There is a man in Tokyo who may one day be remembered as the founding father of Japanese libertarianism. He is Dr. Takashi Urata. A gregarious, articulate scholar, Urata has turned a curiosity about social systems into a network of Japanese students and professionals who are familiar with the works of Ayn Rand, Ludwig von Mises, and Herbert Spencer.
Urata's intellectual growth traces, strangely, to an illness he contracted in the '30s, when he was 17 years old. At the time, he was headed toward a career in the physical sciences, but tuberculosis sent him to rest in his father's country home in the Kochi prefecture. According to Urata, the Kochi prefecture has a long history, and the term "long history" means, in Japan, "opposition to government, and free thinking."
While recovering, Urata occupied himself with his father's extensive library. The illness led the holder of the second rank in kendo and middle-school record-holder in the 3,000-meter run to focus his energy on the literature of the finest Japanese and foreign authors, which piqued his interest in languages. Many of the works in his father's library were sociological, and Urata read both sides of the Marxist and communist debate. The lifetime theme of his research was postulated then—which social system is the best?
Very early, Urata pinpointed the flaw in Marxist dialectics—namely, that "the state will ever disappear." Urata says the idea is simply "preposterous." In the four years of his recuperation, he neglected the study of his previous interests, the physical sciences, but found himself nearly prepared to enter medical school, because his father, a physician, had stocked his library with mathematics and English, Chinese, and Japanese literature, the subjects that were included in the medical-school entrance exams. His father also advised him that medical school was a convenient way to avoid the draft and probably death in the Japanese military.
At the university, Urata was excused from physical training to help an instructor who needed a book translated into Japanese. So at age 22—four years before World War II—he translated the first of many works from English to Japanese. When prewar sentiments affected the university administration, Urata was forced to discontinue his translating and begin military training.
To avoid being drafted into the infantry, Urata joined the naval reserve. But another reason he gives for preferring the navy to the infantry was that the Japanese navy, generally, was against fighting the United States, while the army had been urging the conquest of America for some time. Urata became a naval surgeon in New Guinea, but he continued to write, especially in medical journals. He proudly shows articles he wrote arguing for the Japanese to remain neutral in the Second World War. He correctly predicted the defeat of Japan by the United States, but his antiwar writing eventually was the cause of his assignment to the most dangerous areas.
Within three months of his discharge, his parents were killed and his home destroyed in the Nankai no Taishisai earthquake of 1946. Fortunately, his brother was away at the time, as was Urata, so they both survived. He then left Tokyo, which he considers the best of Japan, and went to Yokohama to teach. With a very good salary, he enjoyed the famous night life of that city until he opened his own medical practice in 1952 in Meguro, outside of Tokyo.
Because Urata has taught on and off for a total of over 20 years, he has been able to gather together people who are sympathetic to free-market, individual-rights ideas. In 1968 he started holding informal meetings, which in 1978 turned into fully organized "For Freedom" seminars. He has given over 40 alone on the work of the preeminent Austrian School economist Ludwig von Mises, whom he has translated extensively.
According to the Japanese scholar, a bright spot in his life occurred when he discovered an interview with Ayn Rand in an American Playboy of 1964. "I found that what she was saying was precisely my way of thinking," he says. "Certainly a unique philosopher had come forth." Urata has a collection of all of Rand's work, including her newsletters. Later, he was to discover Mises, whom he compares to Isaac Newton as an a priori expounder of the laws of the universe. Urata also helped translate Rand's An Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology.
Urata complains about the way that the American academic community treated Rand and her ideas as well as those who were so brash as to admit an interest in them. One of Urata's goals is to help make Mises respectable to the Japanese.
Urata plans to run his seminars for two more years before turning the organization over to Professor Murata, a disciple and former student of Mises's at New York University. When Japan socialized its health-care system in 1955, Urata cut back on his private practice and had more time to translate and write. The result is more than 20 books, and he is presently translating O. Henry's short stories and an original five-volume medical encyclopedia.
With the business of the seminars passed on to several younger people, Urata, now 68 years old, says he will write and translate more libertarian work and concentrate on the two central questions that have been his life-long concern—the mystery of life and the cause of war.
Patrick Cox is a frequent guest columnist for USA Today and public affairs director of the Pacific Institute for Public Policy Research. Research for this Spotlight was provided by Dustin Baker and Noriko Yoshitake.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Spotlight: Liberty Rises in the East".