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Kazushige Kobayashi

Postdoctoral Researcher, Centre on Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding of the Geneva Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, RIAC Visiting Research Fellow

The mainstream Western leaders and intellectuals are increasingly preoccupied with the so-called “crisis of the liberal international order.” Western media outlets daily broadcast apocalyptic narratives: the “universal” and “fundamental” values of liberalism are besieged by the contagious forces of “extremists,” who apparently threaten the progress of the entire humanity. Listening to liberal opinion leaders in the European capitals, one could not help but feel as if the sky was falling upon us. However, one can be stunned by the fact that these world-ending narratives are almost entirely absent in the Japanese public debates. While challenges of Trumpism are rightly recognized in Japan, they are discussed in the manner of business-as-usual: how to constrain the unilateral ambition of the hegemonic American partner, which has been an enduring theme defining Japanese foreign and economic policy over the last seven decades. This short article briefly introduces a select number of Japanese perspectives on the ongoing transformation of the international order and explains why Japanese leaders are coping with the contemporary challenges in a relatively more sober manner.

To begin with, Westerners cannot keep calm in the face of the mounting challenges to the liberal order because liberalism has become an absolute faith for many of them, or at least for the mainstream leaders and intellectuals. From an outsider perspective, Western liberals appear to be treating conservatives in the same way Europe’s medieval religionists treated non-believers.

While Western liberals talk of the crisis of liberalism, Japanese thinkers distinguish the crisis of the liberal philosophy from the crisis of liberal elites. Through centuries of interaction with the West, Japanese observers have learned that Westerners are brilliantly good at developing enlightening philosophies yet they are remarkably bad at practicing them in an enlightening way.

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Japanese leaders rarely see the world in such a theological picture since they do not have an absolute faith in liberalism: for them, liberalism is not the final Destiny.

The mainstream Western leaders and intellectuals are increasingly preoccupied with the so-called “crisis of the liberal international order” [1]. Western media outlets daily broadcast apocalyptic narratives: the “universal” and “fundamental” values of liberalism are besieged by the contagious forces of “extremists,” who apparently threaten the progress of the entire humanity. Listening to liberal opinion leaders in the European capitals, one could not help but feel as if the sky was falling upon us. However, one can be stunned by the fact that these world-ending narratives are almost entirely absent in the Japanese public debates. While challenges of Trumpism are rightly recognized in Japan, they are discussed in the manner of business-as-usual: how to constrain the unilateral ambition of the hegemonic American partner, which has been an enduring theme defining Japanese foreign and economic policy over the last seven decades. This short article briefly introduces a select number of Japanese perspectives on the ongoing transformation of the international order and explains why Japanese leaders are coping with the contemporary challenges in a relatively more sober manner.

Liberalism as a faith

To begin with, Westerners cannot keep calm in the face of the mounting challenges to the liberal order because liberalism has become an absolute faith for many of them, or at least for the mainstream leaders and intellectuals. Take the example of the European Union (EU). Ken Endo, Professor at Hokkaido University and Japan’s leading expert on European integration, points out the pathology of EU seizensetsu [EU-goodism] in his award-winning book Tougou no shuen [The End of Integration] – a blinding tendency to uncritically celebrate the EU as an absolute good [2]. Anybody who questions the integrity of the holy Union is treated as a mad man, as if the EU is some kind of sacred church. From a Japanese point of view, this is a déjà-vu. When secularism emerged in Europe, religious elites of the time tirelessly disseminated apocalyptic narratives of the “value-based” Christian transcontinental order besieged by “secular extremists,” “bulger nationalists,” and “uneducated peasants.” When the mass was uprising against the Christian union in Western Europe, religious elites blamed “puppets of Satan” for spreading disinformation, dividing societies, manipulating people’s fear, and undermining their “fundamental” and “universal” values. While occidental leaders of the medieval age saw a shadow hand of Satan in every secular uprising, Western leaders of our time see a shadow hand of Vladimir Putin in every popular resistance. Japanese leaders rarely see the world in such a theological picture since they do not have an absolute faith in liberalism: for them, liberalism is not the final Destiny.

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In this vein, a growing number of Japanese intellectuals argue that liberalism has somehow become a godless religion in the Western world [3]. This is a main theme explored by Mao Yamaguchi, a Harvard-educated young Japanese lawyer, who recently released her new book Riberarizumu toiu yamai [The Sickness of Liberalism] [4]. From an outsider perspective, Western liberals appear to be treating conservatives in the same way Europe’s medieval religionists treated non-believers. In the American political arena, mainstream liberals treat Trumpians in a very illiberal way, constantly derogating them into subhuman psychopath, or worse, a “deplorable” disease to be eliminated for the sake of a “brighter” future. While conservative thinkers in the West skillfully amplify popular resentments to mobilize resistance, Western liberals are also driven by the naked hatred towards those who disagree with their moral convictions.

From a Japanese point of view, this rage of hatred against hatred only reminds us of Western religious wars where there was no holy side. Hidetsugu Yagi, human rights scholar and Professor at Reitaku University, once rightly pointed out in his Han jinken sengen [Anti-Human Rights Declaration] [5] that, while Western liberals preach the respect for “all,” they show no respect for non-liberal states and citizens. The absolutist doctrine of human-rightism is used and abused to silence those who do not endorse liberal worldviews, paradoxically undermining the most essential foundation of the liberal world order – the freedom of thought. In light of this, Yagi maintained that religious fundamentalists, Soviet revolutionaries, and liberal internationalists share one thing in common: the attitude to dismiss their opponents as “unenlightened” peasants acting “against their own interests.”

