A Discourse by Three Drunkards on Government is a work of political theory written in 1887 by Nakae Chomin. It deals primarily with the question of Japan’s future, and draws on Chomin’s study of Western political theory in France and his involvement in politics and journalism in Japan.

In the Discourse, the author depicts a discussion between three characters: the Gentleman of Western Learning, whom he describes as “an advocate of democracy,” the Champion of the East, “an advocate of aggression,” and Master Nankai, a sage who “loves drinking and discussing politics.” Of the first two, Chomin seems more sympathetic towards the pacifistic, democratic, pro-Western position of the Gentleman than to the militancy and nationalism of the Champion. Neither of these characters is the voice of greatest wisdom in the book, however; the truly original ideas that best summarize Chomin’s own thoughts are spoken by Master Nankai. While Chomin clearly expresses a great deal of his admiration for Western liberal political theory through the Gentleman and his understanding of the arguments of Japanese traditionalists through the Champion, it is through Nankai that he contributes the most important of his own ideas.

Idealism

The structure of the book is such that the characters’ arguments build to a conclusion, although much is also left to the consideration of the reader. The Gentleman speaks first and longest, and, as I have noted, seems frequently in agreement with the author. A central aspect of his political ideology is pacifism, for which he presents a few arguments.

The first time the Gentleman explains his pacifism he explains that if Japan uses weapons its enemies will use theirs too. If Japan is without arms, though, enemies may occupy the country but would be forced to share it with the Japanese. This might not be an ideal situation for the natives, but, the Gentleman says, “those who are rich in endurance endure, and those who are not devise their own countermeasures.” This is an idea that on the surface seems terribly unrealistic and easily defeated by the Champion’s later explanation of the joy of violence, which could drive Japan’s enemies to kill the Japanese even if they had little to gain from doing so. Given that this argument for unilateral disarmament is among the Gentleman’s weakest in terms of style, Chomin himself probably saw it as impossibly idealistic, an early presentation of the Gentleman’s character as a man who “had disdain for the winding path of reality.” Interestingly, it is nonetheless a position that had some success in the next century, for it is in many ways a prototype of Mahatma Gandhi’s satyagraha ideology of passive resistance.

The second time the Gentleman speaks of pacifism, though, he makes an argument closer to Chomin’s own views; Chomin even marked it in the margin as “a great argument concerning the law of self-defense.” In this more subtle passage, the Gentleman takes the bold position that nations have no right to self-defense. The philosophical justification for all defense, he argues, is that “life is most precious.” If this is the case, it is clearly hypocrisy to kill in defense.

The subtlety of the Gentleman’s argument, however, is his distinction between individual self-defense and national self-defense. An individual may justify an act of self-defense if he does not kill his attacker, but a nation can use only weapons of death, such as guns, and cannot defend itself without killing others. It is counter-attacking, not defending, that should be “considered an evil deed,” but a nation cannot defend itself without counter-attacking and thus cannot justly defend itself at all.

The Gentleman’s depiction of the evils of war is also critical to his argument for pacifism. In support of his argument for democracy, he praises popular government as a source of peace, and damns monarchy as a source of violence. In a monarchy, he says, the sovereign is unaffected by war and can continue his daily routine. The citizens, though, are greatly burdened, as it is they who actually fight, die, and pay for war. War, the Gentleman makes clear, is very much a bad thing.

These arguments for pacifism are quite strong if one accepts their moral underpinnings. Much of the Gentleman’s argument hinges, however, on a distinctly contemporary Western concept of progress, one of evolution “from an imperfect to a pure form,” in politics the utopia of democracy. Not only is this theory of social change extremely limited in explanatory power, but the Gentleman applies it inconsistently, as Master Nankai later points out. The Gentleman’s arguments about time and progress are thus much weaker than those about morality.

“Realism”

Meanwhile the Champion, a man of fewer words, nonetheless plays an interesting dual role in the dialogue. He most clearly represents the traditional samurai-dominated politics of Japan, but he also represents a strand of European political theory not depicted by the Gentleman. This is the politics of “realism,” often associated with the writings of Niccolo Machiavelli, in which survival and prosperity, not morality, are the sole goals of politics. This is not to say that realism has no role in traditional Japanese politics, but merely that the ideas of the Champion are not as exclusively Japanese as he might like.

