Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Senkakus: When I Say Private Property, I Mean...

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

- Woody Guthrie, "This Land Is Your Land" *
A long, long time ago, I studied medieval Japanese history under Professor Jeffrey P. Mass. His lectures and writings at that time revolved around the concept of shiki ( 職 ) in the system of landholding and land management of the late Heian and Kamakura periods. Professor Mass published voluminously on the subject, both analyses and straight translations of documents.

Many years later I was making small talk with a professor after mutual introductions. I mentioned in passing that I had studied medieval history with Dr. Mass, to which the professor responded, "Oh yes, Jeff Mass. I have never quite understood what the point of his project was."

I bit my tongue at the time, as it was a first meeting. In my mind, however, I hissed, "Dr. Mass was investigating the fundamental nature of private property. We may think we understand what that private property is. Dr. Mass' research showed, very quietly, that we are just kidding ourselves."

Dr. Mass and his attempts to pound through my thick skull (an attempt that failed, at that time) that the concepts of private property are far from universal and indeed are institutionally and yes, culturally specific came to mind as I read the second point in Okumura Jun's posting of his thoughts on Yves Tiberghien's recent paper on the Senkakus.

Quoting from Okumura-san's post:
...the difference in the legal systems of the two countries regarding real estate ownership and more generally the state and the individual must have contributed significantly to Chinese misunderstanding of the Noda administration’s intent. Simply put, the Chinese public must find the notion that the state would have to engage in a regular bidding match with a local governor for a piece of land that is registered in a private individual’s name absurd. I suspect that most of China’s political and national security leadership, with little to no direct personal exposure to the legal and political systems of the West, also find it intuitively difficult to understand. He touches on this point briefly when you say, “Especially in a Chinese context, it seems unthinkable that there would not be a third option where the national government could step in to prevent the Tokyo deal without doing a full nationalization.” This must have been true at the grassroots and leadership levels alike and contributed significantly to the visceral fury and ferocity and made the conflict more intractable.

I am not sure that Chinese local cadres and thugs are entirely bereft of an understanding of a concept of property rights as transcending and superseding law. They certainly understand the "What's mine is mine and what's yours is also mine" principle.

What I am sure is that the Chinese Communist Party has a vested interested in shutting down fast any discussion of the nature of property rights, especially as to the limits on state action such rights might impose.

It is not that folks cannot understand. They can, if given peace and quiet and not having someone shouting, "It's time to hate now! It's time to hate now" in their ears all the time. It is that the state does not want them to understand, as Professor Mass tried to get me to understand so many years ago, that private property may be something entirely foreign to one's vision of reality.

Ironically, the same professor who admitted perplexity as to the point at Dr. Mass' work wrote the fundamental text on another facet of the Senkakus controversy: how in Edo period, during what was purportedly the era of sakoku, Japan had at its contact points with the continent diffuse and porous borders, controlled in an ambiguous and fluid way by both the Edo bakufu and tozama ( 外様 ) daimyo -- where international relations were to a large extent "privatized" by both the relevant hanshu and the Tokugawa.

* The above verse is not included in the linked Guthrie recording. However, it appears in the copyrighted version, available here. Neil Young and Crazy Horse sing the verse twice in their version of the song.


Anonymous said...

That verse also sung by Pete Seeger & Bruce Springsteen at the official Obama inauguration.

MTC said...

Anonymous -

Peter Seeger changed the words "No Trespassing" to "Private Property" in all his performances of the song. I was thinking of Seeger's altered version when I first began the post. However, I decided to pay due honor to the copyrighted lyrics of the master.

Mark said...

As you seem to be an expert on things related to Japan, I'd thought I'd ask you a question. I found a pretty interesting blog post:

Do you know if this document is authentic? Does the document match the English translation provided by the person who wrote the blog post?

Graham said...

It's not the best translation, but it's pretty much accurate: it's a document mentioning problems related to "comfort women" recruitment in the past and instructing commanders to be more careful.

Mark said...


Do you know if the document is authentic?