The Sacred Cow of Japan



WASHINGTON is full of experts who will tell you that the Japanese are mysterious, fanatical, and not to be understood by any ordinary use of the intellect. The same experts are also addicted to citing bits of lore which, they tell you condescendingly, explain why the Japanese always do this or never do that. In London, you can turn up just as many of these experts. The awe in which we hold them is remarkable. Somehow, nobody ever successfully challenges the racket. And yet the record of our Japan experts is confused and fantastic.

A crosslight can be thrown on “expert” thinking by two quotations from Sumner Welles’s The Time for Decision. On the subject of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, Mr. Welles writes on page 278: “Neither the Department of State nor American representatives in the Far East had, prior to the invasion, any accurate or realistic conception of Japan’s true intentions. Yet all during the summer months Japanese military officials had been blatantly frank about their intentions, and the extent of their military preparations had been by no means concealed. The United States was caught by surprise in spite of these warnings.”

On page 294 Mr. Welles writes: “There is no foreign post where it is more difficult for an American Ambassador to learn the truth than Tokyo. The reports of Ambassador Grew from the outset of his mission to the last days — seen in the light of the present — reflected with amazing accuracy the true trend of events.”

Sacred Cow Number One, and in fact the cow to end all cows, is the Japanese Emperor. If we can make sense of him, there is nothing left of the legend that things Japanese are incomprehensible to the Western mind. Does the cult of the Emperor mean the same thing to Japanese generals, admirals, directors of banks and corporations, factory workers, and peasants in the fields? Should America advocate the removal of the Emperor as a focus of militarism or support him as a focus of anti-militarism? Would a democratic monarchy be workable with a Japanese Emperor at the apex? Where do the Japanese liberals belong in our political thinking? To what extent is it true that ideas originating outside of Japan are incomprehensible to Japanese minds, and ideas originating inside Japan incomprehensible to our minds? At one point or another these questions all touch the great Emperor hoax.

The orthodox “expert” approach to the position of the Emperor in Japan is all too often weakened by accepting the premise that in Japan the Emperor is officially holy. This notion obliges the experts to pursue through the rabbit warren of history, literature, and Shintoism the rabbity questions of how holy the Emperor is, and in what ways the idea of this holiness works in the minds of Japanese. To submit to such restrict ions is unscientific. Moreover, it is unnecessary. The truth is that the Emperor can be taken out of the shadow s of mystery by analyzing recent Japanese history as a whole.


FOR two and a half centuries prior to the arrival of Perry’s squadron in Yedo Bay, Japan had been under the Tokugawa Shogunate. The Shogunate was a peculiar institution of centralized feudalism. The Emperor reigned but did not rule. The Shogun was interposed between him and the nation. Like the Emperor himself and all feudal nobles, the Shoguns held their dictatorial powers by hereditary right. The office in this period was held by the Tokugawa family; but this family was an offshoot of the Minamoto group of clans, each of which was descended from the son of an Emperor.

Although the Tokugawa Shoguns, like earlier Shoguns of other clans, were legally sanctioned in their office by grant or decree of the Emperor, they had in fact won their position by success in feudal wars between the great noble clans of Japan. These were not civil wars which attempted to change the political order: they were purely competitive wars between rivals aspiring to dominance within an unchanging system of power. The Tokugawa clan had laid its grasp on power in the great bat tle of Sekigahara in 1600. To make its hold permanent, the clan relied on two policies: —

1. It set up a capital at Yedo, later known as Tokyo or “Eastern Capital,” at a distance from Kyoto, the Emperor’s capital. The Shogun was interposed completely between the Emperor and the business of government by the requirement that all feudatories should sign a written oath of loyalty to the Shogun.

2. The feudatories wore divided into two classes: those who had fought on the side of the Tokugawa clan before the battle of Sekigahara, and those who had submitted only after that battle. Distinctions of privilege between these two groups were intended to ensure that the early allies of the Tokugawa would always be on the watch against any dangerous growth of power among the “outer” clans whose allegiance had been given under compulsion.

