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9-08-2015, 21:30

THE EMERGENCE OF JAPAN, 1900–29

The continent of Asia can be divided into three regions, each in a different relationship to the West. Southern and south-east Asia was, by the close of the nineteenth century, partitioned by the European powers and the US and constituted the most populous and important parts of the Western world empires. In eastern Asia, China had fallen under a different kind of Western control, remaining semi-independent, but with large areas under foreign economic control, while some parts of China had also fallen under foreign territorial control. Also part of eastern Asia were the islands of Japan. Japan’s history is strikingly different from the rest of Asia. Japan had been forced open by the American warships of Commodore Perry in the mid-nineteenth century and exposed to the pressures of the Western powers backed by guns. They refused to permit Japan to follow its own course in isolation and demanded, as a Western right, that Japan open its markets to trade with the West. The rulers of Japan, the Tokugawa shoguns, could not match the military power of the West and so had to concede. After 200 years of virtual isolation, imposed by the shoguns to protect it from Western influence, Japan then lay exposed and virtually helpless. Like China, it was forced to accede to ‘unequal treaties’, providing Western merchants with economic advantages and special territorial privileges which set aside Japan’s sovereign rights but, unlike China, was allowed to ban opium. Half a century later, by the early twentieth century, the Western powers agreed to abrogate the ‘unequal treaties’ and Japan developed a military power not only capable of defeating its much larger neighbour, China, but also one of the Western great powers, Russia. The foundations of a modern state had been laid and Japan stood on the threshold of replacing Western dominance in eastern Asia. By the fourth quarter of the twentieth century, though its military power was modest and its Asian territorial empire broken by the West, Japan had become an industrial power. Economic and social change from the early nineteenth century onwards eroded Japan’s orderly traditional society. To internal strains were added external ones all pointing to the need for a stronger state, an ending of the shogunate era and a centralised nation built around a restored monarch. The urgent need for such strengthening was brought home to the Japanese by the forcible appearance of the West. Japan’s response under the last of the shoguns was to make an effort to catch up with Western military technology. The industrialisation of Japan had its beginning not in the setting up of a textile mill, but in a shipyard in 1863 capable of building steam warships. The process was much accelerated after the 1868 revolution known as the Meiji Restoration. The requirements of armaments and attempts to gain self-sufficiency created the Osaka Ironworks (1881) and at about the same time steel-making by the Krupp method was started. Heavy industry was expanded originally to meet these national defence needs before a single railway line was constructed. National defence never lost this primacy of concern in Japan, at least not until after the Second World War. Its population lived in compact territories which made arousing a sense of national consciousness and patriotism easier than in the vast area of China. The revolution which overthrew the shogunate and started the Meiji era was a turning point in this respect too, as in other aspects of the modernisation of Japan. The great feudal domains were abolished and the people were now subject to the imperial government, which strengthened its central authority in many ways in the 1870s and 1880s. The rapid progress achieved by Japan had its origins, nevertheless, in the period before 1868. There already existed large groups of educated people – the former warriors (the samurai), merchants and craftsmen, who had obtained some Western technological knowledge through contacts at the port of Nagasaki, where the Dutch merchants were allowed to remain under rigid supervision – they formed a reservoir of people with a capacity to learn and adapt to new Western skills. The revolution of 1868 brought to power a remarkable group of samurai statesmen. They restored the monarch to his ancient pinnacle; the emperor was no mere figurehead. He was advised by a small group, later a council of elders, or genro, who wielded enormous power. He listened to their advice, but at times of differences between the genro his own views were decisive, and at critical moments of Japanese history the emperor actively used his prerogative as final arbiter. Below the emperor and the genro council, which had no formal place in the constitution, a Western structure of government with a prime minister, Cabinet and an elected parliament was set up in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Despite the outward style of Western government, Japan was not democratic but was ruled by a few prominent leaders. The Meiji Restoration was no social revolution but a revolution from above. By the turn of the century, the young reformers of the 1860s had become elder statesmen. Preeminent among this small group were Ito Hirobumi and Yamagata Aritomu. Ito was Japan’s elder statesman and the best-known Japanese in the West. He had travelled and studied in the West and was responsible for