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Chomin: the Rousseau of the East - Jean-Jacques Rousseau - 1789: An Idea That Changed the World

UNESCO Courier,  June, 1989  by Shin'ya Ida

Chomin: The Rousseau of the East

The Japanese writer, philosopher and politician Nakae Tokusuke (1847-1901), more widely referred to by his nom-de-plume, Chomin, which means "a thousand million men of the people", is best known for his remarkable translation of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Social Contract.

In fact, he made two translations of the book: the first into the standard Japanese of the day, which he wrote oh his return from France in 1874, and the second into classical Chinese, the language of scholars, which he completed between 1882 and 1883, at the height of the movement for liberty and the rights of the people. His contemporaries called him "The Rousseau of the East", a nickname that has stuck.

French studies

Born in 1847, at Kochi, capital of the fief of Tosa on the island of Shikoku, Chomin learned French at Nagasaki, where he was sent with a bursary, and then at Edo (now Tokyo), where he became a pupil of Murakami Eishun, the father of French studies in Japan. It seems likely that he read Monsignor Daniel's Abrege chronologique de l'histoire universelle ("Brief Chronological Outline of World History") while studying under Murakami, who was to publish a translation of it in 1871.

The year 1868 saw the collapse of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the restoration of Imperial rule, and it was during the first year of the first Meiji era (Meiji means, literally, "enlightened rule") that Chomin was admitted to Mitsukuri Rinano's private school. Mitsukuri was the first Japanese teacher of French to visit France, having the pevious year accompanied Prince Tokugawa Minbu's diplomatic mission to Paris on the occasion of the World Exhibition. It is very likely that Chomin read Victor Duruy's Histoire de France ("History of France") whilst at this school, since Mitsukuri quotes this work in his Banxoku-Shinshi ("History of Modern Times"), published in 1871. It is reasonable to assume, therefore, that Chromin's interest in Rousseau and the French Revolution dates from this period.

Discovering the 'philosophes'

The decisive period in Chomin's life was his stay in France in the early days of the Third Republic, when the country was still suffering from the ravages of the Franco-Prussian War and of the Commune. Selected as one of the scholars sponsored by the Japanese Government to accompany the diplomatic mission headed by Iwakura Tomomi, in December 1871, he remained in France for two years.

Little is known of his life during this period. He scarcely mentions it in his writings and references to it by his follower and biographer Kotoku Shusui are both brief and vague. "Although he was sponsored by the Ministry of Justice, my master nevertheless studied philosophy, history and literature, and I have heard that he skimmed through many history books."

Our research on articles translated and published in the Seiri-Sadan ("Political and Moral Science Review"), founded by Chomin and his followers, indicate that while in France he probably discovered the eighteenth-century philosophes (Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, Mirabeau and Condorcet) and the radical political writers (Barni, Naquet, Jules Simon, Laboulaye and Vacherot). Since passages from L'Histoire parlementaire de la Revolution Francaise ("Parliamentary History of the French Revolution"), by Buchez and Roux, appear in translation in the Review, it can be assumed that this forty-volume work in octavo format was among the "many history books" that Chomin "skimmed through".

Rousseau reaches Japan

On his return to Japan in June 1874, Chomin found his fellow countrymen in a state of ferment. Two former ministers, Itagaki Taisuko and Goto Shojiro, both, like Chomin, from Tosa had just launched the Jiku-Minken-Unao ("Movement for Liberty and the Rights of the people"). It was at this time that Chomin translated Rousseau's Social contract (Min'yaku-Ron), thus placing a formidable weapon in their hands. At the school of French he had established (Furanau-Gaku-sha, later Futsu-Gaku-Juku) he gave commentaries on Rousseau in his classes and the militants of the movement, most of them young, passed the manuscript of his translation from hand to hand. "Weeping, we read the Min'yaku-Ron by Russo", wrote one of these young men in a poem written in Chinese; at the same time, a Prefect forbade the officials of his Department to read Rousseau.

In May 1875, Chomin was appointed secretary to the Senate and assigned to the research department. For a long time his role in this new institution remained obscure. Following examination of the Journal of the Senate, it is now known that he had alreay been appointed secretary when the drafting office of the Constitution was set up. He was, therefore, at the very heart of the team preparing the draft constitution, although in a relatively lowly capacity, since this process involved comparing the constitutions of different countries as and when they were translated into Japanese from the French jurist Edouard-Julien Laferri ere's book Constitutions d'Europe et d'Amerique ("Constitutions of Europe and America").

