Is the history of Japan since the Meiji Restoration one story or two? Political scientist Tetsuya Murai offers a quasi-continuous narrative grounded in the concept of the state as a living (and deciding) being.
The history of Japan since the Meiji Restoration must be approached as the story of two states: prewar Japan and postwar Japan. The logical dividing line between the two is Aug. 10, 1945, when Japan accepted the terms for surrender stipulated in the Potsdam Declaration. This gives a certain symmetry to the past 150 years, with prewar Japan persisting for 77 years and postwar Japan nearing the same age. Given this symmetry and the obvious differences between the constitutional and international systems governing the prewar and postwar eras, it makes sense to approach any political or diplomatic history of the past 150 years by comparing and contrasting the two.
That said, we need to acknowledge the limits of any approach that treats the two periods as divorced from one another, especially if we want to build a multidimensional picture integrating different perspectives.
Continuity vs. discontinuity
This brings to mind the old continuity-versus-discontinuity dispute that has long divided Japanese historians. The divide dates back to the fierce “Japanese capitalism debate” of the 1920s and 1930s, when scholars quarreled over the correct characterization of Japan’s economic and social development in the light of Marxist theory. After World War II, they resumed their dispute, this time focusing on the significance of the reforms carried out under the U.S. Occupation. The Rono faction, downplaying the reforms, insisted on the developmental continuity between prewar and postwar Japan, while the Koza faction maintained that the reforms had placed postwar Japan on an entirely new footing. This debate had broader ideological implications that at times fractured Japan’s left-wing forces.
The continuity-versus-discontinuity debate also figured prominently in postwar studies of Japanese government, where it was closely intertwined with the question of who controls the policy-making process. The 1950s saw the rise of the “bureaucratic dominance” school, which made the case for prewar-postwar continuity on the grounds that the prewar bureaucracy had survived the Occupation reforms more or less intact. The “party dominance” school, which stressed political discontinuity, rose to the fore in the 1980s, as one-party rule dragged on under the Liberal Democratic Party.
In the fields of economic and social history, continuity reemerged as a key theme in the 1990s. First came the theory of the “1940 system,” the idea that systemic features of Japan’s wartime economic mobilization had persisted long after the war and helped to power Japan’s postwar economic growth. Expanding on this concept, another theory highlighted the lingering influence of the “national mobilization system” on postwar Japanese society as a whole.
But most of the disagreement over continuity can be attributed to different angles of approach. If we review the current body of historical research, we find both continuities and discontinuities between prewar and postwar Japan; which of those appear in sharper relief depends on where one focuses. In short, the continuity versus discontinuity debate does little to advance our understanding of history.
The challenge, then, is to avoid such false dichotomies and find a way to treat prewar and postwar Japan as two stages in a continuous historical narrative. Several contributors to this series of articles on the sesquicentennial of the Meiji Restoration have suggested an approach grounded in the cyclical theory of history. This strikes me as extremely useful for illuminating basic trends and interactions, such as the dynamics of international relations in the context of diplomatic history, or populism in the history of the media.
But the cyclical theory, too, has its limitations. Here, as with other theoretical approaches, there is a danger of putting the cart before the horse and unconsciously tailoring one’s interpretation of events to fit the underlying premise of repeating cycles.
A continuous story line
Of course, no single perspective can provide a complete and accurate picture of the past 150 years. The goal, as I see it, is to combine and superimpose a wide range of viewpoints until a three-dimensional picture comes into focus.
But in order to build such a picture, it seems to me that we need something that has been missing from postwar scholarship: namely, a coherent chronological narrative that follows a thematic thread from the Meiji Restoration to the present, even while acknowledging the discontinuities between one era and the next.
It seems a fairly simple, straightforward approach, but it has been surprisingly lacking in historical accounts of modern Japan. In most cases, the prewar and postwar Japanese states are treated as separate subjects, each with its own story line. As others have pointed out, the government-supported projects to commemorate Meiji’s 150th anniversary, much like those for the centennial of 1968, have tended to focus on reappraisals of the Meiji Restoration or the prewar period as something separate and apart from postwar Japan.