The crises of philosophy

Japanese leaders can keep calm in this apparent “crisis” of the liberal world order because they predominantly understand liberalism as practical guidelines to organize politics, not as holy doctrines to be fanatically imposed at all cost

While Western liberals talk of the crisis of liberalism, Japanese thinkers distinguish the crisis of the liberal philosophy from the crisis of liberal elites. A few centuries ago, Japanese samurais understood the crisis of the Christian world order not very much as the crisis of Christianity, but more accurately as the crisis of occidental Christian elites. Today, Japanese leaders understand the crisis of the liberal world order not very much as the crisis of liberalism, but more accurately as the crisis of Western liberal elites. The problem may not be liberalism per sei, but instead the quasi-religious zeal of contemporary Western liberals who want to paint everything in the color of liberalism. A similar line of reasoning is put forth by Tatsuo Inoue, prominent Japanese liberal philosopher and Professor at the University of Tokyoi in his award-winning book Riberaru no koto ha kirai demo riberarisumu ha kirai ni naranaide kudasai, or, as the title of the book suggests, “You May Hate Liberals But Please Do Not Hate Liberalism“ [6].

While liberals often condemn conservatives for blindly following their inflexible conservative convictions, liberals also blindly follow their own. For instance, Inoue’s new book Ziyu no chitsujo [Order of Freedom] fiercely criticizes the illiberal tendency of the EU to present itself as the only game in town, as if the European integration is driven by the “iron law of history” from which no deviation shall be permitted [7]. This fatalistic and teleological worldview appears pathologically similar to that of Marxism-Lenism, which envisioned the coming of a singular “objective” future organized by the “fundamental” and “universal” values of socialist cosmopolitanism. As British scholar E.H. Carr once famously wrote in his book The Soviet Impact On The Western World, “The first Bolsheviks remained impenitent westerners: for them Russia was a backward country to be regenerated by revolutionary doctrines derived from the west. The early Bolsheviks were also whole-hearted internationalists who believed that the ‘workers had no country’ and regarded the Russian revolution merely as pan of a European or world-wide revolution.” [8] In the face of the Soviet cosmopolitan project, Western liberals repeatedly taught Japanese leaders that any utopian project which curtails opposition would eventually end up turning itself into a totalitarian system of suffocating political correctness. As Japanese liberals like Inoue point out, it is truly ironic that Western liberals seem to be following this dangerous path of a messianic quest for the singular Truth.

Through centuries of interaction with the West, Japanese observers have learned that Westerners are brilliantly good at developing enlightening philosophies yet they are remarkably bad at practicing them in an enlightening way. Soviet Communism is the latest of the failed Western enlightenment projects in this regard. Initially developed as the embodiment of the freedom of choice, liberalism once signified the rejection of absolutes. Nowadays, contemporary liberals act as if liberalism is an absolute faith – the standard of “politically correct” conduct which must be embraced by any “sane” human. If the moral appeal of liberalism appears to be in a sky-fall, it is not because the liberal philosophy is unattractive, but because this otherwise-inspiring philosophy is practiced in an awfully illiberal way lacking tolerance, compromise, compassion, and flexibility. After all, most Japanese leaders can keep calm in this apparent “crisis” of the liberal world order because they predominantly understand liberalism as practical guidelines to organize politics, not as holy doctrines to be fanatically imposed at all cost. Put differently, liberalism is one among many competing values defining the Japanese political arena, whose uniqueness lies in its organic fusion of Western and traditional Japanese ideas. As long as Western liberals want to seek a homogenous world of an unchallenged liberal morality, they shall find no peace in this messy world of pluralistic realities. After all, the essence of liberal governance lies in the promotion of competition, including democratic governance (political competition), market economy (economic competition), and the rule of law (competing claims put forth by prosecutors and defenders). Then, it is truly paradoxical that Western liberals are acting as if there should be no challenge to liberalism.

1. See, for example, Ikenberry, G. J. (2018). The end of liberal international order?. International Affairs 94(1): 7-23.

2. Endo, K. (2013). Tougou no shuen [The End of Integration]. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten. Endo maintains that many of the core principles of the EU are in fact derived from Christian principles of governance. For instance, he points out that the EU’s principle of subsidiarity is basically a copy of the Protestant principle of subsidiarity which advocated the decentralization of decision-making in Protestant communities.

3. Financial Times reporter Eduard Luce’s The Retreat of Western Liberalism makes the exactly same claim. See Luce, E. (2017). The Retreat of Western Liberalism. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.

4. Yamaguchi, M. (2017). Riberarizumu toiu yamai [The Sickness of Liberalism]. Tokyo: Shinchosha.

5. Yagi, H. (2001). Han jinken sengen [Anti-Human Rights Declaration]. Tokyo: Chikuma Shobo.

6. Inoue, T. (2015). Riberaru no koto ha kirai demo riberarisumu ha kirai ni naranaide kudasai [You May Hate Liberals But Please Do Not Hate Liberalism]. Tokyo: Mainichi Shinbun Shuppan.

7. Inoue, T. (2017). Ziyu no chitsujo: Riberarizumu no houtetsugaku kougi [Order of Freedom: Lectures on Liberal Legal Philosophy]. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten.

8. Carr, E. H. (1947). The Soviet Impact On The Western World. New York : Macmillan, p. 105.


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