Japan Rising: The Resurgence of Japanese Power and Purpose by Kenneth B. Pyle

[15 August 2007]

By Leonard Boasberg

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

“Japan is essentially a country of paradoxes and anomalies, where all—even familiar things—put on new faces and are curiously reversed,” declared Rutherford Alcock, the first British minister to Japan, from 1859 to 1864. As for Japanese foreign policy, Edwin O. Reischauer, dean of Japan studies in his day, returning to academia after five years as ambassador to Japan in the 1960s, called it “a subject of bewildering complexity and also vagueness.” He added: “It is hard to come to grips with and almost impossible to pin down in fixed words.”

In Japan Rising, Kenneth Pyle unravels much of the enigma that Japan still poses to Westerners. The book is a penetrating survey of Japan from the 1868 Meiji Restoration to the present, an informative analysis of why the Japanese behave as they do.

To Westerners, one of the puzzlements of Japan is how an insular, tradition-bound, conservative society, so proud of its own identity, its own culture, can abruptly change course 180 degrees. Pyle describes what happened in the Meiji Restoration of 1868, when a young samurai elite ousted the feudal Tokugawa Shogunate.

The new leaders had seen how the Western powers had forced China to open its ports and accept unequal treaties and resolved to cope with the imperialist Western challenge. Seeing the impotence of the old system, they recognized that the military strength of the Western powers was founded in industrial and technological strength.

“They became obsessed with the goal of overtaking the West and doing whatever was necessary, even risking Japan’s very cultural identity, to achieve that goal,” Pyle writes. He notes that the first official document of the new era, the Imperial Charter Oath of 1868, issued by the boy emperor Musuhito, declared:

“Knowledge shall be sought for all over the world, and thereby the foundations of imperial rule shall be strengthened. ... All absurd customs of olden times shall be abandoned and all actions shall be based on international usage.” (Imagine how different the world would be today had such a document been issued by sundry ayatollahs and potentates in the Middle East.)

Japanese behavior, then and subsequently, was founded on the principle of having no principle. It is to operate in accord with the trends of the times, “jisei”. The way to control change, as the Japanese see it, is to adapt to it, pragmatically, in accord with Japan’s interests. So they adapted, as they had to, after Japan’s crushing defeat in World War II. They installed, under the American occupation, “demokurashii, or at least a Japanese version of it. They pursued power by concentrating on economic competition—managed capitalism, Japanese-style.

“The instruments of power,” Pyle points out, “were no longer armed forces, military bases, vast armaments, and territorial control, but instead productive efficiency, market control, trade surplus, strong currency, foreign exchange reserves, advanced technology, foreign direct investment, and foreign aid.”

The Americans imposed a constitution under which, in Article Nine, Japan forever renounced war and the right of self-defense. Article Nine, under the adroit postwar premier Yoshida Shigeru, turned out to be most convenient in resisting United States pressure on the Japanese to take a more active role in collective security during the Cold War. For several decades, the Japanese were quite content to bask in the shade of the American military umbrella. That changed, though, when the trends of the times changed and Japan recognized a more assertive China and the threat of an unpredictable North Korean regime.

In recent years the Japanese economy has revived from its doldrums of the 1990s. With a new generation of leaders, a more assertive Japan has abandoned the Yoshida Doctrine’s ban on sending military force abroad. It is no longer even taboo to consider the possession of nuclear weaponry. Ignoring Chinese protests, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi visited the Yasukuni Shrine, where 12 convicted war criminals are interred among the dead, and his current successor, Shinzo Abe, recently sent a religious offering.

Japan drastically misread “jisei,” the trend of the times, in 1941. Why did the Japanese commit such a reckless act, declaring war on a nation with no less than eight times its material power? In the Japanese view, to have accepted the American demand that they withdraw from China would have forced them to give up not only an empire but also their status, their prestige, their very self-image. “Repugnant alternatives,” said Gen. Tojo, war minister and later premier. They chose, disastrously.

“It is a common mistake,” Thucydides observed, “to begin at the wrong end, to act first, and wait for a disaster to discuss the matter.”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/japan-rising-the-resurgence-of-japanese-power-and-purpose-by-kenneth-b-pyle/