Tensions in a conservative land

Japan Among the Powers 1890-1900
February 17, 1995

Sir Sydney Giffard is a former British ambassador to Japan who spent a significant portion of his diplomatic career there. He began to learn Japanese in the early 1950s and from his arrival in the country until his retirement from the diplomatic service he was assiduous in studying the development of its politics and economy. His ability to make objective judgements and to analyse clearly the complexities of the Japanese scene is demonstrated in this well-researched and balanced survey. His style is polished and his insights are sharp.

Japanese politics and political parties have been dominated over the last century by personalities and factions. The names of Japanese parties, whether they be liberal progressive, democratic or something other, are generally irrelevant. Giffard does his best to elucidate and trace the changing fortunes of the individuals and factions. His comments on individual Japanese leaders are generally shrewd and often witty. He certainly makes the often boring story of Japanese political rivalries if not interesting at least as clear as it is possible to do in a limited space.

It is always difficult when writing about the modern history of any country to decide when to begin and when to end. Giffard's chosen starting date of 1890 is an understandable one. That was the year in which the Meiji constitution which provided Japan with its first parliament can be regarded as marking the start of a new era. But the constitution's forcible adoption was only one of the significant dates in the history of Japan in the second half of the 19th century. Its promulgation in 1889 was the culmination of changes which had begun with the arrival of the Commodore Perry and the "black ships" of the US Navy in 1853 and which had been the catalyst for the revolution popularly known in Japan as the Meiji Restoration. The Shoguns were then replaced as de facto rulers of Japan nominally at least by the emperor and his court. The real rulers were, however, the young samurai leaders of domains opposed to the Tokugawa Shoguns. They were the men who began in earnest the modernisation of Japan which resulted in the emergence of an industrialised state with strong armed forces capable of challenging the then dominant western powers.

A modern history has to end at least when the book goes to press. In 1990 the Liberal Democratic Party was still in power and Japanese politics at least superficially looked set in a conservative groove. In fact Japan faced, as Giffard notes, a new agenda and pressures for change were building up.

When we look back at Japan as it was before the reopening to the West in the middle of the last century and note the profound changes which took place in Japanese politics, economy and culture in the next half century it is tempting to regard what was a root and branch revolution as implying that Japan turned its back on its past and threw aside its traditions and cultural heritage. Some of the new leaders were tempted to do this but it is simply not possible for a country, least of all one like Japan whose heritage was so firmly entrenched and so ancient, to start totally afresh. In fact the history of Japan in the last century has been to a large extent the story of attempts to marry the new with the old and adapt a rigid hierarchical structure to the requirements of a modern age where flexibility is vital. Inevitably the contradictory stresses which these attempts caused resulted in frictions and at times dangerous excesses as one or other tendency dominated.

Japan Among the Powers is a brave attempt to make sense of these contradictions which led Japan in the 1930s and 1940s into a war that almost resulted in the total destruction of Japan. Yet, as Giffard points out, Japan rose from the ashes with a different vision of where it should be going.

The failure of militarist expansion was clear to everyone. Such policies were no longer an option. Instead the Japanese decided with the single-minded enthusiasm of a defeated people to achieve equality and to surpass the rest of the developed world through devotion to manufacturing industry. The determined, not to say obstinate, pursuit of these aims had by 1990 brought Japan into a different kind of conflict with the other advanced countries. The Japanese people who had enjoyed only limited benefits from the economic race to catch up were increasingly demanding a better life. Did Japan in 1990 face another and possibly even more significant revolution? Perhaps, but historical changes generally come gradually and their extent is not always immediately perceptible. Giffard's book ably sets the scene against which we can judge developments in Japan in the 1990s.

Inevitably many questions remain about how and why Japanese governments acted as they did between 1890 and 1990. There are few easy answers and particularly in Japan it is not possible to pin responsibility on to any one man or even on to one faction. Why, for instance, after the surrender of Nazi Germany, did the Japanese leaders fail to see that Japan was defeated and that further resistance was futile? After the destruction of Okinawa were Japanese leaders really ready to inflict a similar fate on the mainland of Japan? Were the atomic bombs dropped in August 1945 on Hiroshima and Nagasaki necessary to provide the Japanese military with an excuse to surrender? Were the allies right to insist on unconditional surrender? How crucial was the emperor's intervention in mid-August? Giffard does not unfortunately have space to address these issues in any depth.

The student of modern Japanese history will have many other questions to ask. This book will have succeeded if it causes the reader to think about such issues and to turn to the many books which are listed in the author's note at the end of the volume.

Sir Hugh Cortazzi is a former British ambassador to Japan.

Japan Among the Powers 1890-1900

Author - Sydney Giffard
ISBN - 0 300 05847 0
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 218pp

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