Japan II: Japan's Path to Modernity

(Published in Grail World 16/2000, page 63 f.)

The "Land of the Rising Sun" went through drastic developments in the early modern times. Contact with Europe's Christian missionaries, who were advancing colonization, led to the ban on Christianity in Japan. From then on only Buddhism and Confucianism played an important role.

The period from the 12th to the 16th centuries was an era of war in feudal Japan. The emperor (Tenno) lost authority and power until, in the end, only respected out of tradition, he could hardly influence politics. A shogun (a kind of military governor) ruled in his place. The separatist tendencies grew and civil unrest, riot and local wars shook the country. The warrior nobility ignored powerless shoguns and helpless emperors, and the various militant clans divided the country among themselves. In the early 16th century, there were about 250 domains in Japan, the rulers of which were mutually hostile.

In the second half of the 16th century, one of the provincial princes succeeded, with tactical genius, in expanding his power and, after a chain of brilliant victories, subjugating almost the entire country (Oda Nobunaga, 1534-1582). After his assassination, his general Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598) continued the conquests. After Hideyoshi's death, the usual power struggles broke out, from which Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616) emerged victorious. According to tradition, only descendants of the Minomato family could be appointed Shogun; for Tokugawa it was no problem to prove the necessary family tree and to be appointed shogun by the emperor in 1603. His family succeeded in inheriting this title over 15 generations until 1867 and in ruling the country.

The seat of government of the Tokugawa shoguns was the city of Edo (now Tokyo), and the period of their government is called the Edo period (1603-1867). These two and a half centuries gave Japan a reasonably peaceful and stable development; associated, however, with isolation from the outside world and lack of personal freedom of the citizens.

Serious "missionary work"

The seafarers of the 16th century came to Japan. In 1543 the Portuguese landed on the island of Tanegashima, where they were warmly received. They were particularly interested in their muskets, some of which they sold to the island's administrators.

Japanese craftsmen immediately began to replicate the firearms, and a few years later they found their first practical test in local battles. Firearms played an important role in the struggle for the unification of Japan towards the end of the 16th century. Already Oda Nabunaga (1534-1582) equipped his foot soldiers with muskets, and the battle of Sekinghara (1600), which Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616) paved the way for the shogunate, was decided by powder and lead.

After the first seafarers discovered Japan, other travelers landed from 1545 to establish trade relations and proselytize. In 1549 Franz Xaver (1506-1552), a co-founder of the Jesuit order, came to Japan. He taught here for two years and founded the first Catholic community in Yamaguchi. More missionaries followed. The Japanese, interested in trade with Europe, were open to Christianity and it seemed possible to win them over to the gospel.

Then the Spanish followed the Portuguese in 1584, and the Europeans themselves prevented the hoped-for expansion of Christianity: in 1494 Pope Alexander VI. the "New World" split between Spain and Portugal. A line, roughly along the 46th degree west, separated the spheres of influence of the two great explorers: the countries in the west of this meridian were supposed to fall to Spain, those in the east to Portugal; for example, Brazil became Portuguese. In another treaty of Saragossa in 1529 they agreed on a corresponding longitude in the Pacific (about 135 degrees east longitude), which went through Japan.

Now the areas of interest of the Portuguese and the Spanish, both called "southern barbarians" by the Japanese, overlapped. With the Iberians came monastic orders (Jesuits, Franciscans, Dominicans) who were at odds with one another. Protestant Dutch and English (called "redheads" by the Japanese) followed. These various groups carried their European feuds to Japan.

In 1600 a Dutch ship ran aground off the Japanese coast, the English helmsman of which became Tokugawa Ieyasu's advisor (do you remember the TV series "Shogun"?). Now the Japanese learned about the background of the European disputes and were outraged about the division of the earth by the Pope.

The initially good relations with foreigners (initially only Portuguese) deteriorated. Hideyoshi had banned Christianity as early as 1587. Ten years later he created the first martyrs on Japanese soil by executing 20 Japanese and 6 Franciscans. The ban on Christianity was reaffirmed in 1614 and all missionaries were expelled from the country; because in the meantime the Japanese had learned from the Dutch that the Catholic mission was a preliminary stage to colonization.

The abolition of Christianity met resistance, culminating in an armed uprising by Japanese Christians in Kyushu in 1637. 30,000 Christians fiercely defended Hara Castle against the shogun's army for four months until the castle was captured and the defenders killed. From then on there were only a few “secret” Christians.

At the beginning of the 17th century, all foreigners from Japan were expelled. The crackdown on Christians was tough, and almost all ports were closed to Europeans. Only the Dutch, who only traded without proselytizing, were still tolerated as trading partners. For the next two centuries they were the only mediators between Europe and Japan. The Japanese themselves were prohibited from traveling abroad on the death penalty. The East Asian country closed itself off and foreign trade almost came to a standstill.

