116 JAPAN RUSHES AHEAD
December 27, 1932
IT is long since I wrote to you about Japan. Over five months ago I told you (in letter 81) of the
strange way in which this country shut herself up in the seventeenth century. From 1641, for over
200 years, the people of Japan lived cut off from the rest of the world. These 200 years saw great
changes in Europe and Asia and America, and even in Africa. Of some of the stirring events that
took place during this period I have already told you. But no news of them reached this secluded
nation; no breath from outside came to disturb the old-world feudal air of Japan. Almost it
seemed as if the march of time and change had been stayed, and the mid-seventeenth century
held captive. For though time rolled on, the picture seemed to remain the same. It was feudal
Japan, with the landowning class in power. The Emperor had little power; the real ruler was the
Shogun, the head of a great clan. Like the Kshattriyas in India, there was a warrior class called
the Samurai. The feudal lords and the Samurai were the ruling class. Often different lords and
clans quarrelled with each other. But all of them joined in oppressing and exploiting the
peasantry and all others.
Still, Japan had peace. After the long civil wars which had exhausted the country this peace was
very welcome. Some of the great warring nobles—the Daimyos—were suppressed. Slowly Japan
began to recover from the ravages of civil war. People's minds turned more to industry and art
and literature and religion. Christianity had been suppressed; Buddhism revived, and later
Shinto, which is a typical Japanese worship of ancestors. Confucius, the sage of China, became
the ideal to be looked up to in matters of social behaviour and morals. Art flourished in the
circles of the Court and the nobility. In some ways the picture was similar to that of the Middle
Ages of Europe.
But it is not so easy to keep out change, and though outside contacts were stopped, inside Japan
itself change worked, though more slowly than it might otherwise have done. As in other
countries, the feudal order moved towards economic collapse. Discontent grew, and the Shogun,
being at the head of affairs, became the target for this. The growth of Shinto-worship made
people look more to the Emperor, who was supposed to be the direct descendant of the Sun.
Thus a spirit of nationalism grew out of the prevailing discontents, and this spirit, based as it was
on an economic breakdown, would have inevitably led to a change and the opening of Japan to
Many attempts had been made by foreign Powers to open up Japan, but they had all failed.
About the middle of the nineteenth
century the United States of America became especially interested in this. They had just spread
out to the west in California, and San Francisco was becoming an important port. The newly
opened trade with China was inviting, but the journey across the Pacific was a long one. So they
wanted to call at a Japanese port to break this long journey and take supplies. This was the
reason for Americas repeated attempts to open up Japan.
In 1853 an American squadron came to Japan with a letter from the American President. These
were the first steamships seen in Japan. A year later the Shogun agreed to open two ports. The
British, Russians and Dutch, learning of this, came soon after and also made similar treaties with
the Shogun. So Japan was open again to the world after 213 years.
But there was trouble ahead. The Shogun had posed as the Emperor before the foreign Powers.
He was no longer popular, and a great agitation rose against him and his foreign treaties. Some
foreigners were also killed, and this resulted in a naval attack by the foreign Powers. The
position became more and more difficult, and ultimately the Shogun was prevailed upon to
resign his office in 1867. Thus ended the Tokugawa Shogunate which, you may or may not
remember, began with Iyeyasu in 1603. Not only that, but the whole system of the Shogunate,
which had lasted for nearly 700 years came to an end.
The new Emperor now came into his own. He was a boy of fourteen who had just succeeded to
the throne as the Emperor "Mutsihito. For forty-five years he reigned, from 1867 to 1912, and
this period is known as the Meiji (or " enlightened rule ") era. It was during his reign that Japan
forged ahead, and, copying western nations, became their equal in many respects. This vast
change brought about in a generation is remarkable and without parallel in history. Japan became
a great industrial nation and, after the manner of the western Powers, an imperialistic and
predatory nation. She bore all the outward signs of progress. In industry she even advanced
beyond her teachers. Her population increased rapidly. Her ships went round the globe. She
became a great Power whose voice was heard with respect in inter-national affairs. And yet all
this mighty change did not go very deep down into the heart of the nation. It would be wrong to
call the changes superficial, for they were far more than that. But the outlook of the rulers still
remained feudal, and they sought to combine radical reform with this feudal shell. They seemed
to succeed to a large extent.
