Ancient History & Civilisation

The New Japan


The decay of the Shogunate—America knocks at the door—The Restoration—The Westernization of Japan—Political reconstruction—The new constitution—Law—The army—The war with Russia—Its political results

THE death of a civilization seldom comes from without; internal decay must weaken the fibre of a society before external influences or attacks can change its essential structure, or bring it to an end. A ruling family rarely contains within itself that persistent vitality and subtle adaptability which enduring domination requires; the founder exhausts half the strength of the stock, and leaves to mediocrity the burdens that only genius could bear. The Tokugawas after Iyeyasu governed moderately well, but, barring Yoshimune, they numbered no positive personalities in their line. Within eight generations after Iyeyasu’s death the feudal barons were disturbing the Shogunate with sporadic revolts; taxes were delayed or withheld, and the Yedo treasury, despite desperate economies, became inadequate to finance national security or defense.1 Two centuries and more of peace had softened the Samurai, and had disaccustomed the people to the hardships and sacrifices of war; epicurean habits had displaced the stoic simplicity of Hideyoshi’s days, and the country, suddenly called upon to protect its sovereignty, found itself physically and morally unarmed. The Japanese intellect fretted under the exclusion of foreign intercourse, and heard with restless curiosity of the rising wealth and varied civilization of Europe and America; it studied Mabuchi and Moto-ori, and secretly branded the shoguns as usurpers who had violated the continuity of the Imperial dynasty; it could not reconcile the divine descent of the Emperor with the impotent poverty to which the Tokugawas had condemned him. From their hiding-places in the Yoshiwara and elsewhere, subterranean pamphleteers began to flood the cities with passionate appeals for the overthrow of the Shogunate, and the restoration of the Imperial power.

Upon this harassed and resourceless Government the news burst in 1853 that an American fleet, ignoring Japanese prohibitions, had entered Uraga Bay, and that its commander insisted upon seeing the supreme authority in Japan. Commodore Perry had four ships of war and 560 men; but instead of making a display of even this modest force, he sent a courteous note to the Shogun Iyeyoshi, assuring him that the American Government asked nothing more than the opening of a few Japanese ports to American trade, and some arrangements for the protection of such American seamen as might be shipwrecked on Japanese shores. The T’ai-p’ing Rebellion called Perry back to his base in Chinese waters; but in 1854 he returned to Japan armed with a larger squadron and a persuasive variety of gifts—perfumes, clocks, stoves, whiskey . . .—for the Emperor, the Empresses, and the princes of the blood. The new Shogun, Iyesada, neglected to transmit these presents to the royal family, but consented to sign the Treaty of Kanagawa, which conceded in effect all the American demands. Perry praised the courtesy of the islanders, and announced, with imperfect foresight, that “if the Japanese came to the United States they would find the navigable waters of the country free to them, and that they would not be debarred even from the gold-fields of California.”2 By this and later treaties the major ports of Japan were open to commerce from abroad, tariffs were specified and limited, and Japan agreed that Europeans and Americans accused of crime in the islands should be tried by their own consular courts. Stipulations were made and accepted that all persecution of Christianity should cease in the Empire; and at the same time the United States offered to sell to Japan such arms and battleships as she might need, and to lend officers and craftsmen for the instruction of this absurdly pacific nation in the arts of war.3

The Japanese people suffered keenly from the humiliation of these treaties, though later they acknowledged them as the impartial instruments of evolution and destiny. Some of them wished to fight the foreigners at any cost, to expel them all, and restore a self-contained agricultural and feudal regime. Others saw the necessity of imitating rather than expelling the West; the only course by which Japan could avoid the repeated defeats and the economic subjection which Europe was then imposing upon China was by learning as rapidly as possible the methods of Western industry, and the technique of modern war. With astonishing finesse the Westernizing leaders used the baronial lords as aides in overthrowing the Shogunate and restoring the Emperor, and then used the Imperial authority to overthrow feudalism and introduce Occidental industry. So in 1867 the feudal lords persuaded the last of the shoguns, Keiki, to abdicate. “Almost all the acts of the administration,” said Keiki, “are far from perfect, and I confess it with shame that the present unsatisfactory condition of affairs is due to my shortcomings and incompetence. Now that foreign intercourse becomes daily more extensive, unless the government is directed from one central authority, the foundations of the state will fall to pieces.”4 The Emperor Meiji replied tersely that “Tokugawa Keiki’s proposal to restore the administrative authority to the Imperial Court is accepted”; and on January 1, 1868 the new “Era of Meiji” was officially begun. The old religion of Shinto was revised, and an intensive propaganda convinced the people that the restored emperor was divine in lineage and wisdom, and that his decrees were to be accepted as the edicts of the gods.

Armed with this new power, the Westernizers achieved almost a miracle in the rapid transformation of their country. Ito and Inouye braved their way through every prohibition and obstacle to Europe, studied its industries and institutions, marveled at the railroad, the steamship, the telegraph and the battleship, and came back inflamed with a patriotic resolve to Europeanize Japan. Englishmen were brought in to superintend the construction of railways, the erection of telegraphs, and the building of a navy; Frenchmen were commissioned to recast the laws and train the army; Germans were assigned to the organization of medicine and public health; Americans were engaged to establish a system of universal education; and to make matters complete, Italians were imported to instruct the Japanese in sculpture and painting.5 There were temporary, even bloody, reactions, and at times the spirit of Japan rebelled against this hectic and artificial metamorphosis; but in the end the machine had its way, and the Industrial Revolution added Japan to its realm.

