In modern Japanese, "liberty" is normally translated jiyu. The Japanese first encountered the idea of liberty in Dutch, vrijheid, and the translator could not find any proper translation, leaving it untranslated. Indeed, when Western scholarship flooded into the Japanese intellectual scene through the translation of works such as Samuel Smiles's Self Help (1859) and Mill's On Liberty, "liberty" was commonly recognized as a difficult word to translate. After a variety of translations were attempted, jiyu survived as the only term widely used today. Unlike the case in China, jiyu had already existed in the Japanese vocabulary before Japan's exposure to the Western idea of liberty; however, the first Japanese translators of "liberty" were not entirely convinced with their choice of the term. Fukuzawa Yukichi (1834–1901) is arguably responsible for the proliferation of the word, and yet he noted that jiyu (and any other Japanese word) failed to capture the precise meaning of liberty. According to the contemporary usage, jiyu signified "selfishness," "arbitrariness," and "emancipation of human desire"—in a word "license." The moral connotation of jiyu was rather negative. Some maintain that the notion of jiyu is rooted in the Taoist idea of formless but freely moving spirit, while others see its affinity to the National Learning (kokugaku) emphasis on human desire, as the novelist and poet Ihara Saikaku (1642–1693) once wrote: "Humans are the desires with four limbs." The first translators' concern with possible misunderstanding and misconceptions soon became real: although jiyu became a buzz word in the 1880s when the Freedom and People's Rights Movement (jiyu minken undo) reached its height, the majority of intellectuals and political leaders who supported the movement grasped jiyu in terms of "license." Consequently liberalism was considered to be a licentious ideology.
The leaders of the Japanese Enlightenment often understood the concept of jiyu in connection with the independence of their country as a nation state. The liberty and independence of the state were the focus of debate, whereas civil liberties often escaped the attention of intellectuals. The indifference to civil liberties forms the background to the state's oppression of free speech and academic enquiry. In 1919, Morito Tatsuo (1888–1984), of the Faculty of Economics in Tokyo Imperial University, published an article on the social thought of the anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin (1842–1921), and the authorities filed charges against him and the editor of the journal that published the paper. Morito was expelled from the university and imprisoned. Minobe Tatsukichi (1873–1948) of the Faculty of Law at Tokyo Imperial University was known for his view that the emperor was an organ of the state. In 1935, his "organ theory," which had gained wide support in the academic community, suddenly became the object of public condemnation. Minobe was compelled to resign from the Membership of the House of Peers, and his books were banned and burned. These incidents did not merely represent the state's oppression of intellectual freedom, but also reflected the public's skepticism toward the mistranslated "liberty." The widespread confusion of jiyu with license had prevented the Japanese from appreciating the value of civil liberties, and heavily discredited liberalism until Japan's disastrous defeat in 1945.
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