Japan’s representative constitution. Field Marshal Yamagata had created the modern Japanese army, which proved victorious in the wars with China in 1894–5 and with Russia in 1904–5. He was opposed to Ito’s policies at home, and Ito’s more pacific approach to foreign affairs. In 1909 Ito was assassinated in Korea; soon Yamagata’s influence also weakened when after 1914 the surviving genro grew old and were replaced by new power groups. In foreign relations 1895 is a year of great importance for Japan. During the period from the first diplomatic contacts down to 1894 the Japanese had preserved their independence from the West. Indeed, a start was made in negotiating treaties with the European powers that would lead in due course to the abrogation of the wounding special treaties. The treaties had placed the Europeans in Japan beyond Japanese authority on the grounds that the Japanese lacked the civilisation to be entrusted with applying their laws to Europeans. But one reason why the West did not attempt to carve out spheres of interests or colonies in Japan as in China is to be found in the fact that the Europeans were impressed by Japanese progress in adopting Western ways and by their consequent growing strength. But what was more important during these critical early decades was that the West did not regard the commercial possibilities and the market of Japan as nearly as important as China’s for the future. Japan’s neighbour, tsarist Russia, deliberately rejected a policy of penetrating Japan in favour of the exploitation of China. The same was true of the other Western powers. At the turn of the century the scramble for European concessions was reaching its height in China, and Britain’s place as the paramount power in eastern Asia was being challenged. The colonial secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, declared, ‘our interests in China are so great, our proportion of the trade is so enormous and the potentialities of that trade are so gigantic that I feel no more vital question has ever been presented for the decision . . . of the nation’. The West’s image of China protected Japan and contributed to the very different development of the two nations after the incursion of the West in eastern Asia. In 1895 Japan had just brought to a victorious conclusion a war with China over the question of the suzerainty of Korea. As part of its peace terms it had forced China into territorial concessions. This step by the Japanese into what the European powers wished to keep as their preserve led to an angry reaction by France, Germany and Russia, which demanded that Japan give up its territorial spoils in China. It was with a national sense of humiliation that the Japanese rulers bowed to this pressure. The Japanese, who had lived at peace with China for close on a thousand years, had learned from the West that a great power must acquire an empire and exercise power beyond the national frontier. But Japan was not treated as an equal. This realisation marks a turning point in the Japanese outlook. It was necessary to study every move carefully; Japan would succeed only by the judicious use of force coupled with guile and then only if the Western powers were divided and so could not combine against it. A complex two-tier decision-making process developed from 1901, after which time no individual genro led the government; policy was first discussed between the different groups in the government and then by the genro. This reinforced the tendency to discuss fully all aspects, advantages and disadvantages, of every important policy decision. The emperor was the supreme authority. The genro were expected in the end to submit to him an agreed decision for his formal consent. But in the Meiji era the emperor’s influence was considerable and he could to some degree steer and prolong genro discussions on important issues on which there were differences of opinion. In its fullest and most constructive form this deliberate way of reaching group decisions after long and careful discussion lasted until about the First World War, when the advancing age of the surviving genro weakened their influence. The influence of Emperor Meiji’s descendants did not match his own. His son, whose reign lasted from 1912 to 1926, was weak in health and mind; his grandson, Emperor Hirohito, was supreme only in theory but followed until 1945 the advice of Japan’s military and political leaders. The post-Meiji emperors were kept aloof from any real role in the making of decisions. In later decades the Japanese looked back on the Meiji era as a period of brilliant success abroad as well as at home, a golden age. Japan’s policy towards the eastern Asian mainland from 1900 until the outbreak of the Great War in Europe illustrates both circumspection and, ultimately, boldness. There was an attempt to steer a middle course between the exponents of expansion and the more cautious groups who wished to strengthen Japan in Korea by means of commerce and influence rather than outright territorial control. With the acceptance of the alliance Britain offered in January 1902 – after long debate and scrutiny – the Japanese leaders knew that, if it came to war with Russia, Japan could count on Britain’s military help if any other power joined Russia against it. By diplomacy the Japanese had ensured that they would not be blocked by a united European front aligned against it as in 1895. The genro decided for war in February 1904. But