The State and Politics In Japan
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The State and Politics In Japan

Ian Neary

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The State and Politics In Japan

Ian Neary

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Politics in Japan is undergoing a major transformation. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party has, since 2012, embarked upon an ambitious programme of policy reforms as well as changes to Japan's governing structures and processes. At the heart of this policy agenda is 'Abenomics' – a set of measures designed to boost Japan's flagging economy, but one which is yet to deliver on its promises.

In this fully revised and updated second edition of his classic text, Ian Neary explores the dynamics of democracy in Japan, introducing the key institutions, developments and actors in its politics from the end of the Second World War to the present day. Packed with illustrative material and examples, this comprehensive study traces the continuities and the changes that are underway in five major policy areas: foreign and defence, industry, social welfare, the environment and human rights.

Assuming no prior knowledge of Japan, this textbook will be an invaluable and welcome resource for all students interested in the government and politics of contemporary Japan and its international profile.

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Japanese Politics from Meiji to Early Shƍwa

Japan in the middle of the nineteenth century faced a series of crises generated both from within the country and from outside. Ultimately unable to devise effective policies to deal with either set of problems, the decentralised government structured around the Tokugawa Shogun was replaced by a new regime led, in theory at least, by the sixteen-year-old Emperor Mutsuhito, whose reign beginning in 1868 was designated Meiji, ‘enlightened rule’. This put the emperor back at the centre of the political system and was known as the Meiji restoration because it purported to be ‘restoring imperial rule’ (ƍsei fukkƍ) as first seen in the eighth century. The emperor was sent out on tours around the country to endorse the new rulers.
Throughout the rest of the nineteenth century, the twin tasks of government were those basic to all states: kyƍhei, to protect the country from foreign invasion; but also fukoku, to create a prosperous country. However, there was also another important strand in the debate: kƍgi yoron, ‘government in touch with public opinion’. The meaning of these phrases and their relative importance within the debates would change, but as the leaders of the new Meiji state came to appreciate, ensuring independence required more than just the import of warships and firearms. They realised the need to embrace social, political and economic reform if the country was to resist the menace posed by the imperialist powers encircling Japan. However, let us begin by describing the problems that these reforms sought to solve.