By the time that Perry sailed into Yedo Bay in 1853, no society in Europe or Asia could compare with that of Japan in the completeness and tenacity of its feudal outlook and feudal institutions. In 1641 seclusion from foreign contact had finally been enforced, except for a few carefully watched and strictly circumscribed Dutch and Chinese at Nagasaki, and for about two hundred and fifty years the Tokugawa Shoguns had devoted themselves to the sole principle of perpetuating feudal institutions.

Nevertheless, there was great internal pressure in Japan. The Tokugawa and the “ inner” clans most closely associated with them had, in the course of enjoying their privileges, become largely attached to cities in which they could spend their wealth. By doing so, they nourished merchants who gradually raised the importance of wealth in money to a level at which it could compete, as a social and political force, with aristocratic birth and revenue in grain from landed estates.

While these changes were undermining the cohesion of the Tokugawa and their close adherents, the older feudalism remained relatively vigorous among the great lords of the “outer” clans, the most important of which were grouped in Southwestern Japan. They had an unimpaired feudal control over their own retainers and peasants, whereas change had grown up slowly around the Tokugawa until it embarrassed them like heavy ivy on an old oak. From these “outer” clans came most of the men who conquered Japan from within, with the result that the “new” Japan of the Meiji Era (1868-1912) was founded by men whose minds were colored by the strongest feudal traditions in the society of old Japan.

Commodore Perry showed the warriors of Japan that Western countries had the ships, the weapons, and the methods to conquer Japan if once they determined to do so — a revelation which gave the most daring men in the “outer” clans an opportunity to overthrow the Tokugawa Shogunate and conquer their own country under the guise of saving Japan from foreign conquest.


THE decisive group belonged to a class which had enough to lose to be fundamentally conservative, and enough to gain to be willing to risk bold experiments. They were born at a high enough level in feudal society to be confident about taking the lead; at a low enough level to be ambitious. In age, they stood below the heads of clans who were hesitant. in the face of strange, new emergencies. In class, they stood at the level where the demands of the great broke down in transmission to peasants, commoners, and townsmen. To such men, at certain junctures in history, there comes the opportunity to arrogate to themselves the giving of orders, combined with the knowledge of how to see that those orders are executed.

The main factors and phases of the “revolution” against the Shogunate were these: —

1. The Emperor was dug out of his innocuous desuetude and made a new focus of national loyalty combined with feudal loyalty. This move made it possible for key men on the Tokugawa side to evade their feudal loyalty to the Shogun on the excuse of a higher loyalty to the Emperor. It also made possible a division of the spoils between the two major anti-Tokugawa clans of Satsuma and Choshu, which, if the Shogunate had not been abolished, would have had to fight each other to see which clan should establish a new Shogunate.

2. Unity in face of the foreigner was used as an appeal to effect a quick regrouping around the Emperor. The new, confident young leaders dared to train peasants in the use of firearms. With these troops they first crushed those of the sword-bearing samurai who were so quixotic that they could not tell the difference between an unprofitable windmill and a profitable new militarism. Then, by resorting to the new device of conscription, they used armed peasants to hold down unarmed peasants and made it possible for the bigger feudal nobles to continue as a privileged class of great landowners.

National conscription, enacted in 1872-1878 and revised in 1883, was used as a dam to prevent the peasants from breaking out in revolution. Since the dam backed up a great reservoir of peasant manpower, there had to be a spillway to ease the pressure. The spillway was expansion into the continent of Asia, the stages and timing of which became acute political issues from the beginning of the Meiji Era in 1868.

In order to carry out their program, the men who conquered Japan from within had to get there ahead of Western imperialism. The foreigners had already begun to impose controls over Japan in the form of extraterritorial rights and customs tariffs favoring cheap imports from abroad. To prevent these controls from being extended, the founders of modern Japan took the lead themselves in expanding trade.

More trade meant more wealth and power in the hands of those engaged in trade. A clash between trading interests and feudal interests was avoided by recourse to that eminently modern device, the merger. The “insiders” of the feudal group went into trade. Japan, an agrarian country, had a negligible accumulation of cash capital. The government, by using its power to tax, could raise capital to expand trade and industry rapidly and without coming under foreign economic control. In its use of this power, the government gave charters and subsidies in planned rotation to create and to promote the necessary new economic activities. Thus the feudal class remained politically supreme, but what the feudal class did with its power was profitable to trade and industry. Therefore the new economic interests which might have competed with the old political interests became instead intertwined with them. Conversely, it was easy for men of samurai origin to enter banking, trade, and industry when these pursuits were made auxiliary to the interests of a government which was also of samurai derivation ; and their entry was made even easier by cash grants from the government.

