The Making of Modern Japan 
by Marius Jansen.
Harvard, 871 pp., £23.95, November 2000, 0 674 00334 9
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Thirty years ago as a Harvard freshman, I was taught how to think about Japanese history. Japan had just re-emerged after a quarter-century hiatus as a country to be taken seriously. It had pushed aside West Germany to become the world’s third-largest economy and there was talk of its economy surpassing that of the USSR (actually, it already had). Japanese radios, motorcycles, ships and steel had conquered global markets; Toyota, Nissan and Honda had begun to grab sales from an uncomprehending Detroit; the flood of Japanese textile exports had been mentioned again and again during the 1968 Presidential election campaign.

Japan’s economic prowess was already more than a little annoying to Washington: that year saw the first major postwar US-Japan trade confrontation, one that would culminate in the imposition of a temporary surcharge on Japanese imports. Nevertheless, the US regarded Japan with satisfaction. In American eyes, the country had been reborn two decades earlier as a beacon of democracy and capitalism; the credit was attributed to a far-sighted and benevolent American occupation. The transformation the US had supposedly carried out in Japan became increasingly important as an example of what awaited countries that took the capitalist road, rather than following the siren songs emanating from Beijing and Moscow. The Vietnam War was at its height, and the architects of America’s Cold War could take comfort from their ability to contrast a prosperous, peaceful, capitalist Japan with the oppression and poverty of Asian nations under Communism. Hadn’t the American occupation replaced a murderous, xenophobic regime with a government deriving its legitimacy from the consent of the governed as stipulated in a Constitution America had devised?

Those who knew Japan well, however, found it awkward to hold the country up as an example of doing things Washington’s way. It’s true that the Americans had written the Japanese Constitution, but on closer inspection the importance of that document derived from its status as an icon, not as a blueprint for the functioning of the Japanese Government. Power in Tokyo was held by great bureaucracies whose lineage long predated the 1945 unthinkingly held to mark a clean break in Japan’s modern history. And if Japan was a capitalist country, it was a very peculiar one, since, despite the existence of nominally private corporations and stock markets, ownership of the means of production couldn’t be traded, valued or even ascertained. Major companies and banks were not owned in any meaningful sense of the word by their shareholders; if anything, the companies ‘owned’ each other. They acted in accordance with bureaucratic rather than market-driven imperatives, and were subject to endless informal – i.e. unwritten and extra-legal – direction from the Government. In such a system, it was impossible to draw the line that defines capitalism: the line separating ‘public’ from ‘private’.

To be sure Japan had all the trappings of an advanced liberal democracy: elections, political parties, parliaments, courts, corporations, newspapers, unions, shareholders, universities. They gave it the appearance of a country that had metamorphosed into a normal industrialised nation. On closer inspection, however, it became obvious that these institutions functioned in ways that differed – sometimes radically – from their Western counterparts.

This created a difficulty for American scholars of Japanese history, particularly for those in sympathy with the professed aims of the Cold War. They knew far too much to acquiesce in the view that Japan had been transformed into an unproblematic island of American-style capitalism with charming Oriental characteristics. They could not, for example, ignore the prewar roots of Tokyo’s shifting political coalitions or the origins of the country’s immensely powerful bureaucracies. Yet they also understood how important it was that Japan be seen as a trustworthy ally by the US – which meant somehow persuading Americans that Japan was a liberal capitalist democracy even if, strictly speaking, it wasn’t.

Their solution to the dilemma lay in what came to be known as ‘modernisation theory’, which was not so much a theory as a way of approaching Japan’s modern history. What made Japan modern? What was it that had enabled Japan uniquely in the non-Western world to become a fully industrialised nation, capable of waging and winning wars against Western powers? How had it come to assume membership in that elite group of countries that shaped the global economy? These were the questions that principally concerned the proponents of ‘modernisation theory’.

However much its champions insisted that the theory was simply descriptive – ‘I use it to denote what is happening, good or bad, without making any value judgments,’ Edwin O. Reischauer, its most famous exponent, said in 1964 – they were being more than a little disingenuous. Implicit in ‘modernisation’ was the notion that since the 1850s Japan had – in fits and starts and with one very bad turn along the way – been moving towards the liberal capitalism that could be found in its most advanced form in the US.

