Colin Barker


Origins and Significance of the Meiji Restoration


Intrusion from the Outside World

For two and a half centuries, the Tokugawa regime preserved the isolationist policy that characterised its rule. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, various attempts from the outside to persuade the regime to open its ports to trade and to establish more ties with the world economy were rebuffed.

But the world outside Japan did not stand still. The European influences that had been expelled in the early seventeenth century had taken the shape of occasional commerce and Christian missionaries. But by the mid-nineteenth century the process of unifying the world into a single “world system” (Wallerstein) was gathering pace, as full-scale capitalist production developed rapidly. The commerce now sought was permanent and continuous; the weapons by which it might be enforced were no longer bibles but steamships and modern artillery. Japanese isolationism could not survive this new onslaught. That Japan would have to deal with European and American traders and governments, backed by superior military force, became – painfully – apparent. The question then became, not whether Japan should enter the world system, but how.

One possibility was shown by the experience of its great neighbour, China. The 1839-1842 “Opium Wars” between Britain and China revealed what the real balance of forces was: China was defeated and “opened” to western trade by force. A “semi-colonial” solution was one method by which Japan might be forced into the modern world. Might not Japan suffer the same fate as China?

All around the Pacific, the capitalist world system was now closing in on Japan. Russia was expanding into Siberia and colonising Alaska. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Moscow government was anxious to secure supplies for eastern Siberia and Alaska. The British, with their trading concessions on the Chinese mainland, across the East China Sea , were ever keener to win port rights in Japan. Over the Pacific to the East, the United States was rapidly expanding its frontiers: in 1846, the British conceded Oregon to the USA; the 1846-1848 US-Mexican War won the USA the prize of California, and with it a long continuous coastline on the Pacific. Transcontinental railroad projects were already being actively discussed when gold was discovered in California in 1849, giving a new boost to the world economy. The new state of California, under the impact of the Gold Rush, developed rapidly. In 1851, a second Gold Rush began in Australia, to Japan’s south. A newly formed Pacific Mail Steamship Company was planning a regular route from San Francisco to Shanghai – a route that would take the steamships close to the Japanese coastline. The American whaling industry – the same that was celebrated in Moby Dick – was rapidly expanding in the Pacific. More sailors and whalers were being wrecked on Japan’s shored; more steamships sought coaling facilities; more commercial interests were seeking new openings for trade. The dynamism and expansive character of Atlantic capitalism were now reaching strongly into the Pacific.

After one unsuccessful and rather cautious attempt at negotiating an opening of Japan, the US government sent a squadron of four warships under Commodore Perry to try again. Perry’s instructions permitted him to use force if necessary to gain concessions from the Japanese government. At about the same time, Tsarist Russia sent a fleet under an admiral, with much the same intentions. The British decided to wait on the results of the American effort.

In 1853, Perry’s “black ships” arrived. Perry made it clear to the Japanese what he wanted, and that he would not take “no” for an answer. He announced that he would return the following year, with a bigger fleet, for Japan’s reply.

Perry’s ultimatum sparked off a major crisis in Japan – a crisis whose outcome was the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate, and an entirely new line of development for Japanese society.



The Problem of Development

The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed ... In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal interdependence of nations ...

The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarous, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of its commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e. to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image. (Marx, The Communist Manifesto, 1848)

From the time that western pressure revived in the mid-nineteenth century, Japan faced a set of problems that have re-appeared time and again as a central set of problems for “emergent nations”. These problems are sometimes summarised as “the problem of development”.

Japan is often judged to have been very successful in solving the development problem, and one focus of interest is therefore on the specific causes of Japan’s “success” – as well as on some of the difficulties and crises posed by that “success”. In this sense, Japan is full of interest for a “comparative sociology of development”. But Japan can also be considered in a slightly different light, as a particular case of the “development problem”, in that the problems faced by Japan are general to other nations. Thus Japan can also provide a starting point for examining what exactly it means to be an “emergent nation” – indeed, to be a “nation” more generally. This second line of discussion would point us towards considering, not the differences between Japanese experience and that in other countries, but the more general similarities. In this light we might, for example, what – say – the modern histories of two countries like Japan and China have in common.

