There was a time when Englishmen liked to think of Japan as the Great Britain of the Pacific. The parallel was developed at many levels; some were less plausible than others, but there was an indisputable hard nugget of reality in the facts of geography. Both are island kingdoms whose people’s destinies have been shaped deeply by the sea. Both, too, live close to neighbouring land masses whose influence on them could not but be profound. The Straits of Tsushima which separate Korea from Japan are about five times as wide as the Straits of Dover, it is true, and Japan was able to maintain an isolation from the Asian terra firma far more complete than any England could hope for from Europe. Nevertheless, the parallel can be pressed a good way and its validity is shown by the excitement which the Japanese have always shown about the establishment of a strong power in Korea; it rivals that of the British over the danger that the Low Countries might fall into unfriendly hands.

The Japanese proper probably arrived from Korea in about 300 BC, and when Japan emerges in her own historical records, in the eighth century ad, there was Japanese-held territory in the Korean peninsula. In those days, Japan was a country divided up among a number of clans, presided over by an emperor with an ill-defined supremacy and an ancestry traced back to the Sun Goddess. The Japanese did not occupy the whole of the territory of modern Japan, but lived in the main on the southern and central islands. Here were the mildest climate and the best agricultural prospects. In prehistoric times, the introduction of rice-growing and the fishing potential of Japanese waters had already made it possible for this mountainous country to feed a disproportionately large population, but pressure on land was to be a recurrent theme of Japanese history.

In 645 a political crisis in the dominant clan brought about its downfall and a new one arose, the Fujiwara. It was to preside over a great age of Japanese civilization and to dominate the emperors. There was more than political significance in the change. It also marked a conscious effort to redirect Japanese life along paths of renewal and reform. The direction could only be sought from the guidance offered by the highest example of civilization and power of which the Japanese were aware, and possibly the finest in the world at that time, that of imperial China, which was also an example of expanding menacing power.

Its continuing and often changing relationship with China is another theme of Japanese history. Both peoples were of Mongoloid stock, though some Caucasoids whose presence it is difficult to account for also form a part of the Japanese ethnic heritage (these, the Ainus, were, at the beginning of the historical era, mainly to be found in the north-east). In prehistoric times Japan appears to have followed in the wake of the civilization of the mainland; bronze artifacts, for example, appear in the islands only in the first century or so BC. Such innovations in the last millennium BC may owe something to immigrants displaced by the Chinese as they moved southwards on the mainland. But the first references to Japan in the Chinese records (in the third century ad)still depict a country not much affected by mainland events and Chinese influence was not very marked until the centuries following the Han collapse. Then, a vigorous Japanese intervention in Korea seems to have opened the way to closer contact. It was subsequently fostered by the movement of Buddhist students. Confucianism, Buddhism and iron technology all came to Japan from China. There were attempts to bring about administrative changes on Chinese lines. Above all, Chinese writing had been brought to Japan and its characters were used to provide a written form of the native language. Yet cultural attraction and dependence had not meant political submission.

The Japanese central administration was already well developed in scope and scale at the beginning of the period of centralization and major efforts of reform were made in the seventh and eighth centuries. Yet, in the end, Japan evolved not in the direction of a centralized monarchy but of what might be termed, in a western analogy, feudal anarchy. For almost nine hundred years it is hard to find a political thread to Japanese history. Its social continuity is much more obvious. From the beginnings of the historical era, even down to the present day, the keys to the continuity and toughness of Japanese society have been the family and the traditional religion. The clan was an enlarged family, and the nation the most enlarged family of all. In patriarchal style, the emperor presided over the national family as did a clan leader over his clan or, even, the small farmer over his family. The focus of family and clan life was participation in the traditional cult known as Shinto. Its ritual essence was the worship at shrines and in the family at the proper times of certain local or personal deities. This religious tradition upheld certain values and cosmological views, but it has no fixed doctrine, canonical scriptures, or even an identified founder.

