Australia’s Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, is touring tsunami-affected parts of Japan today, and discussing deepening military ties with a country that just 70 years ago we were at war with. This is testimony to both the power of Australians and Japanese to overcome prejudice, and the huge changes that have occurred in Japan since the tragic end of that terrible war. These changes are particularly notable because, like Germany, Japan entered World War 2 only after the country had been overtaken by, essentially, a military dictatorship – but I think it’s safe to say that Japan’s pre-dictatorship democracy was more fragile than Germany’s. Julia Gillard’s tightening of Australian-Japanese ties, and her discussion of the role of China in the region, reminded me of two theories I’ve been harbouring in my breast for years about Japanese and Chinese history, so I thought I’d lay them out here and see if anyone has anything to say about them. I have no skills in historical analysis, so I think it’s reasonable to say that they’re likely bullshit, and probably not even factually correct. If so, please correct me. First Japan, then my (much more speculative) views on China.

World War 2 as a Revocation of Meiji

I use the phrase “World War 2” to appeal to a western reader’s view of the war, but Japan’s involvement in world war 2 was only a very brief and tragic part of a much larger military engagement, which gets called various things here, such as “The Fifteen Years War” and the “Great Pacific War.” This started around about 1932, I think, when Japan started causing trouble in Korea and China, and began to assign itself the right to have “colonies” in Asia. A large part of this attitude was driven by a newfound chauvinism and a view that Japan had entered the tier of developed nation great powers, and I think such views were common at the time. The Germans were also complaining that they were the only European “power” without colonies, and I think Italy was trying to establish Imperial possessions in North Africa. It’s worth bearing in mind too that democracy in the 20s and 30s had much less legitimacy than it does now – many countries in the 30s had only had universal suffrage for 10 or 20 years, and for much of its history to date democracy had been a means by which the ruling classes debated amongst themselves as to how to dispose of the fruits of the labours of their non-voting classes. Now, of course, democracy has a 100-or-so year history of genuinely universal suffrage, and it’s been more than 100 years since the vote was extended to working-class men. So it’s easy to see that in the 20s and 30s colonialism and anti-democratic ideals could have mainstream appeal.

Japan had newfound military and international political confidence in 1905, after they trounced the Russians, and by the 1930s the western powers were starting to get worried, and forced Japan to sign up to a treaty limiting their naval tonnage, as well as rejecting a racial equality motion at the League of Nations. I have read people in Australia pointing out that the mismanagement of Japan’s military and economic growth is a good example of exactly how the west should not deal with China – responding to a new economic and military power by trying to cut off their legitimate political interests and military development is likely to exacerbate the risks of conflict; and in the 1920s colonial possessions were seen as a legitimate interest. It’s also worth remembering that before world war 2 Japan was a major industrial power as well – anyone in doubt of this should visit the Kawasaki museum in Yokohama, to witness the vast array of heavy manufacturing that was being exported from Japan in the 20s.

Along with this growing military confidence and colonialism, Japan was also going through a series of significant cultural developments that have been very well described by Basil Chamberlain, who maintains that Bushido was a fictional concept invented by the turn of the century Japanese military establishment, and points out that Shintoism’s place in national politics was changed to support the development of an intense nationalism in Japan. But this nationalism was heavily slanted towards militarism, and steeped in imagery of the power of the emperor and the importance of political ideals from before the Meiji restoration. In fact, I think that the Great Pacific War represents the terrible culmination of a long project by the military class in Japan to unwind the Meiji restoration and end the separation of the state and the military.

While western nations have struggled to separate church and state, Japan has historically had a huge problem with the non-separation of the military and the state. This problem came to a head in the 19th century after the Americans forced the Japanese to end their period of isolation. In the ensuing political and cultural struggles, civil society reacted against the historically overbearing role of the military – represented through the excessive power of the Shoguns in political life. By 1867 the emperor had become so weak and the Shogunate so powerful that the military were essentially the dominating force in domestic politics. The Meiji restoration undid this dictatorship, and included a civil war that the shoguns lost convincingly to a civilian army, a military defeat that I think they and their descendants never got over. After Meiji came a series of democratization reforms, most of them adopted along German models, and culminating in the early 20th century with universal suffrage (I think!) and the adoption of a kind of liberal democratic modern world.

However, from the 1920s on the military used flaws in the constitutional process, and their historical position near the levers of power, to regain control over the government piece by piece. I have even read that by 1942 they had so far pushed the Emperor out of power that he never learnt of the defeat of the carrier forces at the battle of Midway, and only learnt of it in the dying days of the war. By the mid-30s the military had complete control over who would sit in the cabinet, and could control the selection of the government; they were also engineering “incidents” (such as the Marco Polo bridge incident) in China to bring forward plans and excuses for war and colonization. As is often the case, every step down the path to war reduced the power of civil society and caused Japanese political life to become more closed and thus more amenable to militarism. By the time of Pearl Harbour the Japanese military was basically running the country through a puppet cabinet, with Emperor Hirohito as basically a figurehead (though, I suspect, a willing one).

i.e. they had restored the Shogunate, and returned Japan to its “natural” position as a society ruled by enlightened military leaders through puppet governments. They achieved this through a 20 or 30 year process of interference in political life, and before that by careful development of cultural ideals (of Bushido, and of the righteousness of Shintoism) that served their goals. Compare this to the military dictatorships in Europe at that time, which generally came about after short political struggles in civil society, during which the thugs of the far right intimidated the unionized left, and then at some key point the civilian leadership invited the military to help them through emergency rule. Hitler’s ascension, for example, was almost entirely conducted through the political sphere, and in fact he had to develop a parallel military to serve his aims (which he then disbanded, brutally, once he had the real military on side). I think that the Japanese slide into dictatorship was a very different animal, conducted subtly as a process of revocation of Meiji.

