They considered themselves morally superior to older politicians

Thursday, June 6th, 2019

When the shogun’s government, the bakufu, opened up Japan, it did not go smoothly, as Jared Diamond explains in Upheaval:

The bakufu developed an Institute for the Study of Barbarian (i.e., foreign) Books, translated Western books, and sponsored the production of English-language grammars and an English pocket dictionary.


The bakufu and domains became heavily indebted to foreign creditors as a result of expenses such as weapons purchases and sending students overseas. Consumer prices and the cost of living rose.


The sharpest conflict within Japan arose over Japan’s basic strategy dilemma: whether to try to resist and expel the foreigners now, or instead to wait until Japan could become stronger.


Already around 1859, resentful, hotheaded, naïve young sword-wielding samurai began to pursue a goal of expelling foreigners by a campaign of assassination. They became known as “shishi,” meaning “men of high purpose.” Appealing to what they believed were traditional Japanese values, they considered themselves morally superior to older politicians.


The following statement of shishi principles, issued in 1861, conveys the flavor of their anger: “It is a source of deepest grief to our Emperor that our magnificent and divine country has been humiliated by the barbarians, and that the Spirit of Japan, which was transmitted from antiquity, is on the point of being extinguished.… It is said that, when one’s lord is humiliated, his retainers must choose death. Must we not set even greater emphasis on the present situation, in which the Imperial Country is about to know disgrace?… We swear by our deities that, if the Imperial Flag is once raised, we will go through fire and water to ease the Emperor’s mind, to carry out the will of our former lord, and to purge this evil from our people. Should any, in this cause, seek to put forward personal considerations, he shall incur the punishment of the angered gods, and be summoned before his fellows to commit hara-kiri.”


Shishi terrorism was directed against foreigners, and even more often against Japanese working for or compromising with foreigners.


On January 3, 1868 the conspirators seized the gates of the Imperial Palace in the city of Kyoto, convened a council stripping the shogun of his lands and of his position on the council, and ended the shogunate.


The council proclaimed the fiction of “restoring” the responsibility for governing Japan to the emperor, although that responsibility had previously actually been the shogun’s. That event is known as the Meiji Restoration, and it marks the beginning of what is termed the Meiji Era: the period of rule of the new emperor.


Only when the last opposition forces on Japan’s northern main island of Hokkaido had been defeated in June 1869 did foreign powers recognize the imperial government as the government of Japan.


  1. Kirk says:

    Hopefully, someone will have the wit and wisdom to study and compare the different ways the Japanese and Chinese dealt with having a more advanced civilization show up out of the blue, when and if we are ever confronted with an alien civilization.

  2. E.E. says:

    Man, this passage makes me understand what Anand meant in his review.

    1. The decision to have the Shogun surrender his powers came after his defeat in 1866.

    2. The imperial court had active players, including one famous Iwakura guy.

    3. It wasn’t all fiction, the Emperor became more powerful than the position had been in centuries.

    Anyways, this won’t distract me from pointing out that the excesses of WW2 was essentially a delayed reaction of the Meiji suppression of the ‘Joi’ crowd.

    Fate can only be avoided for so long.

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