Inventing Japan. Part 1.
So. Last day of holidays, apart from recording Don Caballero tribute tracks celebrating the death of the evil man in white who caused so much trouble around the world while supposedly being such a saint, I am reading a book called Inventing Japan
by a dude named Ian Buruma. He is one smart cookie, I became aware of him at uni and saw his book going for cheap in Junkudo bookstore in Himeji.
"A concise, penetrating examination."
Not US customs officials, as it may seem, but the NY Times giving Ian a good rap.
The book is about, to quote The Economist, "the process of Japan's engagement with the Western world" from 1853 to 1964. Having lived here for almost 2 years now, I feel like I am fairly familiar with the modern Japanese psyche, but this book has shed some light on some interesting stuff. I wasn't sure how many people would be aware of a lot of this stuff, so brace yourselves. Here is a summary, for those interested, of the first half of the book. For general knowledge if nothing else, I suggest you check it out.
So in the 17th century Japan was getting pretty antsy about Christians, as you would, and decided the best thing to do would be to kick out/kill all Westerners, apart from those crazy Dutch, who were more interested in commerce than religion. Isolated from the rest of the world, most of their ideas and systems came from Chinese traditions. A lot of folk were pretty intrigued by the West, so they somehow learnt Dutch and started picking up Western thinking from Dutch books. Some of the stuff was obviously pretty cool, so they started considering Western medicine, science, etc., while keeping it distinct from the more 'important' traditional philosophies that they lived by. So no democracy just yet.
Then in 1853 Commodore 64 Perry shows up in the Black Ships and forces his way in, and basically pushes Japan into accepting trade with the US, and other Western countries later. Japan starts accepting more and more Western ideas, but only really cluey people would consider them, and only in private, coz if you didn't you were still likely to get offed by ultra-right wing samurai zealots.
For a while it had been the case that you had your emperor hanging out in Kyoto, being figureheadly, and the shogun (like head of the most powerful clan) dishing out the orders from Edo (Tokyo). After Perry came in, a lot of samurai and other nationalists started getting pissed off with the shogunate for allegedly giving in too much to the Western dogs, and also because economic booms were making the rich richer and the poor poorer. So in 1868 they went mental and forced the end of the shogunate, and the Emperor was installed in Edo as the holy incarnation of the sun god, and as the one true source of wisdom. If you fought for the Emperor's team, you were enshrined at the new Yasukuni shrine, which remains today as a big source of trouble between Japan and other E Asian nations, coz war criminals from WWII are also enshrined there but the PM goes there anyway.
A lot of these psychos were quite smart, though, and they were incorporating utilitarian ideas of people power and parliamentary representation with this god-worship of the emperor. So they sorted out a constitution in 1889 with the Emperor at the top, with his hands clean of political affairs and the pollies basically interpreting His will. Far from being democratic, however, it was in practice a deal whereby the political powers would make backroom deals with the economic powers to keep the status quo (not so dissimilar to modern Japan really) and that led to the huge zaibatsu corporations that still exist today, like Mitsui and Mitsubishi. The idea was that it was too dangerous to give the people too much power - if you look around the world today this is still being played out through various devices.
Western culture was quite heartily consumed around this time and up until the early 20th century, in ridiculous ways like eating meat for the sake of it and learning the waltz, etc etc. Again, though, if anyone spoke out too loud about Western democratic political ideas, they were pretty quickly killed, if they were powerful, or just told to shut up, if they weren't. Basically you had to just 'be one with the Emperor/nation'.
Another issue here was that the army was answerable only to the Emperor, not to the government. But the Emperor didn't really say much, so they basically had free rein. Also, one Western idea that was very hihgly thought of was the notion of the Empire. In 1895 the Japs (using a lot of Western battle techniques) sorted out the Chinese in Korea and annexed it in 1910. This stirred up a lot of nationalist pride, leading to the Russian War that started with a surprise attack in 1904. Lots of soldiers on both sides were killed, but Japan got a lot of commercial rights in Manchuria, bordering Russia to the south.
Up to the 1920s, Japan, having stayed out of WWI, was having a boom and people, in the big cities at least, were living the high life. As for overseas, Japan brutally suppressed some rebellious movements in Korea and China. Liberal ideas were becoming a little more common within Japan (at least in theory... government was still basically a wing of the zaibatsu) but even liberals were pretty comfortable with Japan looking to start foreign empires, assuming that the superior Japanese could help the poor savages. Especially Koreans were vilified as sub-human.
In 1928 the Showa era, with good old Hirohito as Emperor, began. In 1930, although China was in charge of Manchuria, Japan, stirred up by nationalism, staged a bombing in order to give themselves a pretext to attack Chinese forces there. China basically said, whoa, easy big fella, and complained to the League of Nations, but Japan didn't care, and they walked out on the League. None of the PMs of this time were pleased with what was going on, especially from an international reputation perspective, but they couldn't do anything because the army claimed to be fighting for the nation and the Emperor. The army fomented nationalist aggression by claiming to be bullied by China and the West, and by claiming that Manchuria was necessary for Japan's economic well-being, and that the people there were in need of enlightenment.
So the Japanese looked after Manchuria, but after an incident in the DMZ with China in 1937 which was basically hot-headed Japanese looking to pick a fight, Japan really started advancing on Chinese territory. They attacked Chiang Kai-shek (who was later to form the Republic of China, ie Taiwan) at Shanghai and killed lots of Chinese civilians, largely owing to their lack of interest in caring for prisoners. Much easier just to kill them, after raping them if female (although Chinese forces became very resilient upon hearing of rapes, so later Japan started forcing Koreans and other subjects to serve as 'comfort women' for the soldiers). The worst incident here was the infamous Rape of Nanking, where hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers and civilians were slaughtered in an orgy of Japanese bloodlust that lasted over a month.
Then in 1938 Japan started another war with Russia, in Nomonhan in northern Manchuria. After the slaughter of many soldiers on both sides, the Emperor called his dogs back, but they were too riled up with the smell of blood and they kept going. In the end nobody really won, but the Japanese decided to concentrate more on expanding southwards.
.....whew. So that's the fun-filled Japanese history of assassination, chauvinism and war for you. And we haven't even got to WWII yet.
It does give you a good idea of why so many Asian nations are still pretty pissed off at Japan (although obviously those living today have no direct responsibility, and at any rate have officially apologies on numerous occasions), and also why there is a lot of outcry about recent plans to change the Constitution to allow for more liberal use of the Self-Defence Force, for example in peace-keeping missions in Iraq etc. People who can remember some of this stuff and who have seen the error of the ways are none to keen to go anywhere near the nationalistic fervour of the past 2 centuries. History is something that obviuously still weighs very heavily around the necks of the Japanese.