At first glance, the origins of what is perceived as modern Japan, coincides with the arrival of United States Commodore Perry & his black Steam-powered armada (1853). Before his arrival, to all outward appearances Japan was a basic feudal monarchy, hiding behind 250 years of self imposed isolation and yet, within 50 years, the nation went through a massive transformation in the process developing a modern industrial economy, a constitutional government and the beginnings of a colonial empire. Although this makes a neat cut off point, European ships had been trying to crack open Japan for at least 50 years previous to Perry, with the Russians making an appearance in the northerly island of Hokkaido in 1792 & the British sailing into Uraga Bay in 1818 – both were rejected. Leaving a tiny enclave of Dutch traders who had been permitted to stay on the tiny islet of Deshima near Nagaski (1641) since foreigners were forbidden from the mainland under Sakoku (The official policy of isolationism).
So where do we pinpoint that spark of modernity in this nation? Well most of the institutions that characterized Japan in the mid-19th century were established around the start of the 17th century by the founders of the Tokugawa regime. In 1600 Japan was finally unified following the epic battle of Sekigahara*, establishing the Tokugawa Period - 1600-1868, with its government in Edo (Tokyo).
Resulting in over 250 years of peace and stability in a system of centralized feudalism. Government was centralized under the Tokugawa shogunate* but with considerable autonomy reserved to the 260 individual domains, and by establishing a complex system of controls to prevent rebellion among the daimyo*, the founding shoguns sidestepped radical change in the interest of preserving political order. The result was the Pax* Tokugawa, with the Emperor side-lined and in seclusion in his palace in the official capital in Kyoto, whilst the Tokugawa bakufu* ruled a peaceful Japan from it’s seat of power in Edo – which by the end of the 17Th century became the largest city on the planet with a population in excess of a million.
So when Commodore Perry arrived in Japan, he was faced with a complicated and conflict-ridden society, with many of the features of a modern nation. It had a nation-wide state apparatus under the secular control of the bakufu, with it’s religious authority provided by the imperial house in Kyoto, which also legitimised the regime. It had a sophisticated domestic market, although partially outside of the the regional Asian market and it’s national culture was blossoming, especially in the larger cities. However there were dark clouds gathering – social tension simmered between the classes caught in a system that allowed no movement, there was also no centralised or coherent taxation system and no way to mobilize a national force. Making Japan’s ruling Shogunate* weak and unable to control it’s own domain, much less defend against external forces, which showed up in the guise of Commodore Matthew Perry and a squadron of the U.S. Navy demanding that Japan open commerce with the West. The end result was a series of treaties, unfavourable to Japan as they were forced to concede special economic and legal privileges to the nations of the west. Perry’s arrival acted as a catalyst. Convinced that the only way to save their nation was to modernise and that meant abolishing the old feudal regime, a group of middle ranking samurai overthrew the government, ending in the fall of Edo in 1868 ,the restoration of the Emperor (Meiji) and the start of the Meiji period. The Meiji Restoration became a genuine transformation, the new leaders studied the political, economic and social institutions of the western powers and selectively adopted those that suited their purpose. In fact, the tone for these changes was set just after the establishment of the emperor in Edo, when he introduced the Charter Oath (Five-Article Oath), in which the new government made these radical pledges:
1)To establish Deliberative assemblies in order to involve the public in decision-making;
2) To involve all levels of society “highest to lowest” in the affairs of state;
3) To abolish restrictions on the occupation and function for all people;
4) To abandon the superstitions of the past and to embrace rational laws of nature;
5) To seek knowledge from around the world to strengthen Japan.
In 1889 the Emperor promulgated the constitution which established a parliamentary government (Imperial Diet), which came into effect on November 29th 1890. The organizational structure of the Diet reflected both Prussian and British influences, most notably in the inclusion of the House of Peers (which resembled the Prussian Herrenhaus and the British House of Lords), and in the formal speech from the throne delivered by the Emperor on Opening Day. The second chapter of the constitution, detailing the rights of citizens, bore a resemblance to similar articles in both European and North American constitutions of the day. Although the classes were declared equal, so that samurai and their lords lost their feudal privileges, while the role of merchants - formerly despised as profit hungry - began to be respected, The Imperial Diet was still accountable to the Emperor rather than the people and in it’s wording it was ambiguous, and in many places, self-contradictory. The leaders of the government and the political parties were left with the task of interpretation as to whether the Meiji Constitution could be used to justify authoritarian or liberal-democratic rule. It was the struggle between these tendencies that would dominate the government of the Empire of Japan.
By focussing and pinpointing the historical, political and cultural development that Japan went through in this period, (initially in response to its sense of humiliation in the face of the so-called great powers of the western world), this book demonstrates how the nation freed itself from the unequal treaties imposed on it and how it successfully adopted the ideas and trappings of modernity and how with this success a new found national confidence soared. Whilst some sectors of society embraced the whole philosophy of modernity, that it came as a complete package, that in choosing the technical innovations that were abundant in the west, you also adopted the social manners and cultural practices, other sectors began to use this newfound confidence to challenge the notion that modernity and westernization had to mean the same thing. With this notion of Japan as a modern nation in its own right, the question shifted from what it meant to be “modern in a modern Japan” to what it meant to be Japanese. This question seem to take two paths, the first was something that could be identified as the romantic response – intellectuals, writers, artists looked to some past (imagined or otherwise) for some sense of what the “essence of Japaneseness” might be. Whether this was in some reinvention of bushido, or Shinto as a national religion and Emperor cult, or the rediscovery of a particular appreciation of a fragile shadowy beauty that characterised Japanese aesthetics. The second was how to confront this process of modernisation and asserted Japan’s superiority over western nations, which was in risk of being polluted and weakened under the guise of progress. This book takes these two standpoints and follows them into the twenty first century, through the historical figures, artists and writers, showing how this has affected Japans image in the rest of the world and its self image.
Most westerners image of Japan exists somewhere between PlayStation/Nintendo and the dystopian megacities of some cyberpunk novel or the Ume blossom, Sumo, samurai and geisha world of some ancient past – part history/ part myth, it is how it melds these seemingly disparate images that make this nation and it’s literature fascinating to me and to a lot of other individuals and this book – A very Short introduction to Modern Japan - by Christopher Goto-Jones, gives a great insight into this country, it’s history and it’s literature.
Very Short Introductions Series (or VSI series) is a book series published by the Oxford University Press publishing house since 1995. Books in the series offer concise introductions to particular subjects, intended for a general audience but written by experts in the field. Books in the series range from 96–224 pages in length, with most between 120–180, and all contain suggestions for further reading. Authors often present personal viewpoints, and the books are intended to be thought provoking, but also "balanced and complete”.
As of September 2011, there are 284 titles in the series, with 38 more and one revised edition scheduled for publication by mid 2012. The publisher states that "the series will encompass every major academic discipline, offering all students an accessible and abundant reference library”.This my second in the series, the first was on Spanish literature and for all it’s erudition, and professorial learning, I didn’t find it a dry read, it made me realise that although works such Don Quixote are a major literary signpost, that's all they are and not the be all & end all of Spanish Literature.