It might be supposed that these two countries are as different as chalk and cheese. After all, one is “capitalist” and the other “communist”. One is counted a leading member of the curiously named “western world”, the other is a leading example of a “Third World” country. Apart from the fact that the two are neighbours in East Asia, and share some common cultural characteristics inherited from the distant past, what possible similarities could there be between these two countries today? Yet, if we consider the “development problem”, we find reasons to doubt that these two countries do really represent widely different systems. Rather, there is an important sense in which they can be comprehended, not as two distinct “systems” but as “parts” of a more encompassing single “system” from which they both derive common characteristics.

John Whitney Hall, in his Japan from Prehistory to Modern Times, writes that “in the nineteenth century both China and Japan faced first what might be called their crises of identity”. Both had somehow to deal with the situation in which pressure on them from the West was mounting; they had “somehow to acquire a will to survive... and to remake themselves into definable national entities” (p.245). The point Hall is making is perhaps so obvious and familiar that we take it for granted. The “world of nations” is such an apparent aspect of our experience that we do not question exactly what it means to say that a “country” has to become a “definable national entity”. Yet something of this sort is what is involved in being an “emergent nation”.

To become a “nation” in the modern world is more than simply to be a body of people with a common descent, or language, or culture, or historical tradition. A modern “nation”, indeed, may involve the existence of more than one such body of people. The only guarantee (or perhaps semi-guarantee) of “nation-hood” is the possession of a nation-state. The problem of “emergent nations” is a political problem. A modern “nation” is a collection of people, occupying a definite piece of Terra Firma which in some definable and practically defensible sense is “theirs”. Over that territory the “nation” – effectively the nation-state – has “sovereignty”, defined in my dictionary as “supreme independent power”. What Hall terms a “definable national entity” must be able to determine what happens on its own territory, and to do so as an autonomous political unit. It must be able to determine the laws that shall apply to people living on, or visiting, its territory, and to enforce those laws. It must be able to defend its law-making and law-enforcing powers against “non-nationals” to whom it denies “sovereignty” within its bounds. It must be able to defend its territory against encroachment from without. All of this is bound up with the idea of becoming a “definable national entity”.

We are so used to presuppositions of this kind that we risk forgetting that all these ideas and practices have a definite history. The very idea of “nations” is a relatively recent one, emerging some time probably in the late Middle Ages or early modern period in Europe. Indeed, its appearance in Europe was one of the things that was to make Europe so important in modern world history.

This is not the place to trace – even in outline – the process by which Europe became the “world of nations” that crystallised out of the complex mixture of feudal, Christian Europe. Nor is it the place to discuss the interaction between that development of autonomous nations in Europe and the simultaneous development of the first stages of the capitalism’s emergence to dominance. But two general points are worth making.

The first is that, when Europe began to expand outwards to the rest of the globe, it did so in a form previously unknown. There had, of course, been great geographical expansions before. The Roman Empire provides a good example. But previous expansions by whole civilisations took the form of “imperial” expansions: from a single political centre, by military, political, economic and other means, an “empire” expanded its frontiers by incorporating into its monocentric political framework previous outsiders and “barbarians”. European expansionism, however, was from the beginning “polycentric”. Some of the “emergent nations” of Europe did attempt, at various points, to convert themselves, by war, diplomacy and alliance, into monocentric empires. But no European nation, in practice, was sufficiently strong to establish “sovereignty” over its rivals. Nor was the Catholic Church, the other imperial contender, able to achieve more than a kind of partial cultural hegemony over Europe. The result was that territories outside Europe, which were incorporated into what Wallerstein has called the “European world system” as European armies and traders pushed outwards, were themselves drawn into a political system which was not an “empire” but a system of nation-states.