Confucianism in Japan
“Perhaps the decisive influence of Confucianism is in the so essential area of the search for truth. Love to learn is more important to him than love to truth. Resilience, mind you, is valued very much as a human virtue and is recommended, but it is only the prerequisite for a deep and fundamental love of truth. It often occurs in connection with the optimism that truth can really be found. Confucius made the East, and with it the Japanese, a part of the world where effort counts as such and where learning is highly valued.
Although the East is considered contemplative, Confucius' thirst for knowledge seems to be directed more outward than the intense apprehension of the truth within himself ...
He gave the essential impetus for thought in the direction of diligent knowledge, which to this day distinguishes the educated in Japan from those in the West who, through studying the classical languages, preferred clarity of thought, the development of ultimate principles and firm convictions to knowledge that was widely spread but not convincing . The anti-metaphysical approach in Buddhism is complemented in Confucianism by the basically agnostic or skeptical flight into never-ending effort. "
Quote from Helmut Erlinghagen "Japan", dtv, Munich 1976.

Feudal Japan

Contacts with Europeans from the 16th century onwards brought some innovations to Japan (firearms, playing cards, tobacco, new foods such as bread, cakes, confectionery, pepper and other spices, etc.). After the violent unification of the country at the turn of the 16th to the 17th century, a strict dictatorship followed, which was supposed to make further uprisings and the collapse of the newly unified empire impossible. Japan became an authoritarian and dictatorial central state that recognized, among other things, Western influences and Christianity as a threat to its form of government.

The imperial court continued to exist. It comprised the emperor, his wives and children, as well as the court aristocracy; a total of about 140 families who were settled around the holy district in the Imperial Palace in Kyoto.
Since the 14th century, the Tenno could no longer exercise political influence; it was only a symbol of legitimacy for the appointment of the shoguns. But in a typically Japanese way, the emperor's traditional authority was recognized, and the superfluous institution continued to exist - with the initially unlikely prospect of gaining influence again one day. After Nobunaga and Hideyoshi had finally broken the political and military power of the Buddhist orders, the temples were given new tasks in the service of state administration.
For example, the population had to register at their local temple and declare when registering that they were not Christians. So the Buddhist monasteries were doing well. Christianity as a competitor had ceased to exist, so that there was no pressure to reform and the Buddhist clergy became effeminate. So this religion lost much of its popularity and had to be reproached for being remote from the world and superstition.

The weakness of Buddhism helped Shinto and especially Confucianism. From around the 17th century Confucianism could develop into the leading ethic in Japan, which also played the important role of a spiritual foundation during the political turning point in the 19th century. To this day, the teachings of Confucius have shaped Japanese social life in a subtle way.

There were no more major wars after the 17th century. Internally, the central power held the country together, and externally, Hideyoshi's unsuccessful attempts to conquer Korea (1592) and invade China (1597) were the last foreign policy adventure for nearly three centuries.

The economy developed, and rich trading houses emerged, whose names (such as Mitsui) sometimes still make headlines in business newspapers today as Tsaibatsus (= corporations with Japanese characteristics). The competition in Japan was tough and the best customer service was required. Some Japan connoisseurs are of the opinion that this time forced the Japanese willingness to do everything possible to satisfy customers.

Unfortunately, there were still food shortages and famine. 35 famines are reported from the Edo period (1603-1867). The worst were: The Kyoho famine of 1732/33, caused by locusts that ate almost the entire harvest; the Tenmei famine (1783-1787), triggered by storms, cold and floods; the famine of 1833-36, which particularly hit the northern provinces. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed in these disasters, and the population is believed to have declined significantly in the 18th century. The estimates vary; in the most extreme case it is stated that the Japanese population is said to have been 30 million around 1720, but only between 7 and 19 million in the 19th century.

Despite these slumps, Japanese culture flourished. Painting, poetry, theater, music, and dance flourished, and Japanese art, later so much admired by Europeans, developed. Popular education also increased, and by the late 19th century men could read 43% and women 10%. The foundations for an education of the masses were laid.

Peasant misery

In the various Japanese provinces, between 80 and 90% of the population were peasants; they embodied the typical Japanese until the 19th or even 20th century. The farmers were raised almost entirely by themselves for the taxes. Mostly they paid in the form of rice, the most important food crop. The farmers themselves could only afford the valuable rice in exceptional cases and had to be content with cheaper grain such as wheat, barley or millet.