This isn’t to say that the military knew they were doing this – they may just have been seizing power by the means they thought best suited their culture, but that means inevitably ends up resembling a return to the pre-modern era, and could only be facilitated through a continual slide into war. Given that the USA was hell bent on stymying Japanese expansion in Asia, and the military’s plans for domestic power required foreign intervention, a collision was inevitable. I think America and the UK could have avoided this collision had they been better acquainted with Japan, but by 1935 Japan was still largely a mystery in the West – in 1905 when he wrote his essay, Chamberlain notes that there is only one history of Japan published in English, and the first real interpreters of Japan for a foreign non-academic audience only started writing in the late 19th and early 20th century. So it’s reasonable to say that the west – and especially the English-speaking west – were struggling to understand Japanese political goals in the inter-war era.

So, just as the war in Europe put an end to military dictatorship as a respected form of political power in Western Europe (but sadly, gave proletarian dictatorship a big boost), so it was only the complete destruction of the Japanese army that ended its long-held desires to return to a Meiji-era position of prominence in Japanese cultural life. It took a war of unprecedented scale and horror to finally guarantee Japan a pathway to peaceful democracy, and even then the post-war disputes were quite vigorous and violent. It could even be argued, I think, that there is another kind of revocation of Meiji going on in modern Japan, with the military’s role replaced by the big corporations, who sometimes appear to control the government in much the same way as the military once did. Maybe this is a model of democracy that the Japanese can’t escape, and the continuity is still there even now.

Communist China as a Continuation of Empire

So now we move on to the issue of communist China. I visited China for a month in 2002, and I was struck by some of the parallels between the modern communist government and the Empire that it replaced. Three particular parallels surprised me: the reconstruction of the great wall, the judgment of heaven, and the role of mandarins.

The Reconstruction of the Great Wall: Throughout history, when a new Emperor seized the reins of power in China his first task would be to reconstruct the Great Wall, as a kind of nation-building project and example of his power and authority. When I went to China in 2002, the government was engaged in a massive rebuilding project to restore the Great Wall and make it better available as a tourist attraction. The Wall isn’t only a tourist attraction though, it’s also a symbol of China’s continuity as a nation, and its resistance to foreign occupation. No surprise then that the communist government saw the same value in restoring it that previous Emperors did, even if the public face of it is for tourism rather than war.

The Judgment of Heaven: Something that is often overlooked in criticism of Mao’s Great Leap Forward is that China has always suffered from periodic famine, and its peasants suffered terribly from the policies of successive Imperial governments. This phenomenon was so pronounced that it even had a religious and political explanation – if famine or drought struck the land the Emperor was assumed to be out of favour with heaven, and had to go to a special part of the Summer Palace near Beijing to sacrifice some bulls in a special ritual to restore favour. Too long out of favour, and the Emperor would fall. When I was in China my guide, an Australian chap who spoke good Chinese and had spent years there, told me that the Chinese government is absolutely terrified of famine, and does everything it can to ensure there will never be a threat of starvation in China. In fact, for all the cruelties of its early years, the communist government deserves credit for being perhaps the first government ever in the history of China to end famine. There has been no famine in China since the Great Leap Forward, which is possibly the longest period in history that this has happened (don’t quote me on this!) The communist government values this judgment of heaven, and strives to maintain its good graces through a wide range of political and economic tactics… I think the 10 years since my visit have shown that they will go to great lengths to ensure an ordered transition to market mechanisms, guaranteed employment, etc.

The Role of the Mandarins: Imperial China was ruled by a tiny clique of public servants, who worked in a very ordered and structured system. One entered the service through passing tests, and there were strict levels and heirarchies, through which one ascended by carefully prescribed mechanisms. i.e. the Imperial court was pretty much exactly like the communist party that rules China now.

So, they had a huge revolution, 20 years of turmoil, and … nothing has changed. Except that the current government enjoys the favour of Heaven… Whether this government will last as long as some Imperial dynasties we will never know, but I’m willing to bet now that whatever replaces communism in China will show the same general principles.

It’s interesting that huge changes – reformation, revolution, turmoil, world-consuming war, famine, civil war, strife – can befall a country like Japan or China, but through it all they can maintain this strange coherency of political structures, even if on the surface they seem to have changed completely, or even been put in place in reaction against the previous processes. An interesting form of continuity…