Revisiting Masao MaruyamaI picked up and leafed through two books by influential Japanese political scholar Masao Maruyama: “Studies in the Intellectual History of Tokugawa Japan”(1952) and “Thought and Behavior in Modern Japanese Politics”(1969). The theorist, who passed away in 1996, had been one of the most excellent brains in postwar Japan and had a great impact on political thinking beyond the boundaries of Japan. His books parsed over how and why Japan — which was the first and most exemplary case of an Asian nation modernizing through a careful mix of Westernization and traditional values in the 19th century — stumbled into the path of ultra-nationalism and militarism that ended in its devastating defeat in World War II. His hindsight could be helpful in assessing — and looking for answers in — the current complicated geopolitical developments in the region.
Tensions on the Korean Peninsula have reached alarming levels. To comprehend why this has happened, and to seek solutions for a reunified Korea and lasting peace in Northeast Asia, Korea, China and Japan would have to first build a common consensus on the trajectory of the last 150 years. As the three countries are turning more and more against one another and are becoming more out of tune due to their differences in looking at the history, they would have to stop and seriously re-examine the problem to ensure co-prosperity in their part of the world. The tumultuous transformations the three countries underwent after the wave of imperialism and ideological battles reached their shores should be a subject for objective historical recognition and mutual understanding, instead of political criticism. Maruyama’s cool dissection of Japan from the Meiji era to its war defeat in 1945 could be a good reference book.
Maruyama’s study on how Japan redefined the relationship and the role of individuals and the state during the transition to the new Meiji order from the feudal and Confucian Tokugawa culture can open our eyes to better understand the modern Japanese political mind-set. The Meiji oligarchy succeeded in creating an enlightened, modern society by restoring the emperor and imperial rule as the spiritual authority of the nation to unite a people fractionalized in a feudal society and strengthen the military power against the challenges of Western forces. In the process, individualism and civilians’ rights were sacrificed for the national interests of the new political and social order, Maruyama argued, and Japanese nationalism became infected with imperialistic and militarist fervor.
Japan’s nationalism and patriotism demanded absolute loyalty to the emperor as a fundamental obligation of all civilians in the society. For their sufferings and anguish, the populace was forced to take comfort in the military expansion of their country. Wars had to be won in order to propagate the power of the emperor in other parts of Asia and the world, and the very logic that served as an ethical underpinning justified the aggressions of Japanese nationalism and imperialism. The slogan “Greater Asia” in Japan’s military campaign, with the goal of freeing Asians from Western imperialism, was only part of Japan’s hegemony in Asia.
When atomic bombs landed on Japan and put an end to all its military ambitions, Japan was once again returned to a humble state of islands in the Far East. All the nationalism and pride under the imperialist flag crumbled and the people were demoralized under American military rule. Maruyama was skeptical of how a new pacifism could replace the nationalistic values and unite the people. He warned that when a sense of nationalism was restored in Japan, it must stand on entirely different pillars than in the imperialist and colonial days and the country should refrain from going against other Asian nations.
Few countries change and adapt their paths because of foreign criticism and guidance. A nation’s future should be shaped by the needs, wants and deliberations of its own people. This is particularly so for the three Northeast Asian countries with their long, tumultuous pasts. Korea, as well as China and Japan, needs a rumination period. The three have brilliant and proud histories, cultures and traditions. Some would differ in accepting Maruyama’s progressive political analysis that sprung from the rubble of war 60 years ago. But I sincerely hope many intellectuals — particularly in Japan — would refer back to his wisdom and guidance for a better future.