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:
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.
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.   



Anonymous said...

Just as Jim is exploring the correlations between the emerging Japan and the current situation regarding the South China Sea (and there is plenty of talk about it). For myself I am a student studying the sixties on one hand and I have been examining the correlations between what has happened in the US recently - the Black Lives Matter movement vs Martin Luther King Junior and the civil rights movement. Still ruminating. Have to write an essay.

Was it you KVD, or you 2Tanners who commented that Jim often gets in before the mainstream news?

Anonymous said...

I am a student who should proofread her work.

2 tanners said...

I believe it was kvd. My opinion is that Jim is often well after the mainstream news, but brings to it the analysis which has pretty much vanished from the mainstream media. Most of the readers here are quite demanding debaters too.

Somewhat in relation to this, I think there was plenty of public comment, around the time of Operation Desert Storm, that the US would avoid trying to take Baghdad for the very reason that an attempt at occupation would be fiercely resisted by some and cost many lives and billions of dollars. As the second gulf war showed, both turned out to be massive underestimates.

The second gulf war was probably a classic example of two sides who weren't able to realise that the cost of losing, or winning, was higher than they could imagine.

Anonymous said...

GL, as tanners said, I believe it was me who made some comment of that sort - however Jim's present (this and the last) posts in relation to the South China Sea situation are not examples of that - to the point where I was mildly annoyed by his throwaway comment that "very few Australians...have been following this". Complete crap.

I have not commented upon either this, or the somewhat compare/contrast relationship between Aus and East East - because a) I lack expertise to be found in other commenters - for instance, see above, and b) my present belief is that any and all response/s to either should be left to diplomacy, hopefully by said experts, and preferably far away from the overview of the enthusiastic amateurs to be found (any day, all day) on Twitter, Facebook, and the various mainstream media.


Jim Belshaw said...

Good morning all. Interesting perceptions.

As a general comment, the areas where I am sometimes in front of the MSM are generally those where an issue has been running below the radar and I can see it and think that its important. Sometimes, its simply that a decision is made that I can see from my own experience is likely to have dumb outcomes. Where I am reacting to an instant event such as the South China Sea decision.

In reporting the decision itself, I was actually a little in front of the Australian MSM only because I picked it up on the Twitter feed before the MSM, but we are talking hours. Neither here nor there.

kvd, accepting that my first post fell in the instant reaction class, my comment on very few Australians was not a throw-away comment (I accept that it was not an especially profound comment) but reflected my perceptions of responses among people that I talk to.

There had been a fair bit of coverage of the South China Sea issue in the MSM well before that decision. Much of that reporting was put in a frame of big state relations and influenced by boys with toys reactions, essentially ships and planes and the US pivot. Below the froth of MSM reporting, there was deeper coverage such as that from Lowy, but very little seems (as I see it) to have penetrated Australian public consciousness.

Accepting that my first post can be put in the froth and bubble class, the second post was a little different, more reflective. Certainly I was trying to be interesting, but the three key messages were serious enough. One was unforeseen consequences of action, the second a little on the historical context, the third the way imbalances in power structures can lead to disastrous results.

The imbalances that emerged in Japan in modernisation, the institutionalisation of the role of the military, led to the War in the Pacific. There are, I would suggest, parallels here with modern China. Further, the frame within which the dispute itself is taking place is set within an historical context that includes the humiliation of China. The past has a long tail.

Anonymous said...

Would not have thought of your earlier post as 'froth and bubble' Jim; thought it reported fairly and accurately this latest step in what is now a long running, and very concerning, saga. I just did not think that the 'very few Australians' comment was up to your normal accuracy.

China has a long history of pushing against the boundaries - physical and political - which have been placed upon her. Presently Japan is dealing with another push, and it wasn't so long ago that Russia was taking closer interest in Siberia. Add Tibet, and treatment of countries to her west, and the pattern is maintained. I'm not condemning here, merely stating what is and was.

I agree with this later post; it is a useful and thoughtful comparison of China now with Japan in the recent past - perhaps missing (or maybe leaving?) the inherent need for any command driven society to find outward enemies, so that internal pressures have an outlet, maybe? Anyway, you're the historian; I'm just speaking what I see.


Jim Belshaw said...

Good morning, kvd. You may well be right about command driven societies. Certainly I would have argued that in the past. My difficulty now is that I'm no longer sure in my mind about the meaning to be attached to command driven societies.

Governing structures are always imperfect, centrally controlled structures arguably more so because they find it harder to accommodate difference, to compromise. Where a significant structural imbalance emerges or sometimes just where the dominant group is threatened, an external enemy is a useful device for releasing or controlling internal tensions and maintaining power.

Power gives all governments a certain legitimacy because people just want to get on with their lives. Keep things stable and people will forgive a lot. Trouble often arises when the internal polity is breaking down. Then an external enemy comes into play as a unifying device, a device for staying in or achieving power. This may but need not be associated with a command driven society.

I was going to say that command driven societies are more likely to experience break-down because of their internal inflexibility, but on reflection I'm not absolutely sure that's right. A more decentralised society is likely, I think, to work better for internal purposes but is less likely to manage external threats.

All this is very muddy, I know, but I'm really unclear in my own mind.

2 tanners said...

In a hidden way (particularly hidden from Gen MacArthur) post-war Japan was a command driven economy with the secret rise of the keiretsu out of the ashes of the Zaibatsu. Probably less extreme was the power of the S Korean Chaebol and more extreme were the South East Asian countries such as Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia. Some have fared better, some worse. And the keiretsu repeated many of the group-think errors of the zaibatsu.

I have a feeling for which I can offer no systematic proof that the greater the amount of control exerted by the state, the more fragile that state becomes. The enduring nature of China and Egypt stand as obvious counterpoints to these although anyone at the end of a dynasty or the beginning of a new one might not see it that way.

Like James, I have facts, but only muddy models to link them.

Would it be cheeky to say that under the 2 Tanners hypothesis, Australia has never been stronger?

Anonymous said...

To add to the list of situations that 'very few Australians' are thinking about, I'm wondering if DG is still reading, and if so, would he have a comment on what is happening (and maybe likely to happen) in Zimbabwe? A serious question.


Jim Belshaw said...

Actually, 2t, in relative terms you may well be right. Nobody is worrying about us. Our economy is doing okay. There is no blood on the streets. Our government functions. The trains run mostly on or near time. In that sense, not to shabby.

kvd, DG drops in and out. In his absence, Zimbabwe is at the Mugabe end game. The veterans have just come out against him, there are fights over succession, the army is divided, the economy a mess. Mind you, on the last it has been for some considerable time.