History indeed! I just this week finished our year 11 Modern History topic on this. The students always find it fascinating at the rapidity of Japanese modernisation under Meiji - some 300 years completed in 30! The struggle for power (both in Asia and within the internal structures of Japan) that follows is equally fascinating.
Thursday, July 14, 2016
Japan, China and the lessons of the past
In a post on 29 June 2016, Train Reading - Shogun: William Adams, Ieyasu and the rise and fall of the Shogunate, I mentioned that my present train reading was Richard Storry's A History of Modern Japan (Pelican, 1960).
The Shogunate was followed by the Meiji era (1868-1912) during which Japan moved from a feudal form towards a modern industrial society. In a comment on my earlier post, Thomas wrote:
Thomas is right. As I followed Japan's history up the Second World and beyond, I felt a certain resonance with current events.
Croesus, King of Lydia, has come down to us today in two phrases. One is as rich as Croesus, for he was a very wealthy ruler. The second is the most famous phrase ever to come from the Oracle at Delphi. Croesus was considering war against Cyrus the Great of Persia. Seeking advice from the Oracle, he was told that if he attacked the Persians, he would destroy a great empire. He did and he did - his own.
Now Croesus was actually a fairly cautious person who seems capable of considerable planning. It's just that he interpreted the Oracle in the way that would support what he wanted to do. He also demonstrates that once you start a war, you can never be absolutely sure if the results.
Today, intelligence advice has come to fulfil something of the same role once performed by the Oracle. It seems clear, I think, from the Chilcot Report that the intelligence advice on Sadam Hussein and his weapons was treated uncritically, interpreted in the context of an already established mindset. It also seems clear that if, as seemed inevitable, the allies won the ground war nobody really focused on the question of what might come next.
If you had told the younger radical Japanese army officers who engineered the Mukden Incident, an incident that helped lay the basis for the Second World War in the Pacific, that the empire that they would destroy would be their own, they would have been incredulous. Such thoughts could not penetrate the bubble that had been formed.
The modernised Japanese state that emerged from the Meiji era was unbalanced with representative institutions crafted onto culture, clan structures and attitudes formed during the Shogunate. Within that system, the Army acquired institutionalised powers and position that effectively made it a world in itself.
The Navy provided some counterbalance, as did the continued presence of the older oligarchs who had played such a role in the modernisation and who continued to exercise influence. Yet the growth in the power of the Army, the radicalisation of the younger officer corp, the willingness in the broader society to use force to achieve individual ends, combined to create a climate that in the end overrode everything else and placed Japan on the path to disaster.
Today, the Japanese story bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the unfolding drama in the South China Sea. The genesis of the modern dispute can, at least in part, be traced back to the great humiliation placed upon China by the empires including that republican empire, the United States. The Japanese Empire was late to the fray, but then became an active participant and, in the end, the most active participant with the aim of the dismemberment of China.
Arguably of more importance is the the way in which modernising China's governing structures resemble those of Japan in that the modern Chinese state is really an amalgam of competing fiefdoms in which the military has come to play a very important role. We usually focus on the Party, but power in the Party rests on control of the instruments of state that in turn exercise their own influence.
It is a somewhat uncomfortable thought that, as happened with Japan, the internal power dynamics within the Chinese system may end in broader conflict.