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Monday, Jan. 1, 2001

Odd echoes of the Meiji Restoration

Staff writer
JAPAN'S EMERGENCE AS A MODERN STATE: Political and Economic Problems of the Meiji Period, by E. Herbert Norman, 60th Anniversary Edition, edited by Lawrence T. Woods. Vancouver, BC: UBC Press, Sept. 2000, 336 pp., $75 (cloth), $25.95 (paper).

It's hard to fault E. Herbert Norman's analysis of Japan. He refers to "divide-and-rule tactics used to hobble opposition parties, collaboration with big business, politicization of the civil service, and the active creation of hegemonic political ideas designed to cast government practices as in the national interest rather than the public or individual interest." He highlights "the growth and ramifications of the bureaucracy . . . the pusillanimity of parties and Diet; the mushrooming of small-scale industries; the adaptation to Japanese needs of Western technology."

What is disconcerting, however, is that Norman is writing about Meiji Japan. Indeed, he wrote in 1939-40, before the Pacific War, and "Japan's Emergence" was an attempt to explain Japan's difficult transition into modernity some 70 years before. Remarkably, his work is still persuasive six decades later.

But not only has his analysis withstood the test of time, but -- and this is the really scary part -- in many ways it describes contemporary Japan. Scoff if you will, but there is something eerie about his description of the driving forces behind the Meiji Restoration.

"The speed with which Japan had simultaneously to establish a modern state, to build an up-to-date defense force in order to ward off the dangers of invasion (which the favorable balance of world forces and the barrier of China could not forever postpone ), to create an industry on which to base its armed forces, to fashion an educational system suitable to industrial modernized nation, dictated that these important changes be accomplished by a group of autocratic bureaucrats rather than by the mass of the people working through democratic organs of representation."

Leave out the bit about the military -- although some would suggest that that too applies -- and it sounds a great deal like the noises emanating from political and bureaucratic quarters today as Japan tries to cope with the effects of globalization, information technology and the new structure of international economic relations.

A century ago "the autocratic or paternalistic way seemed to the Meiji leaders the only possible method if Japan was not to sink into the ranks of a colonial country." Today, political leaders and bureaucrats lead the march into the 21st century and attempt to marshal the forces of the IT revolution for the very same reason.

In the late 19th century, Norman argues, "the role of foreign commerce in Japan was revolutionary . . . It was the catalyst which hastened the social transformation from feudal to modern capitalist Japan." And today, foreign pressure and foreign commerce are putting the economic model that those men developed under unprecedented strain, forcing the country's leaders to adopt reform if Japan is to maintain its place among nations in the years to come.

There is something equally disturbing about reading parliamentarian Yukio Ozaki's description of Japanese politics. "Here in the Orient we have had the conception of a faction; but not of a political party. . . . When political parties are transplanted into the East, they at once partake of the nature of factions, pursuing private and personal interests instead of the interests of the state, as witnessed by the fact of their joining hands by turns with the clan cliques or using the construction of railways and ports as a means for extending party influence . . . Such being the case, political parties . . . are really affairs of personal connections and sentiments, the relations between the leaders and members of a party being similar to those which subsisted between a feudal lord and his liegemen." The troubling part -- apart from the implications -- is that Ozaki was writing in 1918 but his words aptly describe today's politics.

Ozaki also decried the disproportionate influence that money had on politics: not only in the power it afforded business interests, but in the unscrupulous way that the government would use money to buy support from other politicians. "Plus ca change . . ."

In a conclusion that is remarkable for its sweep and accuracy, Norman ends the study with these fateful words: "It might not be an exaggeration to say that the key to understanding Japanese political life is given to whoever appreciates fully the historical role and the actual position of the bureaucracy."

"Japan's Emergence as a Modern State" is an extraordinary book. It is still used as a college textbook. In his brief essay at the back of the book -- one of 10 written for this special 60th anniversary edition -- historian George Oshiro calls it "a classic in the field of Japanese history," a view that is shared by several of the other contributors.

That view is not universal, however. One historian concluded a quarter of a century ago that Norman's work is "essentially derivative with little originality," and raised questions about his integrity. Another calls it historically outdated and "argumentative overkill."

Such controversy frames Norman's life. He was the son of missionary parents and grew up in Japan. "Japan's Emergence" was his Ph.D. thesis, written when he was only 31 years old. The merit of his scholarship was recognized by the Japanese, who made him the first Western historian translated into Japanese after World War II. Nor was he just an academic: As head of the Canadian liaison mission in Japan after the end of the war, he became a trusted adviser to Supreme Allied Commander Douglas MacArthur.

And yet despite a distinguished diplomatic career, Norman took his own life in 1957 while serving as Canada's ambassador to Egypt. He committed suicide after being hounded by McCarthyites for his pro-communist sympathies: Norman had lied about his membership in the Communist Party as a college student.

In his essay, MIT historian John Dower, a dean of historians of Japan and one of Norman's biographers, asks what would have happened, how much richer Japan studies might have been, if Norman had told the truth, lost his diplomatic position and devoted himself to scholarship.

According to Dower, Norman had "in a single decade already established himself as far and away the most incisive and influential Western scholar exploring this terrain."

Ironically, Norman's Marxist analysis is the key to his understanding of Japanese politics. Structural forces -- class relations -- were behind the Meiji Restoration, and they created the state that emerged and has endured to this day. Marxism may be unfashionable, but his conclusions speak for themselves.

The questions that Norman raise are with us still. In his essay, historian M. William Steele notes "tensions between East and West, tradition and modernity, exist as they did in 1940 and as they did in 1900. Choices have to be made between rural and urban interests and between the rich and the poor. Trade liberalization is good for some but disastrous for others. There are demands for more democracy . . . But there are also demands for remilitarization and an end to security dependence on the United States.

"On the one hand, these complex issues, many involving the choice between top-down and bottom-up approaches to policymaking, are successors to the issues Norman dealt with in 'Emergence.' Norman, while sympathetic to the vox populi, recognized that the state had the upper hand. This situation is still the case . . . Norman's study of Japan between 1868 and 1905 invites a study of the emergence of neomodernization trends (especially since the end of the Cold War in 1989) and a renewed concern over the fate of democracy, liberty and peace in today's post-postwar Japan."

That is a good reason to read "Japan's Emergence" at the beginning of a new century and as the country stands on the threshold of another transformation, potentially every bit as sweeping as that of the Meiji Reformation.

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