When Buddhism came to Japan in the sixth century it was easily conjoined with this traditional way.

The institutional coherence of old Japan was less marked than its social unity. The emperor was its focus. From the beginning of the eighth century, though, the emperor’s power was more and more eclipsed and so, in spite of the efforts of an occasional vigorous individual, it remained until the nineteenth century. This eclipse arose in part from the activities of the would-be reformers of the seventh century, for one of them was the founder of the great Fujiwara clan. In the next hundred years or so, his family tied itself closely to the imperial household by marriage. As children were frequendy brought up in the household of their mother’s family, the clan could exercise a crucial influence upon future emperors while they were children. In the ninth century the chief of the Fujiwara was made regent for the emperor - who was an adult - and for most of what is called the ‘Heian’ period (794-1185: the name comes from that of the capital city, the modern Kyoto), that clan effectively controlled central government through marriage alliances and court office, its leaders acting in the emperor’s name. The power of the Fujiwara did something to disguise the decline of the royal authority but in fact the imperial clan was tending to become simply one among several which existed in the shade of the Fujiwara, each of them governing its own estates more or less independently.

The displacement of the emperor became much more obvious after the passing of the power of the Fujiwara. The ‘Kamakura’ period (1185-1333) was so called because power passed to a clan whose estates were in the area of that name and the bypassing of the imperial court, which remained at Heian, became much more obvious. It was early in the Kamakura period that there appeared the first of a series of military dictators who bore the title of shogun. They ruled in the emperor’s name but in fact with a large degree of independence. The emperor lived on the revenues of his own estates, and as long as he acquiesced in the shogun’s intentions he would have military power behind him; when he did not, he would be overruled.

This eclipse of the imperial power was so different from what had occurred in China, the model of the seventh-century reformers, that the explanation is not easy to see. It was complex. There was a progression through the centuries from the exercise of a usurped central authority in the emperor’s name to the virtual disappearance of any central authority at all. No doubt there was a fundamental bias in the traditional clan loyalties of Japanese society and the topography of Japan which would have told against any central power; remote valleys provided lodgements for great magnates. But other countries have met these problems successfully: the Hanoverian governments of eighteenth-century Great Britain tamed the Scottish highlands with punitive expeditions and military roads. A more specific explanation can be seen in the way in which the land reforms of the seventh century, which were the key to political change, were in practice whittled away by the clans with influence at court. Some of these exacted privileges and exemptions, as did some land-holding religious institutions. The commonest example of the abuses which resulted from this was the granting of tax-free manors to noblemen who were imperial court officials by way of payment for carrying out their duties. The Fujiwara themselves were unwilling to check this practice. At a lower level, smaller proprietors would then seek to commend themselves and their land to a powerful clan in order to get assured tenure in return for rent and an obligation to provide service. The double result of such developments was to create a solid base for the power of local magnates while starving the central administrative structure of support from taxation. Taxes (in the form of a share of the crops) went not to the imperial administration but to the person to whom a manor had been granted.

Such a civil service as existed, unlike the Chinese, was firmly reserved to the aristocracy. Not being recruited by competition, it could not provide a foothold for a group whose interests might be opposed to the hereditary noble families. In the provinces, posts just below the highest level tended to go to the local notables, only the most senior appointments being reserved to civil servants proper.

No one planned that this should happen. Nor did anyone plan a gradual transition to military rule, whose origins lay in the need to make some of the families of the frontier districts responsible for defence against the still unsubdued Ainu peoples. Slowly the prestige of the military clans drew to their leaders the loyalties of men seeking security in troubled times. And, indeed, there was a need for such security. Provincial dissidence began to express itself in outbreaks in the tenth century. In the eleventh there was clearly discernible an emerging class of manorial officers on the great estates. They enjoyed the real management and use of the lands of their formal masters and felt loyalties to the warrior clans in an elementary tie of service and loyalty. In this situation the Minamoto clan rose to a dominance which re-created central government in the early Kamakura period.