In the short run, European expansion took two political forms which – in the longer run – were to coalesce more or less into a single form. Some of the peoples which the nations of Europe came up against as they spread across the globe were colonised, becoming subordinate extensions of the European nation-state that seized them. Others were treated, in effect, like other European nation-states: sometimes they had war waged against them and sometimes more simply had trading relations opened, but they were “respected” as sovereign states. Over the course of time, in a process which is still not totally completed, the colonised territories themselves threw off or won freedom from the colonial yoke and entered the “world of nations” themselves, as additional elements with their own sovereignty.

Thus the processes of global social and economic unification into a single “system”, which began in Europe, took a political form which permitted “new nations” to enter the world-system the Europeans had begun. The terms of entry to the world system were in important respects different from those through which colonised territories were brought into the frameworks of previous empires. The imperialism initiated by Europe was systematically different from that of Rome, China or earlier empires. Instead of political subjugation, entry into the new world-system was permitted – in principle, at least – on the basis of national autonomy, political independence and sovereignty.

On the one hand, while entry as a “sovereign state” was allowed, what was impossible was a refusal to join at all. The economic, military and technological superiority of the expanding European world was such that self-isolation was an impracticable stance. If, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, countries like Japan and China could be relatively successful with policies of domestic isolation, and exclusion of the western “barbarians”, their policy could not stand for ever. It was one thing, on the far margins of European penetration, to refuse admittance to mercantile capitalism; it was quite another to try to refuse entry, in a Pacific basin that was being sucked into the immensely more powerful world of nineteenth century industrial capitalism. The issue now became, not whether China or Japan – or another people – would join the world system, but how, on what terms and under whose power?

The second point is that the world system was not simply one of nation-states, but also one of capitalism. Capitalism is defined by the co-existence of two kinds of fundamental social relations: class, and competition. Capitalist class relations depend on the monopolisation, by one section of society, of access to the means of production, so that the other section of society is forced into a particular pattern of dependence that Marx summarised as “wage labour”. Capitalist class relations involve a specific form of exploitation, of the appropriation by the monopolising class of the surpluses produced under its direction by the dependent class (the “proletariat”). Thus, in one aspect – though an aspect that takes on the disguise of formal equality in the market – capitalism involves the “despotism” of one class over another. But capitalist relations of production are not simply these “vertical” relations of domination and exploitation. Capitalist relations include, simultaneously, a complex division of labour and division of productive property into a whole number of competing, autonomy yet interdependent, units. Capital appears, always, in the form of “many capitals”. No one centre of exploitation and accumulation has mastery over the whole of production – if there were such a total monopoly there might be a class system, but not a capitalist one. The “horizontal” relations between capitals, their mutual competition, force each capital individually to pursue the crucial dynamic of the capitalist system – accumulation. Yet that pressure exerted on every independent capitalist unit is exerted “impersonally”, not by some individual or group that decides it shall be so, but rather by “the logic of the system”. In the capitalist system each individual unit is in principle autonomous, free to determine its own path of development. It is “sovereign” over the part of total social property which falls beneath its sway. Yet, at the same time, it is constrained severely by its interactions with all other “sovereign” capitals. It is “free”, yet confined by its place in a larger system of which it is merely a part – and a system which operates “blindly”, with its own pattern of movement, its own self-governing mechanism (Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” or Karl Marx’s “law of value”).

Between capital – “a definite social production relation” – and the world system of nation-states there is a fundamental homology (Barker, 1978a). In an important sense, every capital and every nation-state shares the same form. Each is autonomous, sovereign, self-willed and yet at the same time constrained by the competitive action of all the others. Each is, internally, a form of “despotism”, of the exercise of exploitative power by a minority over a majority. A nation-state is a form of the exercise of class power, and a form of competitive relations; so is a capital. The “logic” of the world-system operates not simply on “economic” units such as corporations and companies, but also on “political” units, above all on nation-states.

The point of this rather abstract digression is that we can now be rather more precise about the questions with which we began.

