Well into this fascinating account of Japanese politics, which spans the period from the beginning of the Meiji Era to the end of the U.S. Occupation, Yukio Ozaki recalls several associates who were assassinated in the struggle to build constitutional democracy in Japan. The large number of high-ranking politicians who died for this cause reflects just how violent politics were at the time and how courageous one needed to be to stand up for one’s principles. More than a few times the author penned death poems in anticipation of a bloody end, a morbid habit that says a lot about the sacrifices of political office in those days.
Ozaki modestly recalls his own efforts to fight the forces of darkness that dogged his six-decade political career and offers often acerbic and engaging portraits of the leading figures of his time. There is probably more detail than most readers will need and many anecdotes about unfamiliar characters, but this is a thoroughly enjoyable, personal account of the rough and tumble of politics in a tumultuous period.
As a youth living in Gunma, Ozaki’s father forced him to watch torture sessions of the Meiji government’s opponents and he recounts his admiration for the local toughs who bawdily marched to their beheadings taunting their executioners.
Violence, intimidation of political rivals and other underhand tactics continued even after the first Parliament was established in 1890. Campaigning in those days meant employing thugs to cow the opponent’s supporters and ruffians, having a suitcase full of cash and even holding voters (lured by the promise of food and drink) under protective custody in the warehouses of wealthy supporters and escorting them to the ballot box. A wily campaigner on the hustings, Ozaki was himself not above using deception in his efforts to gain victory. After all, one does not win 25 consecutive terms, often in opposition to the government, without a few tricks and lots of courage.
One of Ozaki’s main targets in his struggle to build and strengthen constitutional democracy in Japan was the clan-based politics that dominated the Meiji Era. The same men from the domains of Satsuma and Choshu who led the fight against the shogunate and promoted the Meiji Restoration in 1868 sought to retain their powers by manipulating Cabinet appointments and political parties, and thus undermined the basis for constitutional democracy. Ozaki was a constant thorn in their side with his motions of no-confidence and efforts to force the oligarchs to respect the rights of the Diet.
Another source of indignation for him was the rot of corruption and opportunism that permeated politics both at the local and national level and which, in his view, was a major obstacle to political development. He also took a dim view of bureaucratic arrogance. One can only applaud his sentiments when he confesses, “I had always detested the traditional bureaucratic ideology of “revere the government, despise the people” (“kanson mimpi”). Such snooty sentiments still seem far too common among those who are supposedly civil servants.
The difficulties of travel, the tribulations of life as a newspaper editor, constant troubles with loan sharks, the shenanigans and personality quirks of politicians and the oppression of militarism infuse this lively narrative with an appealing authenticity. Ozaki spoke and read English, traveled widely and was a prescient observer of the people and cultures he encountered. Like many Japanese at the time, he was concerned about the process of modernization and maintaining a balance. He wrote, “There were those who found fault with everything they saw in the West and became ultranationalists, and there were also those who marveled at everything in sight and became overly zealous imitators of all things Western. In order to see things as they truly are, however, it is necessary to discard all prejudices. This is a challenge for us Japanese, as we tend to be very one-sided.”
Referring to Hirobumi Ito, a leading Meiji Era statesmen, Ozaki confides, “. . . he still retained his childlike guilelessness, which was perhaps one reason why to his death he was never disliked by the public.” Apparently Ito was something of the class clown and would prance around at official functions with towels wrapped around his face like a thief and the end of his kimono tucked into his belt in a style associated with peasants. Yamagata Aritomo, another of the acclaimed Meiji statesmen, is portrayed here as a man distrustful of democracy, small minded and Machiavellian. Matsukata Masayoshi, a prime minister famous for his deflationary policies and for privatizing government corporations in the 1880s, is described as a plodding dullard and in over his head.
Despite lifelong frail health, Ozaki managed to carry on with remarkable energy, finding time to be mayor of Tokyo between 1902-1912 while also serving in Parliament. During his mayoral term he oversaw improvements in urban planning and the city transit system, and also made a gift of the cherry trees that transform Washington, D.C., every spring.
Ozaki’s resources were perhaps most sorely tried in the 1930s, when the focus of his struggle shifted to the armed forces, which sought to subvert democracy in the name of the Emperor and in doing so subjected the Japanese people to a series of foreign policy blunders that ended with defeat in 1945. For Ozaki, a lifelong supporter of democracy, the imposition of an improved constitution and democracy by the United States was a bitter pill to swallow.
In looking to the causes of Japan’s descent into war in the 1930s, Ozaki mostly blames the militarists, but also ascribes some responsibility to unrealistic and self-serving U.S. and British policies. In his view, the lessons of war are the need to build a strong democracy so that extremists cannot bend the government to their will and use their power for “. . . brainwashing their peoples with anachronistic and amoral ideologies.” He died in 1954, a disappointed man who left Parliament with little hope for the new generation of post-World War II politicians because of their inclination to put careers and vested interests above the public good. Contemporary Japanese politics proves that his pessimism was well founded.