Yoshikazu Sakamoto graciously embodied a combination of qualities not only greatly valued and desired, but extremely rare.
Prefatory Note: This post is dedicated to my remembrance of Yoshi Sakamoto, who died recently. Yoshi was a deeply valued friend and an important public intellectual in Japan who exerted a strong influence on the post-war generation. His political orientation, rejecting extremes of right and left, while questioning the militarist premises of the Cold War and Japan’s willingness to become America’s Asian poodle, gave him a distinctive political profile. I am sharing these words of appreciation, and hope that anyone from Japan who comes across this text will contact me, especially if they have a way of putting me in touch with either Yoshi’s family or Japanese media. I would like to believe that ‘an American appreciation’ of Professor Sakamoto would be of interest to those who knew and admired him.
I first met Yoshi in the mid-1960s when he came to visit me at Princeton, expressing his concern about the Vietnam War and knowing of my anti-war activism. We bonded quickly and marched in a peaceful demonstration in New York City a few days later, and somehow managed to keep in fairly consistent contact until Yoshi’s death on October 2.
It was through our participation in the World Order Models Project (WOMP) over a period of about twenty years that we came to know each other best, meeting in different parts of the world every few months, and discussing the weighty issues of the day from time to time.
Yoshi was one of the most principled and serious persons I have ever known, subjecting himself (and others) to the highest standards of performance and character from which he never deviated. His work exhibited a perfectionist dedication to excellence that was very challenging to those of us who worked within the ambit of his influence.
The majority of his publications were written in Japanese, meaning that the non-Japanese speaking world is so far deprived of much of his scholarship and is not aware of his sustained productivity over the years. His Japanese writings have been collected in six volumes published a few years ago.
The golden thread that was woven into the fabric of Yoshi’s life was his commitment to a peaceful world. He was highly critical of and affected by Japanese militarism of the 1930s and World War II that had shadowed his childhood, which he viewed as a betrayal of the Japanese people by the state, and its supportive established order.
When I first knew Yoshi he was struggling hard to find firm ground in Japanese political culture for a peaceful future, and was a strong believer in the peace constitution imposed upon the country after World War II, especially Article 9.
He was, in the same spirit, opposed to Japanese complicity with American militarism during the Cold War period, and opposed having permanent American military bases on Japanese territory, including Okinawa.
Yoshi also favored what might be called peace diplomacy, especially in the Asian setting, working with progressive Japanese intellectuals to promote positive relations with both China and North Korea.
In the Japanese discourse, Yoshi was often referred to as the leading ‘pacifist’ of ‘the post-war generation’—and so he was, if pacifist is understood as essentially a synonym for ‘peace’ rather than as an affirmation of unconditional nonviolence in the Gandhi mode. Yoshi supported strongly efforts to achieve disarmament, especially nuclear disarmament, encouraged adherence to international law and respect for the United Nations, and endorsed what I have called ‘nonviolent geopolitics,’ but he was also a believer in human rights and could support ‘humanitarian intervention’ under exceptional circumstances, such as to prevent genocide, ethnic cleansing, and severe crimes against humanity.
In this regard, Yoshi tempered his quest for peace with the realization that under some circumstances oppressive violence must be countered by the enforcement of international criminal law. He was sophisticated about the risks entailed, well aware of the capacity of hegemonic actors to manipulate the language of intervention to serve their strategic purposes by hypocritically invoking humanitarianism.
Yoshi was critical of the way the superpowers behaved in the decades following the Second World War, and his sympathies clearly supported the struggles of Third World peoples to rid their countries of colonial rule in the spirit of self-determination. He favored reforms that would level the economic playing field, and facilitate the democratic development of the Third World. Apparently a legacy of Hans Morgenthau’s mentorship (as PhD advisor and friend), Yoshi tempered his ethical stance toward world politics with a keen awareness of the way sovereign states pursued their national interests as the expense of the public good.
I was struck also in the WOMP context by Yoshi’s emphasis on ‘identity’ as a crucial, often neglected, world order value. (See especially his seminal essay, “Toward Global Identity” in Saul H. Mendlovitz, ed., On the Creation of a Just World Order, 189-210 ). Yoshi affirmed that “[t]he need for a global coordinating body is unquestionable.” (193) And yet he was keenly aware that the need by itself was insufficient to what he called “the organizational lag.” From this vantage point, he tried to think through why such a dysfunctional lag persisted in the age of scientific rationality, and how it might be overcome.
In seeking understanding, Yoshi emphasized two factors: attachment by individuals to the nation-state as the political actor commanding loyalty unto death for most of its citizens, and existing as the outer limit of political community; the consequent need to construct identities that transcend nationalist boundaries if there ever was to emerge the political will required to support a stronger globalist institutional capacity.
With intellectual rigor, and a passion for practical theorizing (and a dislike of wishful thinking), Yoshi offered some guidelines: he expected to witness the growing transnationalization of international life amid increasing interdependence that would over time weaken nationalist attachments, especially as he foresaw the weakening of the geopolitical rivalries that were at the core of the Cold War.