The “crisis of identity” to which Hall referred, and which faced China and Japan in the nineteenth century, is a crisis about entry into this capitalist world system. Hall suggests that the problem each people faced was that of making themselves into a “definable national entity”. There is no law which says that every people must become such an entity; the process of making themselves such requires a definite struggle. It was perfectly possible – as happened to China for a whole period – for a pre-capitalist country to become the political and economic subordinate of one or more of the foreign powers, possibly losing, in the process, its own geographical and cultural coherence through being divided internally by the colonising powers. In some parts of the world, “definable national entities” could only emerge among the peoples of an area as a result of colonisation, and as a result of the drawing of political boundaries between colonies where previously no boundaries of a similar kind had existed: the history of the whole of the Americas, in effect, and of large parts of Africa, took this form. If an existing social and political formation were to manage, without the experience of colonisation, to make itself into a “definable national entity”, it must in practice reorganise its internal political structure – and probably its economic and social structure too – to become a “sovereign nation-state” existing in a world of such states. It must become capable of maintaining and protecting its place in such a world, for in that world, ultimately, the “rights” of nations depend on their “mights”.

Thus, the emergence of a modern nation-state, capable of preserving its sovereignty against outside contenders, in practice involved the necessity of a wholesale destruction of pre-existing powers, interests and structures which stood in the way of such an achievement. That is, a pre-condition for the emergence of a viable nation-state was some kind of internal political revolution.

For a political revolution to occur, not only must the old form of social and political organisation break down, but some social force must emerge to challenge the existing ruling classes and leaderships, and to mobilise behind itself (or at least neutralise) other elements within the nation to achieve the necessary re-structuring. Unless and until some such social force emerged to reshape the nation as a “definable national entity”, the particular country would remain the plaything of warring external and internal forces. It would not be a sovereign “nation”, an autonomous competing power.

Which social force would arise to carry through this achievement, the necessary preliminary to “modernisation”, was a question not easily answered in the abstract. For each separate “nation”, before its entry into the world-system, had a different history and a different internal structure. The circumstances of the entry of each into the world-system, and the timing of that entry, were different. The creation of a world society of nations was anything but a uniform or simultaneous process. Hence, in crucial respects, Marx’s suggestion in the “Preface” to Capital Volume I, that each nation would follow the path marked out by England, the first industrial capitalist nation, was just plain wrong. Every nation had a different point of origin, a different set of social forces both needing to be re-structured and available to do the re-structuring. Different social forces needed to be overthrown, mobilised, blocked, organised. Thus the national histories of the processes by which each nation approached the “problem of emergence” are all different. There is a crude variant of “Marxism” (though not found in Marx and Engels) which supposes that, since the problem is reducible to the problem of capitalist development, then a capitalist class – a bourgeoisie like that of Holland or England – must play the revolutionary part, and itself unify the nation as a “definable national entity”. In a small number of countries, the revolutionary role was assumed by something like a classic bourgeoisie, but elsewhere the same role might be played, with of course individual variations, by other actors. Here a self-transformed monarchy, there a populist political leader; here a cohesive bunch of civil or military bureaucrats, there a bunch of religious fanatics; here an autocrat, there a democrat; here a “liberal”, there a “communist”.

Each revolutionary leadership set its particular stamp on the form that the “modernising nation” took; each had its particular social forces to mobilise, to neutralise, or to defeat. Thus each national revolution shaped the form of the polity that emerged. Sociologists, political scientists and economists have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to create typologies of the different “paths to development” that the nations of the world have followed and are still following. But it is the rich diversity of national histories which needs to be stressed.

Yet within that diversity there is nonetheless a common thread, a unifying theme. For all these different forces and movements, for all these nations, the “problem of development” is the same problem. And the problem of development is not simply defined within each nation taken in isolation, but is also defined by the pattern of interaction between that nation and the rest of the world-system. The pattern and task of development are posed, and re-posed, by the development of the whole of world capitalism.

It is not enough to become a “definable national entity”, as if this were a once-for-all act; remaining one is also part of the problem. To survive, every nation-state must – by coercion, by fraud, by ideological mobilisation, by economic incentive, etc – compel its subjects to subordinate themselves and their activities to the imperative of capitalism: competitive accumulation. Hall writes, of China and Japan,

Each nation ... was obliged to defend its identity if it was to maintain its security in a hostile world.

