Thoughts on the Invasion of Ukraine

HIRANO Katsuya (Associate Professor, University of California, Los Angeles / Visiting Research Scholar)
January 13, 2023

Before taking up my post at Nichibunken, I taught a course at my university, UCLA, called “A Global History of Decolonization.” There I reflected on critiques of imperialism and on the battle for decolonization in Algeria, Vietnam, Martinique, Cuba, India and China. The aim was for students to learn about, and debate, the meanings and historical role in the modern world of such concepts as sovereignty, the right of self-determination, nationalism, freedom, equality, and ethnicity. My lectures overlapped with the invasion of Ukraine, and generated heated debate.


A lecture at UCLA (Photograph: author)

One Ukrainian student voiced sympathy with the popular independence movements called for by Frantz Fanon and Ho Chi Minh, and insisted that if nationalism was essential for the preservation of a country’s freedom and independence; it should not be viewed negatively. At the same time, Russian students, even as they attacked Russia’s invasion, were insistent that Russia, too, had the right to self-determination, and that people of the same Slavic ethnicity should be united rather than in conflict.   

Another Ukrainian student retorted in the following manner: “Nationalism does not mean cultural or ethnic similarity or identity. Rather, it is a type of sympathy, essential to the construction of an ideal society. Ukraine should sever ties with any Russians who do not share their ideals of freedom and democracy.” He added, “And that is why Ukraine hopes to become a member of the European union.”

An African student, who had been listening attentively, then spoke up with this sharp observation: “What we are learning about here is the history of domination and exploitation by Western colonial capitalism, and of racial oppression. I feel uncomfortable about a discourse that idealizes Western nations as champions of freedom and democracy while condemning Russia as the evil empire.” This student was identifying here the modern contradictions and hypocrisy visible in the slave trade, the massacre of indigenous peoples, and the destruction of nature, which Western nations had perpetrated over 400 years in the name of civilization.

The mass media reports that the Russian army has begun to withdraw from Ukraine、 and seeks to proclaim victory for the democratic nations which supported Ukraine. Certainly, the invasion of Ukraine is a barbaric act deserving of condemnation. However, we must exercise caution about media reports that posit those “Western countries” that have been supporting Ukraine—they include Japan—as champions of freedom and democracy. The arguments developed by my UCLA students tell us that the violence which created the modern world, and the scars and distortions which the Western nations inflicted—for they were the most responsible—are very much with us today.

A Ukrainian economist who took to the stage in a web seminar hosted by UCLA said that Putin was simply a ruler who remains obsessed with the sort of empire-building that Western nations began in the 19th century. Japan’s modern history is evidence that rulers, states, and nations with imperial dreams are not limited to Putin or Russia.

Exclusionism, racism, disparities of wealth, the abandonment of the socioeconomically vulnerable, and growing environmental crises are all increasingly prevalent in the world today. What sort of age was the modern? We desperately need a perspective that transcends the modern, yet something quite distinct from the frivolous arguments of postmodernism. Japanese studies must also contribute to this task.


The rapid spread of poverty in urban America (Photograph: author)