New Japan


4. Social Reforms

The civil war was terminated and peace established throughout the Empire by the subjugation of the last adherents of the Tokugawas at Hakodate in July 1869. The Emperor was firmly seated on his throne at Tokio and the acknowledged executive head of the nation, whose will none would dare to dispute. The statesmen who, supported by his divine authority, acted in his name had, throughout the long civil and military struggles which preceded his Restoration, already shown that they possessed not only determined courage but considerable political judgment They had the sympathy, so fer as it could be given without detriment to the interests of their own countries, of the foreign diplomatic representatives and therefore of the great powers of the West But the task before them was enough to daunt the boldest courage. It was one that could only be carried to success by iron Avill, unflagging industry and unruffled patience. None more difficult has ever faced the statesmen of any country in the world's history. None has ever in its triumphant issue more completely realised the greatest ambitions of those who initiated it.

The social condition of the people until the abolition of feudalism has been already described. The masses, sunk in ignorance and political degradation, had to be educated and raised to the status of selfrespecting citizens, equitably sharing both the obligations and privileges of their superiors. Many of the samurai still cherished their old ideas as to the expulsion of foreigners, still more the retention of their caste privileges, and they had to be taught that they must in future assume a share in the burthens of life, and become producers as well as consumers. The Government had neither army nor navy. Its treasury was empty and it had no settled revenue. Tlie national industry was capable of little more than supplying domestic necessaries. Internal communications were destitute of all but the most primitive facilities. Neither railways, telegraphs, posts nor mercantile marine existed. Foreign trade already annually amounted in value to some millions sterling, but it was entirely in the hands of foreign middlemen, and carried on under such disabilities that the cost of conveying a bale of goods fifty miles between the seaport at which it was landed and the interior where it was consumed exceeded that of its freight between Europe and Japan, though ocean freights were then on a far higher scale than they are at the present day. Of all modern sciences, the people were almost entirely ignoi*ant The only exceptions were surgery and medicine, of which some knowledge had been acquired through the physicians of the Dutch factory at Nagasaki. One at least of the Western Powers pressed or threatened claims which, if yielded, would impair the territorial integrity of the Empire, and one and all insisted on the retention of the extra-territorial clauses in the treaties, which, it was now known, were a slur on Japan's prestige as a civilised and independent Power. The solution of all these problems had to be undertaken simultaneously by a ministry whose members, notwithstanding their courage and judgment, were as yet only students in domestic or international statescraft, who, in carrying out reform, had to overcome the most bigoted conservative prejudice and to face constantly the risk of assassination, a risk which, in many instances, culminated in realisation.

Fortunately for themselves and for their country, the ministers had, at this period, the aid and council of one of the ablest representatives that have served Great Britain in the Far East. Sir Harry Parkes, after a long career in China, was appointed H. M. Minister in Japan in 1865. Throughout all the political crises antecedent to the Restoration he had given his sympathy to the Imperialists and was therefore entitled to their confidence and gratitude when they came into power. Great Britain was then, both as a political and economic factor, predominant over all other Western Powers in the Far East. Her military and naval prestige had been amply vindicated both in China and in Japan. British troops guarded Yokohama, and both her naval and mercantile flags were seen in every port. Her consular service was specially organised for service in Japan. All its members were specially trained from youth and it is to many among them that we owe the knowledge we now possess of the language, literature, history and economics of Japan. Her merchants were far above those of other countries in number, wealth, enterprise and honesty. The minister was in every way worthy of the status of his country. He was a man of untiring and unflagging industry, of irresistible strength of will and character, of indomitable moral and physical courage, and of far-seeing political intelligence. His methods were often hard and apparently tyrannical and enforced by the mailed fist rather than gently carried through with velvet gloves, and his object in promoting Japan's progi'ess was frankly avowed to be the interests of his own countrymen rather than the welfare of Japan. Great Britain had no territorial aims. Her sole object in cultivating intercourse with Japan was trade. The conception of Japan as a valuable political and military ally of Great Britain had not then even entered into the thoughts of either Japanese or British statesmen, but the more Japan advanced in her own material welfare, the more was she likely to require and buy from Great Britain, then the workshop of the world, and that consideration was in itself sujfi&cient to induce the British Minister to use his best efforts in starting and urging Japan on her career of progress according to the standards of modern European civilisation. In every reform that she undertook, the British Minister was consulted. His advice was freely and honestly given, and throughout the first decade of the Imperial Government's existence there was scarcely one detail in all the great reforms that were undertaken in which he had not a share, very often in its initiation, always in its progress.

