By Rei Tanotsuka, 12 August 2020
The world has a montage of Japan and it kinda looks like this:
Yet noone stops to ponder, since it could not possibly have been cultural inertia that brought about the metamorphosis from the martyr to the saccharine Madonna, was Japan’s will contorted with external aid?
Let’s take a look at the history of the Asian juggernaut that elicited as much fear as Temüjin Borjigin (Genghis Khan) and examine our assessment of the harikiri behind the Hello Kitty!
When Japan wanted to be China’s BFF
People these days tend to think Japan, China and Korea were predisposed to treat each other with animosity. This could not be any more fictitious than America being a democratic and free society! Yes that’s right, total BS would be an understatement.
Yoshimitsu, the 3rd Shogun in the Ashikaga shogunate during the Muromachi period, revered China. Though to the chagrin of his descendants, he was not reticent in declaring his wish to be a tributary state of China back in his hey day!
“Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358-1408) was overjoyed at this mark of distinction. In a letter he sent via a trading delegation to Emperor Hung Wu, founder of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Shogun Yoshimitsu willingly struck the pose expected of him: “In fear and dread, kneeling again and again, I respectfully state … ” The Chinese reply rewarded flattery with flattery, noting: “Japan has always been known as a country of poems and books.” In the lively correspondence that followed, Yoshimitsu signed himself, “King of Japan, Your Subject.” King of Japan.
However, when China’s glorious maritime ventures under the Yongle Empire dissipated, it was also Japanese pirates who looted alotta booty! The Chinese then began referring to the Japanese as “wako”, meaning dwarf pirates, which is obviously a pejorative term.
Fast forward a few centuries, we once again see the China fascination coming back in vogue via the literati.
Formal education as we know it, started in the Meiji era in Japan, culminating with middle schools being the highest level of education in 1872. There were 6 courses collectively : classical Chinese, English, mathematics, drawing, PE and science (physics, chemistry and natural history). There were NO CLASSES FOR JAPANESE STUDIES.
The 3 pillars for Japanese education was classical Chinese, maths and English.
Classical Chinese was almost de rigeur for the noble samurai class, and a renowned teacher like Murai Shunmei would have taught around 5000 Japanese students using text books all written in Chinese. A sample of books taught were: A summary of the Eighteen Histories, Loyal Subjects of China and Japan, and A summary of the History of the Imperial Court.
Now remember the central theory in all my works – irrespective of how many head bumps we have as Asian siblings, WE WILL WORK IT OUT. We only start drawing blood upon the instigation of the West!
Discovering the Jekyll in the Japanese Hyde
The above picture is Yoshifuru Akiyama, a general in the Imperial Japanese Army. How did Japan turn into that, from this?
People never seem to be interested in the transition, only the outcome. This is something that has always bewildered me. You can’t go from “A” to “D” without at least bypassing “B and C”, so how did we go from a China loving Japan, to one of pure disdain for the Middle Kingdom?
“This is a major inherent flaw in historical science, one that largely deprives the field of a modern sensibility or renders such a sensibility untenable. Other sciences do not call for similar value judgments; no one would ever say that hydrogen is the villain and oxygen the hero. Science can begin only when such judgments are removed from the realm of the possible—but it is the unhappy fate of a type of historical science to begin precisely by dividing history’s players into teams of good and bad.” Clouds above the Hill: A Historical Novel of the Russo-Japanese War, Volume 1 by Shiba Ryōtarō, Phyllis Birnbaum.
We really do need to extricate the binary Disney narrative and curate a more nuanced understand of the trajectory of Japan’s emergence as an Imperial power. Japan’s Westernization in the Meiji Restoration, is not one born of an isolated epiphany, but of imminent circumstances that posed an inimical threat.
The 1800s is a time in history when China fell to her knees. She pleaded, cajoled and even bribed her foreign assailants, but to no avail. The opium kept filtering through, while all her ports were being taken. Japan feared that unless they changed to emulate the West, they too would suffer China’s fate. Japan Westernised not because of choice, but lack there of.
What do you think happens when a member leaves a tight-knit group to copy the conduct of the nemesis? Hatred from BOTH sides flow. Japan having decided to Westernize, was lampooned by the West and chastised by the East. No ZOOM meetings were available for Japan to have a heart to heart with her neighbours to talk about her desire to be a soi-disant Westerner.
