Reading David Williams’ The Philosophy of Japanese Wartime Resistance is a frustrating enterprise. Or it has been for me, at least. The author would probably attribute my exasperation to seemingly obfuscating “liberal reasons,” reasons that cloud my rationalising faculties, that render them powerless, that deviate my judgement from a purely empirical strategy — reasons which he seeks to dispel over the one hundred-page prelude before he allows us to plunge into his compelling translation of what constitutes the essence of this book: three round-table discussions between high-profile members of the Kyoto School held on 26 November 1941, 4 March 1942 and 24 November 1942 and later published in Chūō Korōn, a prominent journal which continues to appear to this day.
For my part, I attribute my frustration to the author’s tone and to his troublesome arguments captured in, I believe, a shaky methodology. In all sincerity, I only pass such a subjective assessment with great reluctance because I still think that Mr. Williams raises some valid points in regard to liberal imperialism as he successfully broadens the critique of the interpretation of history, particularly of the Pacific War episode, from the victors’ point of view. However, by the time I reached the translations of the Kyoto School discussions of “The Standpoint of World History and Japan” I was so exhausted by the author’s countless tirades against Woodrow Wilson’s ideological inheritors and, most acutely, against liberal historians of Japan like Bix and Dower, that I could not but be in agreement with James Heisig evaluation of another book by Mr. Williams. In this particular instance Heisig says of this book that “it falls in the genre of sophisticated journalism that makes you so angry you eventually become embarrassed at your own reaction and are forced to stop and rethink some of the things you took for granted.” Indeed, the title I’m about to review also made me angry and it made me stop reading but only because I was rethinking the author’s dubious intent in writing this book and the unresolved ways he went about to achieve his pre-stated aims.
Before I head into the contents of the book, I must mention that Mr. Williams is not new to a revisionist interpretation of Japanese history. Other titles in his oeuvre include Japan and the Enemies of Open Political Science and Defending Japan’s Pacific War: The Kyoto School Philosophers and Post-White Power. I have not read anything else by Mr. Williams but his provocative titles and synopses about their contents, in addition to this book under review, have made me curious.
But I have to pause here and insert a few words about revisionism. Revisionism carries a stigma, particularly among orthodox disciples of any field of study. Revisionism disturbs, short-circuits and transfigures deep-seated beliefs. Some see revisionism as progressive, others as reactionary. As a methodology, it is either embraced or condemned. Certainly, revisionism tends to raise up alarm bells in the field of history whenever it is mentioned. I do not hold such a stringent view. I think sweeping, heterogenous discussions are necessary to keep any academic field alive, interesting and complex. The problem with revisionism lies in its aim, specifically when it acts in the service of ideological power mechanisms designed to defend against any criticism or to sway public opinion into one direction. In my view revisionism takes on inimical connotations when it seeks to conceal and to disorient: one should be wary of revisionism which doesn’t speak truth to power. Mr. Williams’ objective in this book is not necessarily a negative one. He may be challenging, occasionally upsetting and uncompromising but he raises issues that complement the variegated field of Japanese Studies in ways that need to be engaged with and properly debated. Hence I see his revisionism as a healthy dose of intellectual endearment.
Nevertheless, I still part ways with Mr. Williams for a number of reasons which I will examine below. Although I will make a few critical observations about the translation of the symposia contained in the second part of the book, I will not delve here into this important subject, however grandiose it may be, all heavily annotated, thoroughly explained and outstandingly referenced. The second part may be the best part of the book, one which I cannot insist enough that it ought to be read. The following thoughts concern only the first part which serves initially as an introduction or, as I see it, as a platform for Mr. Williams to express again and again his dissatisfaction with liberalism, either political or academic. There is no way one can escape this: it’s virtually included in every paragraph, as if Mr. Williams was afraid his readers could lose focus of what’s really at stake by the time they get to explore the philosophers’ interesting discussions.
So what’s the book about? The main corpus contains three texts of three lively debates among members of the Kyoto School which, in Mr. Williams’ opinion, represent the ultimate Confucianist manifesto of opposition to Tōjō and the Pacific War and the only relevant and exemplary source for resistance to Japan's tragical historic course of action. For Mr. Williams,
In this clash of ideas as a battle for discourse hegemony, the Kyoto School provides the empirical and theoretical foundations for a more plausible understanding than any hitherto offered of the nature of Japanese wartime resistance to official attempts to suppress internal criticism and thus thwart efforts to dislodge Tōjō from power.