The theory implied that Japanese oddities would simply melt away as it continued its century-long process of modernisation. And it also served to rebuke another intellectual tradition, one that particul-arly exercised the modernisation theorists because it, too, incorporated the notion of history moving in a linear direction but with a wholly different destination: the dictatorship of the proletariat. Japan’s Marxist scholars were seeking to understand what in Japan’s modern history had gone wrong, not what had gone right. They were more interested, for example, in the light shed by the events of the late 19th century on the horrors of the 1930s than on the income doubling of the 1960s. They were more concerned with the continued concentration of economic and political power in the hands of a small elite than they were with the postwar economic ‘miracle’; with the emasculation of the Japanese labour movement than with the proliferation of consumer durables; with the subordination of Japan’s foreign policy to American Cold War aims than with Japan’s membership in the club of advanced nations.

American modernisation theorists therefore had a second job to perform, and they were quite open about it. They set about counteracting the overwhelming Marxist dominance of Japanese historical scholarship by ‘offering modernisation theory as a more correct analysis for the Japanese to use in interpreting their own experience’, as John Dower put it. One job flowed from the other: Americans were unlikely to take kindly to the notion that their Asian protégé was in the grip of an intellectual establishment obsessed with the labour theory of value.

I had no inkling of these controversies when I arrived at Harvard to be taught Japanese history by Reischauer, who had just returned from a five-year stint as the US Ambassador to Japan. He was one reason I wanted to study there; I had spent a year at a Japanese high school and like much of the Japanese public and most Americans living in Japan, had been dazzled by his panache, his good looks, his fluency in Japanese, his untiring efforts to create ‘understanding’ between the two nations. I had never heard of ‘modernisation theory’, nor do I recall him mentioning it. He did, however, present Japanese history as a triumph against overwhelming odds – with that very unfortunate stumble in the 1930s. The sources of that triumph, we were told, could be found, on the one hand, in the courage and vision of the leaders of the Meiji Restoration in the late 19th century and, on the other, in what had happened before Meiji. For Japan uniquely in the non-Western world had undergone a genuine period of feudalism. (How wrong – even ethnocentric – the Marxists were to posit feudalism as a phenomenon universal in human history.) As for that tragic stumble in the 1930s, Reischauer discussed how the Meiji bureaucracy – accountable in theory to the Emperor but in practice to no one – had helped to bring about the ‘hijacking’ of Japan by the Imperial Army. But we were also told of the strong democratising trends of the 1920s, and were asked to believe that had there not been a global depression, had the US not deeply offended Japan with its racist immigration policies, had Japan not been so shabbily treated in the aftermath of the First World War those democratising trends might have prevailed.

I may not have seen any connection between what I was being taught and the ideology that lay behind the Cold War and American involvement in Vietnam, but others certainly did. The Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars, a group of young, left-leaning academics bitterly opposed to the Vietnam War, fingered the work of Reischauer and his colleagues as having been dictated by Cold War aims, as an ideologically driven whitewash of Japanese history dressed up in the language of an ostensibly value-free scholarship.

The most influential critique of modernisation theory, however, was written by the young firebrand John Dower, in an introduction to an anthology of writings by the Canadian E.H. Norman, the most important prewar Western scholar of recent Japanese history. Japan’s Emergence as a Modern State, written by Norman during the 1930s, and influenced by the Japanese Marxist scholarship so scorned by the modernisation theorists, had portrayed the awful events of that decade as the product of the Restoration. While acknowledging the breathtaking skill with which the Meiji leaders had force-marched Japan into industrialisation, Norman emphasised the thorough militarisation of Japanese society this had entailed and its human cost. And instead of bathing the pre-Meiji Tokugawa years in the rosy light of the predawn of modernity, Norman stressed the misery of the peasantry under feudalism. Naturally, this approach did not sit well with the postwar ‘modernisation’ project. ‘Beginning in the 1950s,’ Dower wrote, ‘Norman’s work was courteously shelved by his American successors . . . largely ignored in the classroom, relegated to libraries and a bibliographic cliché.’ This, as Dower conceded, could be attributed in part to the onward march of scholarship but ‘the political context of postwar American scholarship on Asia’ was equally relevant.

