Japan’s Love-Hate Relationship with the West
by Hirakawa Sukehiro.
Global Oriental (Kent, UK), 2005.
Hardcover, 400 pages, $90.

Conservatives are often portrayed as an insular lot. Blinded by tradition and preternaturally bigoted in constitution, so goes the standard media and academic treatment, conservatives are simply uninterested in interacting with anyone who does not think or look exactly as they do.

A moment’s reflection, though, shows that this stereotype has been conjured out of thin air. Although conservatism is defined differently in different cultural contexts, as a general rule those thinkers most deeply informed by their own civilizational traditions have been those most concomitantly open to the best in other traditions, too. T. S. Eliot, perhaps the finest Western poet of his generation, was deeply versed in Sanskrit literature, for example. Rabindranath Tagore, conversely, who won a Nobel Prize in 1913 for his writings in his native Bengali, was the product of a classical European education and a correspondent with artists and philosophers around the world. And Russell Kirk, the man who was responsible more than any other for breathing new life into the conservative movement in the United States, liked to think of himself as a citizen of the world, and was equally likely to be found researching in Scotland or tramping through North Africa as behind his desk in Mecosta, typing out the books and essays that have outlasted all of the self-important attempts at cosmopolitanism of his liberal critics.

This unfortunate mischaracterization of conservatives as ostrich-like and dull-witted is perhaps nowhere so firmly entrenched as in Americans’ understanding of conservatism in Japan. After all, we have been told—by the same Rooseveltian partisans who helped apotheosize the late president in hagiographical histories and biographies over the past seventy years—that it was the Japanese fascists and militarists who singlehandedly brought our two nations to such prolonged enmity from across the Pacific in the 1940s. This portrayal of the Japanese as un-Progressive, and hence dangerous, began long before Pearl Harbor though; it helped prod the Japanese into firing the fateful first shot of the Pacific War, culminated in the shamefully biased show trial in Tokyo that stretched from 1946-48, and continues more or less unchanged to this day. Even those who find American conservatism to be a benign thing are still deeply suspicious of those who call themselves conservatives in Japan.

It is no surprise, then, that conservatives in Japan and the U.S. know so very little about one another. But our mutual ignorance—predicated as it has been upon liberal prejudice—is both regrettable and easily remedied. What the Progressives have been at pains to obscure since at least the 1930s is that the deep affinities that bind conservatives in Japan and America—and, indeed, around the world—run like cosmological constants between our two countries. As in the United States, if one is searching any nation for intellectual integrity, deep and playful curiosity about the world both at home and abroad, respect for the best in the human tradition, and abiding skepticism of utopias of every stripe, then one had best find out who the top conservatives are and read what they have written. Where both the New York Times and the Asahi Shimbun are mere macaws noisily recycling the daily party line, those on the right in both Tokyo and Washington are the most likely to have something insightful and thoughtful to say about any given subject. It is our most abiding cross-cultural trait.

There is much, then, that conservatives on both sides of the Pacific stand to gain from an enhanced relationship. But any relationship must begin with an introduction. And no one, to my mind, is better qualified to serve as go-between for our two camps of latent goodwill than Tokyo University emeritus professor Hirakawa Sukehiro. In particular, Prof. Hirakawa’s ten-year-old book, Japan’s Love-Hate Relationship with the West, is among the most detailed descriptions to date of the fraught commerce between Japan and the Euro-American world, and also contains much of promise for everyone in the U.S. who wishes to see what the world looks like from the standpoint of a sincere Japanese thinker.

Japan’s Love-Hate Relationship is not a prêt-à-porter effort, but instead comprises some two-and-a-half dozen essays written and revised over the course of Prof. Hirakawa’s long career. Famed in Japan as the Japanese translator of Dante’s Divine Comedy and the editor of several works on longtime early Japan resident and observer Lafcadio Hearn, Hirakawa is also a veteran of academic work in East Asia and has written prolifically on Japanese culture and history. This lifetime of broad involvement with different milieux makes Hirakawa uniquely qualified to get to the heart of Japan’s interactions with the rest of the world since the first American ships steamed into Uraga Bay in 1853.

Unlike much American writing on Japan, which is mired in broad stereotypes of Japanese reluctance to embrace “modernity” (whatever that is) and in thrall to the Shakespearian version of the Pacific War, Japanese historical writing in general, and Hirakawa’s essays in particular, are filled with details and not beholden to the form of intellectual laziness that has come to be known by the term “narrative.” In other words, Hirakawa does not set out to impose his will upon his putative subjects, but, rather, to understand them—a hallmark of conservative scholarship in the United States as well, it bears remarking.