Finally, the book is a strong, passionate defense of the Kyoto School against the prevailing “liberal” view which sees it as an official apologist and preserver of Japan’s fascist, imperialist ventures and the ideological parent of the East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere. The author argues that the academic world has failed to see the contrasting, real picture of what the Confucianist intellectuals were trying to do because all scholarly interpretation of Japanese history, following the Allied victory in 1945, was and still is, “the product of the Moral Revolution of our liberal century and the propaganda needs of a wartime emergency do not allow us to read the writings of the Kyoto School with clarity, confidence and accuracy.”
Mr. Williams insistence that the Kyoto School carried the voice of interwar dissent comes apart mainly due to his seething opposition to the forms of “hegemonic” liberalism of historical interpretation. Here I must confess that I’m seriously confused what liberalism is, even after being told again and again that the hegemony of liberalism provoked Japan’s heavy-handed response in China, Korea, and at Pearl Harbor. The author never provides a concise definition as it is usually customary when discussing philosophy — something that, nevertheless, he consistently and admiringly points out is the universal practice employed by the Confucianist philosophers of the Kyoto School. All I know about this form of contemptible liberalism is that it can be traced back to President Woodrow Wilson and is rooted in the terms of the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 when “the theory of just war was revived and became the mainstay of the Western liberal approach to international law.” Mr. Wilson is justly aggrieved that an ideology that has the “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" as its conceptual foundation has morphed into a regular global aggressor which seeks to destroy and reform by force everything that it sees as illiberal. It is with this accurate view in mind that he maintains that “‘Japanese resistance’ [pre- and inter- WWII] must be regarded, rightly or wrongly, as a predictable, rational and human response to the enforcement of global suzerainty by post-Wilsonian liberalism.” But his rancor fails to elicit any sympathy when he mistakenly portrays conservative personages like Margaret Tatcher and Ronald Reagan and even George Bush as liberal aggressors. While these individuals were ardent champions of the economic ideas associated with neoliberalism (ideas which, in my opinion, cannot be divorced from liberalism in and of itself) to include them as representatives of liberalism seems to me a failure of academic integrity. More dubiously, the author even gives credence to the view that the Lincoln Emancipation Proclamation was a “template for liberal annihilation.” Therefore it is difficult to make sense of what the author sees as liberalism and this is counterintuitive since, like I already mentioned above, liberalism is attacked in one form or another on every page of the introduction.
Moreover, the author maintains that liberal readers are incapable of grasping the true essence of the symposia due to moral limitations. The underlying assumption is that the regular reader has been intoxicated (or brainwashed) by a prevalent moralist, humanist worldview that prevents him or her from making a sound, empirical interpretation of any Japanese wartime text. It is for these reasons that the author decides not to offer a literal translation of the Kyoto School discussions; instead he produces a meta-text, one that is able to render our feelings inert and awake a scientific understanding that lacks the pitfalls of moral partiality.
The truth of this whole affair is that because we liberal readers, as liberals, are morally incapable of being faithful to the original, any translator of this text would be condemned to betray it. It may simply be the case that it is still too early to attempt to translate the three manuscripts that travel under the informal flag of convince that is the theme of ‘the standpoint of world history and Japan’ because we are not ready, that is, not mentally and morally prepared, for the leap of understanding required. While a translation would have faltered over the attributes of the text, my reading aims to provide only the essence of the thing.