In one way these struggles were a luxury. The Japanese could indulge them because they lived in an island-state where no foreign intruder was ever more than occasionally threatening. Amongst other things, this meant that there was no need for a national army which might have mastered the clans. Although she came near to it in 1945, Japan has never been successfully invaded, a fact which has done much to shape the national psychology. The consolidation of the national territory was for the most part achieved in the ninth century when the peoples of the north were mastered and, after this, Japan rarely faced any serious external threat to her national integrity, though her relations with other states underwent many changes.

In the seventh century the Japanese had been ousted from Korea and this was the last time for many centuries that they were physically installed there. It was the beginning of a phase of cultural subservience to China, which was matched by an inability to resist her on the mainland. Japanese embassies were sent to China in the interests of trade, good relations and cultural contact, the last one in the first half of the ninth century. Then, in 894, another envoy was appointed. His refusal to serve marks something of an epoch, for he gave as his reason that China was too much disturbed and distracted by internal problems and that she had, in any case, nothing to teach the Japanese. Official relations were not resumed until the Kamakura period.

There were exploratory gestures in the thirteenth century. They did not prevent the expansion of irregular and private trade with the mainland in forms some of which looked much like freebooting and piracy. It may have been this which did much to provoke the two attempted Mongol invasions of 1274 and 1281. Both retired baffled, the second after grievous losses by storm - the Kamikaze, or ‘divine wind’, which came to be seen in much the same light as the English saw the storms which shattered the Armada - and this was of the greatest moment in strengthening the belief which Japanese came to hold in their own invincibility and national greatness. Officially, the Mongols’ motive had been the Japanese refusal to recognize their claim to inherit the Chinese pretensions to empire and to receive tribute from them. In fact, this conflict once more killed off the recently revived relations with China; they were not taken up again until the coming of Ming rule. By then the reputation of the Japanese as pirates was well established. They ranged far and wide through the Asian seas, just as Drake and his companions ranged the Spanish Main. They had the support of many of the feudal lords of the south and it was almost impossible for the shoguns to control them even when they wished (as they often did) to do so for the sake of good relations with the Chinese.

The collapse of the Kamakura shogunate in 1333 brought a brief and ineffective attempt to restore real power to the emperor, which ended when confronted with the realities of the military power of the clans. In the ensuing period neither shogun nor emperor often enjoyed assured power. Until the end of the sixteenth century civil warfare was almost continuous. Yet these troubles did not check the consolidation of a Japanese cultural achievement which remains across the centuries a brilliant and moving spectacle and still shapes Japanese life and attitudes even in an era of industrialism. It is an achievement notable for its power to borrow and adopt from other cultures without sacrificing its own integrity or nature.

Even at the beginning of the historical era, when the prestige of T’ang art makes the derivative nature of what is done in Japan very obvious, there was no merely passive acceptance of a foreign style. Already in the first of the great periods of high Japanese culture, in the eighth century, this is apparent in Japanese painting and a poetry already written in Japanese, though men for centuries still wrote works of art or learning in Chinese (it had something of the status long held by Latin in Europe). At this time, and still more during the climax of the Fujiwara ascendancy, Japanese art other than religious architecture was essentially a court art, shaped by the court setting and the work and enjoyment of a relatively narrow circle. It was hermetically sealed from the world of ordinary Japan by its materials, subject-matter and standards. The great majority of Japanese would never even see the products of what can now be discerned as the first great peak of Japanese culture. The peasant wove hemp and cotton; his womenfolk would no more be likely to touch the fine silks whose careful gradations of colour established the taste displayed by a great court lady’s twelve concentric sleeves than he would be to explore the psychological complexities of the Lady Murasaki’s subtle novel, the Tale of Genji, a study as compelling as Proust and almost as long. Such art had the characteristics to be expected of the art of an elite insulated from society by living in the compound of the imperial palace. It was beautiful, refined, subtle and sometimes brittle, insubstantial and frivolous. But it already found a place for an emphasis which was to become traditional in Japan, that of simplicity, discipline, good taste and love of nature.

