Japan & The West

History of Japan - Japan & The West

Japan & The West: From Meiji To World War II

Philip Beech

The West has been a defining influence on the "culture and action" of Japan in the modern period. The Western threat and the rallying call of sonno joi was a catalyst for the overthrow of the Tokugawa regime.

From the Meiji Restoration onwards there was a wholesale adoption and adaption of Western institutions, technology and modes of thought as Japan sought to convince the West that it deserved to be considered as a modern nation so that the unequal treaties imposed by the Western powers would be revoked.

However, by the end of the nineteenth century as the nation became more confident, voices were raised concerning whether Japan had gone too far in its policy of bunmei kaika ("civilization and enlightenment") and imitation of the West.

More traditional Japanese values were in evidence in the 1899 Constitution and the 1890 Rescript on Education as Japan attempted to achieve a synthesis of East and West, expressed in the slogan wakon yosai ("Japanese spirit and Western techniques") and thus preserve the 'national essence.'

"Twentieth- century thinkers imagined a Japan destined to reach new levels of achievements realized by no single Western nation..... It was precisely because Japanese saw the urgency of keeping their culture uncontaminated and hence preserving its essence against the threatened external pollution that they felt justified using militant forms of political and cultural action." (Najita Tetsuo & Harootunian H.D)

Thus, the cosmopolitanism of the 1920s which emphasized cultural diversity and common humanity narrowed in the 1930s to the idea of Japan's uniqueness, as it realised the best of East and West, and therefore underlined Japan's claim to lead the East and indeed the world "to a higher level of cultural synthesis that surpassed Western modernism itself."

Contemporary Japanese print showing anti-western feeling.
Contemporary print showing a Japanese sumo wrestler tossing a Westerner to the ground

Ideology of Japanese Uniqueness

The ideology of preserving Japan's unique spirituality and "national political essence" (kokutai) tended to mean the rejection of "Western conceptions of legal reason and rational cultural norms, often conveyed in the idiom of progress, rationalism, modernization, or simply westernization."

This was also linked to the reversal of the Meiji Restoration call of Datsu-A Nyu-O ("Exit Asia; Enter the West"). Now some leaders called for a new emphasis on Asia and an abandonment of the West as Japan should take over leadership in the area, develop it economically and assist Asian people in their struggle against Western colonialism. "A closer reading of the slogan [nyu-A Datsu-O] suggested Japanese hegemony in Asia and the removal of outside interference."

This thinking can be seen as an ideological justification for Japanese imperialism behind the events which took place on the Asian continent in the 1930s. However, Akira Iriye argues that "the often alleged strain of anti-Western pan-Asianism was never more than an afterthought, or at most a result, not a cause, of military action. Force and the use of force as a necessary means of obtaining a coldly calculated goal, rather than adherence to a vaguely defined doctrine, characterized the military's behaviour" in Manchuria.

Whether or not an ideological rejection of the West or the basic desire to form a defence line against the Soviet Union was the driving force behind the events in Manchuria in the 1930s, "the twentieth century witnessed a powerful cultural and political ground swell of resistance and revolt against the domination of Asia by Western powers, in which Japan assumed the role of leading this Asian renaissance."

The attempted coups and assassinations of the 1930s and the call for a "Showa Ishin" all shared the conceptual assumption that the times demanded a new order in Japan free from the corrupting influence of the West so that Japan could take on the leadership in Asia.

Activists and thinkers such as Okawa Shumei, Tachibana Kosaburo, Kita Ikki and Gondo Seikei represented a neo-joiron harking back to the pre-Restoration 1860s. Their works and ideas, though not mainstream, influenced the intellectual climate and the various attempts to bring about violent political change in the 1930s.

Kita Ikki believed a coup d'etat would rid Japan of Western political institutions, Western style bureaucracy and economic practices. Like Ishiwara Kanji he was influenced by Nichiren Buddhism and the idea of an "ultimate war" against the West.

