When most people think of modern Japanese history, they think of the Meiji Restoration as the modernization of Japan, World War II, and then Japan’s subsequent rise to its current position as an economic powerhouse. This book fills in the large gap between Meiji and World War II, arguing Japan made a second transition after the Meiji era and its huge victories over China and Russia. This transition consisted of Japan’s tension in becoming a Great Power and its unique qualities as a constitutional monarchy, ending with its severe snubbing at Versailles and its growing belief that a race war with the white countries, particularly the United States, was inevitable.
The most unique part of Japan’s government was that its constitutional monarchy was designed to strengthen central authority, not weaken it. As Japan emerged to Great Power status, it came to the conclusion that the ingredients of a Great Power were a constitutional monarchy, a large empire, and a strong military, and many Japanese politicians realized they were desperately behind the other Great Powers in all three. This desperation was exacerbated by Japan entry into the Darwinian paradigm, where growth and expansion were life and failure to grow or expand meant decay and inevitable death. It’s funny that we still arguably live in this paradigm, at least economically. It’s also interesting to see Japan’s attempts at copying big dick politics they saw from the West. For instance, their entry into Korea closely mirrored their perception of how Commodore Perry had stormed Japan and forced it to open, and the way they isolated and seized Korea mirrored their worst fears of the way they believed they might be isolated and seized as a colony.
The other growing question was the best model for Japan. The traditional model was Britain, since Japan was also an island country relatively split off from the continent but managing to be greater nonetheless. But by the Great War, Japan had shifted towards Germany as the continental power. Japanese intellectuals felt they shared more in common – Germany was an even newer modernizer than Japan and it had already developed a fearsome reputation despite having few colonies. Japan also felt a kindred spirit in the way the Germans raged against a world dominated by Anglo rules and sensibilities, and it seemed the stable, direct German bureaucracy was much more efficient than the inherently unstable republics in Britain and the US. The Japanese also felt tremendous respect for the way Germany had crushed France as a traditional power. It led to consternation among Japanese intellectuals when Germany lost the war, creating great uncertainty and insecurity in Japan that they had been following the wrong model.
But the main context of the story is the way Japan sought to dominate and conquer China, and they saw the distraction of World War I as a huge opportunity. The European powers were weakening themselves tremendously and paying very little attention to affairs in Asia, allowing the Japanese to make diplomatic moves that would never be permissible otherwise (and they weren’t all that permissible during the war, given the hostility it created to Japanese interests, particularly in the US). The Japanese also became acutely aware of the threat in the United States as the other Great Power that was not participating in the war and they saw that the US was profiting from the war even more greatly than Japan, selling weapons to the Allies and buying war bonds from them at outrageous rates. Both America and Japan’s productive capacity grew quickly during the war and both eventually served relatively minor roles in the Allied victory.
Japan’s two big interests during the Versailles negotiations were a clause indicating racial equality (meaning Japanese would be statutorily recognized as equals to whites) and policies that would undermine the budding democratic regime in China. They received neither and worse, they tipped their hand about what they wanted most to the United States, and the Wilson administration used its influence to specifically deny Japan at every turn and play on Japan’s insecurities. But these political machinations firmly convinced the Japanese that the US saw them as a racial threat, when coupled with racist American policies that denied rights specifically to Japanese. Like other members at Versailles, they didn’t believe Wilson’s idealism for a minute and they were infuriated at American hypocrisy. Had America not expanded its territory at the expense of American Indians, Mexicans, Hawaiians, and Filipinos, in the name of civilizing uncivilized lands? Why was this right for America but wrong for Japan to do the same to Korea, Manchuria, Taiwan, and China? Of course, the Japanese knew they were stretching severely in calling the Chinese uncivilized but maintained that argument to the bitter end with an almost desperate obsession.
Overall, the narratives are easy to read. There’s a little too much name-dropping and it gets confusing, but it appears to be a very well-researched history that does a great job of defining Japanese attitudes and narratives of the time. It’s a book that fills in a gap of history that even most Japanese know very little about – most Japanese don’t know much about the Taisho era except that it was short.
As a food, this book is a nice avocado dip. You might be skeptical that it amounts to much, but eat it and it’s actually very good. The book is nice and creamy but it’s got enough crunch and flavor to keep it interesting. Recommended.