“the first to express harsh contempt for this “blind imitation” on the part of the Japanese were not the Europeans but the neighboring Koreans. With the Restoration, Japan effected great changes. Once the country was opened to the outside world, the Japanese cut off their topknots, began wearing Western clothes, built railways, and did their best to catch up with the industrial civilization that was flourishing in Europe. “Human beings, yet not really human” was the judgment of an official Korean document of the time. Yet another document said, “Altering their outward form in such matters as hairstyle and clothing, and changing their customs, they ought not to be called Japanese.” The conclusion was that there should be no relations with Meiji Japan. If Japan desired relations with Korea, it should revert to its traditional ways and then submit a proposal. Japan tried to open relations with Korea from 1868 to 1873, but Korea continued to be unyielding. At the time a protectorate of Qing China, Korea proclaimed itself a purely Confucian nation on the Chinese model with a strong aversion to Westernization.” from Clouds above the Hill: A Historical Novel of the Russo-Japanese War, Volume 1 by Shiba Ryōtarō, Phyllis Birnbaum
The thing with human nature is that we are a manifestation of variegated values, and this happens even on a daily basis. How often do we “know” that once we get to the gym, it’s actually quite fun, yet we will try to make up excuses to postpone this type of fun, and instead, settle for binge Netflixing, another type of fun that leaves us lethargic.
So to with Japan. It’s not like it entered this Faustian pact sans contemplation, it knew what was logically beneficial and what needed to be discarded. Though Japan was castigated as a copy cat, it really didn’t deserve this label.
Japanese culture and history already had a strong hold on the national ethos. Japan had always been adamant in only adopting Western technology but not the Christian evangelization, in fact, up to the present, the every day Japanese has no affinities to Western values. By and large, faith wise it’s Buddhist or Shinto, linguistically, they don’t use English and it’s a rarity for a Japanese person to have a Western name, the same can not be said for the Chinese.
Every commodity that makes its way into the Japanese market, generally has to adapt to the Japanese palate. The sandwich phenomenon Subway, refused to compromise its gargantuan US sizes, so the majority of Japanese said sayonara to the footlong sammiches! Subway in Japan
So when did the Japanese lose their Confucian values? When a German came.
The German that changed Japan
The game changer came in the form of a German general, Jacob Meckel, (sent by Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, Prussian Military commander) and according to Bernd Martin in Japan and Germany in the Modern World, was credited by the Japanese as the “real victor” in the wars with China and Russia.
The raison d’être for engaging in wars according to Meckel, was to WIN.
“You must win a war from the very outset… Don’t be so foolish as to mobilize your forces after declaring war.”
“You should be striking the enemy even as you declare war.”
This philosophy of striking when one is ready rather than upon formal declaration, was already part of the Japanese swordsman ethics from the Muromachi period, but the Japanese justified this as honourable because the engagement was essentially between Japanese people who held this implicit understanding. When Meckel suggested striking first as an international war strategy, the Japanese were derisive of the practice because it was unscrupulous and down right cowardice.
Meckel assuaged them that what he was advocating, constituted part of international norms and regulations. This simultaneous “attack and declare” posture, emerged to become Japan’s signature manoeuvre, and earned them the repute of being sneaky and dubious.
The problem with faith in the West
Japan at that time, was an emerging Imperial power and would have sold her soul to get a seat at the table irrespective of whether they served her dinner or not. This is a point that is contentious and one that I have debated stridently.
A lot of people who read my works think I’m a gung-ho nationalist who hates the West. This is erroneous and arises from the sheer lack of understanding of history.
I have reiterated this point ad nauseum, we as a collective coloured group of people, be they African, Indian, Filipinos, Irish, Palestinian etc have NEVER EXPERIENCED PARITY since the European conquest began. We have based our satisfaction on INCREMENTS of improvements in trying to attain parity with the West, NOT ON ABSOLUTE MEASURES of equality.
Japan was happy to get a Western Imperial national to advise her. When she got this “approval”, she applied everything that was taught to her in spite of her moral compass pointing south. Japan NEEDED this recognition more than she needed to placate her conscience! Her Confucian values of winning honourably vanquished, and in its place, stood the white Asian beckoning for the same sanguineous state of infamy, HOWEVER, what she misunderstood was that she would forever be beta in the West’s eyes, in addition to being the first to take the fall.
Notice how Germans ARE NEVER thought to sneaky? They are known as cruel, racist and industrious, the same repute that plagues Japan, yet the VERY VALUE that they bestowed on the Japanese and a strategy they used themselves, is NEVER ASSOCIATED with them. It was, and continues to be borne by the Japanese. This was evident during the tech wars back when Japan was the miracle economy to rival the US. Japan had epithets like “sneaky” and “unfair” as accompanying adjectives to every headline and story.
This article by the Atlantic in 1989, turns the tables around and accuses Japan of being racist to the White Western order, and neglects to mention America strong arming it into the Plaza Accord. Once again, the narrative gives the impression that it’s the West that is kowtowing to Japan and letting her step ALL OVER THEM, when in reality, it’s THE PRECISE OPPOSITE. The Asian being “unfair” plot never ceases, despite Asians CONFORMING TO THE “INTERNATIONAL LAWS” established by the West. Containing Japan, the Atlantic.
