Japan's Ambition

THE protest of China against the reconstruction of the Mukden-Antung Railway, and the quiet but determined way in which Japan proceeded in the work in apparent defiance of Chinese sovereignty over Manchuria, have very naturally renewed the discussion concerning the ultimate aims and ambitions of the Japanese which was rife at the close of the late war, when, it will be remembered, the entire civilized world was speculating upon the portent of the great military power rising in the Far Orient. As then, it is now again being seriously asked, whether the signs do not indicate that the virus of modern imperialism has been infused into the veins of the people of the Island Empire.

It was of course inevitable that the enormous triumph of Japan over a firstclass Western power should awaken in the Occident a widespread sentiment of jealousy and distrust, and that the universal admiration of the nations evoked by the doughty deeds of the Japanese soldiery while the war was in progress would be followed by the sure reaction of fearsomeness at the advent of so formidable a new power in the family of nations; the dread becoming so pervasive, that even the mighty republic across the seas, the staunchest friend of the new power, yielded to its influence so far as actually to discuss the possibility of war with the nation which it had hitherto regarded with a unique affection and a fostering care.

Were it possible to discuss the question of Japan’s imperialistic ambitions on the basis of ordinary human nature, or on that of the common history and experience of mankind, the fear evinced by the Western powers might in some degree be justified ; but the fact cannot be too strenuously insisted upon, or too often dinned into the Occidental mind, that the ambitions of this nation may not, any more than its moralities or its social codes and customs, be judged by Western standards. As its history is unique, so is the essential character which has grown out of that history. Its extraordinary past is by no means so remote that it should not be taken into full account in forming any intelligent judgment concerning its present dispositions and tendencies.

One of the most frequent charges, for example, brought against this nation since the close of its successful war has been that of the “cockiness” imparted to its disposition by the consciousness of its great triumph. Aside from the fact that the reports of such a tendency have emanated mainly from tourists, who have come into contact only with the demoralized coolies of the treaty ports, the sole habitat of the genus hoodlum, there exists, as is well known to every old resident here, a salient and pervading characteristic of Japanese nature, the direct result of age-long influences, which negatives even the possibility of fixing such a charge upon the nation. It is wholly natural for the average Westerner to indulge in the spirit of vainglory over the successes of his nation in the field of war, whereas the entire training of the Japanese mind has for centuries been in the direction of self-depreciation. So ingrained has that habit become, that to commend one’s self, or aught which one has done, is the grossest violation of the social code. The very structure of the language itself is a rebuke to the spirit of vainglory, with the result that in all conversation the idea of merit being involved in one’s personality or in one’s deeds is kept completely in the background. Boasting of any sort being thus the supreme social offense, it becomes therefore wholly impossible for any one who knows the nation to imagine it given over to priding itself upon its triumphs, even when the fame of them was ringing through the world. However great may have been the actual sense of satisfaction pervading the nation, it simply could not find expression either in the conversation or in the demeanor of the Japanese people.

The facts in the case fully confirm the force of such a priori consideration. Apart from the hoodlum element created in the ports by contact with Western civilization, never did a nation in the hour of overwhelming victory, or one in which the sentiment of patriotism is so superlatively developed, bear itself so modestly. The vast army returned from its hard-won fields of battle, without rejoicing parade or outward show of triumph, and straightway melted away into the walks of civil life and industry with even less public notice than that which marked the close of America’s Civil War. Even more significant than this is the fact, unprecedented in history, that the war was followed by no slightest hint of wrangling for the proper apportionment of credit or fame between either the different branches of the service or any of the units thereof. Admiral Togo’s dispatch announcing the great victory in the naval battle of Tsushima, and attributing his success to the virtues of the Emperor alone, or, in other words, to the sentiment of patriotism animating the entire force under his command, was the expression of the consciousness of the whole nation, and in the light of it the charge of “cockiness,” growing purely out of the Western conception of the attitude a nation must necessarily assume under such circumstances, is the very last which should be brought against the people of Japan.

The ordinary impulses of human nature being thus no criterion by which this peculiar nation should be judged, so likewise its unique history should ever be taken into account in estimating the likelihood of its advent into that field of imperialism toward which the eager nations of the West are today striving.

