News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Thursday, March 31, 2005

Inventing Japan, by Ian Buruma (incomplete)

An excellent book of Japanese history written in an accessible novelistic style, offering distilled concepts, facts that stick to your ribs, and stimulating word pictures that bring the old days back to life.

The prologue closes with: "Overconfidence, fanaticism, a shrill sense of inferiority, and a sometimes obsessive preoccupation with national status - these have all played their parts in the history of modern Japan... but one quality has stood out to serve Japan better than any other: the grace to make the best of defeat." (Page 7)

He doesn’t write this but to me the arrival of Perry's Black ships in 1853 was not just the forcing open of Japan's economic doors but the kick-starting of free trade. In other words, not a nasty imperial incursion but instead a liberation of the marketplace which benefited everyone (by which I mean the average man on the street) but the authoritarian regime which, like all authoritarian regimes, preferred monopolies and big trusts. Like China’s Opium War, this was the beginning of the end for the bad old days of feudalism, caste, and summary capital punishment and the first baby step towards democracy, egalitarianism, and rule by law.

During the glory days of racialism "Once a year Dutch merchants were summoned to Edo, where the Shogun and his entourage would pump them with questions and, for their amusement, ask them to sing songs, dance, kiss one another, and generally perform like circus animals." (Page 16) "The popular image of the Dutch was that of exotic beasts, who lifted their legs, like dogs, when they relieve themselves. Their hair was red and their eyes a devilish blue." (Page 15) "... a faint suspicion of treachery hung over those who show too keen interest in foreign matters. The authorities - and most scholars, too - took the line that although Western science might be a useful tool to rule Japan more effectively, foreign thinking should be kept far from common minds, lest the people get "confused" and forget to obey their rulers." (Page 17)

All of the former sounds much like contemporary China. So does the following: "Von Siebold received a map of Japan, and Globius (a Japanese scholar of Dutch learning) was given a naval map of the world. As soon as news of this exchange leaked out, von Siebold was arrested for spying and later expelled, while Globius died in prison three years later, possibly by his own hand.
Another unfortunate scholar was young man named Yoshida Shoin, who was so desperate to learn more about the Western world that he begged Commodore Perry to take him back to America on his ship. Perry refused. Yoshida was arrested for embarking on this adventure and locked up in a cage. His teacher, Sakuma Shozan, who had developed theories, based on his Western knowledge, on the best ways to defend Japan against foreign incursions, was imprisoned for encouraging his people to study overseas. He wrote a famous treatise, entitled Reflection on My Errors. After his release, he was murdered by anti-Western fanatics for riding his horse on the European-style saddle." (Page 18)

"A popular saying in the late 19th century was "Chinese learning for the essential principles, Western learning for the practical applications." In fact, it never really worked in China. Western learning couldn't be reduced to mere technology without gross distortion, and the old Sino-centric principles were hard to reconcile with scientific inquiry. This is why Chinese thinkers since the 19th century have tended to lurch from selling conservatism to violent iconoclast. Either the Chinese tradition, whatever it was supposed to be, had to be defended against the merest speck of foreign pollution or every vestige of it had to be smashed in the name of science. The history of Communist China is an illustration of both." (Page 20)

An excellent example of a description masquerading as an explanation. What better explains the swing to me is that the Chinese worldview was never underpinned by much logic. Given the lack of free speech and free debate, research was near non-existent, talking points few, and critical thinking skills very poor. There was no broad and deep body of empirical findings underpinning the conclusions that scholars arrived at. Thus, it became easy to swing from one school of thought to the next.

Take racism Chinese-style. The strong prejudice against blacks can be overcome with a smile and a few words of Chinese. I've seen it happen again and again. A western racist would have a logical framework underpinned by evolutionary theory and a myriad of talking points and counterpoints to fend off arguments for equality. He would have scientific literature dating from the antebellum south on to the Bell Curve of the 1990’s at his disposal to quote from and make his case. Such a person would take time to persuade, if they could be persuaded. The average Chinese racist on the other hand if asked why they don’t like black people will tell you that it’s because they’re black. You say, “What?” They say, “Because they’re so dark.” If you probe further, you find peer-pressure. That’s it. No science to debunk. No urban legends to refute. No conspiracies to explode. That person can be persuaded or dissuaded of racism rapidly. And not just racism.

This also helps explain the success of fascist dictators in Italy, Germany, Japan, Russia (Stalin) and China (Mao). Illiterate ignorant mass populations lacking liberty and freedom of speech, and thus lacking the ability to form intelligent decisions on their own were naturally susceptible to conspiracy theories (racism, xenophobia, and religion being just three of a large and fertile population) and used to turning over decision-making to Great Man frauds, in part given that they formerly were habituated to turning decision-making over to sundry Great Mojos in the sky and their temporal agents, the various priesthoods.

Another historical parallel with China is on page 70: "The Japanese rioters [of 1905 protesting the Portsmouth Treaty which concluded the Russo-Japanese war and which gave various concessions to the Russians at the behest of the European powers], in fact, behaved very much like their Chinese counterparts in 1919, who protested against their government for letting Japan take over the German concessions. When governments rule without popular representation or even consent, one form of rebellion is to be more nationalistic than the rulers. If the rulers are traitors to the nation, they should be overthrown. It is a pattern that has occurred over and over again in East Asia, and it is not very conducive to liberal democracy. It also shows that demands for political rights at home can exist quite happily with imperialist demands abroad. But this is a game that both sides can play; the authorities can turn nationalistic sentiments against the Liberals, too, and frequently did."

From page 74: "One of the worst instances of Japanese brutality toward Koreans came in the aftermath of the earthquake that devastated Tokyo and Yokohama in 1923. The whole city began to lurch violently around lunchtime. Within hours, much of Tokyo was burning. Wild rumors spread as swiftly as the fires: foreigners had attacked Japan with an earthquake machine; Koreans had gone around poisoning the wells. There was nothing much people could do against "foreigners," since they were comparatively few, but mobs did go around killing Koreans, drowning them in the Sumida River or beating and trampling them to death amid the smoldering ruins. One person who tried to protect them was Yoshino Sakuzo. He also did his best to revise the low official estimates of the Korean death toll and arrived at a figure near 2000."

Amazing the power of primeval conspiracy theories in Japan as late as the 1920’s, which helps explain the primitive savagery of the Japanese Army in China and WWII. And of course the 'poisoning the wells' business is right out of the European Middle Ages and the Black Death when some populations blamed Jews for doing the same. Reinventing the wheel historically speaking. Another spin on Santayana’s ‘those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it’.

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