The habit of thinking


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IN the early summer of 2001, I stayed at the Tokyo Metropolitan University where Takeuchi Yoshimi1 had once taught. The university had moved from the metropolis to Hachioji in the southwest suburbs and was located between two US airforce bases, Atsugi and Yokota. Every day I was forced to suffer the noise of the ceaseless journeys, to and fro, of the fighter planes. Those were the days soon after the crash of the US plane on Hainan Island off China. At that time, I once again came across Takeuchi Yoshimi. Amidst the roaring sound of fighter planes, and in the ‘peaceful’ environs of the university campus unmarked by any shadow of war, I entered into history.

The historic period in which Takeuchi Yoshimi played an active role was that of the horrific Sino-Japanese war. The period engendered in the young Takeuchi Yoshimi and his generation not just fear and helplessness but also strong political passion. These feelings of fear, helplessness and political passion cannot be easily accessed and understood through recourse to conceptual reasoning by the postwar generation to which we belong. Neither the reflections on the intellectual stance during wartime by the intelligentsia of postwar Japan, nor the comparatively simplistic critiques advanced by the next generation, are by themselves adequate to effectively grasp the situation of that period. In particular it is difficult to articulate and claim the intellectual legacy of that period, especially in terms of the significance of intellectual heritage. In that most politically incorrect period of its history the Japanese intelligentsia experienced severe internal debate, in which the one most remote from reality was in fact the most ‘correct’ and abstract intellectual stance.

The US war on Iraq that took place early this year is no less complicated than the US-Japan confrontation during the Pacific War period. The war on Iraq made me feel as if I was entering into history, a process which conversely helped shed light on today’s judgment of reality. It cannot be denied that the Pacific War was clearly triggered off by Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour. Nevertheless, the occupation of Japan by the US after the war and its setting up of military bases in the Far East in the name of civilization, subsequently resulting in a series of injustices and military operations like the Korean War, the Vietnam War and even the recent aerial reconnaissance in Chinese waters, cannot simply be rationalised as an inevitable consequence of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour. The war crimes committed by Japan in invading China and its imperialist strategy in the Pacific War too cannot be retroactively reconciled by the fact of it behaving as a ‘sub- imperialism’ in the Far East dependent on the United States. The United States has no right, as actual imperialism, to play the role of judge in the name of civilization and God at the same time. However, such is the way history is written and tacitly accepted.



At the end of World War II, it was impossible for anyone to predict subsequent historic events. Nevertheless, precisely at that difficult time the Japanese intelligentsia contributed to the world its most brilliant thinker. What we, as the postwar generation, should search for in the intellectual activities of that generation is not the manner in which they judged the past and predicted the future, but the way they made a difficult choice at a moment embedded with infinite possibilities, or alternatively marked by constrained conditions foreclosed at the margin. Precisely in making these numerous difficult choices, Takeuchi Yoshimi and his generation not only entered into but also created history.

At the moment of Japan’s defeat, Takeuchi Yoshimi articulated a way of thinking to resist the ‘USA-mode’, which unfortunately continues to prevail even today. As he presciently stated, this imperialist mode based on the theory of ‘One Civilization’ is further reinforced by the complicity between the East and the West (starting with the social elite and the intelligentsia). In this sense, there is no essential difference whether one agrees with or opposes the United States’ hegemony in East Asia; the difference lies in one’s understanding of the notion of civilization.



As part of his postwar intellectual activities, Takeuchi Yoshimi devoted himself to excavating the indigenous resource of ideas that would help resist the Eurocentric notion of civilization. In the pursuit of this goal, he dared to ‘pull the chestnuts out of the fire’, i.e., to run the risk of critically engaging with right-wing Japanese nationalism and Asianism, in the process braving attacks from both the progressive and conservative groups still anchored to the theory of a monolithic western civilization. He was acutely aware that the Orient could not rebuild its civilization by relying on an external force, especially when the ‘culture’ of the United States, as the agent of civilization, had already made the non-western world pay a heavy cost!

The War on Iraq has once again foregrounded these issues of earlier times. In this war, the mask of righteous justice, once worn by the United States in the name of ‘civilization’, and so starkly displayed in the manipulation of the Military Tribunal of the Far East at the end of World War II, has already lost much of its deceptiveness. The world no longer believes in these pompous claims; further, it appears that the Iraqi people are unlike the Japanese who were grateful for the ‘act of liberation’ by the United States’ soon after their defeat and occupation.

