The Meiji restoration initiated not just modernisation, but also militarism
THE story of Japan's modernisation began 150 years ago this month, when a band of young samurai and their allies overthrew the Tokugawa shogunate and with it seven centuries of feudal rule. Under the shoguns (military rulers), merchant and cultural life—centred upon bustling Edo—had been far from stagnant, as the stunning woodblock prints of Hokusai and Hiroshige attest. But Japan had for more than two centuries been closed and inward-looking. Its stratified society was absurdly rigid.
Above all, the warrior class was ill-equipped to deal with the growing threat posed by the gunboats of America and other Western countries, which had been sailing into Edo Bay and forcing the shoguns to sign treaties opening the country to foreign trade. The contest was unequal. The West had ironclad vessels and the latest guns. The samurai had ceremonial armour with face masks designed to show off impressive false moustaches.
The leaders launched their coup with the slogan "Revere the emperor, expel the barbarians". For the first part, they called on tradition. They put the imperial line, hitherto mere props in Kyoto, back at the centre of the polity.
They brought the 12-year-old emperor, Mutsuhito, up to Edo (now renamed Tokyo, or Eastern Capital), affirmed his unbroken descent from the sun goddess and claimed to rule on his behalf. Mutsuhito died in 1912; posthumously he was given the title of Emperor Meiji. Hence the name for the coup: the Meiji restoration.
As for the second part, far from expelling the barbarians, the new leaders embraced them. In April 1868 a famous "Charter Oath" decreed that "knowledge shall be sought throughout the world" to strengthen imperial rule.
Fifty high officials set off on a 22-month world tour to take in everything they could about American and European government, industry, trade, education and warfare. Back in Japan they launched a frenzy of industrial development, administrative reform and military modernisation not even matched by China's more recent headlong growth. The Meiji restoration was actually a revolution.
For Shinzo Abe, Japan's current prime minister, the restoration resonates. Mr Abe comes from Yamaguchi, known in feudal times as Choshu. Leaders from Choshu were at the head of the revolution. Mr Abe once told this columnist he identified with them because they did "not simply look inward, but looked…to the world's wider horizons".
The Choshu men, he explained, saw the threat from Western imperialism. Japan's harsh choice was either to be the meat served at a Western banquet or a guest at the table. By modernising, Japan became the only big country in Asia to safeguard its independence. It joined the Western high table.
Mr Abe sees lessons in all this, and since he came to office in 2012 he has appeared to be in a tearing hurry to implement them. At home Japan is imperilled by a weak economy, a risk-averse establishment and an ageing, shrinking population. Overseas, China threatens Japan not just in economic terms but, as it grows more assertive, militarily too.
A revived economy (with more opportunities for women at work), a vigorous diplomacy and, notwithstanding the constraints of a pacifist post-war constitution, a stronger defence are to him the right responses. (They also help confront the threat posed by a nuclear North Korea.)
The government has gone all-out to promote the 150th anniversary, starting with a push in 2015 to acquire UNESCO "world heritage" status for various spots important in the ensuing industrial revolution. One striking site is Hashima, an island off the coast near Nagasaki that sits above a former coal mine, operated by the Mitsubishi conglomerate, that ran under the sea bed.
It was once the most densely populated spot on Earth, housing miners and the families. (Today its post-apocalyptic ruins are best known as the lair of James Bond's nemesis in "Skyfall".)
The government website celebrating the Meiji restoration idealises the period as one of grass-roots change and human rights as much as innovation. Yet for ethnic groups whose territory was annexed and culture stifled, such as the Ainu in the north and Okinawans in the south, it was not much fun.
The rank-and-file in the new conscript army were brutalised. Workers in the mines and mills led harsh lives. And women, points out Tomomi Yamaguchi of Montana State University, were kept down. They could not vote, divorce or own property. Most Japanese women find little appeal in the nostalgic push by Mr Abe's Liberal Democratic Party to return to the Meiji era's "family values".
Don't mention the war
There is another problem. The Meiji restoration sowed the seeds of Japan's 20th-century aggression. The first war dead whose souls were honoured at Tokyo's Yasukuni shrine, later controversial for honouring war criminals, were those who died fighting for the restoration (though even the losing side was supposedly fighting for the emperor).
The authoritarian constitution of 1890, borrowed from that of Bismarck's Germany, fostered emperor-worship and glorification of the armed forces—powerful features of Japan's war machine.
By the time of Japan's defeat in 1945 thousands of Koreans and Chinese had been forced to work the mines in Hashima, among many other sites. Mr Abe's government, after much resistance, promised UNESCO it would reflect this history. Yet on Hashima neither the guides nor the pamphlets and signs refer to it. Members of Mr Abe's government, and at times the prime minister himself, seem to deny the existence of forced labour at all.
You can see the conundrum without sympathising with it. Those, like Mr Abe, who are less than frank in acknowledging Japan's wartime past, are worried about pulling on a thread. No clear event, no Reichstag fire, marked the moment when the country lurched into militarism. If aspects of what the Meiji restoration wrought come into question, what is there left to be proud about? The quest to find a modern identity for Japan continues.