Like virtually every serious intellectual in the 1930s, Norman had Communist sympathies. The modernisation theorists made an issue of his left-wing views as if they somehow discredited what he had to say – and in the 1950s, when the US was in the grip of anti-Communist fervour, they pretty much did. But while the new theorists could write books and give undergraduate courses that pretended Norman had never existed, they could not keep from hearing his voice in their heads.

Indeed, as Marius Jansen, one of modernisation’s leading lights, wrote decades after the controversy had died down, Norman’s work ‘drew heavily on the secondary scholarship of Japanese Marxists who sought the “contradictions” in Japan’s structure during the early 1930s, and his skilful summary and pointed argument set the standard against which most postwar scholarship would measure itself.’ These words appear in The Making of Modern Japan. Jansen, who had recently retired as Professor of Japanese History at Princeton, died a few weeks after finishing it. It sums up a lifetime of scholarship by a man who had a good claim to be the pre-eminent historian of Japan in the Western world, particularly of its early modern period. And it also represents something of a final answer to Norman, whose barely acknowledged ghost seems to hover over it. How well, then, to paraphrase Jansen himself, does his book measure up against the standard Norman set?

In his preface to Norman’s writings, Dower reserved some of his most scathing remarks for Jansen – no one, with the exception of Reischauer, came in for more critical treatment. Jansen had been one of Reischauer’s earliest students, had collaborated with him on a mass market book about Japan and been a pivotal figure at what Dower calls ‘the major event in postwar Western studies of Japan . . . the convening (in 1960) of the Hakone conference on the “modernisation” of Japan’. Jansen edited the first anthology of papers that came out of that and five subsequent conferences, entitled Changing Japanese Attitudes Toward Modernisation (1965).

The world has been transformed beyond recognition since then. Like modernisation theory itself, the Cold War has moved into the history books. The global collapse of Communism has demoralised the Japanese Left, and the institutions that helped give rise to a vigorous Marxist scholarship – the Socialist Party, the Japan Teachers Union, the social science faculties in the major universities – are either exhausted or have been neutralised. Japanese intellectuals still criticise the US-Japan alliance and Japan’s subservience to American aims but these intellectuals are more likely to be right-wing nationalists than Marxists.

It has been decades since Western historians of Japan could be neatly divided into pro and anti-modernisation camps. Dower now occupies an endowed chair at MIT; two years ago he won the National Book Award for his magnificent study of Japan’s immediate postwar years, Embracing Defeat. My left-leaning classmate (and friend) Andrew Gordon is Reischauer’s successor at Harvard; he got there thanks to his work on the bridling of the Japanese labour movement; far from taking umbrage at Gordon’s debt to socialist thought, Jansen is unstinting in his praise. It is difficult to imagine an angry graduate student today following in Dower’s footsteps and taking on the leading lights among contemporary historians of Japan. Among other things, while the relationship between the US and Japan remains important, Japan is no longer useful as an advertisement for the American way of life. Everybody now ‘knows’ things are not done there in proper liberal capitalist fashion. As the op-ed pages continually remind us, that is why Japan is in such trouble today. Isn’t it?

It is as unfair to tar Jansen with the ideological struggles of the 1950s and 1960s as it was to tar Norman with those of the 1930s. Yet the question raised by Norman remains as pressing as ever: how do we approach Japanese history? Japan may no longer be threatening to take itself and its neighbours down in flames. It no longer wages unwinnable wars against an array of vastly better equipped enemies for seemingly inexplicable reasons. Yet the Japanese Government has been presiding for a decade now over a stagnant economy, a ruined financial system, a demoralised citizenry, while simultaneously enjoying the largest pile of savings ever accumulated and a position as the world’s pre-eminent creditor nation. Is there anything in Japanese history that illuminates this paradox? That can teach us why a country that first dazzled, then horrified, then again dazzled the world now provokes little more than condescension from orthodox economists and ‘pull yourself together’ hectoring from the US Treasury?

