An Exchange on Current Affairs

Noam Chomsky debates with Oe Kenzaburo

World Literature Today, 2002, Volume 76, Issue 2, pp. 29-35

The following exchange of letters first appeared in Japanese in mid-June and mid-July in the Tokyo daily The Asahi Shimbun. English versions followed within a few days in special editions of The Asahi Shimbun and the International Herald Tribune. Professor Chomsky’s letter was printed in two parts, which have now been recombined and placed between Oe’s initial letter and later response. Both Oe letters were translated by Hisaaki Yamanouchi. The three letters are reprinted here, without textual alteration, through the kind permission of The Asahi Shimbun and through the valuable mediation of WLT associate contributing editor Yoshiko Fukushima of the University of Oklahoma.

Dear Professor Noam Chomsky:

It was a great pleasure to be in your company at the degree ceremony of Harvard last year on that memorable day when the breeze was sweeping over the tall trees. We were seated next to each other on a temporary platform. I passed on to you a message written in the margin of the ceremony program: a recollection of the day when language came to matter to me for the first time in my life. I meant to express my deep and long-standing respect for your achievements as the leading linguist in the world. In the middle of the ongoing ceremony I thought I could not otherwise convey what I wanted to say with my limited command of spoken English. It was about an episode from childhood. For some reason, instead of attending classes at school, I often went to the woods to spend my time there with an illustrated botanical encyclopedia for reference. In those days my mother used to tell me that children of the new generation should learn the words of those of the older generation who had died before they came of age, and should live on their behalf; and that just one single child could not do this.

After I had come back to Japan, I sent you the English version of my report on Okinawa, which I had visited before going to Harvard. I did so because while writing my report, I kept reminding myself of your famous remark: “Literature can heighten your imagination and insight and understanding, but it surely doesn’t provide the evidence that you need to draw conclusions and substantiate conclusions.” I wished to write something that would be useful for some practical purposes.

You rewarded me with a very meaningful reply. It was about an episode from your childhood. You heard about what had happened in Hiroshima while you were participating in a summer camp in the mountains near Philadelphia. You could not bear a celebration for the bombing of Hiroshima. You went into the woods and sat there till the evening just on your own.

In your reply you wrote that despite the ominous tone of my conclusion to my report on Okinawa, you could sense the spirit of hope in what I had written.

I feel as if I were writing, with your permission, a sequel to the episode I jotted down in the margin of the program, having confirmed, with my sense of unified and coherent identity, what I was like in my childhood, and feeling that I am living on its extension.

The ominous notes about Okinawa are still ringing deep in my heart. Further, whenever I think of the people I met in Okinawa, I cannot help driving myself toward finding a positive outlook in my basic framework of thought.

Last March a meeting was held between the new American president and the then prime minister of Japan, who had already gone out of favor with the people of Japan and had already been forsaken by the leading members of the political party in power.

The concern of the mass media in Tokyo focused on the American government’s advice to the Japanese government that it take steps to revive the nation’s economy. It seemed to me that there emerged from this what you had identified and criticized as “neoliberalism” – an ambition on the part of the rich and powerful to control the world politically and economically.

However, to me there seemed to be an even more vitally important aspect of the matter. I detected in it the signs of crushing in no time the wishes of the Okinawans, whether young or old, who have been living outside the sphere of economic development conducted by the policies of the Japanese government and have been resisting the destruction of the environment and the consolidation of military bases to be brought in.

I foresee the grim future of Okinawa, hearing its governor say repeatedly that the magma underlying there might burst forth at any moment, and hearing also the intellectuals, regardless of their standpoints, speak unanimously of the possibility of a “blowup.”

It is obvious that the only possible breakthrough for avoiding the bursting of the magma underlying the sentiment of the common people in Okinawa would be nothing but to devise plans initially for reducing the military bases that have existed there over the past half century and eventually for removing them totally in the near future.

