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What is Peace?

Although universally agreed as highly desirable and examined in depth throughout the centuries, peace has no clear definition. This essay, therefore, intends to review the works we have studied this term to see what some of the finest minds throughout history have to say on the matter and will conclude with my best attempt at defining peace. 

Professor Chiba's article on Japan's post-war constitutional pacificism introduced the concept of attaining peace through radical pacifism embodied in the Japanese constitutional renouncement of war as a "sovereign right of the nation," Article 9 of the 1946 Japanese Constitution, quoted in Shin CHIBA & Thomas J SCHOENBAUM, "On constitutional pacifism in post-war Japan: its theoretical meanings" in Peace Movements and Pacifism After September 11, Cheltenham UK & Northampton USA, 2008, p 128 on the knowledge that the "costs and risks of war exceed any objective, a war might conceivably achieve." Ibid., p143 

 Thereby leaving the nation's national security to diplomatic skills and non-violent forms of resistance by the populace in the event of invasion. Sacrificing the ‘right of belligerency' is remarkable, as it is the core defining concept of the Westphalian state model. In the face of increasingly destructive means of warfare, the kyodatsu scars of which remain in the memories of WWII survivors, Japan's radical pacifism indicates that peace is the renunciation of war and the resultant survival of the earth and humankind. It also signals that ensuring peace is not exclusively Japan's task, but rather for all states and global citizens. As Chiba succinctly states, "'the right to live in peace' cannot be monopolized by any sovereign nation alone but should be shared by all peoples of the world." Ibid., p148

However, this position is being undermined from politics within Japan itself, particularly since 9/11 and its international war responses for which Japan has provided military support, gradually eroding what Chiba calls a ‘broken covenant' or ‘breach of social contract' with the Japanese people and their abhorrence of war. Calls for constitutional change by politicians are not being met by popular resistance, notably not from younger generations with no experience of the horrors of war. There appears to be a real danger that Japan may lose its peace, and extinguish the world's ‘beacon of hope' before realizing it.

From John Dower's book Embracing Defeat John DOWER, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of WWII, W.W.Norton & Co., New York, 1999. We can only surmise definitions of peace from the social history events captured by the author. For General Douglas MacArthur, peace was the very definitive end of World War II – a military order filled carried out and beyond the call of duty. Peace for MacArthur required not only the end of military hostilities but dismantling the imperial state that was the root cause. Ensuring continued peace required a political bargain with the Emperor and institutionalized reform to embed all of the liberal attributes of a peaceful western democracy. For the Japanese population, peace was liberation from the need to "endure the unendurable and bear the unbearable" Ibid., p36 from death, from a ‘bamboo-shoot existence.' Peace brought a tremendous struggle to rebuild not only a whole functioning society from the ashes, but also the creation of a new Japanese identity without imperial divinity and ‘first rank' national status, but also with a clear abhorrence of war and militarisation. By the renunciation of another war that could destroy human civilization', peace would last for ‘thousands of generations.' In contrast, Johan Galtung's Johan GALTUNG, Peace: Research, Education, Action, Christian Ejlers, Copenhagen 1975, I.1.' I.4., pp 13 - 46, and 109-134 and Johan GALTUNG, "Cultural Violence," Journal of Peace Research, Vol 27, No.3, August 1990, pp 291-305 

Approach to peace is a highly intellectual calculation that establishes that peace is the absence of violence – direct physical violence, structural violence (social justice, or inequalities that prevent an individual from reaching full potential), and cultural violence (which legitimates direct physical violence and structural violence). These three forms of violence are triangulated, and each can transmit from its respective corner to mutually support or institutionalize the other two violence forms. Cultural peace is "aspects of a culture that serve to justify and legitimize direct peace and structural peace." Johan GALTUNG, "Cultural Violence," Ibid., p 291 In a similar manner to the violence triangle, the three forms of peace reinforce each other in a ‘virtuous triangle,'; however, all three corners must be addressed simultaneously. Peace, therefore, appears harder to create than violence.

In Erasmus' The Complaint of Peace, Desiderius ERASMUS, The Complaint of Peace [Published from Querela Pacis, 1521], reprinted by The Open Court Publishing Co., USA, 2017, pp 1-80

 Peace is personified as an exasperated woman, ‘reduced to the necessity of weeping over,' commiserating with and bewailing man's self-inflicted misfortune. Peace describes herself as "a personage glorified by the united praise of God and man, as the fountain, the parent, the nurse, the patroness, the guardian of every blessing which either heaven or earth can bestow." Without her, "war is one vast ocean, rushing on mankind, of all the united plagues and pestilences in nature." She despairs over man, asking "how can I believe them to be otherwise than stark mad; who, with such a waste of treasure, with so ardent a zeal, and with so great an effort, …. endeavor to drive me away from them, and purchase endless misery and mischief at a price so high." Ibid., p2  Despite her poor appraisal of man, she refuses to give up on them, chiding and advising them as best she can into finding their way back to her. She is very much the image of a mother with a reckless wayward son, full of love and woe, yet powerless to change his poorly chosen path. 