If anyone was qualified to answer these questions, it was Jansen. All students of Japan agree on the central importance of the Restoration to any study of Japanese institutions and Jansen was perhaps the Restoration’s greatest scholar outside Japan. Forty years ago, he wrote one of the most important books about its early years: Sakamoto Ryoma and the Meiji Restoration, the work that established his reputation. And while The Making of Modern Japan covers the last four centuries of Japanese history, a full third of the book is taken up with the pivotal years from 1837 to 1905. By the 18th century, the great Osaka merchant houses had come to control the shogunal finances, erecting pillars of credit and the world’s first real futures market, built on the basis of the nationwide rice exchange there. In 1837 Oshio Heihachiro, a disgruntled samurai intellectual and ex-official in the shogunal bureaucracy, led a group of disciples in an uprising that laid waste much of the city. This was the beginning of the end of the old order. Osaka had emerged as the nerve centre of Japan’s pre-modern economy: a role it would continue to play until the Second World War, when the relentless bureaucratisation of Japanese society succeeded in finally and irrevocably shifting the balance of economic power away from free-wheeling, entrepreneurial Osaka to bureaucratic Tokyo.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In the early 1600s Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the shogunate that would bear his name and rule Japan for two and half centuries, had, with his grandson Iemitsu, created a system aimed at stability, at ending the murderous fratricidal conflict that had kept Japan in a state of nearly constant civil war for much of the preceding three hundred years. Two of the system’s most important features were supposedly impermeable class distinctions – samurai/peasant/ craftsman/merchant, with the merchants at the bottom and weapons allowed only to the samurai – and sankin kotai, or the requirement that the daimyo (‘dukes’) who ruled Japan’s two hundred-plus fiefdoms spend alternate years in the shogun’s capital of Edo, the pre-1868 name for Tokyo. Sankin kotai would enable shogunal officials to keep a close watch on what the daimyo were up to.

In attempting to ensure stability, however, the shogunate had unwittingly devised a system that we would today recognise as encouraging development and economic transformation. ‘Outward forms of deference and hierarchy,’ Jansen writes, ‘masked almost continuous change.’ The endless processions between Edo and the provincial capitals necessitated a nationwide transportation network. The need to finance both the processions and the upkeep of establishments in Edo forced the daimyo to turn to the merchants, profoundly disturbing samurai conceptions of the way things should be. A long period of peace brought with it a tripling of the population, rapid increases in agricultural productivity, and the growth of great cities (by 1700 Edo and Osaka were already two of the largest cities in the world, dwarfing London and Paris).

Jansen’s masterful summary of the Tokugawa years includes discussion of mass culture, social strata and intellectual trends. (In fact, the first ten chapters of The Making of Modern Japan could be published as a separate introduction to Japan’s early modern history.) But as the book moves into the Meiji period and subsequent decades, it gets bogged down in detail. Jansen shrinks from giving us a way to think about the history of the last 150 years. The chapters on the Tokugawa years come alive precisely because Jansen is asking: what led to the Restoration? What do the 17th and 18th centuries tell us about the near-miraculous transformation that began in the 1850s? No such questioning informs the second half of the book.

The simplest explanation may be that Jansen ran out of energy. But it’s also possible that he never got to grips with contemporary Japan and the collapse of modernisation theory may have left him bereft. The 1990s provided overwhelming evidence that whatever else might be going on, Japan was not discernibly moving towards anything, least of all the supposed nirvana of American-style capitalism.

In the last two chapters, which cover the postwar years, things really start to go wrong. There are serious errors. Prime Minister Ishibashi Tanzan did not die in office, he fell ill and had to resign in 1957, though he lived on until 1973. Japan was not in ‘deep recession’ during the 1990s, there were isolated quarters of negative GDP growth, but no long ‘recession’. Tanaka Kakuei, surely the most formidable politician of postwar Japan, did not resign as Prime Minister because of the so-called Lockheed scandal. He resigned in late 1974 because of a series of articles on his financing methods by the muckraking journalist Tachibana Takashi that were forced on the world’s attention at a press lunch. The Lockheed scandal came to light over a year later and led to Tanaka’s resignation from the Liberal Democratic Party, over which he nonetheless held sway for another 12 years.