However, concerning the governor of Okinawa’s claim to limit to fifteen years the use of the new substitute air force base to be moved from the densely populated area, U.S. President George W. Bush declared that it would be “difficult” and that “limiting the period for the use (of the new substitute air force base) must be considered in view of the international situation.” It is inconceivable that the government of Japan will have the will and wisdom to resist it.

In analogy to a rogue, in the sense of an unlawful bully, the term “rogue state” is used with reference to Iraq, for instance. You have reversed the use of it in criticizing the domination of the world in the post-Cold War period by the United States and the NATO countries as rogue states in another sense. In aligning herself with its new military strategy in the Pacific region of the giant rogue state, in the sense of the term in which you use it, Japan is to become a “mini-rogue state.”

If I am asked what counterplans I might have against it, I am afraid that I can propose nothing concrete in the capacity of a novelist as defined in your remarks quoted at the beginning of my letter. I only wish that the situation would never happen in which the people of Okinawa would be driven to the extremity where their magma could not but burst and they would eventually go through the miseries such as happened in Kosovo and East Timor.

If things went that way, my discourse would be utter nonsense – already I seem to hear such words of derision directed against me. All the same I am writing to you because I wish to encourage the young Japanese at least to express opinions against the main current of the time.

I am writing out of my wish, for instance, to link up the young Japanese with those young Okinawans who are fighting their lone battle by trying to maintain their economic independence in the sea where the new substitute air force base is going to be constructed.

At present a new – actually old and revived – nationalism is being brought overtly into the education system in this country, partly overlapped with the vague expectation of economic resuscitation. I will of course take actions against it. I am deeply worried, however, that the young Japanese seem to lack personal integrity and coherence with which they should resist even if they had to fight a lone battle.

I am writing to you in the hope that I will act as an intermediary and make them read your letter of reply. With profound respect and gratitude,

Yours sincerely, Kenzaburo Oe

Dear Kenzaburo Oe,

We exchanged some childhood experiences, very meaningful for each of us. It is curious that some of the central threads of our very different lives have kept to parallel paths. The deep concerns you eloquently express for the crushing of the wishes of the Okinawans by foreign force, American and Japanese, are echoed in the anguish, which scarcely leaves me for a moment, over the fate of the victims of the systems of violence and oppression that have their roots in my own country. Among them are people struggling to free their own lands from the curse of steady bombardment in the island of Vieques in Puerto Rico, used by the U.S. Navy as a bombing range as part of the extensive militarization of the territory that the U.S. conquered a century ago and has kept as a dependency since.

But that is only a small fragment of a shameful record of destruction, terror, repression and needless suffering. Its immensity and horror far escape my capacities of expression. These are captured better, for me at least, in small things: like the sad eyes of a young Timorese girl that have stared at me for thirty years as I sit down at my desk, knowing that despite great efforts over all of these years, I have been utterly unable to save her and her family from a brutal fate in one of the worst atrocities of the late twentieth century – and tragically, one that will be erased from history.

The perpetrators in Washington and London are so powerful that their crimes cannot even be subjected to examination, and they can easily deflect any call for the massive reparations they owe to the victims – yet another ugly chapter of the dismal record of privileged intellectuals, who bear prime responsibility for these disgraceful consequences.

Even in my own limited experience, those sad eyes stare at me from too many searing memories: in refugee camps in Laos, the miserable slums of Haiti at the peak of the terror, the ruins of Central America where street children try to survive, devastated villages and refugee camps in the Israeli occupied territories, the hideous slums of Bombay and Cape Town, and much more and to tell the truth, in torture chambers called “prisons” in my own country and shocking urban areas not too many miles from where I live.

Okinawa, Timor, Laos … each in its own way is a microcosm of the forces that lend much weight to the “ominous tone” of the conclusion of your report. And at the same time, each reinforces the “positive outlook” and “spirit of hope” that you derive from your immersion in the struggles of the people of Okinawa. To mention only one case, the extraordinary courage shown by the Timorese in the face of monstrous crimes is one of the most extraordinary achievements of the human spirit known to me. And only one. I cannot tell you how many times personal experiences have called to mind Rousseau’s withering contempt for his civilized countrymen who “do nothing but boast incessantly of the peace and repose they enjoy in their chains.”