Of course, this by itself is not sufficient to destroy the basic structure and concept of civilization; the role of the United States as the ‘agent of civilization’ has yet to be successfully challenged. Nevertheless, the present situation allows us to reflect on the history of World War II just when it came to an end. Perhaps, at the cruel ‘present’ moment, history suddenly reveals itself to us: if it is impossible for an external ‘liberator’ to be the saviour of the non-western world, and equally the local authoritarian and conservative groups are neither reliable political forces nor a worthwhile repository of ideas, then how is one to escape the false paradigm of dualism and search for real freedom? The Iraqi people cried: ‘No Saddam Hussein! No USA!’ Did the Japanese, under the occupation of the United States at that period, ever make an effort to say: ‘No US-style Democracy! No Mikado Despotism!?’



Since Chinese society, including our intelligentsia, continues to maintain an incipient hostility towards Japanese imperialism even as many entertain naïve illusions about the United States’ concept of ‘Democracy and Liberty’, there is an insufficient interrogation of this period of history despite it being closely related to us. People continue to ignore the most fundamental historical questions: for instance, who was actually in control and who conducted the trial in the Military Tribunal of the Far East? During its occupation and reform in postwar Japan, did the United States bring democracy to Japan or was its invasion subsequently legitimized through an imposition of ‘democracy’? Throughout the 20th century, how were the unequal relations between East Asia (or Asia) and the West, particularly the United States, built up? How were the concepts of civilization, democracy and liberty used and restructured in the process of realpolitik? And how did these concepts become the ‘gorgeous decorations’ of the hegemonic politics of the United States in forging a complicity between the East and West? Each of these questions is closely related to us, and to our modern history.

In dealing with the question of the Tokyo Tribunal, there is a basic dilemma: even if one were to disagree with the characterization of the Tokyo Tribunal as the final denouement of Japanese militarist crimes, it cannot be denied that, in the name of justice, Japan was prosecuted for war crimes against the principles of peace and humanity in World War II. Furthermore, after the tribunal, these two principles were added to the existing corpus of international law. The Tokyo Tribunal was not a legal event that can be easily negated. Its real significance cannot be discussed in purely conceptual terms, and its falsification and distortion of truth can be represented only under specific historical conditions. It is worrying, given the generally reductive and conceptual dualism prevalent among the intelligentsia, that the questioning of the Tokyo Tribunal is often regarded as a challenge to the presuppositions of peace and humanity that it foregrounds. Worse, even a historical analysis of the Tokyo Tribunal can be misunderstood as an affirmation of the Japanese invasion.



This is the most significant chapter in our history. At present, the intellectuals of mainland China are divided into two groups, i.e. pro-war and anti-war, thereby underscoring our ignorance about how the United States is repeating the same basic mode that it displayed in the Tokyo Tribunal: under the guise of upholding abstract justice, the United States is exercising judgment on the concrete injustices of the one being tried, while maintaining silence about its own behaviour of injustice and inhumanity. At an earlier time, Japan used the abstract slogan of a ‘Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere’, whose conceptual status and claims to universality obviously cannot be compared with the slogans of the United States, like ‘peace’, ‘humanity’ and ‘civilization’. But when Fascist Japan used its slogan, the cognitive process was not fundamentally different from the United States advancing concepts like humanity and justice. We should not forget that in the name of justice the responsibility for the suffering inflicted by the United States in using atomic bombs was sought to be erased due to the presupposition of judging Japan’s sins.



Equally frightening is that the atrocities committed by ‘Unit 731’, a unit of the Japanese army responsible for conducting biological warfare research in mainland China, were deliberately covered up. Ishii Shiro, the head of Unit 731, was surprisingly acquitted in the trial, and the relevant investigation materials were suppressed by the United States. They were not made public in order that the US could seize the research findings of biological experiments carried out on living people in China. In a tribunal conducted in the name of justice and humanity, the United States erased this most horrid chapter of modern war history.

A month before the United States launched bombing raids on Iraq, in the library of the Tokyo Metropolitan University I read some historical materials compiled by the Japanese about the Tokyo Tribunal. A fact vividly emerges from the limited data: after the War, the Japanese who had a conscience felt that they were in no position to alleviate people’s sufferings as a result of the invasion; consequently they were unwilling to question the verdict of the Tokyo Tribunal. On the other hand, they were both puzzled and felt unfairly treated by the patent injustice of the Tokyo Tribunal. In the Tribunal, not only was Mikado pardoned, the Pacific War constituted the sole object of trial, and the treatment of US-British prisoners was foregrounded as the core of the question of humanity, these served as the main grounds for indictment and judgment. Although the Nanjing massacre was considered by the tribunal, the unforgivable and barbarous crimes committed by the Japanese military in China and South East Asia did not form its basic focus.

Takeuchi Yoshimi argued that imperialism could not put imperialism on trial. Of course, when he said that, it was already eleven years after the Tokyo Tribunal, and during these eleven years the notions of civilization and justice advanced by the United States in the tribunal had been at least partially discredited due to its invasions in East Asia. Possibly, it was reasonable to reach Takeuchi Yoshimi’s conclusion, but that question is not relevant at this stage. More significant is the fact that when Takeuchi Yoshimi advanced this proposition, the tendency in Japanese society which upheld the United States as the repository of civilization, was closely paralleled by another that resisted the United States’ encroachment into the sovereignty of other countries.