The annual course of rural life was based on the requirements of rice cultivation and the rice harvest. The work was hard and the tax burden was heavy. Tradition recommended that "four parts for the prince and six parts for the people" of the harvest, but often enough the Lord demanded 50% or even 70% of the yield. There was also a plethora of other taxes such as: field tax, tax on doors and windows, a tax on daughters, a tax on nut trees, etc. etc. Corrupt officials monitored the collection and often set the amount of taxes almost at will.

No wonder there have been peasant revolts in every century that have been bloodily suppressed. In order to make such surveys impossible in the future, Hideyoshi had the peasants disarmed in 1588 and forbade them to leave the country. Nevertheless, there were still peasant protests (3,000 peasant uprisings are known from the Edo period), which in a few cases even brought the peasants little relief. The leaders of the rebellious peasants were, however, executed in principle. -

When the first Portuguese landed in Japan, this island kingdom was by no means a backward country. Crafts and agriculture were only slightly inferior to Europe, and the rapid adoption of firearms demonstrated the ability of the Asians to understand foreign techniques.

Then Japan closed its external borders. The Chinese, Koreans and Japanese believed they could best serve their country by blocking the intrusion of European ideas. In Korea, as in Japan, the intellectual influence of Chinese culture dominated, and in these three countries in East Asia it was believed that the invasion of European malice undermined the Confucian social structure and endangered the state.

This view only began to tentatively change in Japan in the late 18th century. On the one hand by reflecting on its own history: There were periods in which (for example in the 16th century) Japan was open to Europeans. On the other hand, by turning to European science. Some Japanese scholars received information about developments in Europe from Dutch traders.

Now these scientists began to occupy themselves with the natural sciences and medicine, following European models. They soon recognized the superiority of Western science over traditional Asian teachings. However, these insights put the Japanese scientists in an outsider role and were initially unable to penetrate with their revolutionary ideas.

With the opening of Japanese ports and the growth of foreigner colonies, more and more Americans and Europeans came to Japan after 1854 and got to know Japanese art and culture. Reporters, travel writers and photographers published their impressions in their home countries. Interest in Japanese art was stimulated in Europe by an exhibition in London in 1862 showing woodcuts and books from the Sir Rutherford Alcock collection. In 1867 an exhibition followed in Paris, which also included Japanese handicrafts and presented 100 "ukiyoe" (woodcuts, block wood prints) by Hiroshige and others. Above all, these “ukiyoe” attracted the special attention of artists and intellectuals. Their liveliness in drawing and coloring, the exaggerated perspective, the unfamiliar composition and the abundance of everyday scenes exerted great attraction.
According to Collcutt, M./Jansen, M./Kamakura, I .: "Japan", Christian Verlag, Munich 1989

At the beginning of the 19th century, the shogunate came under increasing pressure. Internal reforms failed to materialize, and external demands were made to open the Japanese ports. Russia, for example, requested trading posts in Hokkaido in 1778 and 1802 and in Nagasaki in 1804. The response of the Japanese government in 1825 was the expulsion of all foreign ships, which only had to increase the pressure from Europe and America.

The defeat of China in the Opium War (1840-42) came as a severe shock to the Japanese leadership. It was now to be foreseen that Japan would not be able to shut itself off from Western influences forever. Some of the feudal lords even started adopting western technologies. But both the imperial court and the shogunate feared the upheavals to be expected and wanted to postpone the inevitable. -

Long cut off from the Pacific, the United States had acquired California in 1848 and its interest in Japan was growing; because Nagasaki was used as a stopover for the sea route from San Francisco to Shanghai. In July 1853, for example, a fleet of steamers under the direction of Admiral Perry appeared off Uraga and forced the shogunate to receive a letter to the emperor. In a year the American fleet wanted to come back and find out the answer. The Japanese had no other choice: they had to open their ports and let Americans and Europeans into the country ...

A turbulent period of domestic power struggles began for Japan, which ended in civil war. The situation was exacerbated by poor harvests (1866-69) and inflation. Finally, the old traditions were remembered in Japan: The Tokugawa shogunate [1603-1867] was ended after 264 years. The Tenno regained a large part of its former power, and the empire received a constitution in 1889 that legalized the sole rule of the "divine emperor".

With an unparalleled show of strength, Japan made the leap from a feudal state of medieval character to a modern industrial nation at breathtaking speed. That this newcomer wanted and was able to play his part in the concert of the great powers on the international stage was only to become apparent all too soon.

Japan became the model for all colored races, because it proved that Asians (and probably all other peoples) are capable of the same (or perhaps even greater) achievements as the often envied, but in many parts of the world also hated Europeans and Americans . The Japanese unintentionally contributed to the end of colonialism and questioned the undisputed claim to leadership of the Europeans and Americans in the 19th century. -

You can also read about this in “In a nutshell, curious” on page 58 “A drastic disarmament” and on page 332 “Discover, hoist the flag, take possession”.