The culture of the Heian court attracted criticism from provincial clan leaders who saw in it an effete and corrupting influence, sapping both the independence of the court nobles and their loyalty to their own clans. From the Kamakura period, a new subject-matter - the warrior - appears in both literature and painting. Yet, as the centuries passed, a hostile attitude to traditional arts changed into one of respect and during the troubled centuries the warring magnates showed by their own support for them that the central canons of Japanese culture were holding fast. It was protected more and more by an insularity and even a cultural arrogance confirmed by the defeat of the Mongol invasions. A new military element was also added to this culture during the centuries of war, in part originating in criticism of the apparently effete court circles but then blending with their traditions. It was fed by the feudal ideal of loyalty and self-sacrificing service, by the warrior ideals of discipline and austerity, and by an aesthetic arising out of them. One of its characteristic expressions was an offshoot of Buddhism, Zen. Gradually there emerged a fusion of the style of the high nobility with the austere virtues of the samurai warrior, which was to run through Japanese life down to the present day. Buddhism also left a visible mark on the Japanese landscape in its temples and great statues of the Buddha himself. Overall, the anarchy was the most creative of all periods of Japanese culture, for in it there appeared the greatest landscape painting, the culmination of the skill of landscape gardening and the arts of flower arrangement, and the No drama.

In particular areas, the lawlessness of these centuries often inflicted grave social and economic damage. As was long to be the case, most Japanese were peasants: they might suffer terribly from an oppressive lord, from banditry, or the passage of an army of retainers from a rival fief. Yet such damage was nationally insignificant, it seems. In the sixteenth century a great burst of castle-building testifies to the availability of substantial resources, there was a prolonged expansion of the circulation of copper coinage, and Japanese exports - particularly the exquisite examples of the work of the swordsmiths - began to appear in the markets of China and south-eastern Asia. By 1600 Japan’s population stood at about eighteen million. Both its slow growth (it had somewhat more than trebled in five centuries) and its substantial urban component rested on a steady improvement in agriculture, which had been able to carry the costs of civil strife and lawlessness as well. It was a healthy economic position.

Sooner or later the Europeans were bound to come to find out more about the mysterious islands which produced such beautiful things. The first were the Portuguese who stepped ashore from Chinese ships, probably in 1543. Others followed in the next few years and in their own ships. It was a promising situation. Japan was virtually without a central government to undertake the regulation of intercourse with foreigners and many of the southern magnates were themselves highly interested in competing for foreign trade. Nagasaki, then a little village, was opened to the newcomers by one of them in 1570. This nobleman was a zealous Christian and had already built a church there; in 1549 the first Christian missionary had arrived, St Francis Xavier. Nearly forty years later Portuguese missionaries were forbidden, so much had the situation changed, though the ban was not at once enforced.

Among other things brought by the Portuguese to Japan were new food crops originally from the Americas - sweet potatoes, maize, sugar cane. They also brought muskets. The Japanese soon learnt to make them. This new weapon played an important part in assuring that the baronial wars of ‘feudal’ Japan came to an end, as did those of medieval Europe, with the emergence of a preponderant power, a brilliant, humbly born soldier-dictator, Hideyoshi. His successor was one of his henchmen, a member of the Tokugawa family. In 1603 he revived and assumed the old title of shogun and so inaugurated a period of Japanese history known as the ‘great peace’, which lasted until a revolutionary change in 1868 but was itself an immensely creative period, in which Japan changed significantly.

During the Tokugawa shogunate, for two and a half centuries, the emperor passed even further into the wings of Japanese politics and was firmly kept there. Court gave way to camp; the shogunate rested on a military overlordship. The shoguns themselves changed from being outstandingly important feudal lords to being in the first place hereditary princes and in the second the heads of a stratified social system over which they exercised viceregal powers in the name of the emperor and on his behalf. This regime was called the bakufu - the government of the camp. The quid pro quo provided by Ieyasu, the first Tokugawa shogun, was order and the assurance of financial support for the emperor.

