New Japan


1. Historical Sketch

Before proceeding with our main task it is necessary that a short sketch of the history and polity of Japan should be given in order that our readers may be enabled to have a clear understanding of the social and political conditions of the Empire at the beginning of Meiji. The first Emperor was Jimmu Tenno, who founded the Empire and ascended the throne in the year 660 B.C., little more than a century later than the founding of Rome. From him, all the subsequent occupants of the throne traced their descent in an unbroken line, and as Jimmu was the direct descendant, in the fifth generation, of the Sun Goddess (Tensho Daijin), who herself sprang from the creators of Heaven and Earth, all his successors have claimed through him a divine descent, a claim which has been accepted with unquestioning faith by their subjects in all times, which the most extreme spirit of modern materialism has not yet aflfected, and which is as devoutly acknowledged to this day by the most advanced student of Huxley or Schopenhauer as it was by any of the sages of old.

Jimmu's successors, throughout twelve centuries, were all sovereigns in reality as well as in name, all taking an active and vigorous share in their government, but from the seventh century of the Christian era they permitted the executive power to fall into the hands of the leading family among their courtiers, the Fujiwara, who, like the Emperors themselves, claimed divine origin, their remote ancestor having descended from Heaven in the train of Jimmu's progenitor, the Sun Goddess's grandson ; they also, like the Emperors, survive to this day. For four hundred years the Fujiwara conserved to themselves all the executive authority of the realm until it was wrested from them by the leader's of a race of soldiers, who, while the later generations of the Fujiwara were, in the ease and luxury of the Court at Kioto, sinking into the condition of idle and incapable voluptuaries, had been hardened by continuous military service against the Ainu, the savage autochthons of Japan, in those days still numerous and powerful on the northern frontiers of the lands that had been colonised by the followers of Jimmu and their descendants. The greatest of these leaders was Yoritomo, who succeeded at the close of the twelfth century in making himself dictator of the Empire, under the title of Sei-i-tai-Shogun or "Barbarianrepressing-great-General," which was conferred on him by the Emperor. The title, abbreviated in common use into Shogun, was one which had previously been frequently conferred on generals in command of armies in the field, but it signified only military authority and it lapsed with the termination of the special command for which it was given. Yoritomo gave it a new significance. He assumed not only the military but the civil power and retained the title for life. He established his residence at Kamakura, a town about 30 miles from Tokio, which quickly grew into a large and populous city and became the real capital of the Empire while Kioto, the home of the legitimate Emperors, was only so in name. There he administered, as the de facto sovereign, the government of the Empire while the provinces were held and governed by his relatives and adherents, soldiers who had fought by his side and who owed aU their fealty to him alone.

This was the beginning of the systems of dual government and of feudalism in Japan which lasted from the time of Yoritomo (1192 - 1199) until the accession of the late Emperor. At Kioto there was always the Emperor, the legitimate sovereign, the acknowledged source of all authority and the sole fountain of honour, surrounded by a small retinue of courtiers, who were known as Kuge, many of whom sprang from the Imperial family, and all of whom claimed an origin and descent that were only less illustrious than those of the Emperor. Both Emperors and court were entirely dependent on the Shoguns for their means of support, which were for many long centuries provided with such parsimony, that all were practically sunk in abject poverty. On the other side, the Shogun's courts, first at Kamakura and afterwards at Yedo, with an interval between the two at Kioto, in the very shadow of the Emperor's own palace, were maintained in the utmost Imperial splendour ; the national executive was entirely in the hands of the Shoguns and their ministers, and all the land in the provinces was parcelled among feudal lords - the daimio - the majority of whom sprang from soldiers of fortune who were rewarded by successive dynasties of the Shoguns with the grants of large estates, the spoils of almost unceasing civil war.

Yoritomo's own direct descendants did not long hold the great office which their progenitor had won. It fell in turn to other military adventurers during the succeeding four centuries, the last and the greatest of whom was Tokugawa lyeyasu who became Shogun at the beginning of the seventeenth century. The system, inaugurated by Yoritomo, was brought to its highest perfection by lyeyasu, who, in the measures he took to secure the retention of the Shogunate in his own family and the peace of the realm, showed that he was a constructive statesman of the highest order of genius, and he was ably followed by some of his earliest successors. So successful were he and they, that throughout 260 years, during which his descendants occupied the throne of the Shoguns at Yedo, their authority was never once questioned and the country under their government, which, for five centuries prior to the accession of lyeyasu, had been almost continuously desolated by civil war, fought with no less bitterness and savage cruelty than those which characterised the wars of Europe in the same periods, enjoyed profound and unbroken peace, and its people, according to the descriptions of European writers, who saw and studied them, should have been one of the happiest in the world.

