What if

If the Meiji Restora­tion had failed, the World Wars could have un­folded very dif­fer­ently in Asia

All About History - - CONTENTS - Writ­ten by Jonathan O’cal­laghan

What pre­cip­i­tated the over­throw of the 260-year-old Toku­gawa shogu­nate in Ja­pan in favour of the young Em­peror Meiji?

The most com­mon point for talk­ing about the Meiji Restora­tion is the ar­rival of the “black ships” [from the United States] un­der Com­modore Perry in 1853, when they sailed into Uraga har­bour, near Edo

[the former name for Tokyo]. It was a fairly graphic demon­stra­tion of a Western power’s ca­pac­ity to en­ter into the in­ner precinct of Ja­pan with­out any con­se­quence. Perry said he would come back in a year’s time and get a re­sponse from the Ja­panese in terms of whether they would open the coun­try or not. And when they did come back, the Ja­panese ac­qui­esced to a point, and opened up some ports to the Amer­i­cans.

At the time, the Toku­gawa shogu­nate had lost one of its main rea­sons for ex­ist­ing, which was main­tain­ing the pol­icy of iso­la­tion. So in this one ma­jor event you find the bakufu [the Shō­gun’s of­fi­cials] ex­posed as ac­tu­ally not hav­ing the tech­ni­cal where­withal to re­pulse the west­ern­ers. And per­haps even worse ac­tu­ally let­ting them land, and in sev­eral years’ time set­ting up a trade agree­ment with the Amer­i­cans. From this point, the po­si­tion of the shogu­nate be­comes un­ten­able.

Im­pe­rial and shogu­nate forces clashed from 1868-1869. How bloody was the Boshin War?

There were con­flicts, but I think it’s ac­tu­ally re­mark­able how limited the con­flicts were. Prob­a­bly one of the most piv­otal was just south of the cap­i­tal, when the shogu­nate sent forces to take a let­ter to

[Em­peror Meiji, who was in league with the western rebels]. They were met by forces of the Sat­suma and Chōshū clans, and re­pulsed over sev­eral days. The shogu­nate forces were not a match for the com­bined ex­per­tise and de­ter­mi­na­tion of the new play­ers in the game.

The most bloody and pro­longed fight­ing hap­pened on the north east of the coun­try, where the Aizu clan was de­ter­mined to pur­sue the con­flict fur­ther. But I think if you con­sider the de­gree of what was at stake, it’s re­mark­able that there was not more loss of life.

What were some of the ma­jor ways the Meiji Restora­tion changed the coun­try?

Within three years of the Restora­tion, the clans were abol­ished and re­placed with the nomen­cla­ture of pre­fec­tures. Also you have the be­gin­ning of the break­ing down of a tra­di­tional caste sys­tem.

For cen­turies the war­riors, the samu­rai, were in a po­si­tion of author­ity. As a caste they were at the top of the so­cial or­der. And it is of­ten said they had the author­ity to dis­patch any­one of an in­fe­rior caste just for a per­ceived slight. So that’s the sec­ond thing that re­ally be­gins to get un­done in the wake of the restora­tion.

Did the Restora­tion end the Ja­panese pol­icy of seclu­sion and did this change the coun­try’s stand­ing with the rest of the world?

I don’t think it changed the no­tion of iso­la­tion com­pletely. From 1853 on­wards, the shogu­nate had been forced to open ports, and been forced to do trade deals with var­i­ous na­tions. The mo­ment that they did treaties with one na­tion, other na­tions claimed the same pro­vi­sions. And by the time you get to the mid to late 1860s, the shogu­nate it­self is de­vel­op­ing quite a tight re­la­tion­ship with the French gov­ern­ment, and there are sub­stan­tial mis­sions be­ing sent from Ja­pan to Europe. So even by 1868, which was the year of the Restora­tion, the shogu­nate navy was in fact rel­a­tively mod­ernised.

To say that nat­u­ral iso­la­tion was still go­ing to be some­thing that you could go back to, I think that was prob­a­bly un­re­al­is­tic and a fait ac­com­pli that was ac­cepted by both the shogu­nate and the western clans that top­pled them. I don’t think ei­ther would think keep­ing the Western pow­ers out was an op­tion.

What would have hap­pened if the Meiji Restora­tion had failed?

The sin­gle largest legacy of the shogu­nate con­tin­u­ing would be that they would be hard pressed to im­ple­ment re­forms. The tran­si­tion from hav­ing a patch­work of clans to a uni­fied na­tion state where the en­tire coun­try is un­der one gov­ern­ment, I think that would have been more dif­fi­cult to im­ple­ment.

The other thing is the shogu­nate would have strug­gled to ac­cept the kind of ho­mogenis­ing of the na­tional pop­u­lous that hap­pened un­der the Restora­tion gov­ern­ment [such as dis­es­tab­lish­ing the priv­i­leges of the samu­rai class]. I don’t think the shogu­nate would have been able to push that through, so I don’t think they would have been able to cre­ate the kind of mil­i­tary force that could project into other parts of Asia quite as ef­fec­tively.