However, his ideas still owed much to Western thinking on socialism and industrialization. Gondo Seikei and Tachibana Kosaburo were radical agrarianists whose anti-urban, anti-industrial and anti-Western message appealed to many army officers from the poor northern regions of Japan badly affected by the Depression of the early 1930s.

They, along with Yanagida Kunio (though himself no militarist), saw the modern bureaucratic state as an artificial Western import which threatened their image of Japan as a large "tutelary shrine". Tachibana in The Basic Principles of Japanese Patriotic Reform of 1932 called for the violent uprooting of Western capitalist and materialist civilization in Japan.

Tachibana saw the village as the original starting point of Asian civilization whereas towns constituted the Western model. He opposed Western thought, including Marxism as inappropriate for an Asia rooted in agrarian communalism. Okawa Shumei, though again influenced by western thinkers, looked to Asians to throw off western domination through domestic spiritual reconstruction, violent if necessary, and finally leading to "the war to end wars" with the West.

"The spiritual reconstruction summoned by writers such as Okawa converged with plans to launch a war either on the Asian continent against the Soviet Union or in the Pacific against Great Britain and the United States. Yet the reasons for an Asian renaissance and its intended meaning were not always the same as the diplomatic and political causes leading to military confrontation. But the merger of a spiritual ideology and military aggression often produced self-serving justifications of Japan's own presence in Asia and its destiny to lead the yellow races to a new order."

Ishiwara Kanji's thought and actions in Manchuria best exemplifies this "merger of spiritual ideology and military aggression." Like Kita and Okawa, Ishiwara saw the West as a threat to the Japanese kokutai through the forces of communism, anarchism, liberalism and pacifism, and looked to Japan to lead the East in an apocalyptic struggle against the oppressive West symbolized by the United States.

In Japanese literary and philosophical circles there was also a move in the 1930s towards "culturalism" as opposed to cosmopolitanism. Although deeply steeped in western thought and not advocates of a violent response towards the West, men such as Miki Kiyoshi, Watsuji Tetsuro, Tanazaki Junichiro and Yasuda Yojuro opposed individualism, materialism and rationalism which they saw as western vices unsuitable for Japan.

Watsuji saw the Asian monsoon climate as creating a less individualistic and rational society in contrast to the more temperate West. Yanagida Kunio emphasised the communitarian village lifestyle as opposed to the modern industrial, bureaucratic and technological state which he saw as a Western import. The writer Tanizaki Junichiro's In Praise of Shadows in 1934 laments the adaptation of Western technology, particularly, electric lighting.

The writers of the 'Romanha school' such as Yasuda Yojuro in The Japanese Bridge (1936) attacked the western literary forms of realism and naturalism and the narrative of time as material progress. The 1930s saw an intellectual backlash against bunmei kaika and the import of Western utilitarianism in the Meiji period and was linked to the more general criticism of the Western dominated international order.

"Liberating Japanese cultural idealism from Western materialism and separating Asia from Western hegemony were... closely related sentiments," and could provide the underlying intellectual justification for Prime Minister Konoe's call for the establishment of an "East Asian Cooperative Union" in 1938.

Thus, ideological rejection of the West could be linked with political and diplomatic rejection.

Politics and Diplomacy

The Peace Conference at Versailles concluding the First World War in 1919, though giving Japan a permanent seat in the League of Nations, had rebuffed Japan's attempt to insert a declaration of racial equality into the League's Covenant. The emergence of the United States as a world power after the war also led to the end of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance in 1923 following the Washington Conference of 1921-22.

The 1924 Oriental Exclusion Act prohibiting Japanese emigration to the United States was further proof of Western, in particular, American suspicions of Japan. The London Naval Treaty in 1930 which extended the naval ratios agreed at Washington to cruisers and smaller ships can be seen as the " last success of those [in Japan] who put their faith in an international order regulated by the industrialized democratic powers." (G.R. Storry)

The Hamaguchi cabinet, desiring Western investment, was committed to peaceful economic development through cooperation with the Western powers and a moderate China policy, respecting the principle of the Open Door. The rest of the decade was to see a growing rejection of international diplomatic cooperation, as Japan moved towards autonomy in her relations with the Anglo-American Powers. The London Conference marked "a watershed between the cooperative diplomacy of the 1920s and the expansionism of the 1930s".