In another respect, the Government were equally fortunate, though that they were so was largely owing to the first. It is a common text with superficial English writers on Japan, that Japan reformed herself : that her own statesmen saw of themselves the immense material superiority of Western civilisation to that which she owed to China and converted their people to the same view : that all she has since achieved in material progress is due not only to the initiation but to the industry and perseverance of her own sons. Nothing could be further from the truth. Her entry into the paths of Western civilisation was largely owing to the persistent goading of Sir Harry Parkes : her subsequent achievements to the tuition of the large band of foreign experts whom she had the good fortune to enlist in her service, and who served her as loyally and whole-heartedly as they did efficiently. Most of them were still young men when they entered her service but they were the best products of their own countries, in which many of them subsequently rose to high eminence in their respective professional spheres. Great Britain gave her the naval officers who founded her navy and fii-st trained its pereonnel. It also gave her the engineers who constructed her first railways, lighthouses, waterworks, mines and telegraphs, and the founders of her mint, her banking system and her press. The United States contributed in like way to her postal and educational systems : France to her army and dockyards and to legal reform : Germany to her medical science and to the creation of her constitution : and Italy to her military arsenals. All these nations contributed their quotas to the modern development of Japan, and to their sons is due, in no small degree, the eminence which she has since attained in all spheres of human life and civilisation. The teachers had apt and industrious students, not only keen for their own personal advancement but inflamed with patriotic enthusiasm to serve their country and to contribute all their best abilities in realising their Emperor's oath " to establish fiimly the foundations of the Empire," but their ability, industry and enthusiasm would have had little result had they not been fortunate in their teachers.

Another class must not be overlooked if due credit is given to all who have contributed to the creation of modern Japan. From the first there was a large body of European and American missionaries in Japan, and in recent years they have increased to what may be called a small army. They include members of the Roman Catholic and Greek churches and of several scores of sects of the Protestant church, and are of all nationalities. Their success as religious propagandists has not been very great, as might naturally be expected from the obstacles they have to overcome, both of tradition and present discoui*agement. The statistics of the sevei*al missionary societies show numbers of converts that appear large on paper, but taken at their most favourable estimate they constitute but a drop in the great ocean of the people. But on the other hand missionaries have rendered great educational services in their schools and by the example of their lives, faithful and selfdenying, have exercised no inappreciable influence on the moral regeneration of the people among whom they live.

The first step that was taken in social reform was one that augured a new spirit of humanity in the government. It dealt with criminal law and prison administration. The criminal law of the Empire was codified and published and though it still continued to be based on its original Chinese models and torture was still retained as an incident in trials, great mitigations were made in the cruel and vindictive punishments which had hitherto characterised it. Prisons had hitherto been infernos of medieval horror. A conunission was sent to visit and report on the prisons in the English colonies of Hong Kong and Singapore, and on its return, new prisons were at once constructed in which all that the commission had learnt from the English system as regards food, clothing, sanitation, cleanliness, and segregation of accused and convicted, was put in practice. In both cases these steps were only the beginning of greater and far more vital changes. The prison system was gradually improved until it reached a standard of eflSciency that places it at the present day on a far higher plane of social civilisation than that of Great Britain. The duty of punishing the criminal is not lost sight of, but punishment is made subordinate to reformation. The first criminal code was only retained imtil a new one, compiled by a distinguished French jurist, with the assistance of Japanese experts in their own laws, could be completed. Civil codes of law were in the same way compiled by German jurists. In both, Western principles were adapted to the social conditions of Japan. Executive and judicial functions ceased to be vested in the same officials. Courts of Law were established, presided over by independent judges. A legal profession, manned by highly-educated practitioners, came into being and the change that was accomplished in little more than a quarter of a century was as great as that of England from the 16th century to the present day.

Other great reforms came, as did those from China in the 6th century, "with a rush." A beginning was made in railway construction and the first railway between Yokohama and Tokio was opened in 1873. The dangerous and stormy coasts were lighted with the best modem appliances, postal and telegraphic services introduced, medical and engineering colleges founded, the first newspapers made their appearance, joint stock banks began to be a feature in commercial life, and a national mint was established, which provided an honest uniform coinage to replace the debased tokens previously in circulation. AU had their beginning either in or about the year 1871, and though their progress towards the completeness and efficiency that now characterize them was spread over many years and only accomplished in the face of many disheartening difficulties and obstacles, their way has ever been onwards, unmarked by as much as one retrograde step. The members of the Government showed themselves to be capable and far-seeing leaders. They were willingly followed by a i)eople who were of quick intelligence, accustomed to obey and willing to be taught. Here and there, throughout the country, spasmodic insurrections from time to time occurred, instigated by a few surviving fanatics of the old school of seclusion and Chinese bigotry, but with one exception they were insignificant and easily quelled, with little loss of life on either side, and all changes were brought about in national peace, with the hearty co-operation of the people.

