We are currently at latitude 31° 11’ 22” N and longitude 122° 54’ 21” E on an east north easterly course bound for Hiroshima, Japan. It is a 500 + nautical mile leg and we will not arrive until 8:00 AM on the 16th.
Japan has such an interesting history I thought I would share some of it from the lecture we attended this morning delivered by Dr. Mike Boll. He is covering this topic in two lectures which separates Japan’s history into three stages; isolation, expansion/empire building, and finally, occupation.
The bottom line about the first period is that it formed out of a strong desire to have their feudal, imperial cultural system stay pure and unchanged by the outside world and it was changed only in response to equally strong Western intervention. One gets the impression if other nations would have just left Japan alone; they would have been content to plow through history as a peaceful, self-contained imperial nation ruled by warlords, called Shoguns, and a series of emperors as they had been for the previous 1000 years. Remember, the Emperor of Japan was believed to be a descendent of the Sun Goddess and the soil of state considered sacred, but they shared power with the Shoguns, the aristocratic upper class. The new emperor who took charge in 1500 went so far as to ban all exploration, even outlawing the construction of junks with more than two masts to prevent long distance ocean travel. Foreigners were clearly not welcome. Now that is isolationism in its purest form. Interestingly, it was estimated that the GDP of Japan at that time was greater than Europe with no foreign trade!
However, once the Portuguese explorer Diaz first sailed around the Cape of Good Hope in 1488 and discovered the Orient could be reached via that route, his first stop in Japan was accomplished in 1513. From that moment ships from other nations began showing up to investigate trade opportunities, specifically the Dutch and the English. All offers were rejected and ports were closed to trade ships. In 1549 Jesuit missionaries from Portugal landed in force in Kyoto and got a foothold. Over the next 75 years they gained 100-200,000 converts. Then in 1625, the Emperor banned Christianity entirely and declared war on the intruders. One hundred and twenty missionaries were killed and countless converts. The Portuguese were expelled from the country and any foreigners who landed on Japanese soil, either on purpose or accidentally, were executed. Leave us alone….get the message?
This was the beginning of the Tokugawa Period, which lasted into the 19th Century. It was comprised of two ruling groups; the aristocratic Shoguns, known as the Daimyo and the Samurai, who were the descendants of a warrior class. This hereditary class of people represented the standing army of Japan for centuries, similar to the knights of feudal European nations. The difference was that less than 1 % of the population in Europe were knights, while 6 % of the population of Japan was Samurai. Because of isolationism and the extended peace it created, the need for this huge army of warriors dissipated. The Samurai turned to education and the arts and became the “intellectual” class of Japan.
Not willing to leave well enough alone, between 1799 and 1845 first the Russians, then the British and then, finally, the United States came to Japan in an attempt to open up trade and negotiate for the use of ports. All were rebuffed.
In 1853, Commodore Perry sailed into Tokyo Harbor with 900 men aboard 4 ships and demanded trade concessions from the Emperor. Perry even threatened war if he didn’t get what he came for. The Shoguns realized they were outmanned and outgunned, but still the Emperor denied entry. Perry was finally persuaded to leave but only after he got them to open up two ports. Not satisfied, Perry returned in 1854 with a signed letter from the President of the United States and an overwhelming force to demand five more ports. By then the new young Emperor Meiji realized it was futile to continue to resist and made concessions to minimum demands so he could buy time to build his forces. He reestablished full imperial rule that year, a defeat for the Shoguns whose seat of power was Kyoto while the Emperor’s power base was in the much larger Tokyo. It was the end of isolationism and the beginning of empire building.
Emperor Meiji was born in 1852 and came to the throne in 1867 at the tender age of 15, so this was no small feat. Meiji was married but he had many concubines. Records show he fathered fifteen children, five by official ladies-in-waiting, but apparently he still had time to govern. In 1868 he created the Charter Oath, a set of goals and objectives for the new Japan. It established a Counsel to advise the Emperor and make administrative decisions. The Oath eliminated all classes, abolished feudal customs, reverted all land to the Emperor and he converted the large estates into a dozen prefectures where the peasants could, over time, gain title to the land they worked, but along with that came a new property tax. A primary school system was established in all districts. Military conscription was next and the Emperor began building his army in 1873, the same year that religious freedom was declared. The Samurai were not invited to join the army and were, for the first time, allowed to mix and marry commoners. This loss of tradition and income caused dissension. Finally, in 1877, the Satsuma Rebellion settled the issue. The Samurai, led by Saigo, engaged the new Empire Conscripts, a loss portrayed so well by Hollywood in the Tom Cruise movie, The Last Samurai. Never bring a sword to a gunfight, right?
In a pursuit of knowledge that is virtually unrivaled in history, the Emperor anointed fifty top officials to travel the world, immersing themselves in the cultures of seventeen different countries in an effort to modernize. He also sent some 11,000 college students to study abroad and bring back their new found knowledge to help the effort.
Finally, Japan adopted the British form of government and established a two-house Parliament with cabinet. They chose the French structure for their court system. They developed a modern banking system and created the Japanese Yen (originally 2 Yen for 1 USD). Using a combination of direct state investment and control of the economy designed to protect industry ultimately it was privatized and formed Zaibatsu, which were large, integrated production companies. Current day Matsui and Mitsubishi are left-overs from these entities created before the turn of the century.
By 1905 consumption of coal, iron, steel, and other important industrial materials increased tenfold in 35 years. In 1870 Japan had only 26 merchant ships which were ocean capable. By 1905 that number had increased to 797.
In addition to building and equipping a large modern army which was self-sufficient in the production of guns and ammunition, the navy was taken in that same period from 8 warships to 107 and from 15,000 men to over 40,000. In a war with China over Korea in 1894, the Japanese won handily, utilizing over 120,000 troops, and claimed Taiwan (Formosa) as a prefecture in the process. In May, 1905, using their six battleships, eight cruisers, 24 destroyers and sixty-three torpedo boats, the Japanese defeated Russia in the Battle of Tsushima. Sinking 21 Russian vessels and capturing 7 more, it was a decisive victory and sent a message to the world, including the United States, that Japan was a force to be reckoned with. By the start of the first World War Japan had one million troops and the 4th largest navy in the world. A portent of things to come.
Next time we can talk more about the Expansion/Empire stage and I will give you some background about the third stage of Japan’s history….the Occupation Stage. Hope you enjoy reading about all this as we cruise to Hiroshima. Until then,
God Bless you all.
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