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Triumph of the Will? Japan After 1853

By Robert M. Citino 
Originally published under Front & Center Blog. Published Online: January 17, 2012 
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Last week we asked the Japanese army a somewhat sarcastic question: What were you guys thinking?

I'd argue that the Japanese decisions of 1931, 1937, and 1941 make almost no sense unless we delve back a bit into Japanese history. We need to go all the way back to the mid-19th century, to 1853 in fact.

That year, the Japanese had what we might call a rude awakening. Perched on their remote home islands, they had managed to avoid contact with foreigners for centuries, and they liked it that way. Back in the 1500s, they'd had a bellyful of the outside world, especially the competing imperialisms of Portugal, the Dutch, and the British. Adopting western technology, especially firearms, they had managed to drive out the westerners—their missionaries and soldiers alike—and had then closed the doors on the outside world.

The western powers changed all that in 1853. More specifically, the U.S. Navy did, with a squadron of what the Japanese called "black ships" under Commodore Matthew Perry. Amazingly, these vessels moved without sails! They belched fire from long tubes! They could blow up anything that got in their way! It was an existential crisis for Japan, which suddenly saw itself at the mercy of forces it only dimly understood. It is about as close as any country on earth has ever come to having aliens show up bearing ray guns. I'm thinking here, perhaps, of that old Twilight Zone episode "To Serve Man," where the victims wind up as meat on the table of the conquerors.

Or perhaps a better analogy: being tossed into the ocean and having to learn to swim, stat. It was a dangerous world, an imperialist dog-eat-dog era many times more voracious than that of the 1500s. The Japanese could see what had happened to India, and what was happening to China. They could see what happened to backward states that tried to stand up to the western powers.

Perhaps the most amazing thing was that they managed to do just that. They modernized overnight. They overthrew the feudal system of the Shogun (the bakufu) and created a unified central government in the newly renamed city of Tokyo around the figure of the Emperor Meiji (left). They built railroads and industries. They formed an army of peasant draftees armed with modern 19th century weapons. No other country on earth has ever taken such a crash course in modernity.

Not everyone was pleased, of course. Change is always unsettling, and the new central government had to fight civil wars against the disgruntled old guard. But the reformers won and created a new Japan. They even began playing the imperialist game themselves, beating gigantic China in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 and, even more improbably, battering the Russian army in Manchuria in the war of 1904-05.

Still, the existential crisis didn't suddenly vanish. It was clear that the Japanese could never outproduce the western nations, and their technology, at least in its earliest phases, was entirely derivative and reliant upon the west. They had to hire military advisers for the army (from France at first, and then from Germany). They had to hire naval advisers from Britain, and the first ships of their new navy were produced abroad. Moreover, the civil wars showed that while the new peasants conscripts were able to smash the Samurai through superior resources, they could never match those old Samurai in fighting spirit and élan.

In other words, it was still a very dangerous world. And here, I think is the crucial point. In an era of brute force, of steel mills and armaments plants, where the big fish ate the little one, Japan could never really compete. Indeed, even surviving was a long shot. Its military leaders had to find a different path to prepare the nation for the struggles they believed lay ahead. If Japan could not contend in the realm of material factors, then it would have to emphasize the spiritual ones: its unique heritage, its unbroken imperial line stretching back over 1,000 years; its cultural and moral superiority to neighboring peoples. It had gotten rid of the Samurai in the civil wars, but now it needed to resurrect something like the Samurai spirit and impose it on a new mass army of conscripts. It had to turn those ordinary soldiers into "human bullets" willing, even eager, to die in the service of the emperor. In this way it might be able to compensate for material weakness.

And so bushido was born: the "way of the warrior" (or perhaps, the "way of the knight").

More next time.

