Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Nietzsche and Japanese War Crimes

Friedrich Nietzsche in Human, all too Human writes critically of philosophers, but his criticism could be applied to our understanding of Japan during its modern wars – as I will attempt to show.

[from pages 14-15 of the Faber and Lehman translation – published by the University of Nebraska Press]

“All philosophers suffer from the same defect, in that they start with present-day man and think they can arrive at their goal by analyzing him. Instinctively they let ‘man’ hover before them as an aeterna veritas [eternal truth], something unchanging in all turmoil, a secure measure of things. But everything the philosopher asserts about man is basically no more than a statement about man within a very limited time span. A lack of historical sense is the congenital defect of all philosophers. Some unwittingly even take the most recent form of man, as it developed under the imprint of certain religions or even certain political events, as the fixed form from which one must proceed. They will not understand that man has evolved, that the faculty of knowledge has also evolved, while some of them even permit themselves to spin the whole world from out of this faculty of knowledge.

“Now, everything essential in human development occurred in primeval times, long before those four thousand years with which we are more or less familiar. Man probably hasn’t changed much more in these years. But the philosopher sees ‘instincts’ in present-day man, and assumes that they belong to the unchangeable facts of human nature, that they can, to that extent prove a key to the understanding of the world in general. This entire teleology is predicated on the ability to speak about man of the last four thousand years as if he were eternal, the natural direction of all things in the world from the beginning. But everything has evolved; there are no eternal facts, nor are there any absolute truths. Thus historical philosophizing is necessary henceforth, and the virtue of modesty as well.”


Nietzsche wrote Human, all too Human in 1878 and yet the defect he describes hasn’t been rectified to any marked degree in all the years since then. We still view man from what we see, or think we see, around us today. If we believe a certain thing to be true today; then, social commentators will tell us, those who fell short of this belief in the past are to be condemned. We make no allowances for development, or “evolution” as Nietzsche calls it. And yet social evolution takes place, and it is a defect in us if we assume that it hasn’t.

So what are we to think of earlier periods, or of people who haven’t evolved quite as we have in the West? Our tendency is to condemn them, or assume that the truest of them, and we can always find a few, are those who thought as we do today.

Japanese history was not integrated to any great degree with the nations across the ocean from them. They probably left the mainland from Korea in several waves of immigration and drove the native Ainu further and further north until today what is left of them live on the northern-most island. They were influenced by Chinese literature and philosophy, but this influence was largely a matter of taking the literature back to Japan with them and studying it there – not through constant contact with the Chinese. There were several attempts made by the Chinse to invade Japan; so Japan mistrusted the foreigner and wanted little to do with him; which meant among other things that Japanese history is unique. They were an intellectual, sophisticated people, but they kept to themselves – until Admiral Perry showed up in 1870 and demanded that they open themselves up to Western trade.

They did open themselves up. There was resistance, to be sure – Samurais not wanting to give up the old ways, but resistance was defeated and Japan Westernized itself -- accepting Western ways and technology that they deemed superior to the Japanese ways. They developed quickly. In 1877 a civil war was fought between Samuaris of the old way (who fought with swords) and new Samuaris who accepted the Western way of war (and fought with guns). The former were defeated.

The Japanese have always been proud of their fighting ability. They defeated the Russians in 1905 – until they ran out of soldiers – but, they told themselves, they were tricked into accepting something less than complete victory. So they prepared for future wars. What did they want? What they saw in the West, of course. They wanted an empire like those of Britain, France and Germany. They believed that they were a Holy People who were destined for great things. They weren’t trying to be as good as Britain or France. They started from the assumption that they were better.

Lest you feel inclined to indulge in the defect Nietzsche has criticized, let’s understand that there wasn’t anything “wrong” with what the Japanese were doing in any absolute sense. In order to call them wrong, we must apply standards that were not part of Japanese history – Christian standards for example. Jesus spoke of loving one’s enemy and of being merciful. That wasn’t part of the Japanese tradition. They were cruel to their enemies and unmerciful.

When we read a book that graphically describes how the Japanese treated their enemies, such as Max Hastings Retribution, the Battle for Japan, 1944-45, we westerners are appalled at how the Japanese behaved. I don’t exempt myself from that. I was appalled also, but at the same time I mentioned being a bit unhappy with Hastings for not providing us with a better perspective of those matters. He seems to know about them. He was aware of Japanese history and why they developed differently, but in the end, in his final chapter, he condemns them. And his condemnation is that very defect Nietzsche describes. He condemns them for not meeting Western standards of behavior.

Let me hasten to say that I disagree with the Anti-American leftists who think all beliefs are equal. Nietzsche would have at once seen through that intellectual muddle. Yes, there are many histories. And there is no absolute right one against which all others must be judged. But they are not all equal. At least none of us who feel strongly about this matter believe that they are. We in the West, for example, see our way as being superior to the others – the Japanese included. Ours has evolved further, we believe. We have criticized the Japanese for their treatment of enemies because, in effect (though we didn’t say so), they failed to meet our more advanced standards. They have after the end of their war signed up to our Western standards. Henceforth they will treat their prisoners of war (should they ever have any again) with mercy.

Since I have selected this one issue, the Japanese treatment of prisoners, I should add that the Chinese treat prisoners well, when they are functioning in accordance with their traditions. The Russians also treat prisoners well, at least they believe that they should (also being Christian) except when the greater good of Stalinism got in the way of that for awhile.

Anti-American Leftists will with justification accuse me of believing in “might makes right.” Well of course might makes right. Those who are defeated don’t get to choose the evolutionary course they must take from thence forth.

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