At the outset, this draft constitution, completed in mid-October 1876, provided for only one legislative chamber, the Senate. How then did it come about that, by the end of the year, it included plans for the creation of a Chamber of Deputies? We do not know whether Chomin had a hand in this sudden change in state policy. However that may be, he left the Senate shortly afterwards, in January 1877.

Mention should be made of the presence in the drafting office of Kawazu Sukeyuki, who alone among Chomin's colleagues could read French. In September 1876 Kawazu began publishing his complete translation of Auguste mignet's Histoire de la Revolution Francaise (1824; "History of the French Revolution"). Thus Rousseau and the Revolution were both involved in the drawing up of the Japanese draft constitution, which is considered to be more liberal in many respects than the Constitution eventually adopted.

The spirit of the French Revolution

The second (1878) and third (1880) amendments to the draft constitution were definitively rejected by the government ministers Iwakura Tomomi and Ito Hirobumi, who dismissed them scornfully as being mere "translations" or "rehashes" of European and American constitutions. Meanwhile, in April 1881, Chomin and his friends founded the daily newspaper Toyo jiyu Shimbun ("Liberty of the Orient"). The movement for the rights of the people was now at its zenith. In his editorials, Chomin repeatedly called for the immediate convocation of a National Assembly which, like its French revolutionary counterpart, would be empowered to draw up a constitution. He stressed the need for "rigorous reasoning" and "firmness of will". He counselled his young readers against "inflammatory speeches" or "blind, violent action". For him it was not a question of doing "what France had done before", but of "seeking its spirit rather than imitating its actions".

If the French Revolution was to be "imitated" only in its "spirit", what other path was there to follow? Paradoxically, the one taken by the British. Since, according to Rousseau's theories, the British monarchy was compatible with the nature of the Republic, Chomin preferred it to the French Republican syste. Whilst thus advising calm and moderation, he did not fail to point out that a revolution could break out even in Japan, if the "high ups"--members of the court, ministers and nobles--persisted in exercising their authority without regard for the rights of the people.

Japan on the brink of revolution?

In October 1881, feeling itself threatened by the rise of the popular movement, the government oligarchy took the initiative, promising, in the name of the emperor, to grant a Constitution by 1889 and establish a Diet for the year after.

In February 1882, at the time when Ito, who had been entrusted with the task of drawing up the Constitution, was about to leave on a study mission to Germany and Austria, Chomin founded his Political and Moral Science Review. The first issue opened with the Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1793 and in the second Chomin began the serialization of Rousseau's Social Contract, both of which he had himself translated into classical Chinese.

Chomin's History of the Two Reigns in France before the Revolution (Kakumie-zen-Furansu-Niseikiji, December 1886) was published three years before the promulgation of teh Imperial Constitution, the drafting of which was then approaching its final stage. In compiling this work Chomin drew mainly on histories of France by victor Duruy and Henri Martin. But why did he stop before 1789 instead of writing, as one might have expected, a history of the Revolution itself?

Chomin himself provided the explanation when he revealed a clear dichotomy in his appreciation of the French Revolution. On the one hand the Revolution was for him "an unheardof event in the annals of history which highlighted the causes of liberty and equality and which, by transforming the situation of the European states, succeeded for the first time in basing politics on the lofty principles of philosophy". On the other hand, he saw "from the moment of the convocation of the States General, the seeds of growing conflict between the court and the people, conflict which inflamed passions and led to extremes and excess". Primarily a philosopher rather than a historian, he was more interested in "the causes of the Revolution" than in its actual unfolding, the ferocity of which he found unbearable.

Chomin likened the French Revolution to "a great drama" of which philisophers such as Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau and the rest were "the authors" and in which the great revolutionaries such as the Abbe Siey es, Mirabeau, Vergniaud, Robespierre and Danton were "the actors".

Yet how could the actors have staged "the great drama" written by the authors? Only with the backing of "public opinion, without which the undertaking would have had no future and would have ended up crushed by the mighty power of the court". The final message that Chomin leaves with us is surely this: addressing his words "to those who foster a high ambition within the nation" he reminds them of the vital necessity of "forming public opinion". This is the key to everything.


of Japan, is a professor of literature in Tokyo.

His doctoral thesis, on Nakae Chomin and France, was published in 1987.

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