The "Fleet Faction" within the Japanese Navy, though checked at the London Conference, managed to shift the locus of control from the Navy Ministry to the Navy General Staff with its policies of naval buildup and southern expansion with a view to future confrontation with the United States.

The assassination of the Prime Minister, Hamaguchi, was a sign of the rising nationalist feelings of patriotic groups fuelled by the economic hardship of The Depression. Rising nationalism, implying an indigenous culture and a national essence made it increasingly difficult for politicians and diplomats to advocate internationalism and be considered a patriot.

Japanese troops in action.
Japanese troops in action after the Mukden Incident

Mukden Incident

The Mukden Incident of 1931 and the subsequent occupation of Manchuria, engineered by Itagaki Seishiro and Ishiwara Kanji against the known wishes of the cabinet, was the beginning of a policy of confrontation with the West lead by certain groups within the Kwantung Army.

Tokyo balked at taking Manchuria under direct military rule so as not to alarm the Western treaty powers in China. However, clashes between Japanese and Chinese troops in Shanghai in 1932, close to the International Settlement and the recognition of the Manchuko puppet regime in 1933 signaled a "basic cleavage" or at least a tacit rejection of the policies of Equal Opportunity and the recognition of the territorial integrity of China included in the Washington Treaty.

This attitude of rejection is illustrated by Morii Yasutaro writing in 1935: "The Manchurian Incident may be taken as Japan's formal notice to the Powers that she is fed up with the peculiar type of fair play practiced by the whites in their associated with the non-white races."

South Manchuria Railway.
South Manchuria Railway

Manchuko was not recognised by the Anglo-American powers and the Lytton Commission investigating the Incident, though moderate in its tone, found against Japan. As a result Japan withdrew from the League of Nations in 1933, a move that signaled the end of Japan's reliance on the Washington Treaty and the principles of collective security. The Japanese press urged that " indignant rejection was the appropriate reaction to the Lytton report." (Sydney Giffard)

Japan was moving towards a policy of an Asia Monroe Doctrine depending not on international accommodation but on the power of the Empire. This coincided with Ishiwara Kanji's ideas of economic and political consolidation in Manchuria so that it could be used as a power and resource base for the "Final War" with the United States.

The War Ministry's publication The Basic Theory of National Defence in 1934 was seen by Professor Minobe as a rejection of diplomatic cooperation with the Anglo-American powers as Japan's building of a "Defence State" would lead to a corresponding move on the part of the West and the prospect of conflict between what nationalists saw as the "have-not " and "have" nations of the world. Further evidence of the growing anti-Western feeling in the army was General Tada Shun's comment in 1935 that only the complete emancipation of the Oriental peoples from the "yoke of the white race" would solve the problems of Asia.

In the Navy parity rather than a ratio was sought with the Anglo-American fleets and a policy of "defend the north, advance to the south" was voiced as America became the theoretical enemy in Japanese naval planning. Japan's policy in China in the 1930s changed from friendship and cooperation with the West in 1930 to maintaining peace with an "Asian Monroe Doctrine" in 1933 to "co-prosperity and co-existence" with China in 1936 to the "rejuvenation" of China under Japanese guidance in 1938.

Such change marks a gradual Japanese attempt at exclusion of the West from China. This rejection of Western participation in China is symbolized by the attacks on the HMS Ladybird and the USS Panay on the Yangtze in 1937 (although the government later apologized).

Anti-British feelings, in particular, increased after Konoe's announcement of the 'New Order in East Asia' in 1938 and Britain's support of Chiang Kai-Shek and "British-style racial attitudes" were criticised by the foreign-relations journal Gaiko Jiho and an anti-British conference was held in Osaka in 1939 calling for an end to military aid to China, the liberation of India and the freeing of Asia from British imperialism.