To succeed in that enterprise, each nation must learn to “compete in the modern world”. The price of failure is the same as that facing any unsuccessful company in the market-place: loss of autonomy, subjection to takeover bids, incorporation into the hegemony of a richer and more powerful “partner”, the division of national assets among bigger and more successful rivals. The price of success is a permanent effort to maintain a rate of exploitation and accumulation, a pattern and a tempo of production, whose parameters are set, not merely inside the nation-state, but in the world economy and society at large.

The world of nations, like the world of production of which it is an integral part, is a world of permanent competition, permanent accumulation drives, permanent exploitation, permanent war and preparation for war. Every nation-state must not only place itself in a position to join the race, it must mobilise the resources to stay there and if possible to move forward relative to its rivals. “Modernisation” and “development” are not single acts, but a compulsive way of life, the life of the whole global society.

It was this whole way of life that came knocking on Japan’s door in 1853, when Commodore Perry’s black ships entered the waters in front of Edo.



The End of Tokugawa Japan

The arrival of Commodore Perry in 1853 initiated a crisis in Japanese political life which ended, fifteen years later, with the “Meiji Restoration” of January 1868.

The story of the period of transition from Tokugawa to Meiji Japan is one of incredible complexity, in which a whole series of movements interwove and conflicted. (For a fairly full account, see Akamatsu.) Here we can only signal major moments in that development.

Perry in 1853 had demanded a treaty, opening Japan in some respects to the rest of the world, and announced his intention of returning the following year, with reinforcements, to collect his treaty. The shogunate faced a terrible dilemma. Military resistance to such an obviously powerful enemy was hardly feasible. The Americans were so blatantly superior, and Perry could easily block coastal shipping and starve the capital city of Edo. The shogunate might adopt a rearguard position, giving away as little as possible, but it was clear that the West was going to force an entry to Japan. It could, of course, contemplate the total ruin and subjugation of the country, its conversion into a colony or semi-colony of one or more of the industrial powers – like India, or China. It could open Japan to the West without opposition, but what then would be the position of the Shogun, the “Barbarian-subduing Generalissimo”? The shogunate already had plenty of enemies; they must surely multiply and fester now.

The shogunate was no longer a military dictatorship controlling overwhelming military power. It had become a flabby bureaucratic regime, divided by policy differences among its members. Lacking an unchallengeable leader, it depended on the “public opinion” of its own retainers ... It could not be expected that this conglomeration would present a united front to the rest of the nation on any issue so intensely controversial as the opening of Japan to the West. (Fairbank, Reischauer and Craig, p.202)

The shogunate was unable to determine, alone, what to do. It therefore consulted the whole of the daimyo on their opinions. “This act, while reasonable in the circumstances, had unfortunate consequences, for it made bakufu policy for the first time a matter of public discussion” (Hall, 1970, p.355?). Consultation with the daimyo was a public announcement to the whole of Japanese political society (effectively, the class of samurai at large) that the Bakufu was weak. The daimyo did not even help much, for they disagreed among themselves in the advice they offered, the majority being in favour of a policy of total opposition to Perry and his ilk.

The Bakufu officials relaxed the rule limiting daimyo military establishments, in order to strengthen Japan’s defences, but also with the effect of weakening the absolute predominance of the shogunate at Edo. They spent large sums on a rather tardy attempt to improve their own defensive capacity, at the cost of a further weakening of the shogunate’s already depleted finances. And, when Perry returned in 1854, with eight ships, they gave him his treaty. It was not yet a commercial treaty, but it opened two ports to the Americans, guaranteed good treatment for shipwrecked sailors, and allowed the Americans to settle a consular official at Shimoda. Other Western states pushed at the door the Americans had passed through, and over the next few years won similar treaties.

In 1856, to the shogunate’s immense discomfiture, the first American consul arrived. He spent the next two years gradually negotiating his way to an audience with the Shogun, and winning a full commercial treaty, which opened Japan’s ports, imposed low import and export duties on foreign trade, and granted “extra-territoriality” to foreigners (i.e. left them subject to the laws of their own nations, rather than Japan’s).

