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Looking back at 70 years before the war’s end

by Hiroaki Sato

This is the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II. What happened 70 years before that? This is a game I sometimes play when a notable year comes around.

Go back 70 years from 1945 and you get to 1875. That was the eighth year of the newly constituted regime of Meiji, and Japan was still unstable.

The tax system had been “reformed” two years earlier, from rice to land, but the burden did not change. Peasant rebellions continued to erupt in many parts of the nation. The samurai class, deprived of their stipends and status, revolted here and there, with the biggest one of its kind, the Satsuma Rebellion, to take place in another two years.

That year Japan took two international steps that continue to reverberate today.

In May, a treaty was signed giving the Kuril Islands to Japan and Sakhalin to Russia. Japan’s claim since World War II that the four islands of the Kuril archipelago just off Hokkaido are part of its territory is based on this agreement.

War, of course, is merciless. The Cairo Declaration (November 1943) simply asserted that Japan had “stolen” all its territories, while the Potsdam Declaration (July 1945) infamously threatened Japan with “prompt and utter destruction.” Also, the San Francisco Peace Treaty (1951) and the U.S. Senate’s ratification of it weren’t precise on territorial definitions.

Some say that the problem was with the 1875 treaty itself. Written in French, a foreign language for both Russia and Japan, it wasn’t really “official” and was prone to interpretative manipulations. It was also the days of territorial free-wheeling. The Russians had sold Alaska to the U.S. in 1867.

In September, two Japanese warships landed on Ganghwa-do, the island west of Seoul, provoked the Korean defense force there, and “won.”

This unprovoked act of belligerence was rooted in Japan’s so-called “Conquest of Korea Argument” that had come forward in the first year of Meiji. The idea had then receded amid domestic political entanglements, but by 1875 the situation had changed.

For one thing, in 1871 the U.S. had tried gun-boat diplomacy against Korea to open it, a country that adamantly stuck to its isolationist “expel-the-barbarian” policy, but failed; two decades earlier the same tactic had worked against similarly isolationist Japan.

Still, within Korea, isolationist feelings were weakening.

At the same time, other Western powers, led by Great Britain, “the biggest Asian invader” at the time, encouraged Japan to open Korea. Britain’s minister to China and Sinologist, Sir Thomas Francis Wade — yes, the one who left his name in the Wade-Giles system of romanization of Chinese — supported the idea, with force if necessary.

So, in early 1876, Japan forced upon Korea an unequal “amity treaty,” even as the country was struggling with similar treaties Western powers had imposed on it. Japan was just beginning to learn about international legal deceptions, so it turned to Frenchman Gustave Emile Boissonade, who was working for the Japanese government, to write the document.

The Japanese-Korean treaty that included the stipulation that Korea be a sovereign state, rather than a tributary to China, would lead to the Sino-Japanese War in 1894, which, despite its name, was waged over Korean sovereignty. Japan annexed Korea 15 years later.

The annexation ended with Japan’s defeat in 1945, but the 35 years of subjugation until then still rankles in Korea.

To step out of East Asia to take a look at the United States for a minute, in the year of 1875 the country ratified a “reciprocity treaty” with Hawaii that, among other things, specified that no third power might acquire the island kingdom. Then in 1898 it annexed the islands and in 1959 made the territory a state.

One of the more important books that appeared in Japan in 1875 was Yukichi Fukuzawa’s “Outline of the Theory of Civilization.”

Fukuzawa, who had visited the U.S. in 1860 on Japan’s first embassy in a millennium and toured European countries in 1862 on a mission for treaty negotiations, was inspired to write his “Outline” by books such as the French historian Francois Guizot’s “Histoire de la Civilization en Europe” (1828; English 1846) and the British historian Henry Thomas Buckle’s “History of Civilization in England” (unfinished).

In his book, Fukuzawa pointed out that “civilization is of utmost importance,” defining it as “the way human society gradually moves toward improvement,” adding that this was “common knowledge of the world.”

According to this common knowledge, countries are divided into three categories: “the very best among the civilized,” “semi-civilized” and “barbaric.” In the first category were “various countries in Europe and America”; in the second, “Turkey, China, Japan and other Asian countries”; and in the third, “Africa, Australia and others.”

We may assume that Fukuzawa included Australia in the barbaric category because Britain had only recently stopped treating the continent as what its own social reformer Jeremy Bentham had condemned as the “thief colony.”

He stressed that civilization was needed, be it for “institutions, learning, commerce, war or politics,” and that for it to work, a dualistic system is necessary. This was because, he explained, at least two entities were required to allow “rationality” (dori) to occur between them, whereas a monistic system does not allow that. He picked Japan and China, both in the semi-civilized category in his scheme, to demonstrate his point.

Japan was “extremely fortunate” in that two entities — that which was spiritually “revered” (church), and that which was militarily “powerful” (state) — coexisted for 700 years till then. In contrast, China did not have much luck in that respect, for there, that which was militarily powerful was also that which was spiritually revered for much of its long history. That is, it enjoyed little separation of church and state.

If Fukuzawa’s view of civilization and his analysis of the histories of Japan and China have held any validity for the last 140 years, you might say that Japan almost annihilated itself by gradually eliminating dualism in the first 70 years. It permitted the military to exalt the emperor to such a degree as to achieve a divine status for its own advantage.

In the meanwhile, China has held onto monism, Communism, for the second 70 years. The latest news is that Chinese President Xi Jinping has revived Confucianism, which, Fukuzawa judged, does not prevent monism.

Hiroaki Sato’s most recent books are “My Purgatory,” a translation of Inuhiko Yomota’s book of poems, and “The Silver Spoon,” Kansuke Naka’s childhood memoirs.