August 16, 2018

The last shogun

In the textbooks, at least, the 1868 Meiji Restoration ended the rule of the shoguns and reestablished the reign of the emperors. The effect, however, was to create a government where the "separation of powers" simply meant that the powers of the government were all separated.

Oh, those powers were, on paper, vested in the emperor. So had they been during the shogunate. It's just that from the 17th century through the early 19th, the Tokugawa shogun unquestionably controlled the emperor. Now nobody controlled the emperor. And the emperor didn't control anything either.

In a deadly game of king of the hill, the years in Japan between the Meiji Restoration and WWII were punctuated by a series of attempted coups. None succeeded, but all had the effect of pushing the government further to the right in hopes of deflecting the next military revolt, until the army was operating without any practical constraints.

Echoes of the first half of the 16th century, when the slow rot of the Ashikaga shogunate ignited battles amongst the military governors that culminated in the Warring States period.

Lacking the checks and balances of civilian oversight, the Japanese army ended up starting a small war in China that grew out of control, basically Vietnam on a continental scale. When the U.S. cut off oil and scrap metal exports to Japan as a response, the military lashed out without considering its capabilities or the military consequences.

Thanks to the military doctrine of Kantai Kessen, meaning a winner-take-all contest between battleships, the Japanese war effort was doomed from the start. Japanese military leaders couldn't stop believing in Kantai Kessen because it had proved so decisive during the Russo-Japanese War.

But by June of 1942 and the Battle of Midway, the battleship was a white elephant. The aircraft carrier ruled the waves. To be sure, the Japanese navy had indeed crushed the Russian fleet at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905, compelling a shaky Russian government to sue for peace.

This "underdog" victory was hailed around the world (even though it began with a "sneak attack"). The Japanese government was quick to believe its own press, forgetting that the land war going on at the same time was about as decisive as the First World War would be, with the Japanese infantry taking as many casualties as the Russians.

Notwithstanding one the greatest diplomatic achievements in history, the victorious Japanese came away from the Treaty of Portsmouth (1905) believing that the western powers had robbed them of their due. This combination of victimhood, aggrievement, and overconfidence set the stage for the next forty years of accumulating disasters.

In Japan, ordinary citizens—already living under draconian rationing and sumptuary laws—took the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor to be a second Tsushima, signaling an end to the conflict.

By the Battle of Okinawa, nobody in the Japanese government believed they could prevail by force of arms alone. But they could convince the Americans that invading the main islands carried too high a cost, essentially Robert E. Lee's strategy in 1864, that might have succeeded except for the fall of Atlanta and Sherman's March to the Sea.

The bitter irony is that in this they succeeded. Thus the atomic bomb. But the atomic bomb probably had a greater influence on Stalin, who, thanks to his spies, knew more about it than Truman. Stalin didn't launch his invasion of Manchuria until after Nagasaki. Once the bomb was dropped, Stalin had to act before Japan surrendered.

One of Stalin's goals was payback for the Russo-Japanese War. The Soviet army reclaimed all of its former territories, plus several islands that had always been part of Japan. From 560,000 to 760,000 Japanese were shipped off to the gulags, where from 10 to 50 percent of them died. This treatment by a former "ally" still rankles in Japan.

There is much talk of "formally" ending the Korean War. The one-week war between the Soviet Union and Japan has never been formally resolved either.

All through the Second World War, Japan and the Soviet Union had a non-aggression pact. Until the bitter end, the Japanese Supreme Council saw the Soviet Union as a "good faith" intermediary while raising arcane and legalistic objections to the Potsdam Declaration. Stalin's abrogation of the non-aggression pact destroyed that illusion.

But a negotiated surrender would not be acceptable to the Allies and certainly not to their citizens. They had been there and done that and suffered the consequences. In July of 1918, Winston Churchill laid out the terms for a lasting armistice with Germany. In the process, he made clear why the "Great War" would not be "the war to end all wars."

Germany must be beaten; Germany must know that she is beaten; Germany must feel that she is beaten. Her defeat must be expressed in terms and facts which will, for all time, deter others from emulating her crime, and will safeguard us against their repetition.

Despite all the treaties signed and reparations extracted at Versailles, between the two world wars, Germany acceded to none of these conditions. But in August of 1945, as John Dower vividly lays out in Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, Japan very much did.

The atomic bomb was considerably less destructive than Curtis LeMay's ongoing firebombing campaigns. But it forced Stalin's hand and that forced the Japanese government to finally face reality. And when he finally did face reality, the atomic bomb gave the emperor a transcendent power to whom he could surrender Japan's wartime ideology.

This time, history would not repeat itself.

Though in a very real sense, history was repeating itself for the fourth time. In 1185, Minamoto Yoritomo destroyed the Taira clan—the power behind the throne—and moved the capital of Japan to Kamakura, inaugurating the rule of the shoguns. On and off for the next 700 years, the emperor reigned as little more than a figurehead.

When Tokugawa Ieyasu consolidated power after the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, the country breathed a sigh of relief and mostly aligned itself with the new regime. Like Ieyasu himself, it was an opportunistic resolution that demanded little in the way of ideological conformity, except to go along to get along, a social compact that worked.

In the mid-1860s, as the Tokugawa regime crumbled around them and the center could no longer hold, this opportunistic ambivalence was expressed in the "Ee ja nai ka" movement, an anarchic yet strangely playful popular uprising that proclaimed, "So what? Why not? Who cares?"

In the late summer of 1945, the population was too exhausted to dance in the streets. But they'd had enough of ideology. Observes John Dower, when General MacArthur arrived in Japan on August 30 of that year,

he easily became a stock figure in the political pageantry of Japan: the new sovereign, the blue-eyed shogun, the paternalistic military dictator, the grandiloquent but excruciatingly sincere Kabuki hero.

Dower wryly concludes, "Indeed, the response of huge numbers of Japanese was that the supreme commander was great, and so was democracy." So it comes as no surprise that they should so readily switch their allegiances to the man who promised them much less torment and a much better future.

Related posts

The grudge and the dream
Kantai Kessen
Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan

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