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Japan: The Symptoms and the Disease

ISSUE:  Winter 1939

Japan: the Hungry Guest, By C. G. Allen. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company. $3.00. Imperial Japan: 1926-1938, By A. Morgan Young. New York: William Morrow and Company. $3.00.

In 1702 the Ako vendetta, which is better known as the revenge of the Forty-seven Ronin, was brought to a successful and bloody conclusion. These faithful retainers, immortalized in verse, drama, fiction, history (this incident occupies a whole volume in the monumental work devoted to the Tokugawa period by Tokutomi Soho), and familiar to the West chiefly through Redesdale’s “Tales of Old Japan,” were obliged to perform hara-kiri at the orders of the sho-gunal authorities. Political assassins in Japan fare better today. Rarely are they executed and much more often they are released unrepentant and unpunished. This contrast between the severity of justice towards terrorists during the Tokugawa era and the tolerance shown their spiritual heirs today might serve as a text illustrating A. Morgan Young’s “Imperial Japan. 1926-38.”

Mr. Young, editor for ten years of the Japan Chronicle, in this book continues his narrative of Japanese history begun in his “Japan in Recent Times. 1912-1926.” He has maintained the same high level of style, critical judgment, and shrewd reconstruction of complex events, albeit with a sharper pen. For all its sordid picture of corruption, intrigue, and murder, this book is far from being a mere chronique scandaleuse in the manner of a Procopius. Mr. Young beats about the swampy underbrush of the Japanese political world and discloses some strange unprepossessing figures. There is the “old male harridan,” Ito Myoji; the “strutting patriot,” Adachi Kenzo, inspirer of the conspirator who blew the leg off Marquis Okuma, also one of the murderers of the Queen of Korea, and finally Home Minister in the Hamaguchi cabinet. Then most fantastic of all there appears Inoue, first a spy in Manchuria, then a Nichiren priest and organizer of the terrorist society Ketsumeidan (Blood Brotherhood). His trial as a terrorist became a farce, the judge going to the length of visiting him in his cell to apologize for some fancied slight or insult. The exploits of these men, whose prototype can be found in every country, are not so important, but the attitude of the authorities towards them gives one a clue to the political trend in Japan. Mr. Young, on the other hand, gives full credit to the integrity and courage of their victims, giving them the benefit of every doubt.

Mr. Young has ably described the recent Japanese political scene, but as befits a chronicler of this type, he does not attempt to diagnose the social disease which can produce these alarming symptoms. Such a diagnosis is difficult to make, but it should be attempted somewhere, not only as a fascinating historical problem but also in order to absolve the gentle and patient Japanese people from the charge of inbred bloodthirstiness. Assassination has been a time-honored weapon in Japanese history, especially at times of crisis, such as on the eve of the great Meiji Restoration (1868) or during the period of Japanese expansion. The transition of Japan from an over-ripe feudalism to a capitalism reared under hothouse conditions took place in a single generation—a period which lasted at least two hundred years in England and over one hundred in France. Furthermore, this rapidly growing new Japan was unceremoniously jostled and threatened by Western powers, some of whom had just overwhelmed China. Japan had thus to put its house in order while guarding the front door against possible invasion. At the same time the new Meiji government had to placate a turbulent horde of declassed feudal retainers who finally turned to open rebellion in 1877. Even after suppression of the rebellion, their threats and intimidations—only too often carried into action—kept the political life of Japan disordered and precarious. With no organ or assembly to serve as their political springboard, many of the more desperate ronin organized terrorist societies which have survived and proliferated so that today they still can play an important part in Japanese politics.

The Meiji government weathered that stormy period, thanks largely to an autocratic and able bureaucracy and the very real idea of loyalty to the throne which pervaded all classes. But that idea of loyalty was capable of various interpretations—as it is today—and was used as justification for terror against an “unfaithful” minister. Saigo Taka-mori, leader of the Satsuma Revolt of 1877, is still revered as a paragon of loyalty. During its rapid growth, faced with such social and international problems, modern Japan could not afford the luxury of a laissez-faire period of capitalism, with its political counterpart, Victorian liberalism.

The Japanese Diet, unlike Western institutions of popular representation, was not the fruit of a bitterly contested struggle for democracy, but rather a concession to the public demand for political representation, a concession which that able student of Bismarck, Prince Ito, took care to render impotent by removing from its competency the effective control of the purse. Shortly it was to be hamstrung by the archbureaucrat Marshal Yamagata, who devised the ordinance whereby the ministers for Army and Navy must be selected from ranking generals and admirals in active service. Accordingly, party politicians, despairing of ever making this mutilated Diet the arena for genuine political struggles, decided that all they could do was to raise the perverse art of obstruction to the point where the government, to save time and trouble, would provide them with substantial bribes. Thus violence and corruption were attendant at the birth of modern Japan, and have remained as unwelcome but persistent companions ever since. Nevertheless, there has been manifested at critical times strong public resentment against, for instance, the bureaucratic cynicism of Katsura (1913), the corruption of the Yamamoto cabinet (1914) and the Saito cabinet (1984), and against the violent mutiny of February, 1936. Moreover, leaders have appeared in Japanese public life who have tilted against sinister forces and have thus brought down upon themselves the spite of a shoddy Cassius or Brutus disguised in the toga of the patriot moralist.

C. G. Allen, in his “Japan: the Hungry Guest,” has given us a compressed well-balanced description of contemporary Japanese government, society, and economic development. Although the book is mostly concerned with economic problems, Mr. Allen shows himself to be an accomplished traveler and observer. Some of the most penetrating obiter dicta in the book describe Japanese family life, the position of woman, education, and such. His judgments are always sympathetic yet critical. Genuinely fond of the Japanese, Mr. Allen yet is not silent upon the subject of an exaggerated nationalism, violence in politics, and an aggressive foreign policy.

He has pointed out how in Japan, where a marked feudal paternalism and parochialism has survived in the midst of a feverishly active industrial society, the attitude to politics is still essentially domestic. That is to say, they treat a politician not as a public figure but as a member of a clan or family. The press indulges in the most amazing revelations about the private lives and vices of leading figures in Japan. Political heterodoxy invokes condign punishment—but the most violent libel does not. An unpopular policy is often attacked indirectly by publicizing some scandalous affair in the career of its chief advocate. Dr. Minobe was really persecuted for his opposition to the growing dominance of the military in the government, but many foreign observers were at a loss how to explain why he was so cruelly hounded for a liberal interpretation of the Emperor’s constitutional position in a book written a score of years or so ago and which had been the textbook of innumerable respectable ministers and jurists. This attitude is at once Japan’s strength and weakness; its strength because such intense group-loyalty can act as a great unifier in times of crisis, its weakness because the corrosive effects of an industrial civilization will eventually dissolve this feudal outlook on life.


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