The people who were responsible for these great changes in Japan were a band of far-seeing men
of the nobility—the " Elder Statesmen " they were called. When the anti-foreign riots in Japan
were followed by bombardment by the foreign warships, the Japanese saw their helplessness and
felt bitterly humiliated. Instead of cursing their fate and tearing their hair, they decided to learn a
lesson from this defeat and degradation. The Elder Statesmen chalked out a programme of
reform and they adhered to it.
The old feudal Daimios were abolished. The capital of the Emperor was taken from Kyoto to
Yedo, which was now renamed Tokyo. A new constitution was announced with two Houses of
Parliament, of which the lower House was elected, the upper nominated. There were changes in
education, law, industry, and in almost everything. Factories grew up, and a modern army and
navy were formed. Experts were sent for from foreign countries, and Japanese students were
Bent to Europe and America, not to become barristers and the like, as Indians have done in the
past, but to become scientists and technical experts.
All this was done by the Elder Statesmen in the name of the
Emperor, who in spite of the new Parliament and all else, remained in law the absolute ruler of
the Japanese Empire. And at the same time as they pushed ahead these reforms, they spread the
cult of emperor-worship. It was a strange combination: factories and modern industry and a
semblance of parliamentary government on the one side, and a medieval worship of the divine
Emperor on the other. It is difficult to understand how the two could go together even for a short
while. Yet they did march together, and even to-day they have not separated. The Elder
Statesmen utilized this great feeling of reverence for the Emperor in two ways. They forced the
reforms on the conservative and feudal classes who would otherwise have resisted them but were
cowed down by the prestige of the Emperor's name; and they held back the more progressive
elements who wanted to go faster and get rid of all feudalism.
The contrast between China and Japan during this last half of the nineteenth century is
remarkable. Japan rapidly westernized herself; China, as we have seen and shall see even more
later on, got involved in the most extraordinary difficulties. Why did this happen? The very
vastness of China, her great population and area, made change difficult. India also suffers from
this seeming source of strength—huge area and population. China's government also was not
sufficiently centralized—that is to say, each part of the country had a great deal of selfgovernment.
It was thus not easy for the central government to interfere and bring about big
changes as had been done in Japan. Then again, China's great civilization had grown up in
thousands of years and was too closely interwoven with her life to be easily discarded. Again we
can compare India to China. Japan, on the other hand, had borrowed Chinese civilization and
could more easily replace it. Another reason for China's difficulties was the continual
interference of European Powers. China- was a great continental country. She could not shut
herself up, as the islands of Japan had done. Russia touched her territories to the north and northwest;
the British Empire in the south-west; France was creeping up in the south. These European
Powers had managed to extort important privileges from China and had developed great
commercial interests. These interests gave them plenty of excuses for interference.
So Japan shot ahead, while China was still blindly struggling on and trying, with little success, to
adapt herself to the new conditions. And yet there is another strange fact worth noticing. Japan
took to western machinery and industry and, with a modern army and navy, put on the garb of an
advanced industrialized Power. But she did not take so readily to the new thought and ideas of
Europe; to notions of individual and social freedom; to a scientific outlook on life and society. At
heart she remained feudal and authoritarian and tied up to a strange emperor-worship which the
rest of the world had long outgrown. The passionate and self-sacrificing patriotism of the
Japanese was closely allied to this loyalty to the Emperor. Nationalism and the cult of the divine
Emperor went side by side. China, on the other hand, did not take readily to big machinery and
industry; but the Chinese, or at any rate modern China, welcomed western thought and ideas and
the scientific outlook. These were not so far removed from their own. Thus we see that although
modern China entered more into the spirit of western civilization, Japan outstripped her because
she put on the armour of it, ignoring the spirit. And all Europe praised Japan because she was
strong in this armour, and they made her one of their fellowship. But China was weak and
unprovided with Maxim guns and the like. So they insulted her and preached to her and
exploited her, caring little for her thought and ideas.
Japan not only followed Europe in industrial methods, but also in imperialistic aggression. She
was more than a faithful pupil of the European Powers : she often improved on them. Her real
difficulty was the discordance between the new industrialism and the old feudalism. In her
attempts to carry on with both she could not establish economic equilibrium. Taxation was very
heavy, and people grumbled. To prevent trouble at home she had recourse to an old device—
distracting attention by war and imperialistic adventures abroad. Her new industries also forced
her to look to other countries for raw materials and markets, just as the Industrial Revolution had
forced England, and later other western European Powers, to look abroad and. conquer.
