Japan: From feudalism to military domination/fascism to constitutional democracy



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Japan: From feudalism to military domination/fascism to constitutional democracy

1. Brief History



  • The ancestors of the modern Japanese came to the islands probably by way of Korea, probably as warrior bands or clans. One of the clans, the Yamato, centered in Nara, near Kyoto, achieved supremacy over the others and the imperial family presumably is descended from the head of the Yamato clan (Yamato is now a poetic name for Japan).

  • By the 5th century A.D. the Japanese elite had become literate in Chinese and the islands were under the Chinese cultural influence and ruled by an imperial system modeled on the Chinese Tang dynasty, but with the bureaucratic functions performed by a hereditary nobility, rather than a civil service recruited by examination as in China. This ruling group was the samurai (warriors). Later on, local lords (daimyo) developed and expanded, and by the end of 11th century, the central government was disintegrated and unable to collect taxes. From 1185, Japan entered into a period of the “Warring States.” The emperor’s power became more symbolic than real, and the country suffered from frequent internal warfare among contending lords.

  • the Warring States period (1185-1600) was characterized by the rule of a military aristocracy or warlords and clan chiefs, who proclaimed themselves shogun or general, warring against each other for landed domains or banded together as allies for mutual protection. The warlords did not abolish the emperor nor did they attempt to become emperor himself. The imperial court remained, though it had become politically symbolic. Until Tokugawa Ieyasu defeated his chief rivals in the battle of 1600, this period saw the rise and fall of different shogunal regimes, sometimes in competition with each other for supremacy.

2. The Tokugawa Shogunate



  • The Tokugawa shogunate or Edo period (1600-1867) takes its name from the last of the feudal lords (Tokugawa Ieyasu) who sought to unify Japan in the late 16th century, defeated his chief rival in 1600, and received the title of “shogun” from the emperor in 1603. Tokugawa distributed land as fiefs to other lords (daimyo) – the retainers of the shogun, but the Tokugawa could take fiefs away from the daimyo if the daimyo was suspected of opposition to the Tokugawa rule or if the daimyo was not considered running his fief well. The Tokugawa capital was Edo, today’s Tokyo.

  • Shoguns are the military rulers or commanding generals of ancient Japan between the late 12th and mid-19th centuries (1185-1867). The origins of their rule lay in military conquest, but all shoguns, including Tokugawa and his successors, stressed the imperial court as the source of legitimacy, prestige, and authority. Below the daimyo (shogun) was the privileged elite caste of samurai, salaried warriors and administrators, who were demanded loyalty, bravery, and honor. The Japanese society featured four distinct classes: samurai, peasants, artisans, and merchants.

  • The most important aspects of the Tokugawa period are those that contributed to the creation of a united, stable state based on Confucian political norms and a centralized, hierarchical political structure.

  • Another important dimension of Tokugawa rule was the policy of isolation: it expelled all foreigners, outlawed Christianity, crucified thousands of Japanese converts, and restricted contacts with Europeans only to the Dutch at a small trading port of Nagasaki because they were Protestant and at that time had no interest in missionary. This is helpful for understanding the significance of the changes associated with the Meiji period.

3. The Meiji Restoration (1868-1912)



  • The Meiji period dates from 1868 when the young emperor Mutsuhito, who took his reign after a coup by some samurai, chose the name Meiji or “Enlightened rule” for his reign and lasts until his death in 1912. This era is referred to as the Meiji Restoration that was to restore the Emperor as the center of political power. The emperor had never been deposed, of course; but after 8 centuries of military or shogunal rule, the idea of restoring the emperor signaled fundamental changes in norms of authority and legitimacy, as well as changes in domestic and foreign policies.

  • The two major reasons for the collapse of Tokugawa rule are domestic economic and social problems and the growing external threat from the West. Worsening economic conditions resulted in increasing numbers of peasant revolts throughout Japan. Reduced stipends of samurai brewed discontent and many crossed classes to pursue commercial interests to support their families. The intellectual movement that advocated a revival of Confucianism and the supremacy of the emperor also paved the way for ending the Tokugawa feudal rule.

  • Major new changes and policies:

  1. the feudal domains and the traditional role of samurai were abolished: the daimyo returned their domains or lands to the emperor and in return they received generous pensions and some were appointed as local governors of prefectures (counties) controlled by the central government. Later on, many of daimyos (lords) and samurai (warriors) were forged alliances with the rising merchants and involved in the rapidly developing activities of commercial, economic, industrial, and financial business.

  2. The central government sought to institutionalize the new political system through the creation of a parliamentary assembly, the Diet, including the House of Representative and the upper House of peers, modeled on Western nations, and the Meiji Constitution of 1889 also created the institutions of prime minister and cabinet which at that time, however, was not responsible to the Diet but to the emperor who was the ultimate source of sovereignty and his authority was “sacred and inviolable.” This constitutional monarch system is authoritarian in nature but incorporates some democratic elements.

