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Japan’s Struggle with the Past for the Future
A nation rich in history, Japan has found itself in a new world with news rules. The world has grown significantly smaller economically, politically, and technologically. Since the West made its presence known in the East rapid changes have come upon the ancient land. With it has come the need to re-identify itself. This has come to mean for Japan a struggle in balancing nationalist pride and facing the mistakes of the past.
Beginning in the Tokugawa period that stretched from the 1600s into the late 1800s, the struggles of modern Japan found itself. In the later years of the period, warriors who had found their entire sense of self-worth in what they did “suffered a troubling identity crisis.” The need for established tradition was fading fast. With the West coming into the picture, Japan was finding itself “inadequate to deal with new pressures at home and from outside.” Unrest and confusion faced the Japanese. This added to the decline of the Tokugawa power.
As the increase presence of Western merchants and politicians became evident, so did the realization that Japan’s world was about to change. With each new ship that entered Japan’s harbors from the West, it became evident that they were “powerful symbols” of the “capitalist and nationalist revolutions” that were changing Europe and “reaching beyond to transform the world.” This added fuel to the unrest and confusion in Japan giving it a chance to overthrow the Tokugawa and reach out for something else.
With the whispers of overthrowing the Tokugawa came official diplomatic relations with the West that only added to the distress of Japan. Trying to pull away from the world encroaching on them, Japan tried an isolationist policy. This worked to some degree until the early 1800s when the Dutch sent word that Japan could not remain that way. The world was changing whether Japan liked it or not. Japan could no longer remain outside world politics and economics as “the commercial networks and diplomatic order that the Western powers were spreading throughout the globe” was now on their doorstep. This truth became evident as Japan looked over at China’s Opium Wars and saw the power of the West. Hoping to avoid the same fate as China, Japan signed treaties with the West.
The strange new relations with the West further weakened the Tokugawa’s power while at the same time giving strength to an “emerging national consciousness among a growing body of political actors.” They looked to the West with fear which in turn gave isolationism a more positive view. Japan was torn between running from the West or being absorbed into it. An identity crises was upon the nation. It only got worse as more and more unfair treaties were signed practically giving Japan to the West.
Japan was now part of a world-wide economic stage that it was unprepared to manage much less survive in. Riots broke out across the nation in response to inflation. Japan faced a crises like never before. The Tokugawa’s power was quickly crumbling due to external influences and dissatisfaction from within. The result was a new regime in the Meiji Restoration that occurred in the 1860s.
The new regime found itself easily in power but still facing an identity crises. Realizing that they could not fight against the West and win, the Meiji looked to adapt to the changing world. Fear and dissatisfaction spurred the new regime to create a new political and economic plan “aiming to build a new sort of national power.” By trying to find itself, Japan was going to recreate itself. It began with a restructuring of the political powers and eventually economic structure. It was not a complete success, but the Meiji looked to make the changes gradual enough where they could adjust quickly without causing more distress and dissatisfaction. This allowed the new regime to absorb beneficial capitalistic policies such as manufacturing and improve infrastructure. While not becoming lost in the West, Japan was looking at mimicking the beneficial aspects while keeping a nationalistic Japanese identity.
Japan was recreating itself into something never foreseen. It would set the stage for its part in the new world and for modern Japan. From the beginning of the Meiji Restoration until World War I, Japan still struggled to find itself though its footing was becoming more solid. With the breakout of WWI, Japan found itself able to breathe easier with less Western influence. The economy soared until 1920 when the economy bottomed out. The economic advances Japan had made struggled to survive. Japan took the period between world wars to readjust itself and find more stable footing again.
During this inter-war period, Japan began to look at itself as a power to be reckoned with and one to be recognized by the West. Japanese politicians wanted “equality with the imperialist powers of the West” and to have those powers “recognize a special Japanese interest in Asia.” Pushing to have that recognition, Japan began to interact with China to the point where the “Chinese populace reacted with outrage” leading to many anti-Japanese organizations and demonstrations. This powder keg was rumbling about during the same time as European colonial powers were finding themselves stretched too thin and facing another war on the home front that would forever change Europe and Asia.
During this time, Japan was finding an identity in the military which was growing and developing as the manufacturing in Japan was also developing along with the economy. Politics took a different turn with purification campaigns and increased military influence. Though this continued, the increase in military political presence was causing a disturbance on the Japanese front that would not be revealed until World War II. It was during that time of lessened European influence that Japan made a move against China, flexing its muscle to let the world know of its powerful Asian presence.
The move into China set the ball rolling for a Japanese identity crises that still has not been resolved. The Nanking Massacre of 1937 involved the Japanese “murdered tens of thousands of people and raped countless women of all ages.” This continued for over a month with no sign from the Japanese government to halt the vicious actions. The soldiers were allowed to do whatever they wanted to whomever they wanted. This was just the beginning. From there, Japan clashed with the United States and bombed Pearl Harbor pulling the US into the war completely. The Pacific theatre of WWII was now in full swing. It would take the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima and Nagaski to bring the war between Japan and the West to an end. Japan had let the world know of its Asian presence.
The struggle with identity Japan had faced before was greatly enhanced after WWII. It now had to content with “deep physical and emotional scars”. Japan not only had to rebuild after the war, it had to find itself again and begin to heal. All areas of Japanese society had been touched by the war either as victim or as aggressor. Yet it would take the weakening of Japan to make it the strong the force it dreamed of while still not fully identifying itself.
Since the end of WWII, Japan has grown economically, politically, and culturally beyond the dreams of everyone including themselves. Part of that process has been finding a new nationalist spirit that the generations of the new world could grasp onto and feel pride in. As the younger generations have moved up in Japanese power and society, a shift has been seen in the culture and identity of the nation. At the same time, this shift has revealed some of the identity problems Japan faces. The new world has pushed a change in gender roles which has now rippled into Japanese culture. Work relations have begun to change with the advancement of technology and Western culture. With the smaller world comes more foreign interactions including more foreigners living in Japan and more Japanese moving into other nations.
With the struggles of the future before the nation, Japan also has to reconcile with its past as it embraces a new form of nationalism. Events such as the Nanking Massacre are still sore subjects to the Japanese as it is a dark period that cannot be easily explained. How to teach the young of the past is something that is facing Japan and not easy for the nation to decide on. Attempting to find pride in one’s nationalism can be hard when there are bloody blemishes that overshadow them. Japan has to face a future with a heavy past that has yet to be reconciled.
Gordon, Andrew. A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present. Oxford University Press: New York, 2003.
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