Those who “reason about freedom” while enjoying “peace and repose in their chains” of self-serving dogma are always happy to raise their voices in eloquent protest against the crimes of others, and feel much pride in doing so. It is the merest truism, however, that moral responsibility begins with looking in the mirror. And it is, regrettably, a historical truism that that elementary fact can easily be kept remote from consciousness in circles of privilege and power. Japan has its own gruesome record to acknowledge and confront, not only in words of regret but in efforts, inevitably far too limited, to mitigate at least some of the awful consequences. Privileged Westerners have a vastly heavier burden to bear, and the inability even to consider the terrible facts, let alone do something about them, can only recall Rousseau’s lament.

Consider Africa, now facing one of the worst demographic catastrophes of human history, the likely deaths of tens of millions of people from AIDS, malaria and other diseases in the next few years. The cost of preventing this indescribable catastrophe is estimated at $5 billion to $10 billion annually, a sum so trivial for the wealthy countries that they would scarcely notice its disappearance. With great fanfare and acclaim, the Bush administration recently offered an insulting and contemptuous donation of $200 million, less than a statistical error in the budget. Others have done even less. It is dramatic and revealing that no one is calling for reparations rather than aid. But everyone knows that Europe primarily, the United States secondarily, virtually destroyed Africa over hundreds of years of conquest, plunder, slavery and depredation. Any educated person can easily discover that when U.S. planners were assigning each part of the world its “function” after World War II, they expressed their lack of interest in Africa and offered it to Europe to “exploit” for its own reconstruction. And those boasting of their peace and repose can also easily learn that leading historians of Africa believe that the circumstances of West Africa 150 years ago were not unlike those of Japan, though their histories followed a very different course, as West Africa was subjected to European conquest while Japan was the only part of “the South” that was able to resist it, and the only part that was able to develop, hardly a mere coincidence. A call for huge reparations would be only the barest minimum of moral integrity. It is not voiced, and can scarcely even be imagined in a deeply corrupt moral and intellectual culture, boasting incessantly of the peace and repose it enjoys in its doctrinal chains.

We should never allow ourselves to forget the past. But we should also not forget Thomas Jefferson’s admonition that “the Earth belongs to the living.” There is a long and arduous road to follow before the beneficiaries of past crimes are willing to look at themselves in the mirror with some minimal degree of honesty. But that is only the tiniest first step. Reparations for the victims are another, still pitifully far from realization, even awareness. But it is only then that the real problems arise: How can we address the awesome problems of injustice and oppression and suffering that deface contemporary civilization? And beyond that, how can we act to prevent the self-destruction of the species? – unfortunately, far from a frivolous question.

Current policies of the richest and most powerful elements of global society increase the likelihood of global catastrophe. The two most prominent illustrations are the programs of militarization of space, of which the misnamed “missile defense program” is a component, and steps toward undermining even meager efforts to mitigate serious environmental crises.

The world’s most powerful state is in the lead in this race to catastrophe – with eyes open; the basic facts are not obscure. And others are not far behind. More ominously still, these choices are not mere individual caprice. They are rooted in fundamental institutional structures of state capitalist society.

The bipartisan U.S. commitment to expand the arms race into space derives in part from the crucial role of the state in providing the dynamism for advanced industrial development – a core component of the economy, primarily since World War II. And it derives in part from the intention declared quite frankly on the cover of the May 2000 publication of the U.S. Space Command Vision for 2020: “dominating the space dimension of military operations to protect U.S. interests and investment,” just as in earlier years “nations built navies to protect and enhance their commercial interests.”