The Emperor was brought into the team by the investment of “imperial household” funds in the new enterprises. In this way the Emperor remained the ideological pillar of the feudal system and became at the same time a main pillar of vested interest in the new, capitalistic structure.

From the beginning, the development of an internal market was made subsidiary to the development of markets abroad for Japan’s new products. Japan was deficient in coal, oil, and iron, the basic requirements of heavy industry and armaments. Japan had therefore to produce with the utmost cheapness, in order to pile up profit balances for the purchase of these requirements. The peasants had to be kept poor, so that surplus labor from the land would willingly enter factories at low wages; but keeping them poor meant that neither peasants nor factory workers could buy the new factory products in large quantities.

In this way the Japanese who conquered Japan created a remarkable dual system, combining a highly cartelized industry with an agriculture which preserved the social outlook of feudalism. Capitalism treats agriculture as an activity in which capital can be invested. Feudalism draws tribute from the farmer, but does not invest capital in the land. In Japanese agriculture the tenant has duties, the landlord rights, under a sharecropping system which forces the tenant to pay tribute in order to be allowed to work the land. The landlord, being able to make would-be tenants compete against each other, is not under pressure to spend capital in modernizing the methods of agriculture; he simply assumes that the way to increase crops per acre is to increase the aches per cropper.

The peasants, therefore, became the draft animals dragging Japan’s chariot of “remarkable progress” which admirers abroad were so ready to praise. To keep them docile, a number of devices were elaborated. Men were kept under social control by heavy indoctrination during military service. One part of their minds had to be made modern enough so that, while in uniform, they could efficiently handle the necessary weapons and machinery. Another part had to be kept feudal in outlook, so that after conscription they would return contentedly to the rice paddy and the fishing smack.

There was a deliberate screening out of students and urban workers in peacetime conscription, in order to keep the Army heavily peasant-minded.

Women were kept under social control by the industrial barracks system. A girl in a textile mill would be indentured for a term of years, under a cash advance to her parents. Living in a barracks, she had the minimum contact with the urban mind. She was fed and looked after well enough to prevent physical deterioration, and given enough education to make her a more nimble worker. Her education, however, had a strong emphasis on deportment and social attitude. As a result, she would eventually return to her rural home unaffected by her sojourn in the industrial age, meekly willing to accept a marriage arranged by her parents, and to accept also the fact that her surplus earnings would be retained by her parents or be taken by her husband’s family.


THE success of Japan’s rulers in exploiting feudal agriculture and mechanized industry has a bearing on two problems which puzzle Americans — Japan’s overpopulation and the possibility of a future democratic Japan.

Japan’s overpopulation is closely related to rural poverty and unmechanized farming. The farmer who has no capital and whose landlord refuses to invest capital and demands a heavy rent can only get more out of the land by putting more labor into it. Unable to hire labor, he must have children to help him; but when the children in turn have children, there are too many mouths for the land to support. In Tokugawa Japan the surplus was kept down by infanticide, grimly described in farming language as mabiki, “the word used of thinning a row of vegetables.” In modern Japan the surplus goes into the factories, but the constant rural overproduction of children keeps up the competition for jobs and keeps down wages. Under the militarists the teaching of birth control is forbidden and the people are taught that large families are a social and patriotic duty.

This kind of overpopulation cannot be remedied by colonial conquest, as Japanese propaganda persuaded many Americans to believe. The only remedy is to raise social standards to a level where a woman is not a chattel and can refuse to serve simply as breeding stock, and to raise economic standards to the level where both farming and factory families can save money and can afford to have the children they want, without being forced to go on having children for the sake of child labor.

