The consequences of joining the club

Tuesday, October 28th, 2003

Japan transformed from an isolated island empire to a modern naval empire remarkably quickly. Jonathan Mirsky reviews Ian Buruma’s Inventing Japan: From Empire to Economic Miracle, 1853-1964:

It is the considerable achievement of Ian Buruma’s book that he eloquently describes Japan’s progression from a seemingly closed country, forced open in 1853 by an American flotilla of “black ships” that sailed into Tokyo harbour, to 1964 when, as Buruma puts it, “Japan rejoined the world” by putting on the Olympics and showing that it was peaceful and democratic.


From the 17th century Japan was ruled by a samurai government in Edo, now Tokyo, led by the Shogun in the name of a figurehead emperor in Kyoto. These samurai, however, were not mere muscle-men and Japan was not wholly “closed”. As Buruma says, they “knew more about the West than most other Asians”, including detailed maps of the US, Western science, economies, and military affairs. All this was based on “Dutch learning”, extracted from the tiny group of traders from Holland, the only foreigners permitted to live in Japan.

In the mid-19th century, an increasingly wealthy merchant class and some go-ahead samurai, aware that the West was dismembering China and that the shogunate was rotting away, concluded that it was the discipline of Christianity that made the West strong; they resolved that they too must devise a religion that would cement national unity. They reinvented the notion of a divine emperor — an ancient belief related to a nature cult with numerous gods — and cobbled this to Western ideas of nationalism, a modern army, colonialism, and Germanic state worship. Buruma states that emperor worship “was as phony as the Gothic inventions in Wilhelminian Germany”, which the new nationalists admired. These modernisers “managed to pick some of the worst, most bellicose aspects of the Western world for emulation in Japan”. This dangerously mobilising ideology, Buruma shows throughout his compact, learned book, was to be the model for the next century. In 1868, the samurai oligarchs who overthrew the no longer fearsome shogunate and established the Meiji emperor in Edo, now named Tokyo, were “steeped in the samurai ethos of loyalty, obedience, and military discipline”. They were determined to make Japan rich, powerful, and resistant to democratic values for which they — and their Western admirers — insisted Japanese were not suited.

Armed with this set of beliefs, the new Japan defeated China in 1895 and Russia in 1905, and set out on the road to a disastrous world war in the early Thirties. “Together with millions of lives buried under the wreckage of war, a particular idea of Japan, both modern and archaic, Western and nativist, destructive of others and of the Japanese themselves, lay buried, too, one hoped forever.” As Buruma shows, these ideas may have been buried but they stir still.

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