The Champion’s realism, like other realisms, can be found most in two claims about his political opponents. The first is that they are insane; this he asserts in response to the Gentleman’s pacifism. The second is that they simply ignore the real world, and here Chomin seems more sympathetic with the Champion, who argues that since war exists it is necessary for politicians to deal with it.

If anyone says that quarreling is a vice and war an absurdity, let me ask him to consider this: What can be done about the fact that individuals actually possess vices? What can be done about the fact that they act absurdly? In short, what can be done about reality?

From here the Champion builds his argument, focusing on countering the claims of the Gentleman. Because war exists, he says nations must have armies. More importantly, however, he disagrees with the Gentleman that war is bad. Where the Gentleman sees pain, the Champion sees pleasure; his vision of war is one shared by many throughout the world, especially before the World Wars—the view that war builds courage and exhibits excellence and is thus itself excellent. The Champion admits that this argument is a digression, but it is really a ploy. The Champion has, it seems, swept aside much of the Gentleman’s argument for pacifism by simply declaring war good instead of bad. This too is an illusion, however, because while the Champion argues well that war is a pleasure for soldiers, he says nothing at all about its financial and collateral effects on civilians, which still seem negative.

He then argues, fulfilling his role in the debate, that Japan must conquer part of another country, preferably a specific large one in Africa or Asia, the name of which he can’t recall. His first round of arguments, typical of realpolitik, focus on the economic and strategic benefits of such conquest. The Champion also has a more clever reason for conquest, though, that largely stems out of the debate itself. Here we again seem to be wading into Chomin’s original ideas, which are presented quite well.

There are, says the Champion, two kinds of people in the world, or at least in any nation rapidly changing its culture in order to emulate that of another society. There are “the lovers of nostalgia and the lovers of novelty,” conservatives and progressives, champions and gentlemen. (Chomin, incidentally, evidently sees himself as a progressive, as he has the Champion mock his own particular brand of progressivism.) Since the two factions are in conflict with each other, the natural solution is to separate them, and since the nostalgic are also in favor of war, this can be done simply by sending them off to fight. This strategy would leave Japan to progressives to do with as they will and, if the war was won, give the “big country” to the conservatives. It seems, from multiple perspectives, a good idea.

Moderation

It is Master Nankai, however, who is given the last word, or perhaps few thousand words. He first challenges the Gentleman’s conception of evolution as too dismissive of bad events, then argues that were it true aristocracy must be much favored by evolution, as observation reveals that aristocrats are successful. This argument itself, though, he dismisses as “more or less a joke.” He then presents a stronger one.

This is where I think we most see Chomin’s own thought. The ideas of the Master are moderating but also have clear practical applications, forming a strong end to the dialogue. First, he argues that by the Gentleman’s own theory, societies change gradually, going through a period of constitutionalism between despotism and democracy. “To jump from despotism to democracy,” he says, “is a violation of this order.” Additionally, there are rights that are given to the people by the sovereign which should not “be transformed into retrieved rights.” The key to Master Nankai’s rebuttal of Chomin’s arguments, and the high point of the book, is the passage which follows this.

Here Nankai argues that the truly great route to democracy is much more gradual than that imagined by the Gentleman and will indeed take hundreds of years. It involves the influences of ideas on actions and of actions on ideas. If the Gentleman, or any other intellectual, introduces the idea of democracy into society, this may gradually lead through a chain of ideas and actions to a democratic society. If, though, intellectuals instead lead a revolution to create a democratic society, they are engaging in no more than “ideological despotism,” directly forcing their political ideas on others.

Both the Gentleman and the Champion hold radical ideas, ideologies which spring from “excessive worry over the powerful nations of Europe.” Free of this worry, Master Nankai sees no need for either a massive military or a radical change to pacifistic democracy. The path of moderation—of small reforms in government—is all that is necessary to build a great Japan.

In the last few pages of his book, Chomin presents a moderate future for his country. It is a future that builds upon the strengths of both the militant traditions of Japan and the progressive movement of which Chomin himself was a part. It is thus the mouthpiece for these ideas, Master Nankai, who most embodies Chomin’s own contributions to Japanese political theory.

Work Cited

  • Nakae Chomin, A Discourse by Three Drunkards on Government, translated by Nobuko Tsukui (1984).

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