And those who criticize the Bush administration’s dismantling of the Kyoto accord should recognize the validity of the defense of this march toward destruction. First, it merely acknowledges the unwillingness of the powerful to pay more than lip service to such fine words. But more important, these destructive measures should be welcomed by those who hail the miracle of markets. What are the neoclassical markets we are taught to revere? Ideally, they are institutional structures in which the participants are “rational wealth maximizers,” whose interests are valued, and compensated, in proportion to their “votes”: what they bring to the market, wealth or labor, primarily. In principle, the interests of those with no “votes” are valued at zero in a well-functioning ideal market. Our grandchildren, for example, who do not enter the market as wealth maximizers and have no way to express their needs within the system. So it is only proper and rational to maximize wealth in the short term, completely disregarding the consequences for future generations – a kind of “rationality” that a sane observer might call “pathological lunacy,” but that is a comment about institutions, not individuals.

True, in any sane market system, the self-destructive tendencies will be mitigated by social controls. But it is precisely these institutional controls that are being undermined, with dedicated determination, in the social policies of the past twenty years, misnamed “neoliberal”: They are hardly “new” and would shock the founders of classical liberalism. These policies are consciously designed to undermine democratic control and participation. The primary modality is to reduce the public arena and to transfer decision-making to the hands of the unaccountable private tyrannies of the corporate world, the international institutions it dominates, and the few powerful states that are its “tools and tyrants,” in the words of James Madison’s memorable warning of the possible fate of the democratic experiment he had helped to design — a warning realized far beyond his worst nightmares.

The “neoliberal” policies have harmed economic growth and welfare where they have been applied, but the most dangerous thrust is the attack on democracy and freedom. This is intolerable in itself; democracy and freedom are intrinsic values, not instrumental ones. But it is also a dagger in the heart of potential constraints on a drive toward destruction that has deep roots in powerful institutions. I hate to produce such superficial commentary. Every sentence that precedes should, by rights, be expanded into a substantial essay. In the absence of such amplification, there is little reason for a sensible reader to believe a word of what I have just said. There is every reason, however, for those who care about the victims of suffering and oppression today, and the fate of future generations, to explore for themselves to determine whether these mere hints provide some guidelines for the discovery of important truths about the social and moral universe in which we live.

Sincerely, Noam Chomsky

Dear Noam Chomsky,

Thank you very much indeed for your letter of reply, which I find rich in its message and wide-ranging in its scope. For a number of years I have read your comments on current affairs and have always been impressed by the characteristically profound intellect and controlled passion with which you willingly tackle, as a single human being yet from the widest possible perspective, the situation of the contemporary world in its totality. I trust that your letter will get through to the young people of this country as a model of discourse embodying such characteristics of your writings.

The editor of The Asahi Shimbun and I share an admiration for the richness of the content of your letter and the penetrating analysis you make there. The material condition (i.e., the reduction of the space allotted as a result of the enlargement of the typefaces used) has forced us to print your precious letter in a different way than on previous occasions. Your letter has had to be divided into two portions. The first half has been published as your reply to my first letter. The second half of your letter will now be published and will be followed by this second letter of mine. Even so, regrettably, it has been inevitable to cut, simply for the sake of space, some of the details of your comments based upon on-the-spot witnesses and reports, which I regard as another of the characteristics of your writings.

In the first half of your letter you have, for instance, talked about the bombardment on the island of Vieques in Puerto Rico as “a shameful record of destruction, terror, repression and needless suffering,” overlapping it with the state of affairs of the American bases in Okinawa. The mere fact of these two instances lasting for more than half a century makes the comparison truly appropriate. In the Japanese version, however, even this particular reference has had to be sacrificed to some other sections of your letter demanding more urgent attention.

With a larger allowance for space the English version managed to include your reference to Vieques. Just before your letter was published, we had been informed that, occasioned by the accident on the island of Vieques, the residents made a strong protest, which led the American government to announce the cancellation of the maneuvers planned for 2003.