One might be tempted to look to the partisans of prewar-postwar continuity for a coherent linear account of the period, but one would be disappointed. In the political context, the continuity-versus-discontinuity debate hinged on the relative influence of the bureaucracy and the political parties, and no lasting consensus on this question was ever reached. Instead, as the LDP’s one-party rule stretched on virtually unchallenged, the focus of debate shifted to the division and balance of power between the prime minister and his Cabinet on the one hand and the career bureaucrats on the other.
The “1940 system” and “national mobilization system” theories are no more helpful in tying the entire narrative together. The focus here is on how the legacy of economic and industrial policies instituted during World War II contributed to the rapid economic growth of the postwar era and then became a structural albatross, ultimately leading to the collapse of the bubble economy and the stagnation that followed.
But the continuity spotlighted in this theory goes back no further than 1940, and the role of the Occupation reforms is conveniently overlooked. This approach also tends to gloss over the impact of Japan’s rapid postwar growth as a factor in its own right, even though economic historians have argued convincingly that its influence on Japanese society was pervasive and — in some ways — more transformational than either the national mobilization of 1940 or the Occupation reforms. In their eagerness to trace the political and economic malaise of the 1990s to some suitable culprit, these historians exemplify the limitations of a deterministic “first cause” approach to history, so aptly pointed out elsewhere in this series.
In short, the story lines of most postwar accounts of modern Japanese history, including those claiming to highlight continuity, have been built around present-day political and economic issues and have tended to jump about accordingly. A coherent, linear narrative of the past 150 years, built around a core theme, is surprisingly difficult to find.
Before World War II
Western political philosophers over the centuries have compared the state to a biological organism or a living being. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) referred to it as a leviathan, describing it as kind of giant automaton that begins to function as a single entity once its individual members have subordinated their selfish interests to the larger political community. A similar idea was advanced by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) and later propounded by the German scholar Lorenz von Stein (1850-1890), whose theories had a decisive influence on Hirobumi Ito and the Meiji Constitution.
The political systems espoused by these thinkers have been subject to much debate, but their grasp of the state as a living being strikes me as universally applicable. Much like a living organism, the state is concerned above all with survival amid a changing environment. Political leadership, which represents the mind or “character” of the state, must negotiate these challenges through an endless series of decisions, unifying and mobilizing the many citizens who make up the “body.” From this understanding, I believe, comes a framework on which we can build a coherent story line out of the history of Japan since the Meiji Restoration.
Prewar Japan came together as a unified modern nation-state under the principle of imperial sovereignty. This fledgling state, seized alternately by fear and pride, was forced to steer a perilous course as it struggled for survival in an international environment governed by imperialism.
In 1872, the “body” of the Japanese state consisted of some 34.8 million citizens. The government, representing the “mind” of the state, was under the monopolistic control of the Meiji oligarchs, a small group of former samurai from the handful of domains that had been instrumental in bringing about the restoration. The balance of power began to shift in 1890, with the establishment of the Imperial Diet under the Meiji Constitution. At that point, about 450,000 eligible voters, still representing just 1.1 percent of the total population (then 39.9 million), began to have a say in the state’s decisions.
By 1912, the number of eligible voters had reached 1.5 million, representing 3.0 percent of the population. Around this point, Japan began to take on the attributes of a mass society, and it was this transformation that powered the rise of a true party system. In 1928, the year of the first general election held under universal manhood suffrage, the number of eligible voters swelled to 12.4 million, or 19.8 percent of the population. Party politics had come into its own.
However, when challenged by a shift in the international environment, together with major natural disasters and the Great Depression, this decision-making apparatus faltered. In the absence of strong leadership from either the attenuated Meiji oligarchy (the last of the genro) or the political parties, Japan’s mass society gravitated toward a volatile brand of populism and nationalism.
In 1942, at the time of the so-called Yokusan Election, about 20 percent of Japan’s population of 72.9 million was eligible to vote. The “body” of the prewar state had more than doubled in size, and the number of citizens with a voice in political decision making had grown more than 30-fold. But the growth of “character,” by which the state develops the capacity for rational decision making, failed to keep up with rapid physical growth, and this resulted in a desperate and suicidal decision to go to war.
Following its defeat, the grievously wounded organism of the state set out on the road to rebirth.