Herein lies a thorny question – one of civilization and barbarism – that was raised at the Tokyo Tribunal and which cannot be easily dismissed. Even eleven years later when Takeuchi Yoshimi declared that imperialism could not put imperialism on trial, for him and a majority of the people, the principle of civilization could not be abandoned. The real question, however, was not one of upholding the principle, but of contextualizing it. That is: who has the right to represent civilization; also, whether civilization is singular or multiple. There were severe disagreements among the intelligentsia over this issue, which were then translated into different political stances.

Half a century later, the US army invaded Baghdad and turned a blind eye to the looting of the Iraqi museums. The shadow of the ‘Gulf War Syndrome’ caused by the United States’ dropping of irregular weapons like uranium bombs in the Gulf War, still exists. Today, even as the United States repeats its old tricks, its claim as an agent of civilization has yet to be problematized. This question cannot be sidetracked by raising the issue of the invasion of Kuwait by the Saddam Hussein regime, or Iraqi non-cooperation with the United Nations in dismantling the weapons of mass destruction; nor can it be covered up with the perspective of a so-called anti-parochial nationalism. Unless this question is problematized and discussed we will continue to remain captive to a contradictory psyche which has existed in post-war Japan: of denouncing the hegemony of the United States while at the same time acknowledging its identity as an agent of civilization. Little surprise then that Takeuchi Yoshimi’s proposition is no longer remembered: imperialism cannot put imperialism on trial!



Nevertheless, the complexity of the question goes far beyond this basic conundrum. If we simply reduce the question to one of countering US hegemony, we are no closer to understanding the complex reality, and will not really enter into the realm of history. This is because the question of anti-hegemony is not the same as the question of anti-USA. For instance, on the question of the attitudes towards the Tokyo Tribunal, those who displayed an unequivocal hostility were drawn mainly from the right-wing. Advocating homage to Class-A war criminals of the Yasukuni Shrine, the right-wing and the conservative groups had always openly claimed that the Japanese ‘war criminals’ were not guilty; so they simply dismissed the Tokyo Tribunal.

Basically, among the right-wing intellectuals, one witnessed the growth of a straightforward anti-US attitude, a rationality reflecting an ideology of parochial nationalism. In contrast, the progressive groups in Japan found it difficult to either clearly criticize or support the Tokyo Tribunal. If we use ‘pro-US or anti-US’ as a yardstick to measure an intellectual stance, we will not find any convincing explanation for the above. This is apparently because though the right-wing’s anti-US attitude merely implied that they hoped Japan’s hegemony in East Asia would replace that of the USA, one cannot conclude that their anti-US attitude was not true!



It is my contention that we should not treat this question at the simplistic level of being either ‘pro-US’ or ‘anti-US’. I have long felt that in the name of ‘civilization’ or ‘democracy’, imperialism can penetrate everywhere and that the new hegemonic structure is to a substantial degree dependent on the ‘complicity’ between the First and the Third World when they refer to a common understanding of one civilization. This understanding will not be ruptured in the discourses on ‘clash of civilizations’ as proved by the world’s attitude towards the United States over the War on Iraq. Equally, explanations drawing on economic interests and capitalist operations alone distract from the question. Although economic forces shape the form of civilization, they do not replace it. The Tokyo Tribunal cannot merely be read as an event of international law, just as the War on Iraq cannot be seen as just another military operation.

The historical writings that feature the Tokyo Tribunal as a landmark of Chinese victory in the Sino-Japanese War, or as a ‘sanctioning’ of Japanese militarism by forces of justice, need to be challenged now. This challenge does not imply any erasure of Japanese military sins, nor support for the Japanese right-wing’s ‘anti-US stance’, far less a denial of the historical contribution of the Tokyo Tribunal. The real object of the challenge is not only the hegemonic politics of the United States and its insistence on being seen as an agent of civilization, but also our dualist mode of thinking, in particular the concept of ‘monolithic civilization’ which Takeuchi Yoshimi had challenged half a century earlier. At present, the dualist mode of thinking and the concept of a ‘monolithic civilization’ still conditions our standards of judgment on the US War on Iraq, as also keeps us outside of historical progress.