They could have cer­tainly had geopo­lit­i­cal con­flicts with China, the Korean penin­sula, and con­ceiv­ably with Rus­sia as well. But it’s re­ally a moot point just how far they could have suc­ceeded, not just trans­form­ing the mil­i­tary but also the fab­ric of the na­tion.

“If you con­sider… what was at stake, it’s re­mark­able that there was not more loss of life”

Would the shogu­nate have been able to keep con­trol?

I think it would be ten­u­ous. It would have em­bold­ened the Western pow­ers to get more in­volved. Even if the shogu­nate man­aged to hold on, I think it would mean that Ja­pan would not have been so suc­cess­ful at moderni­sa­tion.

To what ex­tent did the Restora­tion cause Ja­pan to mod­ernise and would the shogu­nate have re­sisted this?

Both the shogu­nate and the Restora­tion forces recog­nised the need to mod­ernise the mil­i­tary hard­ware. The ques­tion was how far you take some of these re­forms.

There is the fa­mous phrase, ‘wakon-yō­sai’, that means ‘Ja­panese spirit, Western learn­ing’. That seems to have been im­ple­mented in a prag­matic way through­out the early stages of the Restora­tion. Es­pe­cially in the first 10 years fol­low­ing Restora­tion, there’s a very com­plex process of ne­go­ti­a­tion, al­most bit by bit, where peo­ple are try­ing to sort out how far you can adopt cer­tain things from Western cul­ture and still stay Ja­panese.

I think there is a re­al­i­sa­tion af­ter time that you could still cut your hair, wear Western clothes, and none­the­less pur­sue the orig­i­nal aims of pre­serv­ing the in­tegrity of the coun­try.

Could Ja­pan still have won the 1904 Russo-ja­panese war with­out Restora­tion’s widespread moderni­sa­tion?

Un­der the [shogu­nate], would they have been able to de­velop the mil­i­tary prow­ess to trou­ble the Rus­sians? It’s pos­si­ble. Rus­sia was a fairly pow­er­less state in terms of in­ter­na­tional sit­u­a­tion and gov­er­nance, and the shogu­nate did al­ready have a record for de­vel­op­ing a fairly strong naval pres­ence.

The more se­ri­ous ques­tion that plays fur­ther along is what would have hap­pened to Ja­panese re­la­tions with other

Western pow­ers. The Sat­suma clan had a re­la­tion­ship with Eng­land that was very strong and cer­tainly fil­tered into the de­vel­op­ment of the navy and com­merce.

The French in­flu­ence prob­a­bly would have stayed with the shogu­nate, but of course there was the Franco-prus­sian War in the early 1870s. It prob­a­bly would have meant, be­cause of their

an­tag­o­nism with the English, that [Ja­pan] could have come quicker to an align­ment with the Ger­man-speak­ing na­tions. In­stead of hav­ing a strong English in­flu­ence, they would have had a much more Ger­manic in­flu­ence, and that would have in­ter­est­ing im­pli­ca­tions for World War I. Ja­pan came into the war on the side of the English, the Al­lies, but it would be in­ter­est­ing to con­ject what Ja­pan’s role in World War I would have been had it in fact sided with Ger­many.

“That would have chas­tened as­pi­ra­tions for mil­i­tary ex­pan­sion”

How might this have af­fected Ja­pan’s more sub­stan­tial role in World War II?

If they had ended up be­ing strong enough to be taken se­ri­ously as a power in the con­fronta­tion with Rus­sia in the early 20th cen­tury, and then struck up an al­liance with Ger­many in World War I, what that im­plies is they might well have been on the los­ing side. That prob­a­bly would have chas­tened as­pi­ra­tions for mil­i­tary ex­pan­sion there­after, and it might have led to a greater or ear­lier de­sire to re­main neu­tral. So that could have meant Ja­pan would not have been in the po­si­tion it was, in the 1930s, where it had Korea, Manchuria, this broad web of ter­ri­to­ries and in­flu­ence, it would have had quite a dis­tinct com­plex­ion.

Over­all, what would a failed Meiji Restora­tion have meant for Ja­pan?

The fun­da­men­tal is­sue here is that the shogu­nate’s premise of ex­ist­ing and struc­ture made it in­her­ently weak and vul­ner­a­ble. It’s highly de­bat­able how long they could have held that po­si­tion un­re­con­structed. Ev­ery com­pro­mise they made in terms of the struc­ture of the gov­ern­ment and the in­tro­duc­tion of new re­forms would have made it look more self-con­tra­dic­tory and weak, and ripe for fur­ther at­tack.

in­ter­view with… Dr Al­is­tair swale Dr Al­is­tair Swale is cur­rently a se­nior lec­turer in screen and me­dia stud­ies at the Uni­ver­sity of Waikato, New Zealand. He is the au­thor of The Po­lit­i­cal Thought Of Mori Ari­nori: A Study In Meiji Con­ser­vatism and The Meiji Restora­tion: Monar­chism, Mass Com­mu­ni­ca­tion And Con­ser­va­tive Rev­o­lu­tion.

Samu­rai from the Chōshū clan in western Ja­pan con­sider bat­tle plans dur­ing the Boshin War

The re­stored Ja­panese Em­peror Meiji, in 1888

Prince Toku­gawa Yoshi­nobu was the last shō­gun to rule Ja­pan

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