To this picture there was another side. During the last half of the sixteenth and the first quarter of the seventeenth centuries Japan freely admitted to her harbours European ships, which found their way to the Far East, and Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and English traders were in turn welcomed by her. Jesuit and other missionaries of the Roman Catholic Church follwed the first Portuguese and Spanish traders and their proselytising efforts, carried on with equal zeal and ability, met with such success that, within one century from the landing of the first missionary, there were said to have been over a million native converts to Christianity of all classes of the people. Unfortunately the zeal of the missionaries outran their discretion and gave rise to the suspicion that proselytism was merely an antecedent step to territorial aggression threatening the political independence of the Empire, and as the suspicion grew to certainty, the whole attitude of the Government changed both to Christianity and to Europeans. Christianity was extirpated by persecution as ruthless as that of Nero. Missionaries were put to death or expelled. Traders too were expelled, an exception being made only in favour of the Dutch, a small colony of whom were permitted to remain under the most humiliating conditions, closely interned in the little island of Desima in the harbour of Nagasaki, where they carried on a trade which, though hampered by vexatious restrictions, brought them enormous profits. All other Europeans were forbidden to approach the shores of Japan or to land on pain of death. And not only were Europeans forbidden to land in Japan, but Japanese were, under equally severe penalties, forbidden to go abroad. None who did so was permitted to return. Throughout the middle ages the Japanese had shown themselves bold and adventurous seamen, making their way both as pirates and traders not only to China and Siam, but in some instances across the Pacific to Mexico. Now they were forbidden by their own authorities to build any ship larger in burthen than 500 Koku (50 tons) and from the day on which the edict which forbade them was issued their traditional maritime spirit was gone, and the national seclusion, which it was the policy of the early Tokugawas to effect, was complete.

For 220 years Japan was cut off from all the world. She had her own high degree of social and artistic civilisation, refined and picturesque in all its elements, but while Europe was advancing with giant strides in industrial, military and political science, Japan stood still and her internal state in the middle of the nineteenth century showed no material advance on what it had been in the early part of the seventeenth. She was contented in herself and with her own acquirements and neither knew nor cared for aught that was happening in the outer world.

Internally the country was crushed under one of the most iron systems of feudalism that the world has ever seen. The Shogun was the feudal superior, though nominally only as the mandatory of the Emperor. A third of the whole Empire was under his direct rule and the revenues were paid into his Treasury. The remainder was shared among 260 feudal lords, all of whom varied in strength, wealth and influence in proportion to the extent of their domains, but all alike enjoyed complete legislative and executive autonomy within their own boundaries, an autonomy which did not even exclude the right of coinage. All maintained armies of hereditary soldiers - samurai - M'hose allegiance was due only to their own immediate feudal lords, for whose sake every samurai was always ready to sacrifice without a murmur life, liberty, name, family or property. Each lord, in his turn, owed allegiance to the Shogun, from whom he received his investiture on succession, whose approval he had to obtain in marriage and adoption, and to whom he was obliged to render military service when called upon. All lived in regal splendour and independence in fortified castles on their own estates, and in no less splendour in great places in Yedo, where they were obliged to pass part of each year. The sole occupations of the samurai were those of anns, literature and the administration of their lords' estates and revenues, and both daimio and samurai combined to form the governing and aristocratic class and with their families numbered some two million souls. Beneath them, divided by an unfathomable social gulf, across which none could pass, was the subject and plebeian class, divided into three orders, farmers, artisans and traders, in number about thirty millions, whose sole lot in life was to minister to the well-being and luxury of their superiors.

The general characteristics of the Japanese people were then such that there is scarcely a word which Buckle wrote in the second chapter of his History of Civilization on the physical and moral conditions of the ancient peoples of India, Egypt, Mexico or Peru, which mMtatis mutandis might not have been applied to those of the people of Japan. On the part of the upper class there was the most autocratic use of despotic power ; on that of the lower the most servile subservience in every incident of life. Slavery, except perhaps in prehistoric times, never existed as a recognised institution in Japan, but practically speaking, less than sixty years ago, slavery, abject slavery, was the natural state of the great body of the' people. They counted for nothing. They not only had no voice in the management of the public affairs of the state, the province, or the city, but their liberty, their property, and even their lives were held at the absolute disposal of their immediate rulers. Their occupations, their dress, their residences were all rigidly prescribed for them ; on them fell the entire financial burthens of the state and their sole functions were to labour for the comfort and luxury of the upper classes and to render to them an absolute and unquestioning obedience. The " habits of tame and servile submission were generated among them" and extended through successive generations had their invariable result in that the history of the world affords no more striking instance of an abjectly spiritless race than that of the Japanese lower classes only sixty years ago. They spoke in subdued tones, with bent backs and eyes on the ground : they would scarcely dare to strike a blow even in the defence of their own lives and families, and all the history of Japan does not furnish one single instance of their having "turned upon their rulers, of any war of classes, of any popular insurrection, of even one great popular conspiracy."

