Democratic Traditions in Japan: Herbert Norman’s Speech to “Festival for Democracy” 1949

[ Norman and Japanese women ]

Norman and Japanese women, Unknown, 1947, University of British Columbia Library, Rare Books and Special Collections, BC 2124-59, Norman and Japanese women, whose company he enjoyed, at a memorial for his father at Nagano, Japan

I learned with deep interest of the “Festival for Democracy” which is to be held in four towns of Shizuoka Prefecture and I sincerely appreciate the signal privilege of being given this opportunity to send a message to the Festival.

In any nation’s history various conflicting and opposed traditions are always to be found existing at the same time and competing one with the other for pre-eminence. Japan is no exception to this rule. There is what might be called the dark tradition which stems from the practices of autocracy, oppression, bigotry and chauvinism; and there is the bright and life-giving tradition of resistance of tyranny, of the pursuit of intellectual freedom and the struggle for popular enlightenment. In the years when anti-democratic forces were dominant, it was natural that those pages in Japanese history which gave living examples of strivings in successive feudal regimes to achieve a fuller and freer life should have been comparatively neglected. Now that it is possible to study the Japanese past freely it is vitally important that the Japanese rediscover for themselves the warm and generous traditions in their history.

This does not require the suppression or distortion of the dark tradition; on the contrary, in order to bring out in proper perspective the grim and often discouraging struggle which precursors of democracy waged in Japan one must not shrink from depicting the formidable opposition to such efforts of reform. Despite then the traditions of Kanson Mimpi (literally “respect officials and despise the people”) and despite the efforts of the ruling authorities, especially in Tokugawa years, to keep the people ignorant and passive, it is always a source of inspiration to read how individuals, and also groups of humble folk whose names we hardly know, persistently tried to win a more decent and human existence, not only for themselves but for future generations.

The lessons of such instances are perhaps too obvious to emphasize but I would like to mention at least two. The first is that although individual leaders in struggles for reduction of feudal tribute or the general betterment of the people’s livelihood were usually victimized by the vengeful feudal authorities, such was the strength of popular opinion even in those days that the hand of tyranny was stayed when faced with wide and solid opposition. The second is that the interests of the people were always served much better by the preserving of discipline and order than by acts of violence, no matter how heroic or self-sacrificial such acts may appear in drama or romanticized history.


Source: Herbert Norman, "Democratic Traditions in Japan: Herbert Norman's Speech to "Festival for Democracy" 1949," November 31, 1949, 12-13

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