Michaela Brew / Sun Senior Photographer

Justice Hisashi Owada discusses Japan's introduction to international relations in a Tuesday lecture.

April 6, 2016

Justice Attributes Japan’s Cultural Conflict to Western Contact

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Modern Japan’s numerous cultural divisions can be traced to historical contact with Western civilizations, according to Justice Hisashi Owada, former President of the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

In a lecture in Myron Taylor Hall on Tuesday, Owada explained how Japan’s exposure to the Western international system led to conflict with its previous belief system.

Japan was not a part of the international community until its 1853 encounter with U.S. ships led by Commodore Matthew Perry, according to Owada.

“When they were exposed to this arrival of the law of nations — which regulates the contact between states and created the normative framework for the law of nations — they did not understand what Commodore Perry and his group were talking about,” Owada said. “This was a totally new experience and [a] totally novel idea.”

Despite limited global experience, the Japanese accepted the Western concept of normative international rules because of its parallels to Confucian philosophy, Owada said.

“The Japanese came to grasp international relations as a system that consisted of universal principles of justice, which they observed in common with the West,” Owada said. “It was on that basis that the Japanese intellectuals satisfied themselves, as ‘This is something we have to follow.’”

Japan’s ideas of universal justice were dispelled by treaties imposed on the country by Western powers in the late 19th century — which forced Japan to open ports and concede land — according to Owada.

He added that Japan’s modernization and military victories at the start of the 20th century affirmed its status as a civilized nation.

“In my mind, all these processes of modernization in Japan since the beginning of the Meiji era have had some impact upon the mindset of the people and the emotional psyche of the Japanese, as well as all the problems the Japanese have been facing during the post-Second World War period,” Owada said.

Subsequent rejection of a Japanese proposal for the Treaty of Versailles, growing Japanese-American tensions and the country’s defeat in World War II led to a culture of nihilism in Japan, according to Owada.

“They had been taught and they had been believing in the justice of the war, and they were devastated to find all these value systems which they had believed in had been shattered to pieces,” Owada said. “From that time on, they were told that we should not believe in the past.”

Owada attributed the country’s current internal divides — between pre- and post-war politics, intellectualism and spirituality — to the emergence of nihilism and subsequent reactionary movements.

“The effect of this spiritual shock has left a mark on the spiritual guidance of people which remains alive today, and this is a fact to emphasize in understanding today’s problems,” Owada said.

Owada advocated that Japan move toward national consensus rather than polarization to solve its cultural crisis.

“There is a good basis for building national consensus and it will take time,” he said. “But if you succeed in not creating national psychological schisms within the country, if you avoid polarizations within the country — I think that is achievable.”