“Man is born free and is everywhere in chains.”

No 18th-century Japanese thinker could have written that. It is amusing to imagine one even reading it. What emotion would it have called forth? Outrage? Blank incomprehension?

Born free? A revolutionary notion!

“The Social Contract” (1762) is the revolutionary book that expounds it, though its author, Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78), was a revolutionary in spirit only. He would have been horrified had he lived to see the French Revolution that he helped to ignite in 1789.

Throw off your chains! Rousseau seems to be saying. “Anyone who renounces their freedom renounces their humanity.”

Eighteenth-century Japan, by his standards, was scarcely human.

Freedom was the preserve of Zen-enlightened poet-recluses; it had no status in society. Its leading philosopher among Rousseau’s near-contemporaries was Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801), who taught, “Whether a country is well governed or not depends on whether inferiors respect superiors.”

“Enlightened” Europe and “feudal” Japan were different worlds — eventually to converge, however, with Rousseau as one of the bridges. First translated into Japanese in 1877, “The Social Contract” was enormously influential among an intelligentsia and a general population newly awakening to the greatest of all modern novelties: freedom.

The Meiji revolution that began in 1867 ranks to this day among the great mass transformations of world history. It was altogether different from the French Revolution. In fact, it is usually cast as a “Restoration” — the nominal restoration to power, following the shogun’s ouster, of the long-sidelined Emperor.

It was a revolution from the top down, launched and directed by samurai-oligarchs. “Rich country, strong army” was the slogan. That’s precisely what was aimed at, and precisely what emerged. It took barely a generation.

Of freedom — scarcely a word. Rousseau’s “chains” remained in place. But they chafed as never before.

Japan’s first “people’s-rights movement” was more conservative — reactionary, even — than progressive. The revolution was samurai-led, but the samurai as a class was doomed. “Strong army” seems right up the warriors’ alley, but the introduction of mass conscription in 1873 meant the end of special samurai status. Two centuries of pre-Meiji peace had left the samurai with little to do, but with a grand role to play; they could strut and swagger as before. No longer.

And yet they had to be considered. They numbered 1.7 million in 1870, out of a population of 34 million. One proposed outlet for their frustration and pent-up energy was an invasion of Korea, in response to a supposed insult. Cooler heads prevailed, and the invasion was scotched (delayed, rather, until the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1894). The war party withdrew from government in disgust and courted the masses for support, rallying them via new mass-circulation newspapers, fanning demands for a National Assembly.

Thus was born, out of thwarted samurai pride, Japan’s first ever political opposition — “political” in the sense that it was not an armed uprising. To the oligarchs that made little difference. One of their number, Hirobumi Ito, wrote years later, “At that time we had not arrived at the stage of distinguishing clearly between political opposition on the one hand and treason to the established order on the other.”

The first political parties — the Jiyuto (Liberal Party) and Kaishinto (Progressive Party) — were formed in 1880 and 1881 respectively. The government fought back — with laws in 1882 restricting public meetings, with mass roundups of journalists under an 1875 Press Law. Arrests grew so pervasive that “it became the practice of newspapers,” wrote historian George Sansom, “to employ an editor whose chief duty it was to serve prison sentences.”

The National Assembly, when finally inaugurated in 1890, was not remotely democratic by modern standards, but Japan at this point stood at least on the threshold of democracy. Democracy was within sight if not within reach, so that one prominent intellectual of the day, Nakae Chomin (1847-1901), could write, “Our 19th century … is moving gradually in the direction of the victory of reason and the defeat of injustice.”

Interesting man, Nakae. He was a journalist, a sometime party politician and a Confucian scholar who drew his inspiration from — of all people — Rousseau.

Never arrested, though exiled from Tokyo and under constant police surveillance, Nakae translated “The Social Contract” — not into Japanese but into classical Chinese. Rousseau and Confucius, he thought, were two sides of one coin. “Equality,” he wrote, “is the great Way of heaven.” “Governments,” he argued, “are created for the welfare of the individual. The individual is the purpose, the nations the means.”

We recognize in this the voice of modernity. But how hard it is to be an individual! How hard to be free! Especially in a country like Japan, whose long history teaches so little of either individuality or freedom. The traditional Japanese character was corporate rather than individual (and to some extent remains so).

Pre-Meiji, family members and neighbors were routinely punished for crimes committed in their midst, though not by them. To the modern mind that is appalling. But how many premoderns would have contemplated individuality and freedom with more dread than enthusiasm?

The Meiji poet Tokoku Kitamura (1868-94) knew both emotions well — too well. He wrote, “I desired … to become a great statesman and recoup the failing fortunes of the Orient. I conceived the ardent desire to sacrifice myself entirely for the benefit of the people. Like another Christ, I would consecrate all my energies to politics.”

Big dreams! His suicide in 1894 is his final confession that it was all too much for him. Suicide is a recurrent theme in Japanese history, but samurai killed themselves to express loyalty — not despair, which seems a modern invention.

Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “The Naked Ear” (2012).

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