  3. Modern economic institutions and technology were adopted in banking, the monetary system, railroads, factories for producing modern weaponry, and mining to develop Japan’s industrial base and modernize the country. Under the Meiji rule, Japan made significant progress in industrialization. Compulsory education was widely adopted and western learning in modern science and technology was encouraged.

  4. A modern army and navy were built, based on what were thought to be the best foreign models. The model for the navy was British while the army was first based on that of France, but this was rapidly changed to Prussia after that country defeated France in a war in 1871. The prestige and power of the military leadership were enhanced enormously by Japan’s victory in the war with China in 1895 and Russia in 1904-1905.

4. The Military Domination – Emergence of Fascism 1926-1945



  • The rise of the Japanese military in politics started in the late 1920s after Emperor Showa Hirohito, the grandson of Meiji, took the reign in 1926. A coup attempt by some military officers surfaced on May 15, 1932 when Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi was shot to death at his residence. Later, in 1936, massive assassination by young military officers targeted at Cabinet officials brought into power the Control Faction of high-ranking officers who were actually responsible for the operation of the government and the economy. The appointment of Cabinet ministers needs the approval of the military. The military-controlled Cabinet soon implemented the so-called national political innovation programs for increases in armament, control in education, preparation for war, and support of the military adventure in Manchuria of China and expansion of Japan’s hegemony in Southeast Asia by the formation of the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.”


What is Fascism?
Political philosophy, movement or regime that places the nation or the race above the individual, that stands for highly centralized government led by a dictator or a supreme leader, and that glorifies militarism, expansionism, racism, and nationalism, and that stands in opposition to democracy, civil liberty, and human rights.
Characteristics of Fascist Philosophy and Fascist State
First and most important is the glorification of the state and the total subordination of the individual to it. The state is defined as an organic whole into which individuals must be absorbed for their own and the state’s benefit. This “total state” is absolute in its methods and unlimited by law in its control and direction of its citizens.
A second distinctive element of fascism is embodied in the theory of social Darwinism. The doctrine of survival of the fittest and the necessity of struggle for life are applied by fascists to the life of a nation-state. Peaceful nations are seen as doomed to fall before more aggressive ones, making struggle and aggressive militarism a leading characteristic of the fascist state. Imperialism is the logical outcome of this dogma.  
A third element of fascism is its elitism. National salvation and the creation of a new world order can be only achieved by an authoritarian leader who embodies the highest ideals of the nation. This concept of the leader as hero or superman, which could be in any form, is borrowed in part from the romanticism of Friedrich Nietzsche, Thomas Carlyle, and Richard Wagner.
Finally, fascism has not restricted to a few nations, but has found adherents in all countries, although those people and their leaders often deny indignantly that they are fascists at all. In its dictatorial methods and in its use of brutal intimidation of the opposition by the militia, the secret police, and the military, fascism does not greatly distinguish itself from other despotic and totalitarian regimes. In the international area, its foreign policy is characterized by seeking military conquest and glorifying militarism, expansionism, racism, and nationalism.

5. Post-WWII American Occupation and Reform



  • Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945 and was under the American occupation. The task of postwar reconstruction and reform for Japan was entrusted to the Supreme Command for the Allied Powers (SCAP). Although the occupation of Japan was supposed to be supervised by a Far Eastern Commission made up of 11 nations at war with Japan and the Allied Council of four nations (USA, USSR, China, and UK), the United States government had the exclusive power under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, Chairman of the Allied Council, to provide the actual direction and administration of SCAP.

  • The basic objectives were commonly referred to as the twin goals of demilitarization and democratization of postwar Japan. On text pages 36-37,

  1. the Japanese military forces were demobilized and their war-making capacity destroyed.

  2. The purge was implemented to eliminate ultra-nationalists from public offices and war criminals were tried.

  3. The monopoly of the clan-based big family business cartels, such as zaibatsu, were broken up.

  4. Land reform aimed at improving rural tenancy and limiting the land ownership of large landlords. Land purchased by the government was turn sold to the landless tenants on long-term mortgage.

  5. Reform of the Japanese education system was ordered, including a purge of teachers and textbooks. American system of 6-year elementary school, 3-year junior high, and 3-year senior high was introduced.

  6. The most important measures were the order by SCAP for a new free electoral law to allow all men and women at the age of 20 to vote and the drafting of a new constitution to replace the Meiji Constitution. The first postwar election of the Diet was in May 1946 with candidates from five political parties. The postwar Japanese Constitution was adopted and came into effect in March 1947. Occupation was terminated by the Allied powers (except China) in April 1952.








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