Japan: Peeps at History - John Finnemore

The Opening of Japan

For more than two hundred and fifty years Emperor followed Emperor and Shogun followed Shogun, and Japan still lived in the Feudal age, although the other nations were alive and bustling under modern conditions. At last the world began to knock at her door and demand that her isolation should be given up, that she should come from her seclusion and take her part in the world's work. The first step was taken by the United States. In 1853 Commodore Perry, with a small American fleet, arrived in Yedo Bay and delivered a letter from the American President to the Emperor of Japan inviting the Japanese to open their country, and permit foreign traders to enter. He delivered his letter and sailed away, promising to return for an answer in the following year.

He came back in 1854, and the Japanese agreed to open certain ports to the Americans and to deal with them on a friendly footing. At once there was a rush of the other nations to secure the same privileges, and Great Britain concluded a similar treaty in the same year.

From that moment a very troubled time arose in Japan. The Daimyos and the Samurai became ranged in two parties: one party, singing fierce war-songs against the "black ships," as they called the foreign vessels, wished to drive the "barbarians" out of Japan; the other party, seeing more clearly the great strength of foreign Powers, was unwilling to offer a vain resistance, and urged that the country should be opened. The former party gathered round the Court at Kyoto, the Emperor's Court, the latter party about the Court of the Shogun, or Tycoon, at Yedo. But in spite of all efforts of the anti-foreign party, the foreign Powers steadily pushed their way into the country, and within a few years there were several foreign legations established in the city of Yedo.

The foreign representatives soon found that they were exposed to terrible dangers. The Samurai, who hated the "barbarians," would lie in wait for them as they moved about the city, and cut them down with the sword. A series of terrible outrages happened, and the Japanese Government was at its wits' end to know what to do. To threaten the punishment of death was useless, for the murderer was perfectly ready to die, nay, rejoiced to die, thinking that he had done a service to his beloved country. Nor could their lords be made responsible, for each man took care to leave the service of his lord and become a Ronin before he undertook the deed. The word Ronin means "wave-man," and was applied to a Samurai who, having no master, was looked upon as having no fixed place in the world, but as one tossed hither and thither like a wave of the sea. Some Ronins did not wait to be seized, but, having struck down a "barbarian," quietly committed hara-kiri, and died with a paper fastened to their clothes giving a complete account of themselves and why they had attempted the deed of blood.

Little by little a strong feeling grew up against the Shogun. Men began to look back into history and ask whence he came, and why he had this great power in the country. They argued that the Emperor was the supreme authority, and yet here was a subject who ruled in his name, and enjoyed all the power while the Emperor lived at Kyoto in a palace which was no more nor less than a gilded prison. This feeling grew, and it was strengthened by the great unrest in the land—an unrest which the government of the Shogun could not control. Great Daimyos attacked foreign vessels on their own account, and were severely punished; the clans fought together, and amid this war of factions Kyoto was almost destroyed by fire; great officials were murdered by the Samurai of their foes, and there were plots and counterplots in all directions.

[Illustration] from Peeps at History - Japan by John Finnemore


The root of the trouble lay in the divided authority within the realm, and in 1867 a wise old Daimyo pointed this out in a frank letter to the Shogun. He wrote: "The cause of our trouble lies in the fact that the administration proceeds from two centres, causing the empire's eyes and ears to be turned in two different directions. The march of events has brought about a revolution, and the old system can no longer be persevered in. You should restore the governing power into the hands of the sovereign, and so lay a foundation on which Japan may take its stand as the equal of other countries."

In their desire for a settled government the minds of the Japanese turned to the Emperor, and the year 1868 became the Year of Restoration. The Shogunate was abolished and the Emperor became sole and supreme ruler. The Shogun, the last of the Tokugawa line, submitted to the decree, but there was some fighting between the Imperial troops and his followers; in the end the latter were put down. The Court of the Emperor was now moved to Yedo, where the Shogun had ruled, but the name of the city was changed to Tokio, a name which it still bears.

It was thus the "anti-foreign" party which triumphed, and many of them hoped to see the Emperor issue a decree ordering the expulsion of the hated barbarian; but they had a rude awakening from their dream. They had been supported by the great warrior clans of Satsuma and Choshu, because the latter hated the Shogun. But these shrewd Samurai knew that it was useless to attempt to check the flowing tide: they now declared for the opening of the country and the movement towards modern conditions.

We now come to the most striking event in the modern history of Japan, and, indeed, one of the most striking events in all history. The clans saw that their feudal system was out of place in modern life. What did they do? The great military caste calmly stepped down from its lofty position, gave up its land and its wealth to the Emperor, and took its stand among the mass of the people, having no thought save for the good of the new Japan. In other lands the feudal system broke up in war and fierce strife. Battlefields were drenched in blood, and smiling provinces became naked deserts before the power of great barons could be broken, and their wide fiefs torn from their grip. But in Japan the princes gave up their might not only without a murmur, but of their own free will.

[Illustration] from Peeps at History - Japan by John Finnemore


In 1869 a number of the chief Daimyos addressed a memorial to the Emperor, offering him their possessions. Here are a few ringing sentences from this noble document: "The place where we live is the Emperor's land, and the food which we eat is grown by the Emperor's men. How can we make it our own? We now reverently offer up the lists of our possessions and men with the prayer that the Emperor will take good measures for rewarding those to whom reward is due and taking from those to whom punishment is due. Let the imperial orders be issued for altering and reshaping the territories of the various classes. This is now the most urgent duty of the Emperor, as it is that of his servants and children."

This example was followed by the other Daimyos, and thus, at a single stroke, the whole feudal system which had lasted in supreme power from the days of Yoritomo was cut away. The Daimyos received one-tenth of their former revenues, but no longer had the Samurai to support. The latter class received pensions from the Government, and they, with their wives and children, formed a body numbering about two millions. After a time the Government gave each Samurai a lump sum equal to several years of his pension money and paid him off finally. Many of the Samurai now fell into great poverty. The lump sum was soon disposed of, and they had been trained to despise labour and trade. But never a murmur was heard from them. They accepted poverty and want as calmly as they had accepted hardship in the service of their lord. Many of them became policemen, and the police are still largely drawn from the Samurai class. Many, strange to say, entered domestic service, for they looked upon this as the most honourable form of labour. They had been used to serve in the household of their master, so they found it easy to serve others.