Japan's Endless Search for Modernity

What the anniversary of the Meiji Restoration tells us about the country’s uncertain future.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrives at his official residence after he is re-elected as prime minister in Tokyo, Japan, November 1, 2017.  (REUTERS/Toru Hanai)

Since the morning of January 3, 1868, Japan has struggled to answer one question: What does it mean to be modern and Japanese? It was on that date that a group of mid-level samurai and imperial courtiers announced the formation of a new government to be ruled by the 16-year old Meiji emperor, thus ending two-and-a-half centuries of control by the Tokugawa samurai family.

One hundred and fifty years after the Meiji Restoration, several generations of growth and development have not erased the feeling that Japan remains in the midst of a transformation pitting tradition against modernity. Perhaps even more so today, 25 years since their economy cratered, Japanese people question what kind of society they want, how much to incorporate Western concepts of individualism, how much capitalist disruption to permit, and how to deal with the threat posed by hostile foreign countries—the same questions unleashed by the events of 1868.

The Meiji Restoration upended centuries of domestic stability that began in 1600, following a century of civil war. In that year, the victorious Tokugawa family imposed a political equilibrium among the country’s 250 largely autonomous feudal domains, which were loosely administered from the Tokugawa capital at Edo (modern-day Tokyo). With the connivance of the other great feudal lords, the family froze Japanese society into four Confucian-inspired castes: warrior, farmer, artisan, and merchant. To preserve a political equilibrium, the Tokugawas promulgated a series of maritime restrictions that curtailed, but did not eliminate, trade relations with foreign states.

By the late 19th century, this carefully calibrated system was coming apart. Under the Tokugawas, Japan developed a thriving domestic economy. But over time, merchants gained the upper hand, and many samurai, who received their pay in rice, found themselves impoverished by the shift to a cash-based economy. The frustrated younger samurai sought to break the shackles that bound them, while the newly rich merchants chafed at the constraints which kept them from wielding any real political power or marrying into the warrior caste.

Into this fervid environment sailed the American Commodore Matthew Perry, who was dispatched to Japan in 1853 to compel it to allow U.S. ships to land at Japanese ports. He was but the first in a long line of Western military leaders and diplomats to force Japan to accept trade treaties that undermined the authority of the Tokugawas. Gradually, powerful domains hostile to Tokugawa rule merged with dissatisfied samurai to form an active opposition. Soon, their slogan of “expel the barbarian, revere the emperor” morphed into a call to overthrow the Tokugawa. After an upheaval marked by terrorism, shifting political alliances, and limited battle, the palace coup of January 3, 1868, marked a largely bloodless end to a decade of instability.

The coalition of samurai and imperial bureaucrats that replaced the Tokugawa in 1868 began a decades-long process of political reform. On the face of it, they took power in the name of an imperial clan that leading samurai lords had kept out of politics for centuries. But in reality they were forced immediately to deal with the question of what kind of government they would erect. Virtually no one in the opposition imagined that within a decade, the new government in Tokyo would fight a civil war against traditionalist samurai holdouts, that the samurai caste as a whole would be dissolved, or that their ancient domains would be turned into administrative prefectures of a centralized national government. Surviving in a world dominated by the West demanded “enriching the country, strengthening the army,” one of the key slogans of the Meiji era. Restoration would not be enough; Meiji Japan would have to reinvent itself. But once unleashed, the forces of modernization would be hard to control.

In these early post-feudal years, Japanese thinkers struggled to locate their country in a world that had suddenly and dramatically expanded. They advocated a policy of datsu-A nyu-O, or “out of Asia, into Europe” to describe what they regarded as their natural position among the great powers. China had for centuries been Japan’s model for philosophy, politics, art, and the like, but it was unceremoniously dislodged in these decades, and the Qing Dynasty’s inability to grasp the new world occasioned growing contempt on the part of Japanese modernizers.

Not surprisingly, it was Japan’s urban areas that most readily embraced  modernity. The elite did its best to midwife a competitive industrial economy, while simultaneously preventing real political liberalization. Yet a slow move towards greater political participation was inevitable, presaged by the growth of parties and the slow expansion of male-only suffrage. Meanwhile, Japan began mimicking the Western imperial powers, extending its power over weaker territories, from Okinawa to Formosa and eventually to the Korean peninsula and, by the 1930s, continental Manchuria.