For of this fear, which has found such extensive lodgment in the Occidental mind, it needs but to be said that, if it be in any degree well-founded, it signifies that a change far more wonderful and startling than any at which the Western peoples have hitherto marveled has been wrought upon the inmost spirit of this island nation, — a change compared with which its outward transformations during the last half-century would sink into insignificance.

It is a comparatively easy thing for a nation to change its garb, or to import foreign ways, or even to adopt in its outward forms a foreign religion; but to effect a vital change in its essential character, disposition, and temperament, which are the results of agelong training, is entirely another matter. Only an equally age-long process of evolution could possibly accomplish that result.

It is especially in the case of Japan, a nation whose disposition and temperament are the outcome of centuries of isolation, that this consideration should alone be sufficient to negative the charge that the dream of imperialism is to-day engaging its thought or likely to become its ambition. Aside from all considerations of the inherent folly of entering into a contest with any of the great powers for the acquisition of any part of the territory of a world now so completely absorbed and appropriated by them, it is entirely safe to say, especially in view of the fact that the purely practical problem of room for the surplus population of the islands has been solved by the results of the late war, that whatever ideal of imperialism Japan has now in view, it is plainly not that of territorial aggrandizement. Its vision is now, as it has ever been of old, intensive rather than extensive. It is the preservation and maintenance in dignity and power of the ancient Empire, without a dream of foreign conquest or of the acquisition of new territory, upon which the thought of every true Japanese is now centred. Could the nation be accused of boasting, its pride would be found centred in its hoary antiquity, and in the fact that throughout the ages the foot of the invader has never pressed its soil. To keep that fame intact, as it has ever been in the past, is to-day the vital essence of Japanese ambition.

Such being the a priori consideration operative to dispel the fear that Japan may join the ranks of the grasping powers of the world, what now are the actual facts of the situation which would seem to portend a vital change in her attitude and intent?

Although even so intelligent a paper as is the San Francisco Argonaut has recently remarked editorially that “ the Japanese people look to nothing less than the possession of the Philippine Islands and Hawaii,” it is nevertheless high time that the attribution of any such design should be relegated to the category of supreme absurdities. Not only has there never been the slightest hint of such desire on the part of the Japanese public, either in the press or in casual discussion, but every foreign resident here, in the least degree cognizant of the thought of the leaders of the Empire, the only ones whose opinion is worth consideration, knows that, so far from that idea having ever found lodgment in their minds, it is absolutely unthinkable, as is and always has been any possibility of war with the American Republic on any issue.

Were the islands in question unappropriated, or in the possession of any power from which hostility to Japan might be feared, or were such possession to be construed as in any way a menace to the safety or integrity of the island realm, it might be possible for the government to fix longing eyes upon them; but the simple fact that they are in the hands of a power regarded with an amity closely akin to positive affection puts an entirely different complexion upon the matter. They who are talking so glibly of the likelihood of a war for any cause between Japan and the United States can have no conception of the force or universality of the profound regard in which the Western Republic is everywhere held in that empire. Looked upon as the motherland of Japan’s new birth among the powers, and of its whole modern career, with Commodore Perry enrolled among its historic saints and saviors, one has but to go anywhere in the land and announce himself an American, and straightway the country is his. Under such conditions and with a government peculiarly alive to the necessity of their continuance, any suggestion of war between the two nations becomes, not merely supremely foolish, but absolutely unthinkable.

When, however, as “Westward the course of empire” still takes its way, the eyes of modern Japan are seen to be turned in that direction, a different aspect seems given to the question whether the lust of territorial aggrandizement has taken possession of her soul. The results of the late war having given her a vast “sphere of influence,” the query becomes entirely legitimate as to her intent to exploit that sphere after the fashion of the powers into whose family she has been admitted, their now familiar method being to overlord the territory of some weaker power or people, the foothold thus gained by a specious phrase being followed up sooner or later by open claimancy, full possession, and the establishment of an alien sovereignty.

It is not at all surprising, therefore, that, this having become the confirmed habit of the greater Western powers, the advent of Japan among them should be interpreted as a fearsome indication that an Asiatic nation, having learned their game, is about to play it in alarming fashion, and become the dominating lord over the regions of the East not yet fully appropriated by them, but long regarded as their own ultimate spoil. It is in view of this fear, and of the natural trend of militant powers, that the question of Japan’s ambitions in regard to Korea and Manchuria becomes wholly legitimate.

