The Journal of Japanese Studies 32.2 (2006) 428-433
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David Williams may be right. We should reexamine, as some of us have already done, the image of Japan in World War II. The conventional picture of a fascist and aggressive state is only partially correct. The other side of the [End Page 428] coin is the idealistic streak that accompanied Japanese conquests, according to which Japan was liberating Asia from Western imperialism. This alleged goal was dismissed by postwar historians as propaganda, but many Japanese at the time believed in it. Moreover, that propaganda, which camouflaged aggressive intentions, was not different from the wartime declarations of the allied powers, which asserted that they were liberating Asia while they were trying to regain their prewar colonial possessions.
The book focuses on the Kyoto School philosophers, who were disciples of the "father of Japanese philosophy," Nishida Kitarō at Kyoto University. They included Tanabe Hajime, Kōyama Iwao, Suzuki Shigetaka, Kōsaka Masaaki, and Nishitani Keiji. In a series of symposia in the monthly magazine Chūōkōron in the years 1941– 42, they hailed the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere as a historic achievement, in which Asia had been transformed from an object of Western greed into a subject of its own will. After the war, these philosophers were condemned and discredited. Ienaga Saburō called them shallow opportunists.1 Tetsuo Najita and H. D. Harootunian described them as definers of the philosophic contours of Japanese fascism.2
Williams admits that the Kyoto School philosophers were nationalists, but claims they were neither fascists nor ultranationalists. Like their counterparts in the West, they were patriots who defended their country's cause. They were honest intellectuals and their defense of the war was "coherent, rational and credible" (p. 17). They wanted Japan to expand, in order to "exercise a prudent and progressive leadership role in East Asia" (p. 153). They believed Japan would respect the sovereignty of the peoples it had liberated. The author quotes Tanabe's essay in which he wrote that the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere should be based on the equality of its member states. The Kyoto School philosophers did not limit themselves to the political sphere. They believed the war would produce a spiritual revolution, which they called "the overcoming of modernity" (kindai no chōkoku). By this term, which was the title of their symposia, they meant the replacement of modern materialistic civilization, based on individualism and avarice, by a spiritual culture based on the moral values of the East and the scientific achievements of the West.
There was a similarity between the Kyoto School philosophers who supported the war and Martin Heidegger in Germany who supported the Nazi regime. Williams defends both cases and rejects the accusations that Heidegger or the Kyoto School philosophers were fascists. He describes Heidegger, who assumed the rectorship of a German university when Jewish [End Page 429] professors were being dismissed, as "the greatest philosopher of our time" (p. 129). He quotes Heidegger's claim that the murder of the Jews by the Nazis was not basically different from the murder of East German civilians by Soviet troops at the end of the war (p. 123). According to Williams, no one has the right to condemn these scholars: "who would play God here? Who has the right to judge Heidegger, or, for that matter, to censure Nishida, Tanabe and Nishitani? Who wears the white gloves?" (p. 163).
Had Williams stopped here, advising us to listen carefully to the philosophic voices in Japan that defended the Pacific War, the book might have contributed to a more balanced understanding of that period. But he goes further, destroying what he himself has argued. Having convinced us to discard the orthodox black-and-white view of the war, in which the United States was right and Japan was...