Emperor Hirohito, Showa Period of Japanese history.
Emperor Hirohito in full military uniform

However Prof. Iriye contends that it is difficult to reconcile Japan's pan-Asianism when it held an alliance with a Western power, Germany, and that a policy of trying to stop American interference in Asia did not mean non-intercourse with the United States who remained throughout the 1930s a major supplier of oil and raw materials to Japan.

Indeed Iriye sees Japan courting American diplomatic involvement in China and views Japan's policy as opportunist and not dogmatic. Japan intended the development and industrialization of Asia, aims Western as such, but in a way to "Asianize the Europeanization of Asia." So although Japan's political and diplomatic behaviour as a whole during the 1930s may be seen as a rejection of cooperation with the West, Japan moved opportunistically and could shift to a more friendly attitude when the situation suited her.

For example, after the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 and the invasion of Poland, Japan moved closer to Britain for a while. The Anti-Comintern Pact with Germany also meant that Japan's pan-Asianism can seem rather paradoxical when added to Japan's trade relations with the West throughout the 1930s.

Japan's Economic and Business Relations With The West

The Depression of the early 1930s led to the increase in the desire of Japanese business to export in order to survive (Japanese exports had halved in value due to the Depression). Japanese business was feared by the West as a competitor, imitator and interloper. In 1932 Japan overtook Britain as the world's largest exporter of cotton goods, and trade hostility brought on by the Depression and Japan's aggressive export campaign strengthened the argument for expansionism and exclusive spheres of interest.

However, Japan was dependent on imports of raw materials from America and the colonies of South East Asia and many Japanese companies, such as Mitsui had close links with Western companies and continued to invest in the West. However, as a result of a weaker Yen, imports became expensive and trade increased more within the "Yen bloc" and South East Asia as opposed to trade with America and Europe.

At two economic conferences in 1934 in Batavia and Simla, Japan failed to get improved economic concessions and market access from the Dutch and the British and this increased the antagonistic feelings towards these countries in Japan. Meyer Ranneft, head of the Dutch delegation at Batavia complained of the exclusive nature of Japanese business practice.

"Free trade is Japanese trade, for as a matter of course the Japanese products would be transported by Japanese ships, would be cleared by Japanese storage companies, would then be distributed by Japanese retailers and would finally be sold .... by Japanese shopkeepers." (P. Lowe & H. Moeshart)

Overall however, the actions of Japan's business community amounted to a pragmatic approach towards the West rather than a rejection. Zaikai leaders tried to induce American business to invest in Manchuko, for example, and the Mukden Incident drew a mixed response, as some in the textile industry believed it would incite a destructive war and "cut off the road of life in today's society" while other business leaders urged that Japan should go it alone and develop self-sufficiency through China.

The failure of the 1933 London Economic Conference due to the bickering between America and Europe was on the whole regretted in business circles as a stable exchange rate and lower global tariffs "were a problem of life and death for Japan." (W.M. Fletcher)

The resulting deterioration in international trade and the move towards bloc economies was not appreciated by the zaikai and fuelled resentment towards the West. Japan raised tariffs on both Australian and Canadian imports to force a reduction of levies on Japanese exports but, nevertheless, Japan was eager to be part of the Western dominated international economy.

Throughout the period trade missions continued to visit the West and Joint Trade Councils were formed with both America and Britain demonstrating the desire of Japanese business to "ease economic tensions and to demonstrate friendly intentions toward the Western powers."

Even as Japan moved towards a bloc economy from 1937 no business group urged all out war and most were aware that Japan needed trade with the West to feed its munitions industries. Opportunism rather than rejection best summarizes Japan's economic policies in the period after 1937.