All this disrupted Japan’s social, economic, and political fabric. The Meiji legal codes limited individual rights and treated persons as subordinate parts of legal family units, while the demise of the feudal economic system led to the rise of rural landlords, who effectively kept large swathes of the populace as tenant farmers. The government captured religion, creating a centralized State-Shinto apparatus that glorified the emperor and subordinated his subjects to a mission civilisatrice that pulled the rest of Asia into a Japanese-dominated modernity. Domestically, intellectuals argued over how best to organize society, with Marxists competing against the new capitalist class and traditional agrarianists. As Japan became integrated with the global trading system, it found itself battered by the Great Depression. Like their samurai predecessors, a faction of dissatisfied, hyper-nationalist military officers destabilized domestic politics through terrorism and coups, driving Japan down a path of aggressive conquest abroad that triggered the Pacific War.

The end of World War II and the retribution visited upon Japanese militarists unleashed a second wave of socioeconomic and political dislocation. The triumphant Americans, occupying the islands for seven years after the war, enforced universal suffrage and breathed new life into a socialist movement that had been suppressed before the war. They ensured universal education for females as well as males. The Meiji law codes were rewritten to place the individual, not the family, as the central unit of society, and the great landlords were dispossessed of their rural holdings, allowing tenant farmers to buy land. Perhaps most significantly, the emperor was stripped of his semi-divinity, and allowed to continue only as a constitutional figurehead. While arguments about whether the Americans went too far in restraining the Japanese elite persist, the extraordinary liberation that took place in the post-war years is undeniable.

Yet this democratization also contained a trauma of its own, as the void created by the desacralizing of the emperor and the disestablishment of State Shinto removed the gods from their once-central position in Japanese society. The individual found himself perched precariously between legal autonomy and inflexible, still-hierarchical social networks, even as meritocracy became the operative model of social advancement.

Considerable uncertainty over national and individual identity in Japan was subordinated to the project of post-war rebuilding. The country soon became the engine for the new Asian workshop of the world and its second-largest economy by the late 1970s. Yet all that collapsed in 1989, when the asset-price bubble burst, sending Japan into a generation-long stagnation from which it has yet to recover. Now surpassed by China in size, strength, and influence, Japan again finds itself facing nations more powerful than itself and questioning where it goes from here. Its unprecedented demographic decline raises questions about how it will keep its economy going, not to mention how the state will pay for its generous entitlement programs, which cost over $1 trillion in 2016, or how it will defend itself or exercise influence abroad.

The response by Japan’s current prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has been a series of economic reforms and a return to a once-unfashionable nationalism. He asserts Japan’s uniqueness, while assuming the mantle of defender of the liberal-international order in Asia—a clear counterpoint to China. In some ways, his project harkens back to the Meiji renovators, who sought to strengthen the country while serving as a vanguard to modernize Asia.

While remaining a largely culturally conservative nation, Japan’s commitment to democracy, the rule of law, gender equality, and the like, places it firmly in the camp of liberal nations. As such, even as its economic power declines relative to China, Japan continues to offer a powerful alternative to its regional rival. Japan may continue to struggle with questions of discrimination against minorities, especially Koreans, and pervasive informal discrimination against women, but it practices nothing like China’s state-enforced abortions or paramilitary suppression of ethnic minorities. Moreover, as captured by special interests and elites as their politics may be, the Japanese nonetheless have the right to self-determination.

Under Abe, Japan has steadily, if modestly, increased its military budget and revised a host of long-standing laws that prevented it from pursuing defense cooperation with other nations. It has resisted Chinese encroachment in both the East China Sea and South China Sea at a time when fears are growing that Beijing is trying to eventually choke off freedom of navigation through crucial waterways. In addition, Tokyo has deepened its security relations with Southeast Asian nations. With Donald Trump pulling America out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Japan is also leading the effort to shepherd a truncated deal. While domestic resistance to fully opening Japanese markets remains strong, Tokyo is searching for economic alternatives to blunt China’s increasing regional financial and trade dominance.

Abe’s recent economic, political, and security efforts, are gambles that Tokyo can help provide some of the public goods that shape how a liberal, open international system is supposed to work, but to which Japan largely abstained from for 70 years after World War II. Viewed in light of the Meiji-era renovation, Japan seems once again to be trying utilize global norms to carve out a leading role abroad.

Combined with his economic reforms at home, Abe appears to be betting on an alchemic reaction that transmutes Japan’s inherent insularity and domestic inefficiencies into a revitalized society, renewed national strength, and a recovered influence abroad. One hundred fifty years on from the Meiji Restoration, the renovation of Japan continues, as does the search for its modern identity.