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7 Responses to “Triumph of the Will? Japan After 1853”


  1. 1
    Gerald Swick says:

    The folks at the National Museum of the Pacific War, in Fredericksburg, Texas, are in agreement with you, Rob. Their displays begin with "Seeds of Conflict," going back to at least the First Opium War, 1838–1842. There's a picture of the display that mentions the year 1853; it's image 3 of a slideshow about the museum, http://www.armchairgeneral.com/national-museum-of-the-pacific-war-a-photo-essay.htm

  2. 2
    Rob Citino says:

    Thanks, Gerald. I'll check it out. –RC

  3. 3
    Dave T says:

    Dr. C.
    Saw your book list highlighted in World War II magazine. Guadalcanal Diary was one of the first WWII books that I read as well. It too started me on a journey of learning about this most interesting of conflicts.
    Dave

  4. 4
    John Koster says:

    Japanese foreign policy by Frank Capra? Take over America with Hitler — while sheltering 40,000 Jewish refugees in Shanghai? I don't think so. Japan's resolute anti-colonialism won the admiration of people of color all over the world — the Japanese tried to insert a clause stating that all races were considered equal in the charter of the League of Nations, but the British and Woodrow Wilson squelched it. Japan controlled the Russia expansion into the Pacific Rim (1904-1905) and rounded up and deported the Wilhelmine Germans in Shantung (1914) as an ally of Britain. The colonialists scrapped the British-Japanese alliance in 1922 and the U.S. stuck both Japan and China with an immigration quote of 100 immigrants each in 1924. The Smoot-Hawley Traffic wrecked Japan's overseas economy and FDR's recognition of the Soviet Union pushed them into an "anti-comintern pact" which was originally supposed to include Britain, France, and Poland, but didn't work out that way. The ultimate name was the Axis. American disruption of a feudal economy led to industrialization that Japan didn't have the resources to handle, and this and apprehension of Russia led to the annexation of Korea (approved by Theodore Roosevelt) and the seizure of Manchuria. The 1937 China incident was mutual-fault, even according to Eric Severeid and most modern Chinese historians. (Chiang was a dunce and couldn't defeat the Commuists) Pearl Harbor was instigated by a Soviet mole in the White House. Conversely, most of the Japanese atrocities against prisoners and civilians were genuine — yet as Judge Rabinahod Pal from India said when he voted for acquittal at the 1948 Tokyo Trials, some Japanese soldiers were "fiendish and devilish" but Monaco or Luxembourg would have bombed Pearl Harbor if Monaco or Luxembourg had received the Hull Note from the U.S. State Department. Judge Pal's book has never been released in the United States or Britain, and the Soviet documents about how they instigated the U.S. – Japanese War in 1941 have only been briefly paraphrased until my own translator had a go at it. Also translated — Mitsuo Fuchida's account of delighted the "pacifist" Hirohito was by the photographs of Pearl Harbor. and rhe cabinet meeting at which the Japanese agreed they would have to fight the U.S. or face a domestic revolution in Japan like the one that almost toppled Hirhito and killed half his cabinet in 1936, and another revolut in Korea which would have Chinese support. The book comes out later this year. You can't do this stuff monolingually or without an impartial perspective. The Japanese did a lot of truly awful stuff — but Peral Harbor started on our side and Admiral James Richardson said so.

    John Koster

    • 4.1
      Dom says:

      Japanese wife? Of course. It is typical of Japanophiles like yourself to apologise for Japan's aggression. Tell me where the Army's expansionist beliefs and ideology fake?

  5. 5
    Mike H. says:

    The principles of Bushido go back a much longer way…all the way back to Musashi, the prototypical Samurai…a name that I he heard translated as "to serve". Their religion was primarily Shinto, though Buddhism had made major inroads, particularly Zen. The Shinto faith holds Japan to be a gift from the Gods, and the Emperor was directly descended from those Gods. Everything in Japan is holy, in this interpretation. The smallest rock has a kami or godlike spirit. Fallen warriors go to a special shrine, where they, too, become kami; their reward for dying for the emperor. "Duty is heavy as a mountain; Death is light as a feather." was a common saying as far back as the 14th century. The truest thing I ever heard or read about the Japanese was,"anyone claiming to understand the Japanese is one of two things:
    a. Japanese, themselves
    b. A fool, who doesn't have a clue.
    I'm not Japanese, so I don't know…



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