The key to the structure was the power of the Tokugawa house itself. Ieyasu’s origins had been pretty humble, but by the middle of the seventeenth century the clan appears to have controlled about one-quarter of Japan’s rice-growing land. The feudal lords became in effect vassals of the Tokugawa, linked to the clan by a variety of ties. The term ‘centralized feudalism’ has been coined to label this system. Not all the lords, or daimyo, were connected to the shogun in the same way. Some were directly dependent, being vassals with a hereditary family attachment to the Tokugawa family. Others were related to it by marriage, patronage or business. Others, less reliable, formed an outer category of those families which had only at length submitted. But all were carefully watched. The lords lived alternately at the shogun's court or on their estates; when they were on their estates, their families lived as potential hostages of the shogun at Edo, the modern Tokyo, his capital.

Below the lords was a society strictly and legally separated into hereditary classes and the maintenance of this structure was the primary goal of the regime. The noble samurai were the lords and their retainers, the warrior rulers who dominated society and gave it its tone, as did the gentry bureaucrats of China. They followed a Spartan, military ideal symbolized by the two swords they carried, and were allowed to use on commoners guilty of disrespect. Bushido, their creed, stressed above all the loyalty owed by a man to his lord. The original links of the retainers with the land were virtually gone by the seventeenth century and they lived in the castle towns of their lords. The other classes were the peasants, the artisans, and the merchants, the lowest in the social hierarchy because of their non-productive character; the self-assertive ethos of the merchant which emerged in Europe was unthinkable in Japan, in spite of the vigour of Japanese trade. As the aim of the whole system was stability, attention to the duties of one’s station and confinement to them was determinedly enforced. Hideyoshi himself had supervised a great sword hunt whose aim was to take away these weapons from those who were not supposed to have them - the lower classes. Whatever the equity of this, it must have told in favour of order. Japan wanted stability and her society accordingly came to emphasize the things that could ensure it: knowing one’s place, discipline, regularity, scrupulous workmanship, stoical endurance. At its best it remains one of humanity’s most impressive social achievements.

One weakness of this system it shared with the Chinese; it presumed effective insulation from external stimuli to change. It was for a long time threatened by the danger of a relapse into internal anarchy; there were plenty of discontented daimyo and restless swordsmen about in seventeenth-century Japan. By then, one obvious external danger came from Europeans. They had already brought to Japan imports which would have profound effect. Among them the most obvious were firearms, whose powerfully disruptive impact went beyond that which they achieved on their targets, and Christianity. This faith had at first been tolerated and even welcomed as something tempting traders from outside. In the early seventeenth century the percentage of Japanese Christians in the population was higher than it has ever been since. Soon, it has been estimated, there were over half a million of them. Nevertheless, this happy state of affairs did not last. Christianity has always had great subversive potential. Once this was grasped by Japan’s rulers, a savage persecution began. It not only cost the lives of thousands of Japanese martyrs, who often suffered cruel deaths, but brought trade with Europe almost to an end. The English left and the Spanish were excluded in the 1620s. After the Portuguese had undergone a similar expulsion they rashly sent an embassy in 1640 to argue the toss; almost all of its members were killed. Japanese had already been forbidden to go abroad, or to return if they were already there, and the building of large ships was banned. Only the Dutch, who promised not to proselytize and were willing as a symbolic act to trample on the cross, kept up Japan’s henceforth tiny contact with Europe. They were allowed a trading station on a little island in Nagasaki harbour.

After this, there was no real danger of foreigners exploiting internal discontent. But there were other difficulties. In the settled conditions of the ‘great peace’, military skill declined. The samurai retainers sat about in the castle towns of their lords, their leisure broken by little except the ceremonial parade in outdated armour which accompanied a lord’s progress to Edo. When the Europeans came back in the nineteenth century with up-to-date weapons, Japan’s military forces would be unable to match them technically.

