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Response to Review no. 383

I am grateful to Dr Shillony for his many and carefully formulated comments and especially for raising with clarity in the second half of his review large issues in the interpretation of Japanese history and of its relevance to modern events. I am in basic agreement with his concluding comment that ‘the book would have benefited from sticking to the past and not judging the present’. I should indeed have liked pedantically to confine my account to a self-contained examination of Japanese history concentrating on three things: first, what does the archival evidence state; second, what widely-held assumptions are not borne out by hard archival evidence; and third, what are the grey areas where supposition alone exists and where old and new views are alike problematic?

While Dr Shillony says that ‘it is difficult to agree with the author that “Japanese history poses greater problems of interpretation than the history of other countries”‘, the plain fact is that it does so archivally, less so through the real enough loss of records than because of a loose structure holding decision- and policy-makers together. Japanese historians, and in their wake western ones, have used the word bakufu almost like a refrain. This term was not used by the Tokugawa shogunate itself (in fact it was revived by its critics in the 1860s), and its almost incantatory repetition gives the impression of a compact, well-defined and single-minded ruling group. The general problem is all the greater because the very large grey area has been filled in with abandon by assumptions promoted successively by early Meiji rejection of Tokugawa values, in later times Marxist premises, and finally, novel American concerns under the Allied Occupation. An interpretative approach on this basis necessarily differs, as Dr Shillony recognizes, from other accounts, and this contrast could confuse the reader, if some of the issues were not set out frankly.

In contrast to what had been a virtual absence of a foreign literature on Japanese history, one quickly emerged after 1945, eagerly seeking a dissenting discourse in Japanese history, to provide an indigenous tradition to support changes imposed on a new Japan. While I am accused of injustice to the ‘the broad-minded and profoundly scholarly work of Hall, Jansen and many other western historians’, their writing has not worn well. There is for instance the wholly false antithesis of Tanuma seen as a tragic precursor of liberalisation, and Matsudaira Sadanobu regarded not only by Hall, but by many later historians, as a villain responsible for reinvigorating a reactionary regime. Nor did they show much sign of progression in their interpretation. The views of Marius Jansen, in many ways the most wide-ranging as well as the longest-lived of these scholars, are the same in 2000 as several decades previously.

This literature too was vigorously attacked by Dower, Bowen and other historians in a storm in the 1970s and early 1980s, one which seems to be re-ignited in the many essays in the ‘60th anniversary edition’ (published 2000) of Norman’s Japan’s Emergence as a Modern State.(1) They have a point, although they were also less than fair. The real contribution of Hall, Jansen and others was less the conclusions in their writings, than their creation of vigorous schools of Japanese history (the only real ones in the English-speaking world and indeed outside Japan), and their role in preventing the demonization of Japan in the wake of a bitter war. The very controversy itself – by the numbers involved in it – was testimony to the existence of a cohort of young and ambitious scholars: Jansen accurately described the conflict as one between generations.

However, all – Dower et al., as much as the older generation – were preoccupied with modern concerns The divide between them was simply whether one should put the emphasis, as the older generation did, on personalities (with a capacity to rebel or to rethink); or like the new generation, support a critique of the Occupation (seen in a left-wing sense as an insidious halt under Cold War pressures to structural change, and hence perpetuating an older political framework and some of its sinister values). The negative account of the past was reinforced; and, as in the case of the writings of Norman and the political philosopher Maruyama Masao, both Tokugawa and Meiji times were often lumped together as a single ongoing sequence. Andô Shôeki, an obscure and unknown Tokugawa scholar, was cast in the role of a great thinker to whom to appeal.

But even those who did not fall under the false spell of Shôeki’s strange writing, attached great importance to samurai values and samurai education: these are seen as a clear-cut ethic, offering latent support from the past for a changed Japan. Thus Ronald Dore made a revealing comment in the concluding words of his famous book on samurai education that in the legacy of Tokugawa education ‘there was still a sufficient glimmer of inspiration to make rebels of the best of their students’.(the italics mine: 2) The level and quality of samurai education (except for elites among them) is overdue a hard fresh look, as are the – at best – pedantic moral world of samurai (the merits of which are now being revived simplistically by some Japanese historians), and their frequently questionable behaviour. The very admirable qualities of the Japanese people have too readily been attributed to samurai values, or at least to the role model samurai offered. All this, and the importance attributed to Confucian values, in some respects follow on from accepting at face value the denunciations by Tokugawa Confucians, in a fiercely competitive world of essentially private teaching, of all rival schools of thought including Buddhism and its – often well-educated – teachers.

