Probably the European scholars that have interested themselves in these phases of Japanese history would have searched deeper for their causes, if these events had taken place somewhere else than in Asia.
Continuing The New Japan,
with a selection from New Japan and Her Constitution (in Contempory Review, Vol. LXXIV) by Tokiwo Yokio published in 1898. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages. This selection is presented in 3 installments for 5 minute daily reading each.
Previously in The New Japan.
The revolution of 1868, which introduced a new order of things into the empire of the Mikados, was a revolution with political idealism at its back. It was essentially an awakening of the nation to self-consciousness and political power. Far ahead of the vision of its leaders stood the form of an enfranchised State, with Imperial Government and National Assembly, the whole country from one end to the other beating with the com mon pulse of a united nation, all feudal restrictions and artificial distinctions abolished forever. Such an ideal, indeed, was not perhaps expressed distinctly in so many words even by the most enlightened of the revolutionary leaders, but, in a vague sort of way, some such ideal was before the minds of many, and such was, in fact, the only logical outcome of this great movement, as later events have amply proved.
The revolution is commonly spoken of as a restoration — the restoration of the Mikado to his supreme and rightful authority in the government of the country. The Emperors of Japan had been kept for eight hundred years, except at a few brief intervals, in political imprisonment by the governments of the Shoguns. The men that agitated for the restoration were men that made mikadoism their religion. They felt the oppression of the Shogunate regime all the more keenly since it was not they, but the divine Mikado, who suffered most. The restoration movement was thus an indictment of the existing authority as usurper and oppressor before the bar of the national conscience. The divine name “Mikado” gave to the movement a legal as well as a religious sanction, and made its strength wellnigh irresistible. But, however powerful this idea may have been, it was not the chief reason of this great movement.
The revolution is again spoken of as the work of a few powerful clans, who had been nourishing the spirit of revenge against the Tokugawa dynasty for three centuries. The clansmen of Choshiu and Satsuma doubtless felt in 1868 that then or never was their long-waited-for opportunity. Relying on their united military strength and on the sacred mandate of the Mikado, they boldly faced the authority of the Shogunate, put it under the ban of the empire by one splendid coup, and then crushed it with one speedy blow. The Shogunate was thus overthrown in one day, and the country unified under the legitimate government of the Mikado. The nation certainly owes these two clans, and a few others, a debt of gratitude for their work. Yet the ambition and military strength of these clans were not, any more than mikado- ism, the only reason of the movement. The outcome of the revolution was far greater than either mikadoism or danism had anticipated.
Again, it is said that the coming of Europeans, with the stories of their wonderful civilization, was a cause of the revolution. To a certain extent this was doubtless true. The troublesome question of foreign intercourse certainly hastened the overthrow of the Shogunate, and, but for the introduction of democratic ideas from the West, the revolution would in all probability have stopped with the establishment of an autocratic centralized administration. Besides, the presence of the Western Powers, whose aggressive policies stared menacingly in the face of the divided nation, was indirectly of no small help to a more lenient policy, and the Shogunate parties felt it easier to submit, for both knew they were obeying the dictates of magnanimous patriotism. But those who persist in regarding outside influences as the main cause of the great movement will find Japan’s healthy growth in her new life of freedom a perpetual puzzle in their attempts at explanation.
Probably the European scholars that have interested themselves in these phases of Japanese history would have searched deeper for their causes, if these events had taken place somewhere else than in Asia. To the majority of Europeans, Asia is a strange land of dreams. In their view, the principles underlying the growth of social life in the East are fundamentally different from those in the West. The political or historical canons for mutated for Europe are not to be applied to politics or history in Asia. As Japan is an Asiatic country, any random reason seems to suffice in the minds of most observers to explain one of the most momentous events in her history. The Japanese possess, it is said, a supreme imitative genius, and their recent civilizing activity is a great achievement of this genius. That so much has already been accomplished by the Oriental people is worthy of all commendation; nevertheless, these critics go on to say that the new civilization in Japan remains an imitated article, and with all its splendid exterior is but ” skin-deep.” The adjectives ” Asiatic” and “Oriental” have, in fact, peculiar associated notions which largely shut out peoples under their category from fellow ship with the peoples of the West.
No mistake could be greater than such a sweeping characterization. The Japanese are, for instance, an insular people, and as such have characteristics quite distinct from those of other peoples in Asia. But the chief thing that separates Japan from China or India is the fact that civilization in Japan is young, being no older than that of England or France. In the middle of the sixth century, when the latter countries were coming under the sway of Roman civilization and Roman Christianity, Japan, on the other hand, was coming under the sway of Chinese civilization and Chinese Buddhism. The Japanese are, in fact, the only nation in the East who rightly belong to the company of the modern nations of the world. If the history of Japan for the past six centuries be studied without prejudice, the working of the same social forces, and the effects of the same historical causes as in the history of modern Europe, will appear.
We read in the history of modern Europe that, while in England it was the aristocracy who, uniting with the people, wrested constitutional rights and privileges from the crown, in the case of the Continental nations it was the crown which, rallying the grew rapidly in wealth and intelligence. The rise of absolute monarchies was, therefore, a great step in advance toward the later uprising of democracy. In the case of Japan the historical process was almost identical with that in Continental Europe, with one difference, however, that in Japan centralization and democratic uprising took place almost simultaneously. For feudalism in the Mikado’s Empire had lasted longer than it should. With no competition with outside nations and no stimulus of new ideas, as have been the case in Europe, the old regime in Japan ran more than its full course. In the third quarter of the present century [the nineteenth], when the Western Powers knocked for admittance at the door of hermit Japan, feudalism as to its spirit was dead and gone, its forms alone remained intact. The descendants of the great men who many centuries ago founded those illustrious houses of the daimios had become effeminate through luxury and idleness. The chief families of retainers who had the monopoly of important offices produced but few great men. It was pitiful, indeed, to see, as the day of revolution arrived, the nominal leaders of the nation utterly powerless and dependent, like children, upon the guidance and support of their subordinates. Very few of the revolutionary leaders came from the higher classes; most of them were from the middle-class samurais, and some from classes still lower.
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