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The ‘barbarians’ were coming — like it or not

by Michael Hoffman and Michal Hoffman

‘Sonnō jōi!”: “Revere the Emperor, expel the barbarians!”

The writing was on the wall long before the wall crumbled. Japan’s splendid isolation — splendid in its own eyes — would no longer be accepted. The outside world was growing restless. Nations were reaching out, testing their strength, harnessing new technologies, trading, expanding, colonizing.

Could Japan remain haughtily aloof? An official sakoku (closed-country) policy had been in place since the early 17th century, when Christian missionaries, active in the country for 100 years, began to seem to the ruling shoguns like an advance guard for European imperialists. Up went the drawbridge. Japan became an impregnable fortress — or a black hole, strictly off-limits to all but a handful of Dutch and Chinese traders confined to specific parts of Nagasaki.

“Let us trade, too!” pleaded a party of 61 China-based Portuguese envoys who landed in Nagasaki in 1640. Their arrest and summary beheading was the shogun’s crisp, clear response.

It got the point across. Traders, whalers, diplomats, explorers all kept their distance — for a time. The first to come cautiously knocking, a century and a half later, were Russians. They had been quietly settling parts of Ezo (present-day Hokkaido), then largely unclaimed, and in 1791 a Russian naval officer appeared in Matsumae, Ezo, with a letter from the czar, Catherine the Great. Politely rebuffed, he left peaceably, his letter undelivered.

But he too got a point across, to those with eyes to see it: Japan’s seclusion was wearing thin. The following years saw numerous intrusions, courteous or truculent, by British, American, French and Russian ships. Some demanded supplies, others wanted to trade; one or two carried Japanese castaways for repatriation.

The world was shrinking; here it was at Japan’s gates, and what was Japan going to do about it? The harshest prod of all was the Opium War (1839-42), in which Britain wrested Hong Kong and various trading privileges (notably the right to deal in opium) from a decadent China. Would this be Japan’s fate as well?

In 1844, King Willem II of Holland sent Shogun Tokugawa Ieyoshi a friendly warning: “The intercourse between the different nations of the Earth is increasing with great rapidity. An irresistible power is drawing them together. Through the invention of steamships distances have become shorter. A nation preferring to remain in isolation at this time of increasing relationships could not avoid hostility with many others.”

The next act in the drama is well known: U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew Perry; the “Black Ships”; the “opening of Japan.” That was in 1854. Japan under duress signed a series of “unequal treaties” (1854-58), first with the United States, then with Britain, Holland, Russia and France. Japanese ports, long closed, were opened to international commerce. Foreign nationals were granted rights of residence. Foreign consuls arrived. Tariffs were set low, to Japan’s disadvantage, Japan powerless to raise them. Foreigners were subject not to Japanese law but to the laws of their home countries. This was “extra-territoriality,” the most galling insult of all.

Japan’s is a martial culture. A government submitting to terms like these had better watch its back.

Long before Perry, the shogunate faced internal challenges. Broadly speaking they were of two kinds — progressive and conservative, as we would say today.

The progressives knew something of Western science, medicine and government and saw in them Japan’s only hope against “barbarian” powers that preyed on the powerless.

To conservatives, this was to accept barbarization. Japan would triumph not by brute power but by innate spirit. But what spirit — Confucian, or Shinto?

Confucianists looked to ancient Chinese sages as the source of the moral Way. Nativists turned to their own country’s past. Why look further? Was Japan not “the land of the gods”?

A sense of partaking in divinity is the most uncompromising of incentives. It bred in Japan a group of mostly low-ranking samurai known as shishi (men of spirit). Their zeal knew no bounds. They would put their swords at the service of the Emperor, descendant of the Sun Goddess, and rid their divine land of the barbarians. “Sonnō jōi!”

For centuries the emperors had been mere ciphers, languishing in poverty and impotence in Kyoto, the ancient capital, while the shoguns ruled in Edo (present-day Tokyo), the seat of power since 1603.

Emperor Komei (reigned 1846-67) began as a puppet like his predecessors — but turned at last on the puppeteers. The opening of the ports, “be it but for a day or even half a day,” was intolerable, he wrote in a personal memorandum to the shogunate in 1859.

The shishi rallied round him, their spirits burnished by an 1825 text by nativist thinker Aizawa Seishin (1782-1863): “Our Divine Realm is where the sun emerges. It is the source of the primordial vital force, sustaining all life and order. … Our Divine Realm rightly constitutes the head and shoulders of the world and controls all nations.”

To the shishi he inspired, temporizers were traitors.

Ii Naosuke, the shogunal minister who had signed the treaties, was cut down. Many other assassinations were plotted and a few were carried out.

Chaos reigned — madness too, if a beheading in 1863 in a Kyoto temple deserves the name. The victims were three wooden statues of 14th-century shoguns deemed to have been disloyal to their emperors. The heads were displayed on the banks of the Kamo River — a warning to traitors that patriots knew how to deal with them.

Five years later the Meiji Restoration overthrew the tottering shogunate and launched Japan on the most intense modernizing and industrializing drive the world had ever seen.

Many of its leaders were shishi. “Sonnō jōi”? Make that … “Bunmei kaika” — “civilization and enlightenment.” It was a Meiji maxim that meant, in effect, “Westernization.”

Those who damned it as barbarization were by this time quite helpless to stem the tide.

Michael Hoffman’s two latest books are “Little Pieces: This Side of Japan” (2010) and “The Naked Ear” (2012).