For example, in “The Poet-Sculptor Takamura Kōtarō’s Love-Hate Relationship with the West,” Hirakawa tries to follow the vicissitudes of Takamura’s tortuous life as he moved from student of Western sculpture (especially Rodin) to partisan of Japan’s imperial project. To do this, Hirakawa faithfully, and with great intellectual humility, seeks to recreate Takamura’s world, a task that requires Hirakawa to understand not only Schiller’s depiction of the father-son antagonism of Frederick I of Prussia and his successor Frederick II (and this stylized antagonism’s influence on Japanese thinkers of the day, especially Takamura, who lived in the shadow of his father, the famous Takamura Kōun), but also the younger Takamura’s time as a lowly art student in Gutzon Borglum’s studio in New York, and his subsequent association with the literary world and the champions of Japan’s imperial ambitions. Unlike other scholars, who see Takamura’s poems as jingoistic doggerel unworthy of consideration as real literature, Hirakawa takes them seriously and finds them to be redolent of Takamura’s training in sculpture—“carvings with words” that form an integral part of Takamura’s complete life. Where the prevailing consensus simply caricatures Takamura as a deluded lackey and writes off his wartime writing as hackwork, Hirakawa digs deeper, and shows that there is a logic to Japan’s wartime supporters—and, by extension, to the Japanese empire—that we miss if we are content simply to recapitulate the same shopworn points concerning the history of the 1930s and 40s.

Despite the title of the book, Hirakawa is just as at home comparing and contrasting Japan and China as he is parsing Japan’s love-hate relationship with the West. In the first essay of the volume, for instance, Hirakawa’s literary training allows him to shine as he ranges widely in the history of poetic cross-fertilization between Japan and the Chinese mainland. The impetus for this essay is to understand the much-maligned Japanese “nationalism” that American interpreters almost universally understand as a violent reaction to the West. Hirakawa shows, though, that Japan’s first discernible nationalism played off against the much longer influence of China, a subject that has Hirakawa reaching back to Sei Shonagon in the Heian Period and Nō author Zeami in the Kamakura, and across to Bai Juyi in eighth-century Tang China. This kind of deep contextualization of a phenomenon that is so often seen by American historians, rather chauvinistically, as a Western-instigated scramble to catch up, is typical of Japanese scholarship, but refined to an inordinate degree by Hirakawa, who has mastered the languages and literatures of a half-dozen linguistic traditions.

For those who find Hirakawa’s more-than-five-hundred-page book daunting, or who are unsure of where to begin in this embarrassment of riches, perhaps the best overview of Hirakawa’s overarching intellectual disposition can be found in “The Yellow Peril and the White Peril: The Views of Anatole France.” Here, Hirakawa shows that the scar seared into the Japanese psyche by the defeat in 1945 has so distorted their views of the past that a complete rethinking is necessary in order to regain a balanced understanding of their own traditions. Calling to mind a truly impressive array of supporting sources, such as Edo Period Japanese intellectuals Ogyū Sorai (1666-1718) and Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801), Voltaire, the Qing Dynasty Yongzheng Emperor (1678-1735), Vladimir Lenin, and Kaiser Wilhelm II, Hirakawa deftly resituates the conflict between Japan and the West and helps complicate our pat insistence on Japanese intransigence and Western longsuffering in the run-up to Pearl Harbor. In the United States, especially, which tends to see Japan solely through the slats of 1941 through 1945, Hirakawa’s work should provide a long-overdue corrective to such a peephole perspective on a very complex history.

Hirakawa is far from the only Japanese conservative who embodies that ancient Greek virtue of arête, or overall excellence, that continues to define the best American conservative thinkers today. (In his breadth and depth of field and general mental adroitness, for example, Hirakawa is comparable to Victor Davis Hanson, Mark Halperin, Wilfred McClay, and Jacques Barzun.) Nor is Japan’s Love-Hate Relationship with the West Hirakawa’s only worthwhile work—he has written scores of books and essays, among which are fine studies of Japanese novelists Natsume Soseki, Takeyama Michio, and Kawabata Yasunari, and of Dante, Bocaccio, and modern French and German literature, in addition to numerous works on East Asian history. But as a gateway to this richness, Japan’s Love-Hate Relationship with the West is highly recommended.

Long estranged by the now-flagging juggernaut of global progressivism, conservatives in Japan and the United States alike, it is hoped, will, through the good offices of honest brokers such as Hirakawa Sukehiro, find that they have much to rediscover about their shared traditions, and much to look forward to in the years to come.  

Jason Morgan is a doctoral candidate in the department of history at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.