The shogunate was now thrown into quite deep crisis. Having consulted the daimyo, it had gone against their majority advice. Those who took the view that trade relations with the West were inevitable found themselves more and more isolated. Lacking any clear mandate for the treaty with the US consul, the shogunate took the unprecedented step of seeking the support of the Emperor at Kyoto – in effect, seeking the backing of the purely symbolic ruler. But the Kyoto court was waking from its long political slumber, and the more powerful of the daimyo were beginning to turn towards the imperial court to win backing for their anti-bakufu views. The court denied the shogunate the support it sought for the foreign treaties.

If this were not enough, the shogunate was thrown into further confusion by a dispute over the shogunal succession. One wing of the Tokugawa clan appealed for support for its claimant to the Emperor’s court, thereby involving the imperial court in a purely Tokugawa family matter, and again signalling the decline of Tokugawa power.

In an effort to maintain an increasingly shaky regime, one of the Tokugawa elders, Ii Naosake, seized direct dictatorial control over the shogunal government, imposing his choice as heir to the shogunate and signing the treaty with the Americans despite the court’s opposition. When criticism of his methods and policies followed, Ii Naosake used stern repressive methods to deal with his opponents. For two year, Ii ruled in an authoritarian absolutist fashion.

Trade with foreign merchants was opened at Yokohama, near Edo, in July 1859. Foreigners were now seen more often in the area of the shogunate’s headquarters, provoking the anger of strongly xenophobic elements among the samurai. The freeing of trade with the West threw existing merchant monopolies into confusion, and led to an externally induced inflation, which still further worsened the position of the samurai on their fixed stipends.

In the early period of the commercial opening of Japan, under Ii Naosake’s authoritarian government, the foreign merchants quickly discovered a way of making profits on their new transactions in Japan.

They knew that the gold-silver exchange rate was around one to six in Japan, whereas it was one to fifteen or sixteen in Europe and China. In other words, gold compared with silver was less expensive in Japan than elsewhere. Consequently a profit of one or two hundred per cent could be made simply by taking (silver) piastres out of Shanghai ..., exchanging them for gold at Yokohama and taking this gold back to Shanghai. This trade in gold grew more intense in the summer of 1859 and reached its culminating point in the autumn. (Akamatsu?)

Trade had to be suspended. Operations in foreign exchange resumed in December but the leak of gold from Japan could only be stopped completely by bringing the Japanese gold-silver exchange rate to the same level as in other countries. (Akamatsu, p.131). This reorganisation of bullion rates was a sign of the way in which the opening of Japan to the world would, over a period, lead to the “revaluation” of the whole of Japan’s production and commerce, and with it Japanese political life. Survival of Japan as an independent nation, open to world influences, would soon involve much more than the adjustment of bullion rates.

The opening of trade initiated a new period in Japanese politics, a period of terrorism, organised by extremist groupings from among the samurai class called shishi (“men of determination”). Within weeks of the opening of trade at Yokohama, men with swords set on a party of Russians, killing two of them. In November 1859, the Chinese servant of the French consul was killed. In February 1860, the captain of a Dutch ship and one of his men were assassinated.

The terrorism was not restricted to foreigners. In March 1860, in a snowstorm outside the shogunal palace at Edo, Ii Naosake, the strongman of the shogunate, was attacked and killed by a band of shishi. His death brought to an end the shogunate’s ambitions to control the situation in Japan. Its fortunes were never again restored to the same level.

Ii’s strong reassertion of leadership was perhaps the only way the shogunate could have maintained itself ...

