What role should Japan be playing in the international community? To understand how fraught that question is for the Japanese, the Honorable Judge Hisashi Owada explains, you must go back to the beginning of a national journey undertaken over a century ago. Owada detailed that history at the Law School on April 5 as he presented the 2016 Clarke Lecture.
Owada has served as a judge of the International Court of Justice in The Hague since 2003 and was the court’s president from 2009 to 2012. Prior to joining the court, he had a highly distinguished career in the foreign service and in key government agencies in Japan, as well as in academia.
He began his lecture, “The Encounter of Japan with the Law of Nations and Its Subsequent Evolution,” by setting the scene of that encounter. In the 1850s and ’60s, strong-armed into a treaty with the United States, Japan emerged from three centuries of almost complete isolation from the rest of the world. The newly ascendant Meiji government eagerly sought to join the international community and embraced the “law of nations,” the code of conduct that governed relations within that community.
Owada explained that Japanese intellectuals, striving to understand the alien system of rules at play between the world’s major powers, referred to familiar Confucian principals of equality and justice between individuals. Over the next century, Japan’s attempts to gain equal footing with the Western powers on the basis of this framework met with repeated disappointment. Efforts to remediate unequal treaties with the United States and European countries were stymied in multiple venues. The Japanese came to realize, said Owada, that the law of nations was not a system for just and equal relations but “was really a tool of the strong.”
Japan’s disillusionment culminated in the utter devastation of the country’s defeat in the Second World War. “From that time on,” Owada said, “[the Japanese] were taught that you should not believe in the past . . . [This] spiritual vacuum in the minds of the people of Japan was the essential cause of [a] societal confusion that came to prevail over the entire nation in the immediate post-war period. The system of values that they had so eagerly clung to during the last hundred years of modernization, which in the minds of many was synonymous with the westernization of Japan through assimilation to the international community . . . had suddenly collapsed.”
Despite a trend toward nihilism in the face of this collapse, Owada observed, post-war Japan also in some ways embodied a spirit of internationalism reminiscent of the Meiji era. For instance, it sought to participate in the United Nations and the International Court of Justice as soon as those bodies were formed.
Owada noted that the people of Japan remain polarized over the country’s proper role in the international community. He hoped that his audience would leave with an understanding that, “the national psyche of Japan is much more complicated than it appears from the outside.”
Each year the Clarke Program in East Asian Law and Culture brings a star scholar to Cornell to deliver a major public lecture. Funded by a gift to Cornell Law School from Jack and Dorothea Clarke, the program seeks to expand the purview of legal scholarship and to develop new ways of thinking about transnational law, politics, and culture.