The last chapters contain statements that led me to wonder what, if anything, Jansen thought about recent events in Japan. For instance, he dismisses Mishima Yukio as a ‘brilliant stylist who lost sight of the distinction between art and reality’ and the public reaction to his suicide in 1970 by seppuku (‘disembowelment’) as one of ‘astonishment’. Mishima may have been obsessed with reactionary beliefs and values, but both his suicide and his final writing (the tetralogy of novels that portray Japan in the 20th century; the last one, not coincidentally, entitled The Decay of the Angel) were deeply disturbing, suggesting that Japan had sold its soul for a mess of pottage.

At another point he says: ‘At century’s end the Japanese Government responded with impressive efforts to stimulate economic activity through public spending on infrastructure.’ Was Jansen acting as Washington’s cheerleader all along? The Clinton Administration helped push this mad spending, but Jansen should have known that it wrecked Japan’s public finances; nearly destroyed what used to be one of the most beautiful countries in the world; and is driven not by considerations of economic efficiency or improving living standards, but by a bureaucracy operating without accountability.

If the answer to what has gone wrong with contemporary Japan is to be found anywhere, it is in the Restoration and the subsequent decades about which Jansen knew more than almost anyone. ‘Much of Meiji Japan lingers on, even flourishes in contemporary Japan; the growth and ramifications of the bureaucracy . . . the pusillanimity of parties and Diet; state intervention in enterprise . . . the adaptation to Japanese needs of Western technology . . . the low purchasing power of the home market . . . are matters which cannot be appreciated without some understanding of the Meiji period.’ To any student of contemporary Japan, these words leap from the page. But they were written by Norman in 1939, not by Jansen.

The Meiji Restoration was not, of course, a restoration of anything, not even, as was advertised, the direct rule of the Emperor. It was a coup d’état staged by disgruntled lower-ranking samurai from the outlying han (fiefdoms) of Satsuma and Choshu. In their frantic but successful efforts to avoid the fate of the rest of the non-Western world, these men grabbed shoots from every contemporary institution that they thought might conceivably be useful to them – ‘useful’ in strengthening their hold on power or in convincing the West that Japan had become a serious nation – and endeavoured to graft them onto existing Japanese arrangements. Parliaments, courts, constitutions, industrial machines, railroads, public schools, universal male conscription, banks, stock markets – even ballroom dancing, not to mention nation-building ideologies – were all imported with astonishing rapidity.

But none of these institutions was allowed to undermine the real authority of the men who had seized power in the 1860s. Japan might have had political parties, cabinets, and elections, but none of these was permitted to challenge the ‘sacred inviolability’ of the Throne – itself an institution with ancient roots utterly transformed by the new leaders into a talisman of absolute state power. They used the Throne to shield themselves from all challenges to their control. And the powerful bureaucracy they brought into being – including the military – was deliberately placed under the theoretical control of the Emperor, not the Diet. Once the real power-holders in the Meiji system died off in the early 20th century, the bureaucracy was subject to no control at all.

It was this lack of control, this yawning gap between theory and reality, that allowed a group of ambitious mid-ranking officers in the Imperial Army to launch Japan on a course towards disaster during the 1930s. But the gap is still there. It is masked by the US, which since 1945 has carried out on Japan’s behalf those functions by which a state is most commonly identified – providing for external security and conducting foreign relations. Yet the gap is now becoming clear again as Japan finds itself unable to rethink the economic policies pursued since the immediate postwar years. Those policies – export like mad and hoard foreign exchange earnings – were so obvious they required no political discussion. But now that the policies must be reordered Japan is waking up to the melancholy reality that it is unable to change course.