In regard to a future democracy in Japan, it is the fashion to say that the Japanese are incapable of understanding ideas alien to their own culture. The history of Japan, however, does not support this notion. In the sixteenth century, when the Japanese were living in a world of purely Oriental thought, Christianity spread rapidly among them, aided by “the desire of the great feudatories to derive profit from foreign trade” coming in with the ships which brought the missionaries. The extermination of the Christians less than a century later was also not a purely religious question. Both Christian nobles and Christian peasants fought in the feudal wars and peasant insurrections which ended in the triumph of the Tokugawa Shogunate; and the final stand of the Christians, when 37,000 were killed at the Castle of Shimabara in 1638, “was among the immediate causes” of the Tokugawa policy of seclusion.

The inference is clear: any system of thought or belief has both political and economic implications, in the “mysterious” East as in the “rational” West. The Japanese, like other people, can adopt any system of society; but only if the changes made go beyond catchwords and permeate the whole society. Democracy in Japan cannot be attained by changing the status of the Emperor, but will require democratic changes throughout Japanese society.

There is, in fact, a democratic potential in Japanese life, which has had to be kept down by force. From 1931 onward, each crisis of Japanese policy has been preceded by attempts of the people to form democratic parties and to vote against war. The militarists have forced crises abroad partly in order to seize and keep control at home; and since, in these crises, they have always professed to be defending the interests of the Emperor, the Emperor is now identified as the resort of final appeal against any democratic trend. The democratic potential is still there, but if it is ever to emerge we must first, in the words of Sun Fo, “puncture the myth of the divinity of the Mikado.”

The indications of Japan’s own history are borne out by the record of the Americans of Japanese ancestry, who have shown themselves capable of being Americans of the finest kind. They have been guilty of no sabotage either in Hawaii or on the Pacific Coast, and without their loyalty and labor in Hawaii the damage at Pearl Harbor could not have been repaired so quickly. Their military units in Italy are the most decorated in the American Army, and individuals on special duty in the Pacific have shown outstanding heroism. There is a lesson in the fact that the spirit shown has been better in Hawaii, where there is less economic and social discrimination, than among the Pacific Coast Japanese, who have been the victims of deliberately incited and organized prejudice. We have been extraordinarily stupid, as well as cruel, in not publicizing widely the American-ness of our fellow citizens of Japanese ancestry.

Military aggression was the only possible outcome of Japan’s social system, and it will be renewed unless the Japanese are allowed to change the system. The whole structure was one of war. Such a structure could not stand securely unless the Japanese flag flew over the sources of war materials; and as the war materials did not exist in sufficient quantities within the Japanese islands, access by trade to sources abroad had sooner or later to be converted into control of the sources abroad.


BECAUSE of our habitual thinking, we have failed to see how these interacting factors link the Japanese “liberals” (another sacred cow) to the Japanese “militarists.” It ought to have been a basic assumption instead of a shocking discovery “in the light of the present” (to pick up again Mr. Welles’s perhaps unintentionally deadly phrase) that the opposition between militarism and Japan’s commercial and industrial interests was only one of timing. Japan’s trade profits paid a heavy tribute to build up a military and naval establishment powerful enough to seize raw material sources abroad if necessary.

If necessary — when? The “liberals” were those who hated to close the profitable period of preparation for war. The militarists were those who argued the advantages of each opportunity to convert preparation into execution. The militarists were professionally prone to argue that the hog had been fattened and was ready for slaughter. The “liberals” were professionally prone to urge that the hog would become even fatter if not killed quite yet.

This disagreement as to the timing of aggression — a very different thing from disagreement in principle as to the propriety of aggression — has been a thread running through all the recent history of Japan. Before conscription was adopted in 1873, the fire-eaters agitated for the conquest of Korea. They wanted a “samurai war” with the naked sword, and they were largely the men described by Norman as “the more obtuse and noisy (hence less dangerous) reactionaries” who were against conscription. The proponents of conscription were against the premature invasion of Korea, but they were not against conquest abroad. The only issue was whether to conquer Korea with swords or to wait, prepare, and do it later with guns.

The Emperor was integral to the expansion of Japan, whether the trigger was pulled late or soon. Economically, he belonged with the “liberals,” because of his huge investments. Militarily, he belonged with the militarists, as the ritualistic fount of military morale. Socially, he belonged with both “liberals” and militarists because he was the keystone of the arch of economic and social privilege under which the people passed on their way to “work, obey, fight.”