As subjection made the lower classes abjectly servile so did despotic power and immunity from all the burthens of life render the aristocratic class tyrannical and cruel. The samurai of Japan have been quoted in England as models of everything that is most noble in man, as chivalrous, frugal, brave, courteous, loyal, patriotic, self-sacrificing. They were all that theoretically, and actually so in many individual cases, but foreigners in Japan, fifty years ago, conceived very different ideas of them as a class. Sir Rutherford Alcock, our first minister to Japan, a keen observer, a man of the world, a careful student, who knew the Japan of his day, calls them " Swashbucklers, swaggering blustering bullies, many cowardly enough to strike an enemy in the back or cut down an unarmed and inoffensive man, but ever ready to fling their own lives away in accomplishing a revenge or carrying out the behests of their chief." Even contemporaneous writers of their own class in Japan described them as ignorant, cruel, dissolute and idle. They treated the classes below them with the utmost contempt and brutality. Their patriotism and loyalty were local not national, were given entirely to their immediate feudal chiefs and not to the sovereign, and jealousy among rival clans would always have been a serious obstacle to national union, even in defence of the country against foreign aggression.

Such were the conditions of the people of Japan in the closing years of the Tokugawa regime. They were all, daimio, samurai and plebeians, entirely segregated from their legitimate sovereign, the Emperor, who, living in the sacred seclusion of his palace at Kioto, maintained intact the divine prestige which had been transmitted to him from his ancestoi-s but was utterly powerless to assert himself in the administration of the Empire of which he was the nominal head. The Shogun was his Mayor of the Palace, the major-domo, who carried on the Government and who alone of all his subjects enjoyed the right of access to him. So great was the power of the Shogun, so complete its outer manifestation, both at the beginning and at the close of the Tokugawa regime, that Europeans who came to Japan invariably termed him " His Majesty." The learned Jesuits of the 16th and I7th centuries, the equally learned Dutch savants of the 18th century, and the diplomatists of the 19th century all erred alike. They heard vaguely of another Emperor who was never seen either by his own subjects or by them, not even when they visited the holy city of Kioto in which he lived, of whom they were told as a sacred being of divine origin, vested with divine prerogatives and shrouded in impenetrable mystery, but powerless as a political factor in the state, so much so that neither the Jesuit missionaries nor the Dutch traders seem ever to have made the smallest effort to enlist his influence in their favour.

On the other hand, what they termed "the Emperor," but who was in reality the Shogun, the Mayor of the Palace, was very vividly present to the eyes and thoughts of both. His authority over all the realm was undisputed. All the feudal lords, both great and small, rendered homage to him, and though exercising almost unlimited autonomy in their own domains accepted his orders with unquestioning obedience. He had great wealth of his own, the yearly revenue from his family estates amounting to eight millions sterling in an age when the purchasing power of money was manifold what it now is. He had at his call an immense army of devoted samurai, he had a council of able ministers and he lived in imperial splendour, that was apparent to all, both natives and foreigners, in the gi'eat city of Yedo which in size, wealth and population far outshadowed the ancient and venerated capital of Kioto. To the Jesuits, fresh from the splendours of Rome, Madrid or Lisbon, his palace seemed in its grandeur, glittering with gold, "like an enchanted palace," and when attended by a great and stately escort he made royal progresses beyond its walls, the streets were all cleared of everything that could oflTend his sight ; the upper windows of all houses closed so that none could look down on him ; no fires could be lighted for two days beforehand lest the sky should be obscured, and all people humbly prostrated themselves on the ground as he passed by.

The Emperor Komei

When Europeans once more made their appearance on the shores of Japan, no longer as abject suppliants like the Dutch, but demanding ingress as a right and prepared to support their demands with irresistible force, the Emperor was still a myth in their eyes. The Shogun was the de facto sovereign with whom they had to deal and as far as they knew, in their ignorance of the history and institutions of Japan, he was also the dejure sovereign. In Perry's treaty he was described as "the August Sovereign of Japan," and in the first English treaty - that of Admiral Stirling concluded in 1854 - as "His Imperial Highness, the Emperor " : in Lord Elgin's Treaty of 1858, as "His Majesty the Tycoon," and in the Prussian Treaty of 1861, as "Seine Majestat der Talkun." The title "Tycoon" or more properly "Taikun" was a new one adopted from China. Its literal signification is "Great Lord."

The new treaties came into force in 1858. The ports of Yokohama, Nagasaki and Hakodate were opened to foreign trade and residence. Diplomatic representatives of the Treaty Powers took up their residence in Yedo and their countrymen began to live and trade at the opened ports. The Shogun apparently retained all his power and influence and the country was governed by his ministry with whom alone the foreign diplomatists had any direct relations. But a revolution had already begun which was destined within one decade to destroy utterly the political fabric that had lasted for more than seven centuries and to restore to the legitimate Emperor all the executive functions that were his undoubted constitutional prerogative.