Why is it only Asians who are associated with being “sneaky and untrustworthy”? Because being cruel and racist, while abominable, can come with the virtue of being truthful, and hence what they record as the official narrative can be BELIEVED. By telling the world Asians are sneaky and untrustworthy, ipso facto means that ANYTHING ASIANS SAY WILL HOLD NO WEIGHT. This is when the Orwellian dictum of who controls the past, controls the future comes into play. History can be revised solely on the whim of the Western Imperial powers and be believed, even if it’s the Pinocchio version penned through either the contortion or omission of facts.
Japan’s disposition towards its notoriety
In life, we get to make a choice, but we don’t get to say where that choice will lead us.
Despite Japan realising at the onset that it’s Western technology that should be adopted and not the moral philosophy, when the momentum of Westernization (Meiji Restoration) reverberated across thousands of individual citizens, control was no longer part of the schema.
Remember, not only was Japan fearing Western invasion on its own sovereignty, but she observed how China still gave preferential treatment to the white Western nations who were trying to carve her up but proffered none of the same “diplomacy” to Japan. This is not arguing Japan being right, THEY WERE ALL A MENACE, however, my point comes back – why do Asians hate Asian enemies more than any other? This psychosis needs to be examined.
Japan’s feeling of victimisation DESPITE being an aggressor, manifested in the sinking of the British steamer, Kowshing. Why did the Japanese Navy under Captain Togo Heihachiro of the Naniwa, sink a British merchant ship? Because it ascertained that mainly Chinese soldiers were on board. Thousands of Chinese soldiers were on that ship and Togo saved not ONE soul. This level of insouciance regarding life is nothing short of a psychological disturbance that comes from a kaleidoscope of contempt.
Vice Admiral Fremantle, officer of the Royal Navy said after the incident, “The Japanese are by nature warm and kind. Their conduct in this instance can only mean a lack of knowledge of humanitarian principles of warfare. The British tradition is completely different. Ever since Lord Nelson prayed before Trafalgar, ‘May humanity after victory be the predominant feature in the British fleet,’ offering aid to helpless enemy soldiers has been a matter of course.”…. quaint ain’t it? Murdering, maiming, raping and enslaving natives upon British conquer and invasion, and yet they still declare hoity toity that they aid “helpless enemy soldiers”!
The patina of human relationships become even more pronounced through time as can be seen in this letter from Prime Minister Itō Hirobumi to China’s Ding Ruchang:
“Admiral Ding Ruchang
Honored Sir, An unfortunate turn of events has made us enemies. But the warfare of today is between countries and entails no animosity between individuals. I therefore believe that our friendship yet maintains its warmth unchanged and beg Your Excellency to read this letter not as a mere incitement to surrender, but as a sincere reflection of the distress now deeply troubling my mind. Whatever lies behind the successive failures of Chinese forces on land and at sea, the true cause must lie elsewhere, not in the military command, as any unprejudiced observer must readily perceive. Your sound judgment undoubtedly tells you so. The reason that the Qing dynasty has suffered this defeat is certainly no fault of Your Excellency’s. The fault lies in the system. The greatest single factor is China’s flawed system, which has long been preserved unchanged. For one thing, government officials are traditionally selected through tests of literary accomplishment, so that the bureaucracy is manned by members of the literati. These are the men who rise through the ranks and attain political power. The system goes back a thousand years and is maintained to this day. I do not venture to deny that such a system is excellent in itself and would, were China isolated in the world, no doubt suffice. But, in today’s world, national isolation is not possible. Thirty years ago, in reference to the Meiji Restoration, as Your Excellency is fully aware, the Japanese Empire was in difficult straits and narrowly escaped the threat of calamity. The sole way for Japan to preserve its independence was to abandon old ways and switch to new. That task was resolutely carried out as a vital necessity, and as a result we have attained our present strength. Your country must do the same. Take to heart this vital necessity or ruin is inevitable sooner or later. Clouds above the Hill: A Historical Novel of the Russo-Japanese War, Volume 1″ by Shiba Ryōtarō, Phyllis Birnbaum
The ties between China and Japan are much more nuanced than people would like to conjecture, it’s not a simple matter of love or hate. Written out, it reads like a compendium of self analysis – what you look like to others in front of yourself…. For Japan and China to heal, the West must put a kibosh on tactics which rip these two Asians asunder. The common values which were historically shared, need to be synthesised to a new level, Japan is no longer the baby brother trying to break out of the big brother’s shadow, and likewise the big brother of yesterday’s hierarchy needs to make room for mutual respect.
Asians, despite being very loquacious generally, do refrain from articulating feelings and while I don’t recommend taking turns complimenting each other under the bodhi tree, for starters, how about us Asians have a chin wag WITHOUT PAYING DEFERENCE TO THE WEST? !