Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Japan: 1868, 1945, and Now

It can easily be argued that 1868 and 1945 were the two most significant years in Japanese history. The events of 1945 are widely known, but let’s consider what happened 150 years ago in 1868.
The Significance of the Meiji Restoration
The beginning of Japan goes back to February 11, 660 B.C.E., when Jimmu, a descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu (according to Shinto mythology), became the first emperor. Even now February 11 is observed as National Foundation Day, a national holiday.
As an island country, Japan long existed with minimal “foreign” influence, developing as a unique country and accepting only what it wanted from near-by Korea and China—and much later from distant European countries.
In the 16th century, merchants and missionaries from Europe arrived in Japan, but in the 1630s most Westerners and their influence (including Christianity) were expelled and kept out of Japan until the 1850s.
In 1853 American Commodore Matthew Perry and his “black ships” arrived, and soon Japan was forced to open to the West.
Only fifteen years later, the country that had been virtually closed for nearly 220 years made major changes, “modernizing” in order to compete with Western countries as an equal.
The pivotal year was 1868 when drastic domestic changes resulted from what is called the Meiji Restoration.  
In February 1867, 14-year-old Prince Mutsuhito succeeded his father, becoming the 122nd emperor of Japan. Since 1192 Japan had been under the political control of a shogun (military dictator), but in November 1867 the shogun resigned and in January 1868 the new emperor ceremoniously proclaimed the “restoration” of Imperial rule.
Then in April 1868, Emperor Meiji promulgated the “Charter Oath,” which dissolved Japan’s traditional feudal structure and established the legal stage for Japan’s modernization.
Kyoto (meaning “capital") had been the home of the Japanese emperor since 794, but the shogun had resided in Edo Castle since 1603. In September 1868, the Emperor announced that the name of the city Edo was being changed to Tokyo, or “eastern capital.” Emperor Meiji moved there the next year. 

The Rise and Fall of Japan
The modernization/industrialization of Meiji Japan was rapid and thoroughgoing, at least in its outward manifestations. The sweeping changes to become more like the Western (imperial) countries led to increasing expansion of Japanese territory.
Hokkaido, the large northern island of present-day Japan, was consolidated in 1869. Ten years later the Ryukyu Islands (including Okinawa) were annexed. Then at the conclusion of the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895, Taiwan was ceded to Japan.
The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 was the first modern war in which an Asian country defeated a European power—and that war ended with Japan gaining control over Korea, which it fully annexed in 1910. Control over various southeast Asian countries followed.
What in Japan is called the Fifteen-Year War began in 1931, but the Meiji Restoration which had achieved so much for 75 years, came to a tragic end in August 1945. The changes of that fateful year were more dramatic and of more significance than those of 1868.
What about Japan Now?
After Japan’s remarkable recovery from the devastation of World War II and “miraculous” economic growth into a leading country of the world, Japan faces an uncertain future on this 150th anniversary year of the Meiji Restoration.
Economic conditions have been stagnant for many years now; the population is aging—and declining in number; and now there is understandable anxiety in the land because of the proximity to an unpredictable and potentially destructive North Korea.

Let us hope and pray that 2018 won’t become as significant, and as catastrophic, as 1945.


  1. Empires come and go. That is the history of the world dating back to Babel. The US now appears to be in decline and facing the end. That has been in process for decades, but its years are numbered.

    A few years back, Keith had posted something about the Shinto common links to other world religions, including that of Imperial China, and the Hebrew tradition. So many others with similarities including names and stories common to them all. It would be interesting to visit that again.

    1. Tim, thanks for being the first to comment--and for raising the issue about the American "empire." Morally, the U.S. may certainly be in decline, but there doesn't currently seem to be any decline in its economic or military power.

      I wonder, though, since the U.S. has a huge stockpile of nuclear weapons--and now funding and the approval of the President and Congress to update and strengthen the nation's nuclear force--how much of the rest of the world will be destroyed if or when the U.S. faces the end. If it does go down, it is most unlikely that it will go down alone.

  2. This is a good and accurate summary of Japanese history and present situation. Thank you always good blogs. i enjoy reading them all.

    1. Thanks, Ed. I appreciate your kind words.

      [For you who don't know him, Ed was born in Pyongyang, (North) Korea; I first met him when he was a Presbyterian missionary from the U.S. to Japan, living in the same city (Fukuoka) in southwest Japan. He has resided for many years now in New York.]