Education and the Media

As resentment towards the West grew during the 1930s this was reflected in state education and the media. For example, the 1937 Guidelines to Teachers (kokutai no hongi) warned against the adoption of bad western values such as individualism and materialism and explained that Japan's mission was to build a new culture based on the kokutai as well as positive elements from the West.

However, expelling Western influence after over sixty years of sustained and intensive contact was no easy matter and however much Western culture and civilization were condemned, Japan needed to keep up with Western military technology. Thus, "the anti-Western movement was therefore limited to such harmless fields as arts and entertainment, and even there a fine distinction was drawn between Anglo-Saxon culture, which was deemed bad, and 'friendly' Western cultures which could be tolerated." (B-A Shillony)

This was especially so when hostilities began in the 1940s but in the 1930s too censorship of foreign films stiffened, efforts were made to uproot English words from Japanese (though derivations from German increased), jazz and baseball were phased out on the radio and there was even a plot to assassinate Charlie Chaplin on his visit to Japan in the 1930s.

Correspondingly, Japanese music and sports gained increasing air time on Japanese radio. However, the rising tide of repression in the 1930s especially after the 1936 February 26th Incident was not directed just at Western influences such as Western Christian groups, films and music.

The civilian Japanese right wing also came under increased police surveillance along with film makers, editors and journalists.

Although there was considerable resentment to and rejection of Western values in the 1930s this never amounted to a complete rejection of the West. The ideology and thinking of men such as Kita Ikki, Okawa Shumei and Ishiwara Kanji was never totally accepted in the mainstream.

In the political and diplomatic arena Japan was actually allied to two Western powers, Germany and Italy, which made calls for pan-Asianism rather paradoxical. Iriye sees a further paradox in the fact that the more Westernized Japan had become since 1868, the easier it became to emphasize its traditional aspects by combining Confucian elements with Western notions of 'self- help' and 'the survival of the fittest'.

Military planners and diplomats also hoped to sever the links between America and Britain in the eventuality of war. In the economic field the rejection of Western values could not be complete as Japan needed Western science to aid its war effort, as was evidenced by the rising proportion of science graduates, "nor could purely 'nativist' principles be applied to the organization of a wartime economy." (W.G. Beasley)

Censorship and growing state oppression in the media and education also reveal the selective nature of Japan's rejection of the West. The anti-Westernism inherent in the ideology of 'overcoming the modern' or the superiority of the Japanese spirit quickly disappeared after the war and Gluck sees this as running "against the grain of the Japanese experience, from the Meiji adoption of civilization through the cosmopolitan pursuit of the modern in the years between the world wars."

The Showa Emperor too remained skeptical of further rifts with the West and overall Japan's rejection of the West in the 1930s was never a complete renunciation as can be seen by the revival of enthusiasm for Western values and institutions since 1945.

Sources & Books on Japanese History

Najita Tetsuo & Harootunian H.D., Japanese Revolt Against the West: Political and Cultural Criticism in the Twentieth Century, The Camb. Hist. of Japan. Vol.vi. ed., P.Duus, CUP, 1988
Akira Iriye, intro. to Shima Toshiko, The Extension of Hostilities 1931-2, J.W. Morley (ed.) Japan Erupts. The London Naval Conference and the Manchurian Incident 1928- 1932, Columbia University Press, 1984.
G.R. Storry, Japan and the Decline of the West in Asia, MacMillan, 1979
Morii Yasotaro, Sunrise Synthesis, Aspects of Changing Japan, Tokyo, 1935
Sydney Giffard, Japan Among the Powers, 1890- 1990, Yale U.P., 1992
P. Lowe & H. Moeshart, Western Interactions with Japan, Japan Library Ltd., 1990
W.M. Fletcher, The Japanese Business Community & National Trade Policy, Univ. of N. Carolina Press, 1989
B-A Shillony, Politics & Culture in Wartime Japan, Clarendon Press, 1981
W.G. Beasley, The Rise of Modern Japan, Nicholson, 1990
C. Gluck, Japan's Modern Myths, Princeton 1985

Books on Modern Japanese History

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