in launching a war against Russia the mood was not one of arrogance. The Japanese leaders knew they were taking a carefully calculated risk. They hoped to do well enough to gain Japan’s most important aims: expansion of territory on the Asian mainland and security for Japan and its empire. Specifically the Japanese were determined to achieve dominance over Korea and southern Manchuria. The genro, at the time they decided on war, were already considering how the war might be ended in good time. There was no expectation that Russia could be completely defeated. Russia was not brought to the point where it could not have continued the war, although its navy was annihilated and Japan also won spectacular successes on land. Yet the Japanese, too, were exhausted by the war and, through President Theodore Roosevelt’s mediation, secured a peace treaty which brought them great gains. These gains, however, fell short of their expectations. There were riots in Japan when the peace terms became known in September 1905. The Japanese people wanted Russia to acknowledge defeat by paying reparation. The Russians refused to do so and the genro knew that Japan, its financial resources weakened, was in no position to continue the war in the hope of exacting better terms. On 5 September 1905 the Peace of Portsmouth was concluded. Japan did not use military force again, and thereby risk all it had gained in its wars with China and with Russia, for a quarter of a century. By the time of the Meiji Emperor’s death in 1912, Japan had won international recognition as a great power. Its alliance with Britain was renewed, its ‘special’ position in northern China acquiesced in, as well as its outright annexation of Korea. Internally too, Japan had made great strides during the forty-five years of the Meiji Emperor’s reign. But on the negative side there were tensions building up in Japan. There was pressure from below among the more prosperous and influential merchants, administrators, landowners and the educated elites, all desiring some share in power; they resented the fact that an entrenched oligarchy ruled Japan from behind the scenes and monopolised all the important positions in the state. Within the oligarchy, too, there was growing conflict between the party-based governments demanding independence of the genro, and the genro who advised the emperor on all questions of importance. For a time the genro continued to exercise their traditional function. But the army, its prestige raised by success in the Russo-Japanese War, won a new place with the right to present its views to the emperor directly, so bypassing the civilian governments. The remarkable unity that had been achieved during the founding years of the Meiji era under the leadership of the emperor and the genro no longer existed in the 1920s and 1930s. Instead, powerful rival groups sought to dominate policy. In the absence of the genro and a strong emperor, Japan lacked any supreme body to coordinate its domestic and foreign policies. The beginnings of strife between labour and employers was also making itself felt as Japan became more industrialised in the early twentieth century. The educated Japanese became vulnerable to a cultural crisis of identity. Should Japanese ways be rejected totally? Western dress and conformity with Western customs became general among the progressives. There also occurred a nationalist-patriotic reaction. The Japanese elites were obliged to choose between Japanese tradition and Western ways, or to find some personal compromise between the two. The First World War and its consequences brought about a decisive change in the international power relations of eastern Asia. The period was also one of economic industrial boom for Japan, whose earlier development provided the basis for rapid expansion. Japan benefited, second only to the US, from the favourable conditions created by the Allies’ needs at war and their disappearance as strong competitors in Asian markets. The First World War enabled Japan to emerge as an industrial nation. Japan joined the Allied side in the war in 1914 after careful deliberation. China, after the revolution of 1911, was showing increasing signs of losing its national cohesion. For Japan, the war in Europe provided an opportunity to strengthen and extend its position, especially in Manchuria. But behind Japanese expansion there was also a ‘defensive’ motivation similar to the earlier imperialism of the West and similar as well to fears expressed by American strategic planners. What would happen when the war was over? The genro Yamagata was convinced that the Great War among the Western powers would be followed by a global racial struggle, a struggle between ‘the yellow and white races’; Japan would therefore have ‘to make plans to prevent the establishment of a white alliance against the yellow races’. He looked to friendly relations with Russia and the avoidance of hostility with the US. The relationship with China was critical. Here, Yamagata sought the best of all worlds: the practical establishment of Japan’s senior partnership in a friendly alliance. Japan should seek to ‘instil in China a sense of abiding trust in us’. China and Japan, ‘culturally and racially alike’, might then preserve their identity when competing with the ‘so-called culturally advanced white races’. When the Japanese made their Twenty-one Demands on China in 1915, the Chinese naturally regarded the Japanese from quite a