It is not surprising that it is difficult to document the wealth of the Japanese Emperor. The Far East Year Book, Tokyo, 1941, gives the following partial list of his industrial holdings in 1938: —

Nippon Yusen Kaisha [shipping] 161,000 shares

Mitsui Bank 54,000 ”

Hypothec Bank 10,000 ”

Oji Paper 62,000 ”

South Manchuria Railway 38,000 ”

Tokyo Electric Light 24,000 ”

Bank of Japan 141,000 ”

Taiwan [Formosa] Sugar 40,000 ”

Perhaps more significant is the following description of the Emperor’s legal ability to make use of his economic power, taken from the same source: “The ordinary civil or commercial law is applicable to the [imperial] property only when it does not conflict with the Imperial Household Law and the present law.”

Shiroshi Nasu, in his Aspects of Japanese Agriculture, New York, 1941, lists the following imperial landholdings in 1939: —

Forest 292,775,000 acres

Prairie 340.550 ”

Fit for paddy rice 22,596 ”

Fit for upland rice 56,220 ”

Our failure to identify the Japanese Emperor with Japanese imperialism is akin to our failure to detect the fact that timing, not principle, was what divided “liberals” from militarists. We shall never be able to draw up a rational policy toward Japan until we recognize that only revolution can solve the problem of the imperial institution in Japan. It is the institution that counts; the personal character and predilections of any individual Emperor are more or less irrelevant.

It is a mistake to think that Japan could achieve “democratic monarchy” by reform. We Americans are likely to be misled by thinking of England as the example of a democratic monarchy. But one of the important reasons why the British can be democratic and have a king too is that, at a time which has now receded so far into history that it can be talked about without discomfort, the English people cut off the head of an English king. Until the Japanese people have done something equally progressive (whatever the suitable equivalent of cutting off heads may be), everybody will be uncomfortable and no palliative reform will be adequate.

We have also yet to recognize the fascist character of Japanese society, and to draw the proper conclusions. This problem has been muddled for us by people who talk of Japanese imitations of German methods and policies as if they merely conferred on Japan an appearance of fascism, or constituted an imitative, secondary fascism. The truth is that Japanese fascism is more deeply rooted than that of Germany. Nothing could be more quintessentially fascist than the Japanese phenomenon of a whole society of twentieth-century hands guided by medieval brains. So medieval was the texture of society in Japan when “modernization” began that the monstrosity of fascism could be created by keeping the minds of men and women unchanged, while introducing new technical skills for their hands.

Germany had to do the opposite: to retain the twentieth-century technical skills while turning the minds of her people back toward medievalism. The whole insane, obscene nightmare of Hitler, Rosenberg, “blood and soil,” the “leader principle,” the creation of elites, and the sadistic frenzy of anti-Semitism can with rough accuracy be called a synthetic feudalism, as compared with Japan’s continuation of authentic feudalism into the twentieth century. The difference between the two countries can be summed up in one especially interesting contrast: even stupid Nazis know that they have been taught, indoctrinated; but many intelligent Japanese do not know that their minds have been shaped for them, because the conditioning to which they are subjected is the continuation of a process begun long ago.


AT THIS point it is advisable to look into the record of America’s connection with the rise of modern Japan. We find two traditional themes in American writing about Japan: dislike of the competitor, leading to somewhat random accusations of unfair methods and sinister ambitions, and sympathy for a fellow competitor whose interests were in some ways closer to ours than those of more powerful competitors. In expressing either like or dislike, our vocabulary, like our thought, was largely political. It did not range into a deep searching of social trends because we ourselves were playing our part in an age of imperialism.

In the circumstances it was natural even for Americans who studied Japanese, and even for those who grew up in Japan, to accept Japanese explanations of Japan’s history, politics, and economic problems. Moreover, the average American who seriously studied Japan was, because of his own social position and income, in touch chiefly with the upper middle class; and the upper middle class in every country has its own conceptions, preconceptions, and misconceptions about its own country, as has become uncomfortably obvious in recent years.