Of necessity that Revolution (the only real revolution in modern history) lifted to wealth and economic power a new class of men—manufacturers, merchants and financiers—who in the old Japan had been ranked at the very bottom of the social scale. This risingbourgeoisie quietly used its means and influence first to destroy feudalism, and then to reduce to an imposing pretense the restored authority of the throne. In 1871 the Government persuaded the barons to surrender their ancient privileges, and consoled them with government bonds in exchange for their lands.*Bound by ties of interest to the new society, the old aristocracy gave its services loyally to the Government, and enabled it to effect with bloodless ease the transition from a medieval to a modern state. Ito Hirobumi, recently returned from a second visit to Europe, created, in imitation of Germany, a new nobility of five orders—princes, marquises, counts, viscounts and barons; but these men were the rewarded servants, not the feudal enemies, of the industrial regime.

Modestly and tirelessly Ito labored to give his country a form of government that would avoid what seemed to him the excesses of democracy, and yet enlist and encourage the talent of every class for a rapid economic development. Under his leadership Japan promulgated, in 1889, its first constitution. At the top of the legal structure was the emperor, technically supreme, owning all land in fee simple, commander of an army and a navy responsible to him alone, and giving to the Empire the strength of unity, continuity, and regal prestige. Graciously he consented to delegate his law-making power, so long as it pleased him, to a Diet of two chambers—a House of Peers and a House of Representatives; but the ministers of state were to be appointed by him, and to be accountable to him rather than to the Diet. Underneath was a small electorate of some 460,000 voters, severely limited by a property qualification; successive liberalizations of the franchise raised the number of voters to 13,000,000 by 1928. Corruption in office has kept pace with the extension of democracy.6

Along with these political developments went a new system of law (1881), based largely upon the Napoleonic Code, and representing a courageous advance on the medieval legislation of the feudal age. Civil rights were liberally granted—freedom of speech, press, assembly and worship, inviolability of correspondence and domicile, and security from arrest or punishment except by due process of law. Torture and ordeal were abolished, the Eta were freed from their caste disabilities, and all classes were made theoretically equal before the law. Prisons were improved, prisoners were paid for their work, and on their liberation they were equipped with some modest capital to set them up in agriculture or trade. Despite the lenience of the code, crime remained rare;7 and if an orderly acceptance of law is a mark of civilization, Japan (allowing for a few assassinations) must stand in the first rank of modern states.

Perhaps the most significant feature of the new Constitution was the exemption of the army and the navy from any superior except the Emperor. Never forgetting the humiliation of 1853, Japan resolved to build an armed force that would make her master of her own destiny, and ultimately lord of the East. Not only did she establish conscription; she made every school in the land a military training camp and a nursery of nationalist ardor. With an amazing aptitude for organization and discipline, she soon brought her armed power to a point where she could speak to the “foreign barbarians” on equal terms, and might undertake that gradual absorption of China which Europe had contemplated but never achieved. In 1894, resenting the despatch of Chinese troops to put down an insurrection in Korea, and China’s persistent reference to Korea as a tributary state under Chinese suzerainty, Japan declared war upon her ancient tutor, surprised the world with the speed of her victory, and exacted from China the acknowledgment of Korea’s independence, the cession of Formosa and Port Arthur (at the tip of the Liaotung Peninsula), and an indemnity of 200,000,000 taels. Germany and France supported Russia in “advising” Japan to withdraw from Port Arthur on condition of receiving an additional indemnity of 30,000,000 taels (from China). Japan yielded, but kept the rebuff in bitter memory while she waited for revenge.

From that hour Japan prepared herself grimly for that conflict with Russia which imperialistic expansion in both empires made apparently inevitable. Availing herself of England’s fear that Russia might advance into India, Japan concluded with the mistress of the seas an alliance (1902-22) by which each party contracted to come to the aid of its ally in case either should go to war with a third power, and another power should intervene. Seldom had England’s diplomats signed away so much of England’s liberty. When, in 1904, the war with Russia began, English and American bankers lent Japan huge sums to finance her victories against the Tsar.8 Nogi captured Port Arthur, and moved his army north in time to turn the scales in the slaughter of Mukden—the bloodiest battle in history before our own incomparable Great War. Germany and France seem to have contemplated coming to the aid of Russia by diplomacy or arms; but President Roosevelt made it known that in such case he would “promptly side with Japan.”9Meanwhile a Russian squadron of twenty-nine ships had gallantly sailed around the Cape of Good Hope, in the longest war-voyage ever made by a modern fleet, to face the Japanese in their own waters. Admiral Togo, making the first known naval use of radio, kept himself informed of the Russian flotilla’s course, and pounced upon it in the Straits of Tsushima on May 27, 1905. To all his commanders Togo flashed a characteristic message: “The rise or fall of the Empire depends on this battle.”10 The Japanese lost 116 killed and 538 wounded; the Russians lost 4000 dead and 7000 prisoners, and all but three of their ships were captured or sunk.

The “Battle of the Sea of Japan” was a turning point in modern history. Not only did it end the expansion of Russia into Chinese territory; it ended also the rule of Europe in the East, and began that resurrection of Asia which promises to be the central political process of our century. All Asia took heart at the sight of the little island empire defeating the most populous power in Europe; China plotted her revolution, and India began to dream of freedom. As for Japan, it thought not of extending liberty but of capturing power. It secured from Russsia an acknowledgment of Japan’s paramount position in Korea, and then, in 1910, formally annexed that ancient and once highly civilized kingdom. When the Emperor Meiji died, in 1912, after a long and benevolent career as ruler, artist and poet, he could take to the progenitor gods of Japan the message that the nation which they had created, and which at the outset of his reign had been a plaything in the hands of the impious West, was now supreme in the Orient, and was well on its way to becoming the pivot of history.

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