The author’s tone here is very patronizing. And it doesn’t help that he later adds “I do believe that I have identified a reliable framework of interpretation, one that is impartial in a way that is true of none of its rivals.” I find that the above statements only manage to disperse with impartiality and to cast doubt on the objectiveness of the texts, an objectivity which the author maintains is the singular valuable characteristic of the Kyoto School as a whole. But we have to take his word for it. Those who cannot read the original Japanese documents are at the mercy of the translator who, in this case, casts even more aspersions on the authoritativeness of the translation by exhibiting a hyperbolic admiration for the philosophers under scrutiny. In general, this is not an entirely damaging factor but readers of this book are made only more skeptical when the author engages in the following characterizations:
All born during the first decade of the twentieth century, that is, the final decade of the Meiji era, these four thinkers bring to their discussions something more than a rigorous philosophical tradition. They are intimate with a vast corpus of European writing on a huge array of topics, from literature, anthropology and history to politics, military strategy and technology. Their shared horizon allows them to rehearse established lines of argument with economy while developing new ones almost as they speak. They can discourse at length, confident that they will be patiently listened to. They gracefully cut across each other’s remarks (despite their differences in age; differences that require sensitive navigation in Confucian East Asia) and tease each other’s intellectual pretensions. They share a sense of humor. One would invite all of them cheerfully to a dinner party because they appear to be such good company.
The author is trying too hard in this fragment and that’s all right because he obviously likes and sympathizes with his subjects. But I believe that the subjectivity of personal descriptions could have been left to the reader’s imagination, not imposed from above. At other times I feel that the author is not entirely honest about the partakers of the symposia, or is purposely misdirecting the reader.
Their instincts are sound and, despite their reactionary reputations, their opinions will unsettle the prejudiced liberal critic. They treat arguments for the importance of blood purity with well-judged skepticism at a time when black soldiers were apparently not allowed to give blood transfusions to white soldiers in the US armed forces. These Japanese thinkers celebrate the place of women in history, praising the demise of polygamy while upholding the domestic decencies of the monogamous family and the dignity of women within it.
I see in this and other fragments what I consider to be Mr. Williams biggest flaw in his defense of the Kyoto School. For the record, I’m not saying that the Kyoto School shouldn’t be defended but I think other books such as Christopher S. Goto-Jones’ Political Philosophy in Japan: Nishida, the Kyoto School, and Co-Prosperity do a much better job without teetering on the brink of raging vexation or getting caught in contradictions. When I mention contradictions I have in mind the particular factors which Mr. Williams employs in order to describe the distinctive nature of the “true” empirical historian. This particular type of historian produces empirical history by looking at the facts and by making generalizations. These generalizations are accepted “with confidence because the facts inform the general conclusions drawn.” But then the author also makes the absurd claim that “with moral or liberal history, one is subject to a series of surprises or shocks because the ethical generalization is ultimately never confirmed by the historical record.” I think that the pitfall of the overall argument is that Mr. Williams much too often confounds moral history with liberal history. And if the liberal historian is a moral historian, does that make Mr. Williams amoral? Is he above the sentimentalism or moralism which exhumes from the liberal historian’s work? Because I see evidence on the contrary whenever he mentions the firebombing of Tokyo and the extermination of large swaths of civilian populations by the Allied armies during WWII. I also see Mr. Williams engagement with moralism on every page, specifically when he invokes the aggressiveness of the liberal world order which needed and still needs to be thwarted.
My confusion is also aggravated by the failure to define the meaning of the term ‘liberalism’ as it appears numerous times in the pages of the book. The lack of this crucial definition allows me to declare with absolute conviction that the liberal historian is not a moral historian in toto. The liberal historian also generalizes and also works with facts. But Mr. Williams is quick to cover his bases: “At best, moral history is a form of general history that generalizes or abridges selectively from the historical record.” He then recounts the best method to approach the philosophy of the Kyoto School:
First, the liberal-minded researcher’s urge to deny and ignore the facts on the page must be overcome. Second, Confucianism has to be acknowledged by our self-bracketing liberal as a respectable form of ethics. If liberalism is exhausted, the post-liberal historian must seek out and then elaborate convincing East Asian schemas of interpretation to organize his data.
Does he mean to say that liberal historians aren’t using the full facts? Does he want to say that “liberal” historians like Bix or Dower do not interpret correctly East Asian history because they do not utilize fully East Asian schemas of interpretation? What is an “East Asian scheme of interpretation?” What does “convincing” entail? Who are the people that this strategy is supposed to convince? Only Mr. Williams knows for sure.