This dualist mode of thinking became dominant in the political sphere with the onset of the Cold War; equally it continued to forcibly frame the reality into this kind of mode. Today, even though this mode of thinking does not help explain contingent reality, the public remains trapped in it. In that sense, the US war on Iraq has acted as a trial. Given the conflicts between the opposing groups of pro- and anti-war, we are forced to confront the question of dualism that Takeuchi Yoshimi had experienced in the Movement Against the US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty: Does the ostensible ‘success’ of the US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty imply that the mass movement against the US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty should be seen as a failure? In the same way, does the ‘success’ of the US War on Iraq imply the failure of the global anti-war movement and the victory of pro-war groups?

Takeuchi Yoshimi’s answer was No. He argued that the US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty was designed and implemented in a conflictual environment; therefore, one should not make a black and white choice between two poles of one hundred and zero. As actual politics evolves and operates between the two poles, it cannot be evaluated at the formal level of victory and defeat.



At that time, even though the movement against the US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty failed to hold back the implementation of the treaty, Takeuchi Yoshimi concluded that there were ‘a lot of gains.’ Not only did the mass movement successfully force Kishi Nobusuke, then prime minister, to step down, and the US president to cancel his visit to Japan, it was also the first time that the Japanese masses experienced resistance on a national scale. Takeuchi Yoshimi and his contemporaries, at a time when intellectuals were seen as spiritual leaders, grasped the essence of national resistance that happened not immediately after the war but more than 20 years later; they also recognized and attempted to instil a democratic tradition for the first time in Japanese history. This was not a gift of the US occupation army, but was truly born out of the reflections on resistance to the United States, to the Japanese government’s functioning as an accomplice of the US, and on the ‘reality of democracy’ – real despotism concealed in formal representative democracy.

The experience of democracy born in the Movement Against the US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty was certainly not an institutional attempt. Both its character as a ‘mass movement’ and the attempts at intellectual exploration by the leaders of the movement challenged the possible authoritarianism implicit in abstract and formal democracy; it also resisted the United States’ mode of ‘export of democracy’. It is, of course, true that barring a few people like Takeuchi Yoshimi, most Japanese intellectuals at the time considered ‘democracy’ as the opposite of despotism and, therefore, further conceptually reinforced this questionable proposition. Nevertheless, the movement’s slogan of ‘Democracy or Despotism’ helped unfreeze the Japanese social structure, in turn forcing intellectuals to treat ‘democracy’ functionally, more as a method of civil-political training and not an institutional goal and thereby attempt to politicize social spaces through these functions. At that time, the advocacy of democracy as a rational system was not merely a conceptual dispute among intellectuals; neither was it just a conceptual standard loaded with infinite political correctness due to its opposition to despotism. Political reality forced that generation of Japanese intellectuals to look beyond the concept of democracy and search for more appropriate methods to build a local political society.



When we view our modern history through the given framework of pro- and anti- West, can we locate the ‘modern’ which belongs to us? Modernity is not merely a question of thinking or culture. War is always the most important, the most concentrated and extreme form of expressing modernity. The United States’ invasion of Iraq has already made everyone realize the centrality of war in the question of modernity. Just as after the outbreak of the Pacific War, the discussion on overcoming modernity among the Japanese intelligentsia placed the relationship between war and modernity at centre-stage. It was not only a question of thinking culture, but also politics; it was not just a matter of principle, but also of practice.

Fukuzawa Yukichi, another prominent Japanese intellectual, had been trapped in an impasse – that in the face of western ‘civilization’ (disease) one could only develop immunity through infection of measles. What Japan experienced before and after World War II made redundant Fukuzawa Yukichi’s use of this analogy, loaded as it was with tensions, from the context of his Datsu-A ron (or Dissociating from Asia), as it turned out that even as Japan lost its immunity it became a super virus carrier. Nevertheless, the postwar generation of Japanese with a conscience still attempted to work through the difficulties to recover as a healthy people.



What ‘civilization’ had gifted to Japan was not only the likelihood of becoming an aggressive virus but also developing immunity to the virus. A plague allows a nation to understand that immunity can only be nurtured inside the body and cannot be developed by taking antibiotics. Takeuchi Yoshimi, I think, deeply understood Fukuzawa Yukichi’s idea of figuring civilization as measles. You can resist foreign disasters only if you nurture the real spirit of ‘resistance’ inside your body, but this internal immunity is never a taken-for-granted ability. As Takeuchi Yoshimi repeatedly reminded us, resistance can only emerge after being infected or even struck down.

In the spring of 2003, with so much happening around us, the immunity inside our bodies has been critically impaired. Perhaps we need to return to the starting point, to before the two World Wars, and rethink: what is ‘civilization’? Maybe it is necessary for us once again to ask the fundamental question which puzzled East Asia after World War II: what is ‘resistance’? In so doing I believe we will not be merely expressing doubt on the shadow of past history.


* Translated by Sit Tsui, doctoral fellow, Lingnan University, Hong Kong.



1. Takeuchi Yoshimi (1910-1977), a famous Japanese Sinologist and thinker.