Americans, — and Europeans, too, — in taking over the views and explanations offered to them by same Japanese, habitually made the mistake of thinking that they were getting the right answers from the Japanese. It is no wonder that the more rounded knowledge of a Sansom and the more deeply penetrating observations of a Norman were altogether exceptional. Nor is it surprising that the post-revolutionary Russians, coming on the scene with fresh minds, or at least with preconceptions quite different from ours, were often right in stressing a number of phenomena whose importance we underestimated; although the Russians also, trained in European concepts of “class warfare, ‘ made mistakes in analyzing the society of Japan.

After the defeat of Germany in 1918, Americans who thought of Japan as a dangerous competitor began to outnumber Americans who thought of Japan as a legitimate competitor and profitable customer. By that time, however, Japan had perfected a remarkable technique which can best be described as cut-rate imperialism. Continuing to work within the system of international treaties as a competitor in China, Japan also went beyond competition and set to work to eliminate the power of Britain and America from Eastern Asia.

A number of devices were used in combination: —

1. Abuse of the right of political asylum was one of the defects of the extraterritorial system. Chinese warlords and corrupt politicians who had made their pile would retire to Hong Kong or Dairen, or to a foreign concession or international settlement, put their money in a foreign bank, under a foreign flag, and live in security. Japanese militarists, especially agents of the Kwantung Army, like Doihara, improved on this: they encouraged and financed Chinese adventurers to use Japanese concessions as bases in which to plan civil wars and from which to sally out on trouble-making expeditions. When disorder resulted, the Japanese came forward as loyal supporters of the international system of “ law and order,” strengthening their military forces on the spot and appealing to the common interest of Britain and America in law and order.

2. The precedents built up in this way were skillfully used at the time of the fighting in Shanghai in 1932 and again in 1937. The Japanese found useful support from local British and American interests for the claim that the Japanese forces using a part of the International Settlement as a beachhead for an attack on the Chinese city of Shanghai were only trying, in their blunt way, to secure “law and order”; while the Chinese, by resisting, were endangering the “neutrality” of the Settlement.

3.The confusion which they created in China was also exploited by the Japanese in another way. Foreign enterprise interested in China was urged to think of the advantages of investing in Japan instead. Let Americans count on Japan as a reliable country — expanding, of course, but steady and strong. Japan wanted investment money, not risk money. Let the Americans invest in Japan. The Japanese themselves would undertake enterprises in China in which there would be, for Americans, too much risk. Being closer to Asia, knowing Asia better, and being able and ready to apply disciplinary pressure when needed, the Japanese would be able to make profit enough for themselves and enough more to pay the interest on American investments in Japan.

Japan made a mistake in attacking us at Pearl Harbor. We should not let this mistake wipe out the memory of our own mistakes. By the time of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had thoroughly undermined the international system of “law and order,” extraterritoriality, concessions, and privileged economic activity in which we and they had for so long been partners. Through this partnership the privileged nations had held an advantage over China; but the system provided no method of control when one partner, Japan, used legality for lawless purposes. American policy in the Ear East had lost all drive and originality. We had no policy except to appeal to statutes of law and order; we had no intention to create the realities of law and order and had never made up our minds at what point to stand and defend law and order.

With this in mind, we should not deceive ourselves with too much smug self-approval for having abandoned extraterritoriality in China after Pearl Harbor. We abandoned something that no longer worked, partly because we had not made it work. We abandoned something that we should not have been able to restore. The policy decision was one that required little decisiveness of the mind. That leaves us with a problem for the future which requires real thought and real decision. The age of imperialism, though not dead, is withering. The decades of drift are over. We must now set a course. Have we any idea what course to set?

  1. Europe regards OWEN LATTIMORE as our leading authority on Far Eastern affairs. For twenty years he and his wife have traveled in and written about China and the border territories between China anti Russia. In 1941 and 1942 he served as adviser to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek on recommendation of President Roosevelt, and in 1944 he accompanied Vice President Wallace on his long trip through Siberia and to Chungking. Following his recent resignation as Deputy Director of OWI in charge of the Far Eastern Division, Mr. Lattimore has resumed his post as Director of International Relations at Johns Hopkins.
  2. This paper and a sequel on China which is to appear in the February Atlantic are chapters of Solution in Asia, Mr. Lattimore’s new and significant book, which includes the Baxter Memorial Lectures that he delivered at the University of Omaha in 1944.