The cancellation was confirmed by the President of the United States. With the approach of the meeting of the president with the prime minister of Japan the people of Okinawa were earnestly hoping for the leaders of the two countries specifically to limit the period for using the new substitute base. That was their serious concern for which there could be no room for compromise. Concerning what was achieved by the meeting of the two leaders, however, The Asahi Shimbun simply reports, “They agreed on the importance of working on issues related to U.S. forces in Japan, such as the steady implementation of the Special Action Committee on Okinawa (SACO) process to reduce the burden on the people of Okinawa and thereby strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance.” In effect, the essentials of the Okinawans’ demand have thus been rejected.

The tragic incident in Okinawa in 1995 aroused the Okinawans’ protest movement against the American military bases, which directly affected the American government, bypassing the Japanese government. Supported by this movement, the administration under the then Governor Ota sought to have some committees for negotiation established, of which the SACO was one another was the one set up between the Japanese government and Okinawa. With unprecedented speed the SACO reached the decision to move Futenma airport, which was in the middle of a densely populated area.

At the same time Governor Ota’s administration proposed a program which demanded the removal of the American bases in Okinawa gradually by 2015 through three stages. The voices of protest raised by the residents in the area designated for a new base derives from that program, which includes stages ranging from the reduction to the removal of the military bases in Okinawa.

The Japanese government may pretend to have forgotten all this and interpret the agreement made by the SACO as if it only concerned the promise to build a new substitute airport, and force it to be implemented. It will surely consolidate the Japanese-American military alliance. But it will possibly bring about an “explosion” that would far exceed the civil campaign of 1995. There lies a new fuel for ignition also.

What I have regarded as a third characteristic of your comment on current affairs is the way in which whatever you write always leads up to some essential reflections on humanity. It is evident, for instance, in your quotation of Rousseau, which is very much to the point. I too have been deeply influenced by his profound insight shown in “Emile” that only imagination enables a child to sympathize with others’ pain.

You share Rousseau’s lament and anger against “the inability even to consider the terrible facts, let alone do something about them,” whether they have already happened or are about to happen, on the part of the people of the privileged countries. I am then led to consider the current situation of the intellectuals in Japan.

I am a mere novelist, but have often been criticized as one wearing an armor of intellect. Nevertheless, I wish the young people of this country to be intellectually independent so that they could become alive to the sense of shame, imagine the miseries in the remote parts of the world, and envisage the future of this country for the sake of those yet to be born. Education in Japan does not even aim to foster a sensible and critical individual. It is blatantly revealed in the recent approval by the education ministry of new “history” and “civics” textbooks.

A little while ago the representatives of the establishment of this country recommended educational investment with a view to increasing the number of prospective Nobel Prize winners in scientific fields. I am not qualified to say anything about academe, but I am fortunate enough to know personally some Nobel laureates in physics, chemistry, etc., whose outlook on humanity, built up by their many years’ experience and profound thinking, has on me as great an impact as that gained from literature.

The said proposal for educational investment, however, derives from the sense of crisis that the country as a whole might drop out of the race competed in by those monopolizing wealth and power in the great tide of globalization. The investment might produce some who would serve to catch up or regain the ground in scientific fields. I wonder, however, if this might not counteract the fostering of the type of intellectuals who dare to raise voices of dissent for the sake of building up a better world than now.

My dear professor Noam Chomsky, it is obvious that I have said the above directed by your criticism of “neoliberal” policies. Your criticism is exactly what I would like to convey to the people of my country who are enthused about the government and its prime minister daring to do anything for its economic recovery.

Further, I am entirely in agreement with your criticism of the American government’s promoting the “missile defense program” and dismantling of the Kyoto accord. The big action for nuclear expansion, which is nothing but a march toward global catastrophe, originated from a simple design concerning the validity of retaliation against an initial nuclear attack. The “missile defense program” will be a stale repetition of that design.

In reply with thanks to your marvelous letter, I would like to conclude with the following: It will be necessary to correct Prime Minister Koizumi, who misunderstood that the “missile defense program” would be “a search for a new approach to changing deterrence,” and to see to it that he will keep his promise to play the role of a bridge between the United States and Europe as regards the Kyoto accord.

Yours sincerely, Kenzaburo Oe