  3. I recognize the great strides of the Meiji Restoration, but it resulted in a militaristic and aggressive Japan. A Japan-centric view would see the events of 1945 as "catastrophic," but they are a consequence of aggression. Much of the rest of East and Southeast Asia views 1945 as liberation. I believe that modern Japan is greater than the restored Japan since they have a keen vision of the futility of aggression. In my time in Japan, I, like you, saw this most passionately articulated by the minority Christian sector of society

    1. Thanks, Dave, for your comments. Yes, I agree that the Meiji Restoration set Japan on the road to imperialistic aggression, especially after the adoption of the Meiji Constitution of 1889.

      And, yes, the small Christian population in Japan has through the years since WWII been very vocal in their opposition to war and their promotion of pacifism. Currently, as you know (but others may not) they are as a whole opposed to the proposal of Prime Minister Abe that the new Constitution of 1947, especially Article IX (which outlaws war as a means to settle international disputes involving the state), be changed to allow Japan to take military action when or if that is deemed necessary.

  4. From Thinking Friend Truett Baker in Arizona:

    "Thanks for the information about Japan. I found it very interesting. The rapid restoration of Japan following WW Two can be attributed in large measure to the Marshall Plan, as you know."

    1. Thanks for your comments, Truett. Certainly, the Marshall Plan helped Japan greatly to recover from the terrible conditions across the country after the War. (My wife mentioned that when she read my article before posting it, even suggesting that perhaps I should have included that in the article.)

  5. I have a problem with the following statement: "As an island country, Japan long existed with minimal “foreign” influence, developing as a unique country and accepting only what it wanted from near-by Korea and China—and much later from distant European countries." My knowledge of Japanese history is not deep, but I am pretty sure no nation in history has had a history like that. Japan has remnants of aborigines living mostly in the north, and people closely related to Koreans (perhaps even immigrants from Korea) in the south. Waves of innovation, language and culture have swept into Japan over the centuries from lands far and wide, especially China and Korea, but more recently from Europe and America. While we know little of the details of early contacts, such as how rice farming arrived, we know about more recent contacts. I do not think Japan had much choice when American warships showed up demanding that Japan open itself to the world. Japanese exceptionalism is no more meaningful than American exceptionalism. All nations have complex histories, and a need to re-evaluate and update their self-understandings as they live in a changing world. In that sense, the Meiji Restoration is neither good nor bad, but rather is an integral part of Japanese history; in the same way the Revolutionary War is part of American history.

    I did stumble across a fascinating whirlwind tour of Japanese history at this link (about nine minutes long): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mh5LY4Mz15o

    1. Craig, thanks for your comments and your questioning of my statement that you quoted.

      In my first draft I wrote something like "there was some influence from Korea and more than a little influence on Japan from China." But I stick with what I wrote in the final draft.

      There was certainly marked Chinese influence on Japan--but that was never by China having political power over Japan. Japan's writing system--the "kanji" used today literally mean "Chinese letters"--came from China. And Buddhism came to Japan primarily from China. But such significant influences came not because of external force, but from domestic acceptance of what was thought to be beneficial for the country.

      The "Ainu" people in Hokkaido had a different culture than the Japanese of the main islands of the south--but, as I mentioned, Hokkaido was amalgamated into mainstream Japan in 1879 and following.

      The statement you quoted was intended as a generalization for Japan up to (just before) the Meiji Restoration. Certainly after 1853 changes came by pressure from foreign powers. But the Meiji Restoration was an ingenious response, as drastic changes were rapidly made because of external pressure but made in such a way that Japan could mainly keep what it (saw that it pragmatically) wanted and reject what it did not want.

  6. Who are the Buraku and the Eta? What became of the Samurai after the Shoguns?

    1. I don't usually respond to anonymous comments, but as this is a pertinent part of Japanese history I will give a brief response.

      The "burakumin" were the people who were the outcasts in the old Tokugawa era, which ended in the transition to the Meiji era. In the old order, there were four strata (or castes) of Japanese society and the "buraku" people were those who were outside/below those four, thus they were out-caste. "Eta" was the discriminatory term used for the "buraku" people--and it had the same degrading connotation as the N-word used for African-Americans in the U.S., so it should never be used except for historical explanations such as this one.

      The "samurai" lost their exalted status after the beginning of the Meiji Restoration, and many had a hard time blending in with the new social order. One interesting aspect of this issue is that there were an unusually large number of samurai who became Christians in the early years of the Meiji Restoration and the introduction of Protestant Christianity to Japan. My first pastor in Japan, a stately old gentleman, was from a samurai family.