Emmanuel Kant's To Perpetual Peace Immanuel KANT, Perpetual Peace, (translated Ted Humphrey), Hackett Publishing Company Inc, 2003, pp1-45 Defines peace as "the end of all hostilities." As war rather than peace is the natural state, the latter must be ‘established.' Peace cannot be secured by the suspension of hostilities alone because "unless the security is pledged by one neighbor to another (which can happen in a state of lawfulness), the latter, from whom the security has been requested, can treat the former as an enemy." Ibid., para 348 However, for Kant, peace alone is not sufficient – it must be perpetual. For this, a particular political constellation is required – a republican civil constitution for every nation, a federation of free states, and cosmopolitan rights. Peace is ‘the highest good of politics". In addition, "perpetual peace is insured (guaranteed) by nothing less than the great artist nature …whose mechanical process makes her purposiveness visibly manifest, permitting harmony to emerge among men through their discord, even against their wills." Ibid., para 360 An existentially fundamental form (providence) is manifest in this natural mechanical process, which can only be attributed to God and his predetermined purpose. Ibid., para 362 footnotes on providence. For Kant then, peace also involves a set of complicated interactions between man, nature, and the Creator's purpose.

Gandhi, in Non-Violent Resistance (Satyagraha) M.K. GANDHI, Non-violent Resistance (Satyagraha), Schoken Books, New York, 1951

 Does not speak directly of peace, but rather of overcoming violence through ‘Satyagraha,' which he says is "literally holding on to truth and it means, therefore, Truth-Force. Truth is soul or spirit. It is, therefore, known as soul-force. It excludes the use of violence because man is not capable of knowing the absolute truth and, therefore, not competent to punish." Ibid., p 3 Gandhi says that "Truth is God," it is knowledge. It is eternal and the source of bliss. "Devotion to this Truth is the sole reason for our existence. All our activities should be centered on Truth." Ibid., p38 It is also known as Love-force. Overcoming violence requires patiently and sympathetically weaning opponents from ‘error,' although patience itself involves self-suffering. Satyagraha is seen as a non-violent force against despotism, militarism, hate untruth, and violence, which can only be attained through devotion to a set of strict principles and practices. For Martin Luther King Jr in Strength to Love Martin Luther KING Jr., Strength to Love, Fortress Press, Philadelphia 1981

 Violence and the struggle between good and evil defines the everyday. Even ‘good, respectable citizens' blinded by patriotism, rather than evil people, may see war as an answer to world problems. But "violence, by creating many more social problems than it solves, never brings permanent peace." Ibid., p18 From his deeply religious Christian perspective, King Jr says, "we will not find peace until we learn anew …. those inner treasures of the spirit." Ibid., p76 To ensure our survival and solve the world's problems, is it absolutely necessary to "love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in Heaven." Matthew 5:43-45 quoted Ibid., p49 This love is not a ‘sentimental outpouring' but rather "agape' … the love of God operating in the human heart." Ibid., p52

It is because God loves every man that we should too. King Jr affirms that through the Christian love of God, man attains an inner equilibrium, stability, and peace. It is Christ who said, "Peace I leave with you," to which King Jr adds, "this is that peace which passeth all understanding." Ibid., p112 Although we have only briefly looked at peace from eight perspectives, we can see some similarities but also vastly diverging views on peace. However, notably, no two perspectives are exactly the same. There are probably thousands more worth considering, particularly those arising from non-western cultures. Nevertheless, based on these, I would now like to look a little closer at these similarities and differences to see what can be learned from them. In so doing, I will not be applying a lens from a particular peace theorist, which would be favouring one view over the other, but rather consider it from my perspective as a new-comer to this field of peace studies, a perspective which would be similar to most people when faced with this array of writings. In short, I will approach it from the perspective of the ‘ordinary person.' First, as seen through Chiba, Dower and Kant, we have a sort of law and order perspective where peace is attained via addressing the root causes of war through constitutional pacifism, war renunciation for assured mutual survival, increased reliance on diplomacy, non-violent forms of citizen resistance, cessation of military warfare, dismantling of war-prone state structures, political bargains with the defeated, imposition of liberal state structures, creation of states of lawfulness, republican civil constitutions, federation of states and cosmopolitanism. From the Japanese peoples' perspective, peace was liberation from direct experience of war, freedom from the unendurable and unbearable, creation of a new national definition, and the definitive renunciation of war to last for a thousand generations. Galtung's Peace = Absence of Violence and triangulation of direct, structural, and cultural violence/peace presents an analytical, theoretical view from the world of academia. Peace, as part of nature, battling man's natural wayward tendencies, is another perspective. Erasmus's Peace personified as an exasperated mother figure, the source of all goodness and protector from evil as well as Kant's Creator's purpose and his interactions through nature with man are examples of this. 