different point of view – more as enemies than friends. In their first form the demands amounted to a claim for a Japanese protectorate, including insistence on employing Japanese ‘advisers’ in financial, military and administrative affairs in the Chinese government. Until the close of the First World War there was little the Western powers could do to restrain Japan, beyond diplomatic pressure. In the Taisho (meaning ‘great righteousness’) era from the Meiji Emperor’s death in 1912 until the death of his son in 1926, it seemed that, despite Japanese assertiveness in China during the Great War, the overall trend would be towards greater liberalisation and peace. The genro were ceasing to play so critical a role, especially after Yamagata’s death in 1922, and one great obstacle towards constitutional parliamentary development was thereby removed. The new emperor was weak and the powers of the government increased. Yet, as developments after 1926 were to show very clearly, in the end the ‘liberal’ Taisho period marked only a transition to a more illiberal and authoritarian state than had developed in the Meiji era. There were signs too that Taisho was ‘liberal’ only in a very restricted sense. Industrial expansion, first fostered by the state, was later handed over to a few large business enterprises still preeminent today. These huge business empires, the zaibatsu, were conducted paternalistically and required loyalty from their employees from the cradle to the grave. Links between big business and the state remained unusually close. There was no possibility of the growth of a strong and independent democratic labour movement under such industrial conditions. Distress arose in Japan at the end of the war due to the phenomenal rise in the price of rice, the country’s staple food; this led to serious riots all over Japan in the summer of 1918. Troops repressed the violence in the towns and villages with great severity. Hundreds of people were killed and thousands more arrested. The collapse of the war boom in 1921 led to further repression of any signs of socialism or of attempts by labour to organise. The devastating Tokyo earthquake in September 1923 became the pretext for arresting Koreans, communists and socialists who were accused of plotting to seize power. Many were lynched by ‘patriotic gangs’. The police were given authority to arrest and imprison anyone suspected of subversive thoughts, and many were brutally treated. Compulsory military training of Japanese youth was seen as a good way to counteract ‘dangerous thoughts’. Thus the 1930s cannot be seen as a complete reversal of the Taisho period. In Japan’s relations with the world, too, there is more continuity than at first appears. On the one hand the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the emergence of the US as a world power had repercussions of enormous importance in eastern Asia. The Soviet leaders succeeded for a time in forging an alliance with Chinese nationalists in a joint drive against Western and Japanese imperialism. On the other hand, the US was calling for a new deal for China and an end to the pre-war power alliances, particularly the Anglo-Japanese alliance, which had enormously strengthened Japan’s position in Asia. But the Japanese government, beset by severe economic problems in the 1920s, and dependent on American trade, was in no position to resist the US. This became clear at the Washington Conference in 1921–2. Several treaties were signed, placing the security of the eastern Pacific and the integrity of China on a multinational basis. The Japanese were obliged to return to China the Shantung province gained at the Paris Peace Conference. A naval limitations treaty placed Japan in a position inferior to Britain and the US, which were allowed a ratio of five battleships each compared to Japan’s three. Finally, Japan became a co-signatory to the ninepower treaty to seek to uphold the unity of China. It is true that Japan also received private assurances recognising its special interests in Manchuria; nevertheless, the Washington Treaties placed a considerable check on any Japanese unilateral action in China. The ‘spirit of Washington’, as the great-power cooperation in eastern Asia came to be described, proved as unsuccessful in the long run as the ‘spirit of Locarno’ in Europe. Foreign Minister Kijuro Shidehara became identified with Japan’s pacific policy in Asia and he loyally did his best to act in its spirit. But there were ominous signs of the troubles to come. With the passing of genro control the army became more independent and chafed under the consequences of Japan’s new foreign policy. Great-power cooperation proved singularly ineffective in China and certainly did not reduce either that country’s internal conflict or its anti-imperialist feelings. Good relations with the US were seriously harmed by the passage of an immigration law in 1924 which excluded the Japanese, further strengthening the military view that the US had become Japan’s most likely enemy. The rise of Chinese nationalism and Chiang Kai-shek’s thrust to the north in 1926 were seen as threats to Japan’s position in Manchuria. The new emperor, Hirohito, whose reign began in December 1926, chose Showa, ‘enlightened peace’, as the name of his era. But the domestic and international difficulties besetting Japan were to make the coming years a period of war and violence.

 

 

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