After World War II
In the aftermath of the war, under the U.S.-led Occupation, Japan was indeed transformed. It had lost 45.3 percent of its territory, along with most of the economic markets, resources, and trade relationships it had built before the war. The new Constitution promulgated in 1946 established a party-based parliamentary democracy predicated on popular sovereignty, fundamentally altering the rules of decision-making.
But not everything had changed. The 72.2 million citizens who had survived the war’s devastation on Japanese soil faced food shortages even worse than during wartime, and the more than 6 million soldiers and settlers who had been scattered overseas were about to add to that number. The urgent challenge facing the state — as before the war — was feeding its population to stay alive.
Even so, there was a distinctly youthful quality to the postwar state during the years of reconstruction and rehabilitation. In the general election of 1947, under the new Constitution, every adult citizen had the right to vote. The electorate, though, amounted to only 52.4 percent of the populace — the reason being that almost half of the population was under 20. This demographic structure influenced the “character” of the postwar state and largely explains the sense of vitality and dynamism pervading society during this period.
In 1955, when the newly formed Liberal Democratic Party was voted into power, the population stood at 89.3 million, with 49.2 million citizens — 55.1 percent of the total — eligible to vote. By 1967, at the height of the rapid-growth era, the population had reached 120 million, and the electorate had grown to 63.0 million (62.9 percent). Most of those voters had benefited directly and palpably from Japan’s “economic miracle,” and their sense of material well-being was one of the factors supporting the status quo in Japan’s political leadership.
But postwar Japan’s youthful vitality was surprisingly short-lived. In the 1990s, amid the historic global changes accompanying the end of the Cold War, the curtain fell on the long era of uninterrupted rule by the LDP. With the collapse of the 1980s “bubble economy,” Japan entered a period of economic stagnation that continued for two decades. Meanwhile, demographic aging was proceeding at an unprecedented rate.
Amid these challenges came a raft of political and electoral reforms, including the establishment of single-seat electoral districts for the House of Representatives. In 1996, when Japan held its first general election under the new system, the population stood at 125.9 million, of whom a full 77.6 percent were eligible to vote. In 2009, when the Democratic Party of Japan defeated the LDP and seized the reins of government, the electorate constituted 81.5 percent of the nation’s total population (127.5 million).
In the seven decades between the first general election under the postwar Constitution (1947) and the most recent one (2017), the under-20 segment of the Japanese population has dropped from close to 50 percent to less than 20 percent of the total. This has resulted in the senescence of the state’s decision-making function, and the recent lowering of the voting age from 20 to 18 has done little to stem the aging process. Indeed, decision-making power continues to shift toward the elderly as feelings of powerlessness depress voter turnout among younger groups.
As the elderly have tightened their grip on political decision making, the dynamism of the postwar Japanese state has given way to a sclerosis of the body and mind. Moreover, in recent years, thanks to a low fertility rate, the “body” of the postwar state has begun to shrink.
In this way, the story of modern Japan from the Meiji Restoration to the present stops with a cliffhanger. Beset by an aging, shrinking body, the state must find the means of rebuilding its “character” if it is to survive the challenges ahead.
Each state must grapple ceaselessly with the challenges of collective decision making in its struggle for survival. Viewed in this light, the 150 years since the Meiji Restoration take on the aspect of a coherent linear narrative, textured by manifold episodes that unfold in each era.
One can also imagine alternative story lines centering on such themes as constitutional law, international affairs, the economy, and so forth. However, my current work focuses on the political decision-making system as the thematic core of the narrative.
Of course, we must recognize the limits of this story-line approach as well. Too much emphasis on linear chronology could result in a textbook-style accounting of events that obscures the big picture; the desire to maintain a continuous story line could end up taking precedence over veracity. We must remember that is just one perspective out of many.
But building a coherent story centered on a core theme gives us an opportunity to adopt a bird’s-eye view of Japan and its progress as a “living being” over the past 150 years. And it seems to me that this long view of history may be just what we need to survive the next 150 years.
Tetsuya Murai is a lecturer at Meiji University. This series of articles first appeared on the website of the Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research (www.tokyofoundation.org/en/articles/2018/japan-since-the-meiji-restoration7) and is reprinted in an agreement with the think tank.
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