Spiritual perspectives are also well represented. Although Gandhi does not specifically mention peace, his Truth-Force, where Truth is God, and the necessity to the practice of Satyagraha are avenues to address violence and correct wrongs. For King Jr, Peace is the love of God, as shown through man's behavior to man. In short, the contenders are a world order, liberation, absence of violence, nature, and spirituality/love. So, what is the ordinary person to make of all this? After all, it is in this everyday domain that most of the peace or lack thereof has the actual impact. And yet what should be clear – we all ‘know' what peace is, don't we? – It is, in fact, looking disturbingly complex. The only thing all of the authors agree on is the rejection of violence, which is a good start. Yet, there is no such unity of how to achieve this. Can it be that peace is, in fact, just a point of view? That every person sees the peace in the world through the power tools they have at hand - the law-makers through militarism, policy, and policing; the vanquished through accepting whatever fate befalls them; the academics through theory; the philosophers through questioning the very basis of nature; the spiritual through devotion? Is peace dependant on how every person sees the world and interacts within their personal sphere of influence? The hammer will hit nails, and the like? If this were true, that each person has their own definition of peace, at least we would know why we cannot define it. Peace is not a noun. It is an attitude. And if this is the case, does this not suggest another way to work towards peace is needed? Perhaps more to do with the attitudes of people than with fixed external structures and regulations? In parallel to the readings discussed above, I have also encountered academic discussion on what is broadly defined as Discourse, Translation, Memory, and Dialogue, which all take ‘peace as a process' as their uniting basis. Although these also present interesting academic ideas, I have not yet seen how they translate into everyday interactions towards peace. Hopefully, this personal enlightenment will follow soon and not prove to be a case of ‘academics theorize.' But even if this were the case, this peace ‘re-thinking' has increased focus on individual or group perspectives, and this accords with my questions above, which I find promising. I am not entirely sure where my questions are leading, and I could be entirely on the wrong path in searching for peace through individual viewpoints. But since the combined wisdom of past practitioners and scholars have not yet entirely solved world peace, though each of them probably contributed substantially to it in their own ways, there is still room for these humble speculations. 


Shin CHIBA & Thomas J SCHOENBAUM, "On constitutional pacifism in post-war Japan: its theoretical meanings" in Peace Movements and Pacifism After September 11, Cheltenham UK & Northampton USA, 2008

John DOWER, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of WWII, W.W.Norton & Co., New York, 1999

Desiderius ERASMUS, The Complaint of Peace [Published from Querela Pacis, 1521], reprinted by The Open Court Publishing Co., USA, 2017, pp 1-80

Johan GALTUNG, Peace: Research, Education, Action, Christian Ejlers, Copenhagen 1975, I.1.' I.4., pp 13 - 46, and 109-134  

Johan GALTUNG, Cultural Violence, Journal of Peace Research, Vol 27, No.3, August 1990,

pp 291-305

M.K. GANDHI, Non-violent Resistance (Satyagraha), Schoken Books, New York, 1951

Immanuel KANT, Perpetual Peace, (translated Ted Humphrey), Hackett Publishing Company Inc, 2003, pp1-45

Martin Luther KING Jr., Strength to Love, Fortress Press, Philadelphia 1981

Date Published

October 3, 2019
9:30 am Thursday, Tokyo (GMT+9)


essay, peace, post-war Japan

About the author
Syann Williams
Syann Williams was a litigation lawyer in Australia, until in 1998 she became the General Manager of NGO for street children in Mongolia, then Coordinator of the United Nations Disaster Management Team for the winter disaster in 2002. After gaining her Masters in International, Syann worked with UNHCR as a Protection Officer in conflict and post-conflict areas (Mindanao/The Philippines, South Sudan and Rakhine State/Myanmar). From 2015-2017, Syann was the Humanitarian and Policy Advisor to the Fiji Government in the National Disaster Management Office. She is currently a Rotary Peace Fellow engaged in Peace Studies at ICU.


International Christian University
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