Fundamentals of National Rebirth: Lessons of The Meiji Restoration | Eino Rantanen

I read Jake Scott’s article on the Russian Slavophile movement, as an inspiration for the modern day, with interest. While I generally agree on the historical narrative presented and the purported ideas/aims of said movement are, in some ways, similar to my own, there are several issues I wanted to raise, and perhaps provide an alternative angle to this discussion.

While the Petrine reforms failed to be a wholly lasting success, the Slavophiles were as well, in large part, a failure. What I mean here, is that the movement failed to establish a large, broad following among the populace and establishment in Russia. Hence, if we wish to search for a template or inspiration to follow in our envisioned process of rejuvenation or regeneration, I would look even further east, towards the rising sun. In my view, the Meiji Restoration has many lessons we would do well to heed.

Despite their broad ideological spectrum, many nationalist-conservative movements and schools of thought have come to share two important aspects. Firstly, valuing and studying history features heavily in our discourse. Secondly, a palingenetic message of restoration or rebirth tends to be an oft-mentioned feature. An important disclaimer needs to be made here, however. When we search for inspiration in past events, ideas or people, we must remember that they are all contingent on their specific time and place. Our contextual environment is much different and thus an attempt to create a carbon copy of the Slavophiles or the Meiji Restoration today, will most likely degenerate into cheap parody or pastiche. However, taking lessons from historical events and phenomena is valuable nonetheless. We just need to remember that a British “Royal Restoration” or an Estonian “reawakening” must take current dynamics and sensibilities into account.

Now, onto the Meiji Restoration itself. The so-called “Edo period” under the Tokugawa Shogunate which preceded the monumental events of 1868, can generally be characterised as a (semi-)feudal military government with a heavily hierarchical and stratified, yet harmonious society. Then again, looking at Japan’s historical societies through a western lens is already a slightly flawed approach. Such was the contrast between the orient and the occident, that the arrival of US warships in Japan in 1853 represented a collision of two fundamentally different worlds and ways of thinking. Both Japan and China realised the implications of the overwhelming power of the western powers and subsequently initiated campaigns of self-strengthening in order to resist or avoid subjugation. In China, the heavily decentralised nature of the Qing Empire effectively limited any meaningful reforms to a small scale, such as the Beiyang Army. However, in Japan, many seemed to realise that now that Japan had been thrust into the wider world, its mediaeval state structure couldn’t compete with the west. A decentralised collection of fiefs run by rival Daimyo (military governors), all overseen by a Shogun (supreme military leader) from Edo Castle (Tokyo), was hardly fit for purpose. A drastic change of course would soon come.

The driving forces behind the Meiji Restoration came from the assertiveness of the Imperial House, which no longer wanted to be relegated into a purely ceremonial role, and the so-called “outside” Daimyo, who had been sidelined for opposing the ascendancy of the Tokugawa clan. These forces embraced the slogan Sonnō jōi (Revere the Emperor, expel the barbarians). This conflict culminated in the Boshin War, where the Imperial-aligned forces triumphed over the Tokugawa Shogunate. While outwardly, initially, professing nativism and the expulsion of foreign influence, the Imperial camp too realised the inevitability of modernisation, notably allying with Britain during the war. Now, however, the process of modernisation would not be dictated from elsewhere: rather, Japan would be doing it on its own terms. A good way to characterise the Meiji Restoration would be to use the phrase: “Western methods, Japanese spirit”. While modernisation needed to happen, it didn’t need to come into conflict with the Japanese character and society. We see this creed come into action when we delve deeper into the Restoration.

The results of the Meiji Restoration were far-reaching and nothing short of impressive. The privileged knightly warrior class of samurai was replaced by a modern conscript army which would go on to defeat Russia, a major European power, in 1904-05. New, state-run heavy industry enterprises would create a strong base for economic growth and modernisation. The system of government was thoroughly overhauled through the new Meiji constitution which established a bicameral parliament. While this parliament had a largely deliberative and consultative role, with the Emperor and his Privy Council, composed of high-ranking military officers and statesmen, exercising practical legislative and executive power, it can be safely said that Japan had become a modern nation-state. The government also began enshrining a new overarching national ideology under whose aegis all other aspects of life would operate. While religious freedom was a reality, the new religion of State Shinto would provide a spiritual connection to the Emperor and the Japanese nation through buddhist-inspired festivities and rituals. A supra-religion of sorts, which coexisted with people’s individual beliefs.

In addition, the government heavily emphasised the idea of Kokutai, or “national essence”. This idea posited that what made Japan unique was the sum of its institutions (Emperor, military etc.), traditions and culture, and its people (hierarchy, values, ethnicity etc.). Through Kokutai, Japan and its constituent parts formed a holistic entity, not unlike the western concept of body politic. Any attempt to alter or question the Kokutai or its legitimacy would be punished by law. This would mean either questioning the supreme and divine role of the Emperor or alternatively promote Marxism, since private property ownership was an integral part of the “national essence”. If found guilty of such action by the Tokko, or Special Higher Police, any person would be jailed and their affiliate organisations disbanded. While personal freedoms were respected, the duty to the state and national body was still supreme. Also, just like in any political system, factionalism and conflicts between political parties was common, but the Kokutai would always be unassailable.

While these reforms seem intrusive, radical and enforced from upon high, the reality was often more nuanced. The old feudal system was indeed broken, however the traditional hierarchy still remained, albeit in an altered form. The new system had a place for the old social classes. The Daimyo found their new place in the centralised system, with many becoming important statesmen, known collectively as “Their Excellencies”. The former samurai, who’d lost their age-old privileges were integrated as military administrators and leaders, trained in modern warfare, to build a new, strong army for the Empire. The state-owned heavy industries (except those of military importance) were eventually handed to old, established merchant clans and families, such as the Mitsubishi, who would in time turn these industries into massive, vertically integrated conglomerates known as the Zaibatsu. Yet, small-scale, single-family, traditional cottage industries would remain an integral part of the Japanese economy until the end of WWII. Despite the introduction of modern concepts, such as public schooling, into daily life, the administrative duties at the grassroots level were left to respected village elders, keeping in line with centuries of tradition. Most importantly, traditional societal structures and ways of thinking, such as the concept of “debt and repayment” in personal interactions, survived and would keep on characterising Japanese society. As such, despite being radical and far-reaching, the Meiji Restoration, instead of a blank slate, built upon and invoked age-old structures and societal norms, incorporating them into the modern age.

Herein lies the fundamental lesson of the Meiji Restoration. It has shown that a radical, top-down reform can be highly successful in rejuvenating a nation in order to stand up to the challenges of a changed world. Additionally, we learn that embracing modern technologies and methods, while an inevitability, need not be in conflict with tradition. Instead of being ossified in time, a tradition which shows a degree of adaptability, also has vitality. The new and old can coexist in this manner, especially if both are underpinned by an overarching fundamental idea, such as the Kokutai. We are also seeing signs of this type of thought emerging once more. With its roots among Estonian and Ukrainian thinkers, the Ethnofuturist movement, while still in its infancy, has shown similarities with the core tenets of Japanese Restorationist thought.

Much like the Japanese of 1853, we in Europe are faced with a world wholly different from the one we’re accustomed to. Furthermore, many nationalists and conservatives justifiably see the current system, the status quo, as incapable of dealing with the challenges and threats posed by the new world. Just as the Japanese learned from the West, perhaps it is time to reciprocate and learn from them and embrace our own unique spirit of the Ishin

Photo Credit.

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