Such accusation of the interpretation of history could very well be brought to the Kyoto School philosophers and to Mr. William himself — from the other side of history. I am not convinced that Japanese imperialism was a response “to the arrival of a hostile liberal world order.” Nor do I think that the motivation for the Kyoto School thinking, grounded in “creating an alternative to European suzerainty over Asia, deflecting the thrust of American power across the Pacific, and blunting Chinese nationalism” is a correct, even realistic one. Mr. Williams forgets that territorial expansion and nation building proceeded more or less simultaneously in 19th century Japan. He forgets that Japan expands into Korea as early as the 1880s; then it colonizes Taiwan (known as Formosa) in the 1890s. At the same time it is involved in the first Sino-Japanese War. It fights a war with Russia over control of the Korean peninsula in 1904-1905. Mr. Williams and the philosophers he defends gloss over these events or regard them as imperative to nation building by portraying them in an overly optimistic way and by aggrandizing the colonial achievements. They forget that Chinese and Korean people are angry and unhappy at the abuses perpetrated by a foreign government which for all intents and purposes is Confucianistically-oriented and educated. They forget that Japan’s reputation and image after its successful imperialistic incursions were lifted in western eyes: the yellow peril image of Japan was not an exclusive or prevalent representation. Hence the liberal West doesn’t seem to be such a significant singular threat.
Domestically, the Kyoto School ignores the social, political and economic discrimination of minorities. It ignores the status of women who pre-1930s could not run for political office, vote, speak at rallies or other political events, much less be present at such gatherings (this status was accorded by the philosophical inheritance of the Confucianist government which sought to subordinate women in an inferior position to the patriarchal man whenever it could). It ignores the forceful integration of Okinawan and Ainu people into the nation state by the removal of all indigenous cultural traces. It ignores the Thought Police and the laws and regulations enabled to suppress popular dissent. For Mr. Williams this fact is an inevitable, necessary reality of the development of a Confucianist order where only the intellectual elites have the right to effectuate change. Breaking this mould “would be to turn one’s back on everything that is moral and decent, rational and practical.” (But, methodologically, isn’t this precisely what the author is doing, breaking the ‘mould’ of liberal historical interpretation? Why is this okay in his case?) Overall I find Mr. Williams and the philosophers of the Kyoto School in their ivory tower from where they plotted and prepared for Tōjō’s removal, to be quite removed from the “empirical” social realities on the ground.
What would Japan look like had it not been for liberal opposition? I would assume not a very pleasant place. A police state where dissent and disloyalty towards the higher echelons of power would be thoroughly expunged and the resisters punished. A place where militaristic discipline coinciding with blind devotion to the emperor would be the only school experience a child could get. A place where women, according to the old Confucian model, would be forever subordinate to the will of the patriarchal male. A place there the cultural product would be carefully regulated and censored. But I think the more resounding question is what would Asia look like had it not been for liberal opposition? Where would China, Korea, Vietnam and the rest of the nations that fell under Japanese occupation be had it not been for a strong, global response? These are not the correct questions to ask, according to Mr. Williams, as they’re tainted by pre-inculcated liberal, moralistic values.
In the illiberal world evoked by pre-1945 Confucianism, Mr. Williams’ book or, at least, the first part, would serve as the official organ for persuasion (“propaganda” is too loaded a term). What kind of moral values could we, the liberal readers, then retain in such a setting, if any at all? The clues are in the book, according to the author. Somehow I have the feeling that pacifism is not included in there. “Pacifism in academe has served to undermine the objectivity of the human sciences and their capacity to tell the truth about the world as it is.” But what does that say about the Japanese people who made and continue to make pacifism as their truth? What does it say about those people during the Meiji, Taishō and Shōwa period who suffered or perished for upholding pacifist views? Evidently, as I’m asking these questions I’m aware that in Mr. Williams’ eyes I already fail to be a promising, capable reader of the book.
Heisig, James W. "Reviews: Defending Japan's Pacific War: The Kyoto School Philosophers and Post-White Power." (2005).
Heisig, James W. "Reviews: Defending Japan's Pacific War: The Kyoto School Philosophers and Post-White Power." (2005).
Williams, David. The Philosophy of Japanese Wartime Resistance: A Reading, with Commentary, of the Complete Texts of the Kyoto School Discussions of 'the Standpoint of World History and Japan'. Routledge, 2014.