Very early in her modem history it became Japan's avowed ambition to be in the Far East what England is in the West as a naval and commercial power, and English example encouraged her to create her present fine commercial marine and to start on the career of industrial and commercial progress which she now hopes, not without reason, will ere another generation has passed give her the commercial hegemony of the East. The efficiency and strength of the Japanese navy at the present day are known to all, and her mercantile flag is now seen in all the gi'eat harbours of the world. The Emperor had at first no army. His restoration to the throne and his security on it dming the first years of his reign were due to the samurai of tlie feudatories who supported him. A national army, maintained by and owing obedience to the central Government alone, had to be created, and the duty imposed on the entire population of sharing in the military service hitherto monopolised by the samurai. In 1872, the introduction of a system of universal conscription was announced in an Imperial rescript. Under it, every male, without distinction of rank or class, was called on attaining the age of 20 years to serve with the colours for three years, followed by two periods, each of two years, in the first and second reserves, and then to continue enrolled in the territorial reserve until his fortieth year. The military machine which was thus instituted has since had four great tests. Tlie first was in civil war, in the suppression of the Satsuma rebellion in 1877, when a well-equipped and weU-tramed force of 46,000 men of all arms was placed in the field. The second was in the war with China in 1894, when the full strength of the mobilised forces of 220,000 men was engaged. The third was in the Boxer campaign of 1900, when the Japanese had their first opportunity of comparing themselves with European soldiers, and the last and greatest in the war with Russia, when fiilly one million men were mobilised for active service. The army emerged fi-om all these tests with triumphant success.

In Japan popular education has always been general, and though the use of the heart-breakingly difficult Chinese script rendered the acquisition of the arts of reading and writing infinitely more difficult, the proportion of illiterate Japanese was smaller than in any European country. Education was, however, notwithstanding the high value placed on it, carried on without state aid or supervision, almost entirely in private or temple schools, and its extent depended entirely on the means or will of the parents of the children. After the Restoration an entirely new departure was made. A Ministry of Public Education was one of the departments in the newly organised Government and with the aid of American experts a national and compulsory system of general education was initiated in the year 1871, under which every form of instruction was gradually provided, from that of the elementary schools where children are taught the principles of morality, foremost among them being loyalty and patriotism, and to read, write and cypher, up to that of the universities with faculties for the teaching of literature, philosophy and every branch of advanced science. It was the aim of the first reformers "that there should not be a village with an ignorant family nor a family with an ignorant member," and that aim has been nobly carried out, so much so that, just as Japan's naval and military efficiency falls behind that of no great power in the world, the educational facilities which she provides for her people are on a level with and in many of their incidents above those of the most enlightened nations, and the people are worthy of what the Government has done for them. Educational authorities and teachers are alike entirely immune from one of the obstacles that has to be overcome by their colleagues in the West. Thirst for knowledge of every kind is a national characteristic, manifested even in young children, and no compulsion is required to ensure the most intense application on their part or the sacrifice to unremitting industry of the pleasures that are natural to children, youths and girls. The idler is unknown in Japanese schools and colleges, and as industry is a remedy for deficiency in aptitude, the dunce is rare.

Other reforms that can only be mentioned here, made either in 1871 or very shortly afterwards, were the adoption of the Gregorian in place of the Chinese calendar ; the abolition of all sumptuary laws, and of all the old restrictions that limited men to the occupations of their fathers and their residence to the districts in which they were bom ; the emancipation of the peasants ; their release from forced labour, and their conversion from hereditary life-tenants into owners of the soil they tilled, paying to the Government an annual tax based on the value of their land, a tax which fell far below the heavy burthens they had borne under their old feudal lords but which formed the main source of the Imperial revenue till after the China war ; and the withdrawal of all prohibitions to go abroad for purposes of study, business or pleasure.

The Emperor was still little more than a boy, but not only was his name used in every reform that was made, but each at its initiation and throughout the succeeding stages of its progress was countenanced by his presence in public. Reforms were devised and put into operation by his ministers, but that they were able to convince their countrymen of their wisdom and to carry them through all their early stages to ultimate success was mainly due to the public approval that was given to them by their Emperor and to the personal interest which he invariably manifested in them.