Japan in the mid-nineteenth century

There were four key elements to the regime controlled by the Tokugawa family. Firstly, the Shogun was located in Edo (modern Tokyo) and ruled on the basis of the authority granted to him by the emperor, who lived in Kyoto. However, the imperial family was wholly subordinate to the Shogun’s control, and for most of the Tokugawa era the reigning emperor was largely confined to the grounds of his Kyoto residence. Secondly, the Tokugawa family controlled all the productive land in the area surrounding Edo, and exerted direct control over strategic locations in peripheral regions to keep a close watch on those whose loyalty was suspect. The total productive capacity of the country overall was estimated to be 26 million koku of rice (where 1 koku = enough rice to feed one person for one year), of which the Tokugawa controlled 7 million and the next wealthiest daimyƍ (lord) just over 1 million. Thirdly, a daimyƍ’s wife and heir were obliged to reside in Edo, and the lords themselves spent alternate years there. This not only meant that their close relatives were virtual hostages of the Shogun but also that they had to spend significant resources on their biennial processions to the capital. Those who were particularly inept or disloyal could be replaced, but for the most part the Shogun interfered very little with regional government. The final element of policy was to isolate the country from international trade and the influence of foreign ideas, particularly religious ideas, that might enable the lords to build an independent power base.
For their part, the lords controlled their fiefs from castle towns through a local government system composed of their samurai retainers. Most of the population, around 80 per cent, worked on the land, and peasant villages were allowed a degree of autonomy, largely being left alone as long as they paid their taxes and showed no sign of rebellion. Peasants had been deprived of arms in 1588 and forbidden to use surnames, clearly distinguishing them from the samurai who were the only ones permitted to carry swords. During the course of the seventeenth century, a series of decrees elaborated status distinctions to separate four main classes: samurai, peasant, artisan and merchant, in descending order of status. Rules defined their dress, restricted their economic activity and forbade intermarriage. Those who fell outside this system were regarded as outcastes, not permitted to have normal relations with other members of society and, as far as possible, were ignored by them (Neary 2007). This system evolved over the 250 years of Tokugawa rule but its basic parameters of strict social divisions, a structure of indirect rule and isolation from the rest of the world became regarded as immutable elements of Japanese life.
It was only possible for the Tokugawa regime, which had no standing army or naval power, to sustain a foreign policy based on isolation as long as the rest of the world remained uninterested in Japan. By the end of the eighteenth century, however, western ships began to intrude from the north and the south. In the 1790s Russian ships exploring the coast of Hokkaido demanded that the government enter into negotiations. They were instructed to go to Nagasaki. In 1812 British ships arrived in Nagasaki bay and demanded that the Japanese discuss the opening of its ports. The governor of Nagasaki could not prevent the British from landing (and later killed himself in shame), but this was not the start of a sustained attempt by the British, or anyone else, to insist that the Japanese ‘open up’. For the time being there were more than enough profits to be made, and diplomatic challenges to be resolved, elsewhere in Asia.
Meanwhile, domestic crises were becoming increasingly intractable. Despite the low prestige accorded to the activities of the merchant class by the neo-Confucian theories on which Tokugawa rule was based, commerce developed in particular, though not exclusively, between the cities of Edo, Kyoto and Osaka. It became difficult to maintain the clear distinction between samurai and merchant, and merchants would, for example, seek to improve their social status by marrying into samurai households, often in return for the commutation of loans. Meanwhile, peasant uprisings were becoming more frequent, at times seeming endemic. The central government had no solution to these problems. Certainly, the simple reinforcement of neo-Confucian orthodoxy could no longer be relied on to generate solutions.
Nevertheless, it is possible that the Tokugawa regime could have survived staggering from one crisis to another had there been no external challenge to its rule. Moreover, in some parts of Japan, the local regime did manage to reform its administrative and taxation structures to create a robust local government. Significantly, these were in areas peripheral to Tokugawa rule, in Satsuma to the south of Kyushu, and ChƍshĆ« in the extreme west of Honshu. Daimyƍ of these areas were the most critical of how the Tokugawa regime dealt with the foreigners and its attempts at reforming central government.
Since the late eighteenth century, American ships had been crossing the Pacific to trade in China or in search of whales, at first from ports in New England on the Atlantic coast. Following the development of the west coast of the United States in the mid-nineteenth century, its ‘manifest destiny’ to extend its frontiers across the American continent was reinterpreted to justify the expansion of its influence into the Pacific Ocean and beyond. More concretely, as whalers and traders were more often present in the seas around Japan, so storms forced more American shipwrecked sailors to land there in breach of the isolation policy. Americans also began to realise how useful it would be if their ships could obtain supplies at Japanese ports.
On 8 July 1853 Commodore Matthew Perry, accompanied by four warships, arrived in Edo bay to deliver a letter from US President Fillmore in which he called for ‘friendly commercial intercourse’ between the two countries. Rejecting the demands that he take his missive to Nagasaki, Perry withdrew to the coast of China only to return the following February, this time with eight ships, to insist on an agreement to open two ports to American ships, guarantee just treatment for shipwrecked sailors and promise the future development of commerce. Despite the isolation policy, there was a small trading base in Nagasaki manned by Dutch and Chinese traders. A Dutch delegation would travel to Edo most years to present to the Shogun a summary of world news. So the Tokugawa government was well aware of the devastating impact western powers were having on China. However, it concluded it had no choice but to sign the treaty with the USA and, later, Britain and Russia. Meanwhile, it began to establish a defence capacity, building fortresses and acquiring military technology, but this could only be done by either imposing forced loans on the merchants or increasing taxes paid by the peasants, generating more discontent in both these sectors. Meanwhile, there was criticism of the Tokugawa government from within the samurai class and the imperial court for having allowed foreigners to pollute the islands of Japan by their presence. These critics rallied round the slogan of ‘honour the emperor, expel the barbarian’ – sonnƍ jƍi.
Up to this point, the foreigners had dealt mainly with the Shogun, but they realised that it was important to involve the emperor in negotiations. So, from 1865 they insisted that he ratify the treaties too. It was becoming clear that expelling the foreigners was not a real option, but the slogan ‘honour the emperor’ implied criticism of the Shogun’s regime which had failed to protect the country from external aggression. Two options emerged: either to create a strong, unified country under the control of a revived Shogunal administration, or for the Shogun to return all his authority to the emperor and an assembly of daimyƍ to be convened to debate policy under the control of the emperor. Hurriedly, the Tokugawa regime tried to modernise its army with advice from the French, and to create a navy with the help of the British. In 1866 the Satsuma and ChƍshĆ« clans were joined by the Tosa leader Sakamoto Ryƍma, and their combined forces were sufficient to defeat the Tokugawa army. In 1867 emperor Kƍmei, a strong supporter of the anti-foreigner policy, died and was succeeded by a sixteen-year-old, Mutsuhito, who acceded to the throne in January 1868.
Most credit for the success of the Meiji government in creating a strong state structure must go to those who guided the reform of Japan in the late nineteenth century, but we should note Japan’s good fortune in being granted an interlude of comparative international calm. Not long after gaining access to Japan by treaty, Britain, Russia and many other European nations became involved in the Crimean War (1854–6). Moreover, in 1861 the American Civil War broke out, diverting American attention away from Asia. Thus, Japan could begin to reform itself at a time when there was relatively little threat of intervention.