The individual most responsible for this is Yamagata Aritomo, father of the Japanese military and the architect of much more besides. He oversaw the birth and professionalisation of the police, the militarisation of Japanese society via the education system, and the dissolution of the old han, which were replaced with the powerless local governments under Tokyo’s thumb that survive to this day. Most important, he insulated the bureaucracy from any kind of political interference, and so laid the groundwork for colossal – and disastrous – irresponsibility. Norman’s and Jansen’s contrasting treatments of this pivotal figure give a sense of how far Jansen falls short of the standard Norman set. Here is Norman on Yamagata:

Cold and distant in manner, sparing in words, a meticulous administrator, endowed with a tenacious memory, Yamagata was the perfect military bureaucrat. Profoundly suspicious of popular opinion, he detested above all political parties of any stripe, even the most abject and reactionary. Any movement organised to represent the interests of people at large, no matter how inadequate or restricted, stirred his fiercest animosity . . . Yamagata more than any other Japanese statesman, succeeded in creating and maintaining the structure of military autocracy, centring on the institution of the Emperor. It is to him that the present warlords of Japan must look with a sense of political obligation, tinged perhaps with a nostalgic envy.

There is nothing in Jansen that gives this palpable sense of the man, despite a six-page summary of his career and a shower of other references. We are told that he was ‘after Ito (Hirobumi) the most important of the Meiji leaders’; that ‘in barrack and officer academy the theme constantly invoked was that of loyalty to the emperor’; that he ‘was explicit in his instructions to the military to stay out of politics’; that his ‘approach to structuring local government derived from his military preoccupations; control, order and uniformity were the goals’; that his ‘concern with order also produced legislation that extended the power of the police in daily life’. But the passion, the sense of urgent relevance, that informs Norman’s portrayal is absent. That doesn’t mean that Jansen’s book isn’t important. On the contrary, as an overview of the modern history of Japan, it has no rival in English and is not likely to have anytime soon.

Japan remains the sole case of a non-Western country that took on and almost defeated the West on its own terms – first in battle and then in economic competition. It set an example that continues to mesmerise much of the developing world. Neither the Russian nor the Chinese Revolutions are imaginable without what happened in Japan. Japan wrote the death warrant for Western colonialism in Asia and for a half century now has played a central and under-appreciated role in postwar American hegemony, supporting through its trade surpluses and vast holdings of US dollars the American currency’s role as the world’s money. Jansen assures us that ‘a nation so gifted, resourceful and courageous was destined to play a major role in the millennium now begun.’ But what role? The unending restlessness of Japan’s efforts to make a place for itself in a world it did not create, the bitterness and mistrust – very incompletely hidden – that mark its relations with the outside world, the gnawing sense behind the periodic bursts of nationalist bluster that it somehow does not measure up – all augur ill for its own future. And indeed for the capacity of a non-Western nation to preserve any degree of autonomy, to find any degree of inner peace, in the face of Western dominance: of the overwhelming ‘soft’ power of American mass culture and the faceless institutions of global capitalism.

One hopeful sign is that virtually alone among the non-English speaking nations, Japan has in recent years made genuine contributions to an internationalised popular culture. From manga cartoons to Hello Kitty to the Walkman, from karaoke to Game Boy to Pokémon, Japan still manages to grab the world’s attention. Its companies have put technologically sophisticated products within the reach of hundreds of millions of consumers worldwide – forcing competitors to match Japanese quality and price. These achievements suggest a way out of Japan’s current predicament – the throwing off once and for all of Yamagata’s legacy. If the elites could, finally, learn to trust their own people, this century need not repeat the tragedies of the last one.

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Vol. 24 No. 4 · 21 February 2002

R.T. Murphy probably knows, but other readers of his review of Marius Jansen’s The Making of Modern Japan (LRB, 3 January) might not, that E.H. Norman, whose work on Japan he cites so admiringly, was Canada’s Ambassador to Egypt in 1957, when he jumped off a roof in Cairo. What drove him to suicide? Harassment by the US Senate for being a ‘security risk’. This despite the Prime Minister’s affirmation of confidence in him. We seem to be reliving those times all over again.

Nancy Kenyon
Perth, Ontario

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