Had Ii lived, the shogunate might have survived under his strong leadership to play a major role in Japan’s subsequent modernisation, but this seems improbable, because the shogunate, heavily burdened by tradition, was less capable of revolutionary change than were certain other groups. And Ii’s reassertion of Tokugawa absolutism was more apparent than real. Actually, Edo’s prestige and authority had both been greatly reduced. Every han now felt entitled to express opinions on any matter of national policy. Despite longstanding prohibitions, daimyo and their agents, and even samurai acting of their own initiative, now felt free to approach the court in Kyoto to win it over to their views. It had become clear that now imperial sanction was needed for any major policy decision. Even Ii, by taking care to obtain the emperor’s approval of the commercial treaties, tacitly recognised the inability of the shogunate to continue ruling without court backing. Ii’s strong measures, moreover, only exacerbated the factional divisions that had produced them. His purge drove the opposition underground, where it built up greater violence. Most thinking Japanese, resentful of foreign pressures and frustrated by their inability to resist them, were bitterly anti-foreign. This resentment was increasingly directed against the shogunate which had signed the commercial treaties against popular wishes and the emperor’s expressed desires. (Fairbank, Reischauer and Craig, p.209)

Over the next three years or so, “extremists” set the pace in Japanese domestic politics. In 1861 a group of samurai assassinated Heusken, a Dutchman acting as permanent interpreter to Townsend Harris, the US consul.

The foreigners at Edo lived in terror. In the streets – although the population was generally curious but friendly – they were in danger of being molested at any moment by some madman armed with two swords. The worst was that they did not know where these enemies came from, who struck unexpectedly and who disappeared leaving no trace. (Akamatsu, p.143)

The Bakufu was, in effect, powerless to control the shishi. They accused the lord of Mito, one of the daimyo, of harbouring a nest of extremist samurai dissidents, but could not act directly, given the daimyo’s judicial independence.

In July 1861 the English legation was attacked. In February 1862, samurai attacked the procession of Ando Nobumasa, chief among the shogunate elders, nearly killing the lord himself. In September 1862, men of the Satsuma han, proceeding back to Satsuma with one of their nobility, killed an Englishman, Richardson, whom they met on the road.

Extremist samurai were gaining the upper hand in the councils of some of the daimyo. In this same period, as the centre of politics shifted away from Edo and the shogunate towards the imperial court at Kyoto, xenophobic elements gravitated towards the emperor and his advisers, who were gradually becoming politically active after centuries of passive and mere symbolic rule. The Kyoto court became a centre of extreme anti-foreign nationalism. Under the strong influence of these elements, the emperor issued an edict in 1862 instructing the shogunate to set about the expulsion of the foreigners from Japan by the summer of 1863. The shogunate temporised: it publicly accepted the imperial instructions, but assessed the real balance of forces to be such that no action would in practice be taken against them. The shogunate persuaded the emperor to delay his policy of expulsion until the shogunate’s armed forces were strengthened sufficiently to permit engagement with the foreign powers as a practical policy.

But the extremist wing would not wait the ten or so years the shogunate advised. In 1863 the new English legation buildings were set on fire, and on the date originally set by the emperor for the expulsion of foreigners the shore-batteries in the Choshu han fired on foreign ships in the straits of Shimonoseki. In carrying out this military engagement, Choshu had deliberately flouted the shogunate’s wishes.

The Western reply to these “outrages” came quickly. In revenge for Richardson’s murder, an English fleet attacked the castle-town of the Satsuma han in southern Japan, at Kagoshima, burning a third of the city to the ground. In September 1864, an allied fleet – in which the British were predominant – attacked the shore batteries at Choshu and destroyed them, re-opening the straits of Shimonoseki by force. The allies’ attack on Choshu was not displeasing to the shogunate, but it was also a sign that the Bakufu at Edo had to rely on foreign forces to do its own domestic policing work.