This could, perhaps, hardly have been foreseen. Nor could another result of the general peace in which internal trade prospered. The Japanese economy became more dependent on money. Old relationships were weakened by this and new social stresses appeared. Payment in cash forced lords to sell most of the tax rice which was their subsistence to pay for their visits to the capital. At the same time, the market became a national one. Merchants did well: some of them soon had money to lend their rulers. Gradually the warriors became dependent on the bankers. Besides feeling a shortage of cash, those rulers found themselves sometimes embarrassed by their inability to deal with economic change and its social repercussions. If retainers were to be paid in coin, they might more easily transfer loyalty to another paymaster. Towns were growing, too, and by 1700 Osaka and Kyoto both had more than 300,000 inhabitants, while Edo may have had 800,000. Other changes were bound to follow such growth. Price fluctuations in the rice market of the towns sharpened hostility towards the wealthy dealers.

Here we face the great paradox of Tokugawa Japan. While its rulers slowly came to show less and less ability to contain new challenges to traditional ways, those challenges stemmed from a fundamental fact - economic growth - which in historical perspective now appears the dominant theme of the era. Under the Tokugawa, Japan was developing fast. Between 1600 and 1850 agricultural production approximately doubled, while the population rose by less than half. Since the regime was not one which was able to skim off the new wealth for itself, it remained in society as savings for investment by those who saw opportunities, or went into a rising standard of living for many Japanese.

Dispute continues about the explanation of what seems to have been a successful stride to self-sustaining economic growth of a kind which was elsewhere to appear only in Europe. Some are obvious and have been touched upon: the passive advantages conferred by the seas around Japan, which kept out invaders such as the steppe-borne nomads who time and again harried the wealth-producers of mainland Asia. The shogunate’s own great peace ended feudal warfare and was another bonus. Then there were positive improvements to agriculture which resulted from more intensive cultivation, investment in irrigation, the exploitation of the new crops brought (originally from the Americas) by the Portuguese. But at this point the enquiry is already touching on reciprocal effects: the improvement of agriculture was possible because it became profitable to the producer, and it was profitable because social and governmental conditions were of a certain kind. Enforced residence of noblemen and their families at Edo not only put rice on the market (because the nobles had to find cash), but created a new huge urban market at the capital which sucked in both labour (because it supplied employment) and goods, which it became more and more profitable to produce. Regional specialization (in textile manufacture, for example) was favoured by disparities in the capacity to grow food: most of Japanese industrial and handicraft production was, as in early industrial Europe, to be found in rural areas. Government helped, too; in the early years of the shogunate there was organized development of irrigation, standardizing of weights and currency. But for all its aspirations to regulate society, the government of the bakufu in the end probably favoured economic growth because it lacked power. Instead of an absolute monarchy, it came to resemble a balance-of-power system of the great lords, able to maintain itself only so long as there was no foreign invader to disturb it. As a result it could not obstruct the path to economic growth and divert resources from producers who could usefully employ them. Indeed, the economically quasi-parasitical samurai actually underwent a reduction in their share of the national income at a time when producers’ shares were rising. It has been suggested that by 1800 the per capita income and life expectancy of the Japanese was much the same as that of their British contemporaries.

Much of this has been obscured by more superficial but strikingly apparent features of the Tokugawa era. Some of these, of course, were important, but at a different level. The new prosperity of the towns created a clientele for printed books and the coloured wood-block prints which were later to excite European artists’ admiration. It also provided the audiences for the new kabuki theatre. Yet brilliant though it often was, and successful, at the deepest economic level (if undesignedly) as it was, it is not clear that the Tokugawa system could have survived much longer even without the coming of a new threat from the West in the nineteenth century. Towards the end of the period there were signs of uneasiness. Japanese intellectuals began to sense that somehow their isolation had preserved them from Europe but also had cut them off from Asia. They were right. Japan had already made for herself a unique historical destiny and it would mean that she faced the West in a way very different from the subjects of Manchu or Moghul.

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