Are the seeds of the future growing from Japan's past?


February 09, 2003|By Michael Pakenham

No country or culture in history has changed, prospered and adapted to failures as rapidly and profoundly as Japan. Utterly isolated by water and will from the rest of the world for most of their history, the Japanese have been -- as the cliches all dictate -- industrious, disciplined, sensitive, brutal, inscrutable and, to many Westerners, both fascinating and maddening.

I am one of those Westerners, having lived in Japan for three years early in my life, and having never lost my curiosity and affection. There are hundreds of volumes -- histories, analyses, literature -- about Japan, no small number of which I have read or dipped into. I know of none that is more concisely instructive than Inventing Japan: 1853-1964, by Ian Buruma (Modern Library, 192 pages, $19.95). Buruma, who was born in Holland and lives in London, has spent much of his life studying Japan, and has written a large number of books, many of them focused on Japan and the Japanese. Inventing Japan is the latest of the Modern Library Chronicles series of brief, focused histories.

All history, well written and well read, is instructive for the future as well as the past. Though there may be little but folly in prognosticating major events yet to come, there is temptation to seek guidance.

Japan's history is particularly intricate, and any summary carries dangers of oversimplification. But: Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Edo Bay on July 8, 1853, with four armed ships, which forced the reopening of Japan, almost entirely closed to Westerners since the 1630s. There was relatively little residue of earlier contact with Europeans. In 1638, the Spanish and Portuguese missionaries were driven out after more than a century of relative success. Christian converts were massacred. English and Dutch traders were also expelled, except for an isolated Dutch trading station. Much of what was known of Western ways was muddled by a ban on Western books.

Events moved almost incomprehensibly swiftly. By 1858, a treaty gave the U.S. trading and access rights. It was a key event of the period of instability and transition leading to the Meiji Restoration, which reestablished, after centuries of lapse, the temporal as well as spiritual authority of the emperor. More than two centuries of domination by the Tokugawa shoguns ended in 1868.

The Meiji emperor was very active in the opening and Europeanizing of Japan, which adopted and adapted Western systems of government, education, military methods, science and technology. From 1873, every young Japanese man was required to serve three years on active military duty and four in the reserves. They learned to read and write, wore Western-style uniforms and drilled in European tactics and strategy.

By the 1880s, government-built factories, railways and other industries were sold to private citizens, and a market-industrial revolution blossomed. Japan defeated China in the 1895, to make a vast success of the Sino-Japanese war.

The Russo-Japanese War followed in 1904. The Russian fleet was virtually obliterated, and hundreds of thousands of troops died in savage fighting on Eastern Russian territory. Japan became a universally recognized world power.

Though technically one of the Allies in World War I, Japan was barely touched by the conflict, and accumulated vast riches building war machines, ships and railway rolling stock for Europeans. The 1920s brought another period of great prosperity and opening of society and intellectual ferment. The ensuing emergence of democracy and prosperity added volatility to Japanese society, and then repression. The idea of Japan as a paternal controller of all Asia and beyond -- the Great East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere -- became increasingly popular among intellectuals as well as military and political authorities.

Buruma presents an interesting line of speculation based on the rhetorical question: "So when did the Japanese war begin?" Annexation of Manchuria in 1931, or incursion into China in 1937, or Pearl Harbor in 1941?

A principal reason that war began and grew, Buruma concludes, was that there was no central authority. The prime minister did not control the military, which reported only to the commander-in-chief, the emperor -- who was a figure of absolute authority but did not exercise it directly. The country was being run by factions, with the military predominating.

The Japanese colonization of Manchuria, Taiwan, Korea and the Philippines was militarily effective, but never able to fulfill its intended economic promise. Japan's military leaders and civilian zealots enshrined a sense of complete fidelity -- including willing self-sacrifice -- as an element of celebrating the divinity of the emperor, the nation, their race.

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