Production increased and there was a rapid growth of population. More and more food and raw
materials were required. Where was she to get them? Her nearest neighbours were China and
Korea. China offered opportunities for trade, but she was a thickly populated country. In
Manchuria, however, which formed the north-eastern provinces of the Chinese Empire, there
was plenty of elbow-room for development and colonization. So to Korea and Manchuria, Japan
Japan also saw with concern the western Powers getting all manner of privileges from China, and
even trying to get territory. She did not like this at all. If these Powers became well established
on the mainland opposite to her, her safety might be imperilled and, at any rate, her growth on
the continent would be checked.
In less than twenty years after her opening to the outer world, Japan began to be aggressive
towards China. A petty dispute about some fishermen, who had been shipwrecked and were
murdered, gave Japan an opportunity to demand compensation from China. China refused at
first, but then, threatened with war and occupied at the time with the French in Annam, she gave
in to Japan. This was in 1874. Japan was elated by this triumph and immediately looked round
for further conquests. Korea seemed inviting and, picking a quarrel with her for some petty
reason, Japan invaded her and forced her to pay a sum of money and to open some ports for
Korea had long been a vassal State of China. She looked to China for support, but China was
unable to help. The Chinese Government, fearing that Japan might acquire too much influence,
advised Korea to give in for the moment and also to make treaties with the western Powers to
checkmate Japan. So Korea was thrown open to the world by 1882. But Japan was not going to
be satisfied with this. Taking advantage of China's difficulties, she again raised the Korean
question and made China agree to a joint protectorate over Korea.—that is, poor Korea became a
vassal State of both. This was obviously a most unsatisfactory state of affairs for all concerned.
There was bound to be trouble. Japan, indeed, wanted trouble, and in 1894 she forced a war on
The Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 was a runaway affair for Japan. Her army and navy were up
to date; the Chinese were still old-fashioned and inefficient. Japan won all along the line, and
forced a treaty on China which put her on the same level as the western treaty Powers. Korea
was declared independent, but this was only a veil for Japanese control. China was also forced to
give to Japan the Liaotung peninsula in Manchuria, with Port Arthur, as well as Formosa and
some other islands.
This crushing defeat of China by little Japan surprised the world The western Powers were by no
means pleased at this rise of a powerful country in the Far East. Even during the Sino-Japanese
War, when Japan was seen to be winning, she was warned by these Powers that they would not
consent to Japan annexing any part of China's mainland. In spite of this warning she took the
Liaotung peninsula with an important port—Port Arthur. But she was not allowed to keep this.
Three great Powers—Russia, Germany and France—insisted on her giving it up, and, much to
her annoyance and anger, she had to do so. She was not strong enough to face these three.
But Japan remembered this slight upon her. It rankled and made her prepare for a greater
struggle. Nine years later this struggle came with Russia.
Meanwhile Japan, by her victory over China, had established her position as the strongest nation
of the Far East. China had appeared in all her weakness, and all fear of her vanished from the
western Powers. They swooped down on her like vultures on a dead or dying body, and tried to
get as much as possible for themselves. France, Russia, England, and Germany—all scrambled
for seaports on the China coast and for privileges. There was an unholy and a most unseemly
battle for concessions. Every little thing was made an excuse for claiming additional privileges
or concessions. Because two missionaries were killed, Germany seized by force Kiauchau in the
Shantung peninsula in the east. Because Germany took this, the other Powers insisted on their
share of the booty. Russia took Port Arthur, of which she had deprived Japan three years
previously. England took Wei-hai-wei to set off Russia's possession of Port Arthur. France took
a port and territory in Annam. Russia also got permission to build a railway across North
Manchuria, an extension of the Trans-Siberian railway.
It was extraordinary—this shameless scramble. Of course China did not enjoy parting with
territory or granting concessions
She was forced to agree on every occasion by displays of naval force and threats of
bombardment. What shall we call this scandalous behaviour ? Highway robbery ? Brigandage ?
It is the way of imperialism. Sometimes it works in secret; sometimes it covers its evil deeds
under a cloak of pious sentiment and hypocritical pretence of doing good to others. But in China
in 1898 there was no cloak or covering. The naked thing stood out in all its ugliness.