Meiji leaders had spent their formative years in a weak Japan at risk of attack by strong potential enemies

Saturday, June 8th, 2019

The Meiji Restoration created modern Japan — and the conditions for its demise, Jared Diamond explains (in Upheaval):

The need for a unifying Meiji ideology was expressed in a widely circulated 1891 commentary on the emperor’s 1890 Rescript on Education: “Japan… is a small country. Since there are now those that swallow countries with impunity, we must consider the whole world our enemy… thus any true Japanese must have a sense of public duty, by which he values his life lightly as dust, advances spiritedly, and is ready to sacrifice himself for the sake of the nation.… The purpose of the Rescript is to strengthen the basis of the nation by cultivating the virtues of filiality and fraternal love, loyalty and sincerity, and to prepare for any emergency by nurturing the spirit of collective patriotism.… If we do not unite the people, fortifications and warships will not suffice. If we do unite them, then even a million formidable foes will be unable to harm us.”


By the resulting peace treaty, Japan annexed the southern half of Sakhalin Island and gained control of the South Manchurian Railroad. Japan established a protectorate over Korea in 1905 and annexed it in 1910. In 1914 Japan conquered Germany’s Chinese sphere of influence and Micronesian island colonies in the Pacific Ocean (Plate 3.9). Finally, in 1915 Japan presented China with the so-called Twenty-One Demands that would have converted China virtually into a vassal state; China gave in to some but not all of the demands.


The only occasion on which Meiji Japan overestimated its strength was in 1895, at the end of its war against China. The concessions that Japan had extracted from China then included China’s ceding to Japan the Liaotung Peninsula, which controls the sea and land routes between China and Korea. But France, Russia, and Germany reacted by joining together to force Japan to abandon the peninsula, which Russia proceeded to lease from China three years later. That humiliating setback made Japan aware of its weakness, standing alone, vis-à-vis European powers. Hence in 1902 Japan made an alliance with Britain, for protection and insurance, before attacking Russia in 1904.


In short, Japan’s military expansion in the Meiji Era was consistently successful, because it was guided at every step by honest, realistic, cautious, informed self-appraisal of the relative strengths of Japan and its targets, and by a correct assessment of what was realistically possible for Japan.


Now, compare that successful Meiji Era expansion with Japan’s situation as of August 14, 1945. On that date Japan was at war simultaneously with China, the U.S., Britain, Russia, Australia, and New Zealand (as well as with many other countries that had declared war against Japan but were not actively fighting).


In 1937 Japan launched a full-scale war against China. It fought two brief but bloody border wars with Russia in 1938 and 1939. In 1941 Japan simultaneously and suddenly attacked the U.S. and Britain and the Netherlands, even while Japan was still susceptible to resumption of fighting with Russia. Japan’s attack on Britain automatically resulted in declarations of war by Britain’s Pacific dominions Australia and New Zealand; Japan proceeded to bomb Australia. In 1945 Russia did attack Japan.


Why did Japan from 1937 onwards blunder stepwise into such an unrealistic and ultimately unsuccessful military expansion, when Meiji Japan from 1868 onwards had carried out stepwise such a realistic and successful military expansion?


There are numerous reasons: the successful war against Russia, disillusionment with the Treaty of Versailles, the collapse of Japan’s export-led economic growth in 1929, and others. But one additional reason is especially relevant to this book: a difference between Meiji-Era Japan and the Japan of the 1930’s and 1940’s, in knowledge and capacity for honest self-appraisal on the part of Japanese leaders.


In the Meiji Era many Japanese, including leaders of Japan’s armed forces, had made visits abroad. They thereby obtained detailed first-hand knowledge of China, the U.S., Germany, and Russia and their armies and navies. They could make an honest appraisal of Japan’s strength compared to the strengths of those other countries. Then, Japan attacked only when it could be confident of success. In contrast, in the 1930’s the Japanese army on the Asian mainland was commanded by young hothead officers who didn’t have experience abroad (unless in Nazi Germany), and who didn’t obey orders from experienced Japanese leaders in Tokyo. Those young hotheads didn’t know first-hand the industrial and military strength of the U.S. and of Japan’s other prospective opponents. They didn’t understand American psychology, and they considered the U.S. a nation of shopkeepers who wouldn’t fight.


Quite a few older leaders of the Japanese government and armed forces (especially of the navy) in the 1930’s did know the strength of the U.S. and Europe first-hand. The most poignant moment of my first visit to Japan, in 1998, came when my dinner table partner one evening turned out to be a retired Japanese steel executive, at that time in his 90’s, who recalled for me his visits to American steel factories in the 1930’s. He told me that he had been stunned to discover that the U.S.’s manufacturing capacity for high-quality steel was 50 times Japan’s, and that that fact alone had convinced him that it would be insane for Japan to go to war with the U.S.


Meiji leaders had spent their formative years in a weak Japan at risk of attack by strong potential enemies. But to Japan’s leaders of the 1930’s, war instead meant the intoxicating success of the Russo-Japanese War, the destruction of Russia’s Pacific fleet in Port Arthur harbor by a surprise attack that served as the model for Japan’s surprise attack against the American fleet at Pearl Harbor (Plate 3.7), and the spectacular destruction of Russia’s Baltic fleet by the Japanese navy in the Battle of Tsushima Strait (Plate 3.8).


  1. Graham says:

    I’m returning to Isegoria to soothe my spirit.

    Off topic but I would like to register my deep loathing of Canada’s traditional telecoms company Bell. That is all on that.

  2. Graham says:

    Those were interesting, if not particularly innovative, appraisals by Diamond.

    It is sobering to think of Japan’s fate, even in part, as the acting together of generational change and the heady brew of modest success. That bodes ill for almost any nation.

    Japan’s victory over Russia was historically significant, and Japan’s leaders at the time probably appraised it correctly and in context. That is to say, it was a victory over a European power for the first time by an Asian one, and a first victory over Europeans for Japan in particular, and it showed stunning technological and tactical success with major strategic benefits. [The first is the one that gets most play now for modern reasons. It was noted then, but the second and third ideas are the important ones.] But I’ll bet they were conscious that it was a victory over the most ramshackle of the European powers at the far end of its power projection capacity, and at the end over a fleet that had bust its mechanical and human guts just to get there, and even at that the whole war had been a bloody, near run thing.

    Worth teaching new generations of officers to be proud of their country and service, to respect the achievements of their elders, and to also know the warts version of those events.

    Imagine thinking that beating Russia in 1904-5 in a regional conflict Russia could just barely reach by land or sea, and in which Russia had a smallish navy, would be the same as beating the United States on a knockout basis across the Pacific in the 1940s, when the USN was already rather larger and more capable relative to Japan’s navy than Russia’s had been. Even just looking at maps, publicly reported economic stats, location of possible bases, and so on, should have highlighted some differences.

  3. Harry Jones says:

    A shopkeeper in a rough neighborhood is prepared to fight to defend his shop.

    The world is a rough neighborhood.

  4. CVLR says:

    What is China’s manufacturing capacity of high-quality steel as compared to America’s?

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