The Meiji restoration

For the time being the domestic reform seemed no more than a change ‘from an old feudal order to a new feudal order’ (Toyama, quoted in Tsuzuki 2000: 59). In April 1868 the emperor issued a Charter Oath in which he promised to consult widely in the formation of policy, to abandon ‘base customs of former times’ and to seek out knowledge from throughout the world. It was unclear what this would mean.
In September Edo was renamed Tokyo, ‘eastern capital’. In November the emperor visited the city for the first time and the following April he returned to make his permanent residence in the castle formerly inhabited by the Shogun. This was the first time a Japanese city had been named by its location, though the practice was common in China. It was not only an indication that Japan’s imperial capital had moved from Kyoto; it also signalled the Japanese assertion that leadership in Asia had shifted from the southern or northern capitals of China (Nanking or Beijing) to the eastern capital of Japan.
Figure 1.1 These two photographs of Emperor Meiji, one taken in 1873 and the other about twenty years later, illustrate the way the emperor changed from being a symbol of the ancient mode of government ‘restored’ in 1868 to the leader of a modern imperial state. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
In March 1869 the daimyƍ gave up their hereditary right to rule and were reappointed as governors of their fiefs by the emperor. In 1871 the feudal domains were abolished and seventy-two units of local government created in their place, later consolidated to forty-three in 1888. Existing local militias were disbanded and the castle town headquarters of the lords were confiscated and in some cases destroyed.
Meanwhile, the class system was simplified to consist of the nobility (kazoku), former samurai (shizoku) and commoners (heimin). In 1870 all commoners were permitted to take surnames and the principle of freedom of association was established. The following year all restrictions on marriage between classes were removed, the wearing of swords by former samurai became optional and even the special restrictions imposed on outcaste groups were rescinded. Samurai who had lost their hereditary positions were granted pensions to minimise their opposition to the changes. These were commuted to lump-sum payments in 1876 when they were forbidden to wear swords.
In February 1871 the Satsuma, ChƍshĆ« and Tosa lords contributed their militia to form the imperial army but this amounted to less than 7,000 men, enough to defend the capital but totally inadequate to defend the country as a whole. So, following a tour of military systems in Europe, plans to create a conscript army were implemented by a law of January 1873. At the age of twenty, men were to report for three years’ service, which was followed by four years in the military reserve. The aim was to create a combined army and naval strength of 31,000 men. A modern military force was quickly created and trained on western lines. It proved able to deal with domestic opponents of the regime and was capable of service overseas. Its first test came in 1877 when a largely conscript army put down a wholly samurai rebellion in Kyushu. However, right from the start, conscription was conceived only in part as a way to create a standing army. It was anticipated that military training would expose men to nationalist ideas that would continue to inform their everyday lives even after they returned to their villages.
Similarly, the introduction of compulsory primary education was at least as much about breaking down class and regional identities and imparting such virtues as obedience and loyalty to the emperor as it was about ensuring minimal levels of literacy and numeracy among the population. By the end of the nineteenth century, practically all children in Japan were experiencing four years of schooling.
The third major task was to put the government on a sound financial basis, and this meant establishing a national taxation system. In 1869 government income from the former Tokugawa estates only met one half of government expenditure. Income increased somewhat following the abolition of the feudal estates but at the same time the state took on the burden of some of their debt as well as the payments of pensions to former daimyƍ and samurai. The first stage of the reform was to standardise the currency and create a banking system based on the US model. Short-term stability of the financial system was assured by a loan from Britain of £2.4 million, but it was reform of the land tax that created the basis for the stability of state finances. Between 1873 and 1881 all land was reassessed for tax purposes, a process that brought some areas of land into the tax system for the first time. Reforms included making the registered landowner responsible for paying the tax, not the village as a unit, fixing taxes o...

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