. Maruyama was Japan’s most attentive and critical commentator of these developments.

His main concerns were, on one hand, with the history of Japanese thought and, on the other, with normative political theory against the backdrop of the political circumstances of his time — as the son of a political journalist, as a student, as a soldier, as a university professor, and as a citizen.

The strength of this book is that it explains in sufficient detail the social and political conditions under which Maruyama grew up and made his career to demonstrate their influence on his political thinking.

Combining his interest in his own intellectual heritage with the currents of political thought that reached Japan in the wake of modernization, Maruyama analyzed Japanese politics and morals as they evolved from the Tokugawa Period until his time. From immersing himself in the writings of neo-Confucian Ogyu Sorai and Meiji reformer Fukuzawa Yukichi, Maruyama moved on to wrestle with Marxism and the emperor system, the most conspicuous rival blueprints for political order during the first half of the 20th century.

There were other influences, too, mainly on the part of German sociologists and political theoreticians, such as Georg Simmel and Carl Schmitt, who occupied themselves with the relationship between the individual citizen and the state.

Fascism and Japan under its ultranationalist government taught Maruyama how people abandon their own judgment for a blind faith in authority. Patriotism, nationalism and totalitarianism, therefore, were topics he dealt with repeatedly, trying to conceive of a form of popular political participation suitable for Japan.

While experiencing the end of World War II and the initial period of the occupation that followed as a period of liberation, Maruyama soon grew disillusioned with the “liberator” when the United States, supposedly the model of liberal democracy, slipped into McCarthyism and refused to issue him a visa because he sided with a student protest.

Maruyama always kept his independence as a critical analyst of political events. He never served the government or a political party as an adviser. Yet, he was not a detached bystander. His understanding of participatory politics made him take issue with current events on several occasions. He became a leading figure of the Ampo movement against the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty of 1960, which he considered an abuse of state power.

Not least because of his involvement in this movement Maruyama was considered a leftist by many. However, when he took a rather critical stand toward the student movement of 1968, he became the target of severe criticism by the left, which goes to show that he never allowed himself to be used as a figurehead.

Living through peace and war, Western colonialism and Western liberation, the entry into the nuclear age, the Cold War and the advent of mass (media) society, it was not always easy for Maruyama to maintain his intellectual integrity and independence. But on the whole he succeeded, and, as this readable and expertly translated biography makes clear, he lifted Japanese political thought onto a new plane that continues to inspire philosophers and political thinkers today.