As to the Korean peninsula, not only has it for centuries been traditionally regarded by all Japanese as a part of the sacred soil of their empire, but its strategic position, it being, according to a popular phrase, the “ dagger pointed at the heart of Japan,” has ever kept the nation alive to the tremendous danger of permitting it to be occupied by any foreign power capable of wielding that dagger. The fortunes of war having brought it under the nation’s direct care, the problem involved in that care, instead of being one of territorial aggrandizement, becomes one of the national safety. The incentive which throbs in every Japanese breast, the preservation of their island home from the clutch of the Northern power (a fate inevitable had that power been permitted to wield the “dagger),” is for the present at least the ruling thought of the Japanese government in its attitude toward its Korean dependency. That the peninsula must be under its direct sovereignty, either in the form of a protectorate held by the firmest of hands, or by open annexation, has become a national necessity. It was not more impossible for America to leave the Philippines as an easy prey to the predatory nations of the West than it is now for Japan to expose Korea to the machinations of European diplomacy. Indeed the barbarous tribes composing the larger part of the population of the southern archipelago might have been much more safely left thus exposed, so far as international interests are concerned, than the moribund and spiritless nation of Korea, whose corrupt and nerveless government offers so easy a mark for the foreign despoiler.

An absolutely effete civilization, such as Korea illustrates, stands in need of the very strongest protection from without which can be given it; and to insure its own safety no mere formal protectorate can be in any way efficient. Japan has just now, in her struggle for her own self-preservation, saved this ancient mother-country of hers from an appalling danger, and the only way to keep it saved is by the strong hand. As the next of kin to a defunct sovereignty, as well as its recent rescuer from the clutches of the Northern bear, she has every right now to assume complete control, her only care being to see to it that such control be wisely exercised for the benefit of a pathetically despoiled and hopeless people. Whatever the future may develop, there should just now at least be no question raised as to the legitimacy of Japan’s ambition anent Korea, nor should her present policy for the redemption of the peninsula be interpreted as evidence that she has joined the greedy nations of the West in their scramble for territorial spoils. The merest glance at the map of eastern Asia, conjoined with the slightest perusal of the recent annals of Korea, should be amply sufficient to disabuse any fair-minded man of the idea that the stigma of modern imperialism should be fastened on Japan because of her treatment of the ward now placed in her keeping.

Of the manner in which she is addressing herself to the task, there has indeed been severe criticism, often justified, but made chiefly, as is the wont in such cases, by those ignorant of the conditions, or unable to realize or appreciate the magnitude of the task in hand. The problem before Japan presenting the same enormous difficulties as those confronting America in dealing with the Philippines, with the exception that Japan, in attempting to revive an effete civilization, has far more intractable material upon which to work, the two cases have also proved almost precisely identical in the fact that the critics of either government, while severe in their strictures upon its action, have as yet suggested no efficient or even possible alternative to such action. That consideration should alone be sufficient to indicate the seriousness of the odds confronting both the protectorates in dealing with their respective wards.

In Japan’s case the leading criticism which has been brought against her is the ruthlessness of her treatment of the Koreans, laying her open to the charge of terrorism, as indicating imperialistic designs and ambitions on her part, and her disposition to regard the peninsula as a conquered province. Such criticism, while justified by the facts, is nevertheless wholly inconclusive as to the motive to be inferred from them. The terrorism to which the Koreans were subjected in the initial stages of Japan’s occupation of the country was indeed something almost beyond belief. During a journey there three years ago I again and again saw at many a railway station a whole crowd of the spiritless inhabitants put to flight by a single Japanese simply turning around and looking at them. But what were the facts underlying these distressful conditions? Japan, it will be remembered, took virtual possession of the country at the outset of the war. Being unusually gifted with the sense of proportion, her thought and energies were wholly absorbed in the prosecution of the gigantic struggle; and while it was in progress the inevitable happened. The new field for colonization opened to the Japanese drew to it precisely the same class among them as that which in America flocks into every new mining country. A horde of disreputable adventurers and soldiers of fortune invaded the peninsula, while the government, in its absorption in the greater task upon its hands, placed no check upon the flood until the war came to an end. From the results of that neglect, and from the criticism thereby engendered, Japan is to-day suffering the penalty of losing somewhat of the world’s confidence; but from the day the war closed, everything possible has been done by the government to retrieve the distressful situation. The influx of the disreputable class has been stopped, its flow being displaced by that of the quiet, industrious, peace-loving, and cleanly people representative of the pervading domestic life of the Island Empire. The scenes I have described at the railway station are no longer witnessed. Instead of them, I to-day note an aspect strikingly suggestive of the influences silently at work for the regeneration of the land.