He also affirmed the community-building potential of the United Nations, which he believed could be activated through the establishment of a UN Consultative Assembly “composed of representatives of the major political parties of each country.” (207) To ensure diversity and contestation, any party with 10% or more electoral support would be eligible to send delegates. The underlying idea was to create a feeling for global community that would produce a greater appreciation of the need for a stronger global institutional presence.
The animating idea was well articulated: “The crucial point here is that the UN system should act as a nucleus of community-building by serving as a vehicle for the creation of small-scale but open communities throughout the world, worldwide adoption of nondiscriminatory practices by the UN and related agencies would serve as a model for national and private organizations.”
It is worth observing that Yoshi, true to his training in international relations at the University of Chicago, insisted upon careful diagnosis of the existing situation, believing that the way forward in human affairs at this stage of history was to extend the domain of the feasible by stressing the social prerequisites of globally and ethically oriented political behavior.
He was institutionally cautious, and decidedly anti-utopian, and as such avoided the terminology of ‘world government,’ being content with the far more modest attainment of ‘a global coordinating body.’
And when it came to advocating a UN Consultative Assembly, he deliberately held back from proposing a ‘global parliament’ or even ‘a global peoples assembly,’ presumably to discipline his normative imagination by adhering to the optic of ‘politics as the art of the possible.’
I confess that as I have grown older I do my best to heed the counter-wisdom of ‘politics as the art of the impossible.’ This reflects my judgment that the domain of the feasible, even if extended to the maximum, cannot address such global challenges as climate change and nuclear weapons in a sufficiently timely fashion.
In the WOMP experience, this kind of disciplined imagination clashed with the more idealized ambitions and beliefs of Saul Mendlovitz, outspokenly convinced that world government in some form was not only desirable, but well on its way to realization. And yet both listened to one another, and the rest of us positioned ourselves in the debate, siding in one way or another with Yoshi on the bottom line issue of what to expect, as well as what kind of process we should be encouraging and what sort of goals we should affirm.
Beyond WOMP, Yoshi was extremely influential on the progressive, anti-totalitarian side of the Japanese political spectrum. He was a chief advisor to the governor of the Kanagawa prefecture within which the city of Yokohama was located, and helped organize annual conferences on the theme of ‘Yokohama and the World’ for several years in the 1980s.
The intriguing sub-text, consistent with Yoshi’s call for the formation of new positive identities, was the premise that Tokyo and the national government were not necessarily speaking on behalf of the people of Yokohama (or for people in general), and that for this sub-state more cosmopolitan perspective to be properly shaped it was necessary to incorporate views from people outside of Japan.
Yoshi was especially affirmed the need of First World leaders to listen sympathetically to authentic Third World voices. I took part in these stimulating sessions, which were highlighted by the governor’s eagerness to normalize relations between the peoples of Japan and China through the vehicle of Yokohama’s initiative. This wish for reconciliation cut against the grain of the Japanese government’s disinclination at that time to take any foreign policy initiative that might displease its masters in Washington.
Yoshi was a loyal and attentive friend, but he was also formal in the traditional Japanese manner. I am guessing that he wished that he had been culturally endowed with more lightness of being, and not quite as beholden to the strong constraints imposed of Japanese tradition.
Observing Yoshi through the years, he functioned both as a sort of ‘conscience’ for WOMP and a deterrent to sloppy, sentimental thinking on the part of the rest of us. As such Yoshi could be a rather intimidating presence, although his humanistic sensibility would not have considered this a compliment. I for one feared displeasing or disappointing him, and felt that Yoshi regarded me as somewhat ‘flaky’ at times, despite sharing my political activist stances. As his devoted students confirmed over the years, Yoshi was a stern taskmaster, although the kindest and most loyal professor in their experience.
To remember Yoshikazu Sakamoto is to take note of a loss of someone that has made a lasting difference in my experience, and that of many others whose path he crossed. It was through Yoshi that I met with the venerable editor of Sekai and with Kenzaburo Oe, the winner of the 1994 Nobel Prize in Literature. Both of these extraordinary individuals regarded Yoshi as their political guru, which is hardly surprising given his capacity to combine knowledge and wisdom, and to be totally trustworthy, beyond reproach on matters of character large and small.
Writing this essay has made me realize how much I miss Yoshi, and his grounded cosmopolitanism, and how much the world we live in could benefit from his humane vision of how we on this planet should live together and also from his insistence that we must not indulge our desires without knowing how to navigate the treacherous course that leads from the precarious and unjust present to a more sustainable and just future.
Such a combination of qualities is not only greatly valued and desired, but it is extremely rare, especially as so graciously embodied as it was in the person of Yoshikazu Sakamoto. RIP.
This article was originally published at Citizen Pilgrimage and has been used here with permission.