Dr Shillony suggests than in an unhistorical assumption, I ignore alternative courses of action to what actually happened. I am also said to make a distinction between ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ responses (the former I am said to approve, the latter to disapprove). Such neat distinctions however underestimate western territorial covetousness and aims in east Asia; the challenge for Japan’s decision-makers in deciding how best to respond in the testing period from the eighteen-nineties to the nineteen-thirties; and ignore the many divides among them on complex and uncertain issues. Three centuries before, novel or uncertain conditions (the problem highlighted too by the frightening aggression in the waters off Japan of westerners to all and sundry, including one another) had already led to change from the temporising polices of the fifty years from 1582. After 1868 Japan, reluctantly open to the outside world and witness to a now-rampant imperial and increasingly territorial race in east Asia, faced a challenge for which no Asian country, was intellectually (with the partial exception of Japan) even more than militarily prepared.

It is true that Japan did opt, wisely or otherwise, for a hard-headed and ultimately military response (its only role models were amoral and deplorable western ones). Perhaps no other response was possible. However in not negligible ways, western countries encouraged Japanese interest in Korea, to forestall the Russian advance (just as in the nineteen-thirties, while western opinion condemned Japan, there was a strong belief that China was so disordered that Japan had a role to play in China – provided it did not squeeze out westerners). Dr Shillony wonders, in reaction to one of my observations, ‘which other nation ever based its policies on moral principles’. In this instance, while elsewhere I have been criticized for not considering alternative courses of action, I am castigated for toying with an attractive but perhaps unrealisable alternative. Yet in 1881 the king of Hawaii had called on Japan to become the leader of east Asia, while many Koreans had looked to Japan as a role model, just as after 1895 did many Chinese. Jansen began his studies half a century ago with a biographical study of one of the founders of modern China, the nationalist, Sun Yat-sen, who had spent much time in Japan.(3)

Turning to narrower questions of periodization, the reviewer very clearly sets out the difficulties inherent in periodization. There can be no firm defence of the one chosen, and an alternative periodization would serve the reader equally well, and possibly better. All that I would say is that there is a case for the choice of 1582 (and the fifteen-eighties) and 1941 (and the nineteen-thirties). The fifteen-eighties were the start of domestic and external problems in Kyushu, and the antecedents of both sakoku and of the management of Kyushu can be seen in the fifteen-eighties, just as the nineteen-thirties, in which Japan sank into a morass of international complications (many, but not all, of which were of its own making), were followed four to five years later by a crushing defeat which has effectively removed Japan to this day from any meaningful role in international affairs.

Dr Shillony may be influenced in questioning my date of 1941 by his belief that Japan might have responded to a more conciliatory American policy in the course of that year. My view (which is not argued in the book) is that Japan moved beyond compromise in 1941, and that American policy, by no means above criticism in the nineteen-thirties, was at this stage defensible. New light from within Japan on the background to the attack on Pearl Harbour would tend to support this view. He has perhaps to some degree made my point, by arguing that Tôjô’s cabinet was the strongest one of the century. However, it was also the one most dominated by the military and Tôjô was not simply a prime minster with a military past – like some before him – but simultaneously prime minister and major defence figure. Tôjô, variously demonized or ignored in modern literature (apart perhaps from the controversial film of several years ago), does merit reassessment, but not to the point of making him in 1941 an exponent of compromise.

The lesser divides of 1688 and 1789 used in constructing chapters are equally debatable, though there can be some defence of them. The year 1688 was the year of a decisive change in the regulation of foreign trade, which set the administrative pattern for the next 150 years, just as 1789 (or any year around that date) reflected awareness of the pending Russian crisis, and the Ainu revolt of that year itself raised the spectre of the Russians profiting from Ainu unrest. But one could opt for different dates; or perhaps more radically for a restructuring of the chapters. Indeed one of the consequences of the structure I chose might be that culture is neglected. I am a little hurt at the suggestion that ‘the author does not regard culture as an important element in history’. While it is certainly not a sufficient defence, pleas, real enough, of space constraints and limits to my own competence are a partial one.

While my suggestions that, to an extent greater than in the west, Japanese politicians are under enormous pressure and that ministries are independent fiefdoms are questioned by the reviewer, such comments are commonplace among foreign journalists and diplomats. I am by no means sure that my words in the paragraphs discussing these issues are as patronising as he suggests. While they are, as he states, mere opinion, and to be treated accordingly, some comment can not be avoided on the modern dilemmas of Japan at the end of a text, one half of which is an account of four centuries of Japan¹s relations with the outside world. In the last analysis it is for the reader to make his own judgement as to whether he finds these paragraphs helpful, relevant or ill-judged.


1. E. Herbert Norman, Japan’s Emergence as a Modern State. Political and Economic Problems of the Meiji Period, ed. Lawrence T. Woods (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2000 [first published 1940]). The essay by George Packard Junior III, ’Edwin O. Reischauer: historian, missionary, prophet’, Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan, 4th series, 17 (2002-3), 69-84, is an interesting one in the context of this ongoing – or reviving – debate.
2. R. P. Dore, Education in Tokugawa Japan (London: Athlone Press, 1984 [first published 1965]), p.316.
3. Marius Jansen, The Japanese and Sun Yat-sen (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1954).