Every traveler in Korea who has recorded his impressions has noted the abjectness of the native life there, as evidenced in the streets and dwellings of the people. A Korean town, even the capital city not excepted, is to all outward appearance hardly more than a collection of dog-kennels. Now, if the Japanese had done no more than to give the inhabitants, as they have done, a striking object-lesson in the ways of civilized life, they would already have sufficiently indicated the necessity of their presence in the centres of Korean population. To-day, along the line of the great railway extending the whole length of the peninsula, at each station, amid the reek and squalor of the Korean town, may be seen a group of the dainty, cleanly, and charming Japanese dwellings, recognized by every traveler in this land as an index of the high civilization here attained, and constituting an invaluable object-lesson for the nation to which it seeks to extend that civilization.

Nor is this by any means the only indication that the ruthlessness which marked the initial stage of the occupation of the peninsula, and which might justifiably have then been interpreted as evidencing an imperialistic motive, has now given place to a disposition more in accord with the kindly and peace-loving nature of Korea’s island neighbor. The simple fact that Japan, the moment the war was over, placed at the helm of her new dependency by far the ablest and most distinguished of her statesmen, the recognized leader of the remarkable group of men which for the last forty years has guided her own empire through the chaos of its regeneration, showed not only that she was fully conscious of the magnitude of the problem confronting her in Korea, but also how far her methods were to diverge from those of imperialism. The whole administration of Prince Ito in the peninsula has shown that his face has been set as a flint against the acquisition by Japan of territory upon the mainland. All the world knows that, when the war closed, Korea was looked upon by the powers as the main reward of the victors. The right to annex it as an integral part of the Japanese Empire would have been universally conceded, and it is moreover beyond question that upon that strictly logical basis the task of Korean regeneration would have been far easier than upon the nebulous and illogical one which has proved the chief stumbling-block in the way there, just as it has in America’s administration in the Philippines. And yet, in spite of such obvious advantage to be gained, and in the teeth of urgent counsel, given not only by many of his countrymen, but by foreign advisers of the government, Prince Ito placed himself squarely upon the issue, and has since steadfastly adhered to the principle of maintaining the protectorate until education in self-government should raise the Korean nation to the dignity of independence, and set it again upon its feet.

That such task may indeed prove in the lapse of years to be impossible; that the civilization of Korea may have already become so utterly effete and corrupt as to be incapable of reform; that other counsels may gain sway in the Japanese government when its present wise leaders pass from the scene, are of course among the possibilities which the future may reveal; but for the present the Ito policy, anti-imperialistic in its very essence, is the efficient motive of Japan in her relations with Korea. How far it has been really efficient, how deeply impressed the Koreans themselves have already become by the sincerity and steadfastness with which Prince Ito has clung to it, may be evidenced from the fact that at the very time of the assassination of the estimable Mr. Stevens in San Francisco, struck down simply because he was a foreign adviser of the Korean government, the prince himself was walking in the streets of Seoul unattended and without fear of harm.

Since the above was written, the lamentable assassination of Prince Ito at Harbin by a Korean zealot has thrown Japan into the deepest mourning. At first sight the deed would seem to indicate the existence of a sentiment of profound hatred on the part of the Koreans as a nation toward the policy with which the prince has been identified. From the steady advance, however, which that policy has of late been making among the native leaders, further evidenced by the grief of the Korean Crown Prince, who is heart-broken at the loss of his cherished guide and mentor, it is far more probable that the deed was that of a youth actuated by the insanity of misguided patriotic feeling, and of the same class as that of the crazy zealot by whom Mr. Stevens met his untoward fate.

However that may be, there is in the minds of all who are cognizant, of the actual relations between Japan and Korea, a striking parallelism between this latest assassination and that of President Lincoln. Just as the latter had its most untoward result upon the reconstruction policy by which the South was to be restored, every one now acknowledging that by the assassin’s pistol the conquered states had lost their best friend and counselor, so now there is reason to fear that by the untimely death of Japan’s leading statesman, whose heart was set upon the purpose of restoring the independence and autonomy of Korea, the fulfillment of the dream of the nationalists of that distressful land must be greatly deferred, if it be not forever unrealized.