By the autumn of 1863, in reality, the extreme nationalist samurai movement was largely spent. It fed on the growing resentment of the samurai, already simmering in the period before Perry’s arrival. As the Tokugawa regime slowly decayed, samurai resentments had become more and more focussed into a highly reactionary politics centred on two political slogans: joi (“expel the barbarians”) and sonno (“revere the emperor”). Bands of samurai, inspired by these ideas, were responsible for the acts of terrorism noted above, and others less notable. They had also won control of Choshu and Satsuma, for a period, and won a partial hegemony over the imperial court. Trimberger (1978, p.75) suggests that the joi-sonno terrorist movements were initiated by lower-level samurai who were blocked from mobility to high office in the han and the Bakufu. Their politics involved an idealisation of the samurai past, to which they hoped to return. If their methods were radical, their aims were reactionary and traditionalist rather than revolutionary. Their movements lacked any clear programme of alternative institutions; they wanted limited reforms in the existing polity, more chances for mobility in office, and consultative power in the highest seats of government. In focussing on the emperor as the prime symbol of loyalty, they strengthened an incipient Japanese nationalism which was later to be shaped and used by rather different social and political forces.

By 1863 their movement was effectively crushed. A “moderate” party emerged, centred on Satsuma, and this carried out a coup d’état in the imperial palace at Kyoto in September 1863, driving out the extremists who surrounded the emperor. The event signified not only the end of the real power of the extremists, but also the further weakness of the shogunate: for Satsuma, one of the “outer” han with least loyalty to the Tokugawa, had “cleaned up” the imperial palace in a way that the shogunate could not.

The extremist movement failed for several reasons. One was the conflicting and ambivalent character of its goals. Another was the ineffective nature of its organisation: its supporters tended to engage in militant acts of individual heroism but suffered from having too many leaders, too little discipline, and a poor sense of tactics and organisation. Third, the extreme nationalist samurai lacked any economic power base: they were a movement of the minor aristocracy with little support in other classes, and without a political power base within the civil or military bureaucracy. (Trimberger, 1978, pp.75-91)

The Satsuma coup at Kyoto led to the formation of a “noble coalition”, centred on Satsuma and Aizu, an alliance of daimyo and their senior samurai which sought to subordinate the shogun to the emperor and to weaken the general position of the Tokugawa.

In 1864, shortly before the allied attack on their shore batteries, extremists from Choshu han attempted to stage an extremist return to Kyoto, by making war against the noble coalition and trying to recover their former control of the imperial palace. They were beaten back. Shortly afterwards, Choshu suffered its defeat by the western allies. The shogunate declared Choshu outlaw for having attacked the imperial palace.

Once again, the Bakufu attempted to flex its muscles. Perhaps, if it could deal the apparently weakened rebels at Choshu a military lesson, its authority and power might be partially restored. The forces of Satsuma – like Choshu an “outer” han – had fought alongside the shogunate’s forces against the rebels’ attempt to regain control of the Kyoto palace. A military force was prepared, to march against Choshu and put the outlaws down.

But the shape of Japanese politics was changing. Both Satsuma and Choshu had experienced military defeat at the hands of the foreigners. Their reaction to these defeats was hardheaded: rather than continue in their (militarily unrealistic) extremist politics, they began to develop diplomatic, economic and military ties with the British, from whom they purchased modern arms. If in one sense they were now pursuing policies akin to those of the Tokugawa shogunate, they were doing so independently, and with a growing view of the possibility of overthrowing the shogunate altogether. In Choshu the reorientation was such as to permit the formation of a new kind of military force, including armed peasants formed into special companies. This development in Choshu of a “modern” army drawn from the citizenry at large, rather than from a narrow stratum of warrior aristocrats alone, was a sign of the extent to which a “reform” politics was gaining ground in the “outer” han.

The Bakufu’s expeditionary forced marched against the men of Choshu, with the support of some of the daimyo – unwillingly given in some cases. The Satsuma forces went along with the shogunate, though their longer-term interests pointed increasingly in the direction of an alliance with Choshu rather than against it. The Choshu leaders were persuaded to avoid battle, and thereby to preserve their army, at the cost of a formal apology and the execution of three extremist nobles.

The advocates of a revived and stronger shogunate were not satisfied with this outcome, however, and launched a second and more serious assault against Choshu in 1866. But to the dismay of the Tokugawa, the new forces of Choshu defeated the Shogun’s army. For the first time since 1600, the Tokugawa shogunate was no longer the military master of Japan. Its fall was now virtually inevitable.


Last updated on 28.2.2002