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Barbarian Sentiments

THE MAKING OF MODERN JAPAN By Marius B. Jansen; Harvard University Press: 896 pp. $35

November 19, 2000|IAN BURUMA | Ian Buruma is the author, most recently, of "The Missionary and the Libertine: Love and War in East and West."

It must have been an awesome sight when, on July 2, 1853, Commodore Matthew C. Perry sailed into Edo Bay with four large black-hulled ships, mounting 61 guns and carrying 967 men, to teach the Japanese a lesson in the benefits of free trade, that fine American doctrine. Not all--in fact, rather few--Japanese immediately saw the sense of letting long-nosed barbarians settle on their shores, trading and whoring and confusing the common people's minds with subversive foreign ideas, but the size of Perry's ships, the news of Chinese defeats in the opium wars and the 61 guns were mightily persuasive.

The Japanese then did what they have done many times since: They appeased the "red-haired" visitors with shows of goodwill, hospitality and promises, while mounting covert resistance and building enough strength to hold off further foreign encroachments or, better still, beat the foreigners at their own game.

Unlike the rulers of the Chinese empire, who pretended that foreigners had nothing to teach the Middle Kingdom, the Japanese were quick learners, but not always in ways Perry, or other Westerners who came after him, would have liked. It would be nice to think that Perry "opened" Japan to the fruits of liberty, that, to paraphrase Al Gore, he used American power to spread American "values," but things were of course never quite so simple. The Japanese were picky about what they wanted from the West.

Soon after Perry's arrival, Japanese government officials voiced the need for an institute to study barbarian ways. In the words of one such advocate, it was "urgent to know more about the West. [We should translate] books on bombardment, on the construction of batteries, on fortifications, books on building warships and maneuvering them, books on sailing and navigation, books on training soldiers and sailors." And so on.

It would also be flattering, from a Western point of view, to assume that Japan, before Perry's "black ships," was a kind of medieval island of darkness and ignorance, only to be opened to the Occidental light in 1853. In fact, as Marius Jansen shows in his magisterial new book, "The Making of Modern Japan," this was far from the truth. Japan may have been relatively isolated since the early 17th century, when the government decided to limit traffic with the outside world, but the Japanese elite was better informed about the West than their counterparts elsewhere in Asia. Scholars of "Dutch learning" (the Dutch were the only Europeans allowed to carry on their trade for more than 200 years) knew about medical science and astronomy; sophisticated maps were drawn up of the world, which showed conclusively that neither China nor Japan was at the center of it, and the shoguns made sure they were kept abreast with political events, even though the news was not always accurate.

Not only were the elite relatively well-informed, but 19th-century Japan was a highly developed society, with larger cities than anywhere else in the world, where rich merchants and cultivated samurai had created a culture of great refinement. The central government was oppressive and authoritarian, to be sure, but through pressure, negotiation and sometimes open rebellion, merchants, provincial samurai lords and even peasants had won themselves a surprising amount of room for maneuvering. This formed the basis for a wider revolt against the shogunate, after the demonstration of superior Western force showed up its weakness. When the revolt came a little more than 10 years after Perry's arrival in Edo Bay, it took the form of an imperial "restoration." A new form of government based on Western models was established by provincial samurai activists, with the emperor playing a central role, partly as a divine priest-king, partly as a Prussian-style monarch in a military uniform.

The result was promising and in some respects more liberal than anything before. Outcasts were officially emancipated. Political parties were formed. Civil rights were propagated, and constitutional debates were held in school halls and village assemblies. Extreme forms of "Westernization" were proposed and often rejected--English as the new national language, for example. Newspapers thrived. Literature flowered. Cities grew. Universities were established. Men and women waltzed in fine evening clothes. In sum, by the 1880s, Japan had all the hallmarks of a "modern" nation in the Western style. What, then, went wrong? Why did Japan, like Germany, grow into the increasingly authoritarian, bellicose power which came close, in the 1930s and early '40s, to destroying much of Asia?

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