As to Japan’s other “sphere of influence,” Manchuria, it goes without saying that the difficulties confronting her there from the anomalous status of a country in which the sovereignty of China is nominally recognized, while two foreign powers are in actual control, are of such a character that no definite conclusion can justly be drawn as to the leading motive guiding her actions there. That motive must necessarily change as circumstances develop the extraordinary situation. The plain evidence of her initial motive, however, was her marked spirit of forbearance at the close of her struggle with Russia. According to the rules of war in vogue among the nations who are to-day complaining of the use of undue influence in her “sphere,” Manchuria should have been placed in the same category as Korea, and yielded to her as the reward of victory. The fact that, apart from leases of a railway and of a strip of land twice conquered at enormous sacrifices of blood and treasure, she contented herself with the gain of an “open door,” its privilege to be shared by all the powers which stood by while she was fighting their battles alone, ought to be sufficiently impressive to still the tongues of those powers now seeking to bring against her the reproach of imperialism. It ought also to reveal and to emphasize the true source and direction of her national ambition, that ambition being to an extraordinary degree insuiar, and thus directly antagonistic to any thought or dream of imperialism. It is, as I have already said, intensive, not extensive.

The sole aim of Japan is to secure the future safety and to enhance the prosperity of its own island realm, and of its eminently peace-loving inhabitants. Foreign conquests, or acquisitions of territory, form no part of its dreams. Its intense patriotism, become a veritable religion, is centred upon and bounded by its own beautiful land, and it cares for no other. Its tremendous struggle to secure its safety now over, it is seeking by every possible means its development on industrial and commercial lines through the lawful channels of trade.

Whatever may have been the momentary stimulus given to the military spirit of the people by their two great wars, that spirit is alien, not only to their history, to their habits of life, and to their ingrained love of seclusion, but more than all to their passion for industry and for the peace by which alone it can be fostered. When, conjoined with this, the position of their country, enthroned upon the seas, with the same mighty stimulus to commercial life which has brought Britain its enduring fame, is taken into account, the underlying ambition of the Japanese becomes plainly manifest.

And this, after all, is the real crux of the international situation anent Japan, the vital source of the jealousy and suspicion with which her career is now being watched by the Western powers. A new and formidable competitor in the fields of industry and commerce has appeared on the eastern horizon, and it is of course inevitable that its advent should be viewed with unusual alarm, the whole commercial world being pervaded by the fear that Japan is about to show in the realm of trade the same aptitude and the same marvelous efficiency she developed in the field of war. This is an alarm which, however, in the broader view of the ultimate results of the development of competitive energies upon the world’s civilization, will in due time be completely dissipated.

Though not at first sight wholly germane to the subject in hand, the intensity of Japan’s purely national ambition, centred as it is upon home development, and thus differentiated from the imperialistic craze, has also a marked bearing upon another very different Western interest. I have noted in the American and English press of late that for some reason not at all fathomed here, an unusually vivid hope is just now being entertained in the missionary world that the Japanese field has suddenly become ripe for the harvest of conversion to Christianity.

Of this it must be said that, if aught in this hope were being justified or were ever likely to be justified, its realization would run directly counter, not only to the whole course of Japan’s ambitions, but also to that of the annals of Christian missions themselves. As Lafcadio Hearn once so clearly pointed out, “never within modern history has Christendom been able to force the acceptance of its doctrines upon a people able to maintain any hope of national existence. The nominal success of missions among savage tribes or the vanishing Maori race only proves the rule.” But to-day the consciousness of national existence, the pride of having secured a place among the great powers of the world, the stimulus of patriotic fervor, the passion of loyalty, all centred upon the progress and development of their own fair land, these are the very breath of life to every subject of the Island Realm, and so long as these remain to animate the soul of the people, the realization of the missionary hope is doomed to sure disappointment.

On the other hand, and curiously enough on the self-same ground, there is some justification for the enthusiasm now being shown in the mission field of Korea, where the hope of a separate national existence is becoming dimmed, through the possibility that the old civilization has grown to be so effete and spiritless that national regeneration will prove to be out of the question. Were the mission boards, taught by the failures of the past, inspired now to adopt the only means by which the vital current of thought in any people can be changed, and were they to send there, to reinforce the present band of “workers,” only men of mental light and leading, they might indeed find there, but never in Japan, a field ripe for the harvest.