The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research


The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research

Japan Since the Meiji Restoration (6): Reconjuring the Vision of the Meiji Centennial

September 12, 2018

Prime Minister Eisaku Sato leads the hall in shouts of banzai at a grand ceremony commemorating the Meiji centennial, held on October 23, 1968, at the Budokan in Tokyo. At center stage are the former emperor and empress. ©Kyodo News
Prime Minister Eisaku Sato leads the hall in shouts of banzai at a grand ceremony commemorating the Meiji centennial, held on October 23, 1968, at the Budokan in Tokyo. At center stage are the former emperor and empress. ©Kyodo News

In an essay inspired by the recent forum on “Japan Since the Meiji Restoration,” political scientist Ryota Murai reflects on the Japanese government’s 1968 celebration of the Meiji centennial and finds in the Sato cabinet’s core message a yardstick for measuring Japan’s recent and future progress.

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This year, as Japan marks the sesquicentennial of the Meiji Restoration, I had the pleasure of participating in the Foundation’s forum on “Japan Since the Meiji Restoration” and taking part in wide-ranging discussions. Along the way, I have had occasion to compare and contrast this year’s discussions and observances with those of 50 years ago, when the administration of Prime Minister Eisaku Sato celebrated the Meiji centennial with much pomp and circumstance. Here, I would like to share some of my observations.

The Limits of Historical Determinism

First, it has occurred to me, as we sought to survey and assess the 150 years since the Meiji Restoration, that there are fundamental flaws in a historical approach that attempts to trace everything back to one remote starting point. Perhaps the time has come to de-emphasize this perspective. Professor Iokibe has offered an extremely constructive suggestion with his notion of dividing the past 150 years into 30-year increments.

At the time of the Meiji centennial in 1968, Japanese society was by no means united in glorifying the Meiji Restoration and its outcomes. While some traced Japan’s postwar economic success back to the modernization campaign of the Meiji era, others vilified the restoration and the Meiji Constitution for laying the foundations for militarism and aggression in the 1930s. This was the Vietnam War era, when society was rent by deep ideological divisions. The left-right conflict played out in sharply contrasting interpretations of history, including the Meiji era.

It may seem at first glance that these opposing interpretations, one positive and the other negative, have nothing in common. But in fact, they share a fundamental perspective, namely, the deterministic view that the Meiji Restoration irrevocably set the course for modern Japanーthat everything that occurred up through World War II and after was somehow embedded in that seminal event.

The same sort of determinism has often infiltrated our assessments of the postwar period. Those who question the Japan-US security relationship have been quick to fault the US Occupation. At the same time, many of those same people credit the postwar Constitution, drawn up under the Occupation, with the peace Japan has enjoyed in the postwar era. Indeed, in 1968 some argued vehemently that Japan should be celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Constitution instead of the 100th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration.

Of course, the impulse to trace historical trends back to identifiable turning points is understandable. Any major change in the political or social structure will give rise to new frameworks that have an impact on subsequent developments. But to continue tracing everything back to a single point in time strikes me as insensitive to the historical contribution of all the generations that followed. The enforcement of the Meiji Constitution changed dramatically under successive generations of leaders, and foreign policy likewise changed with the times. The fact that the postwar Constitution has not been amended since its promulgation in 1947 does not mean that Japan has stood still.

A Focus on Core Values

If we reject the sort of historical determinism that traces everything to a particular starting point, then what lessons for the future can we draw from the past? This brings me to my second observation, namely, the importance of highlighting values. Professor Komiya has done this in emphasizing the campaign for universal manhood suffrage and progress toward a two-party parliamentary democracy as defining features of Japanese politics and society in the 1920s, following World War I. Following his example, I would like to explore the ways in which Japan’s observance of the Meiji centennial reflected the social and political values of the late 1960s. This inquiry also speaks to Professor Hosoya’s question about the political purpose of anniversary celebrations.

Amid the various and sundry events sponsored by local governments, organizations, and private businesses in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration, the centerpiece of the Japanese government’s plan was a commemorative ceremony to be held in Tokyo. The project was launched with an April 1966 cabinet resolution; a subsequent resolution drafted in September 1968 stated the basic purpose of the celebration as being “to derive benefit from the experiences and lessons of the past century, and further, to strengthen our resolve to maintain an international perspective as we navigate the century ahead.”

Prime Minister Sato offered further insight into his intentions in remarks he delivered at the opening ceremony of a national student conference in September 1966. “I believe that engaging with the past to chart the way forward is the correct approach to life and politics alike,” he asserted. In the same speech, Sato emphasized the horrors of war, saying, “My home was incinerated in World War II. My wife fled from place to place, carrying all of our belongings in a wheelbarrow. Today’s young people are fortunate to have no direct experience of war.”

On the face of it, the idea of commemorating the Meiji centennial might suggest a revivalist attitude. But it seems clear that the Meiji values Sato sought to honor, uphold, and pass on to Japan’s youth were internationalism and modernization predicated on honest self-examination and reflection. This is apparent from a perusal of the lengthy Meiji hyakunen kinen kankei gyoji to gaiky o (Overview of Events, etc., Relating to the Meiji Centennial), published by the cabinet in October 1968, which contains a detailed record of the deliberations of the planning committee, as well as a detailed listing of the events planned. The prevailing theme is Japan’s rebirth in the wake of its wartime defeat, a reinvention rooted in deep soul-searching. Informing the ideal of internationalism is a rejection of the path of isolation that Japan took in the 1930s; implicit in the focus on modernization is a rejection of the mystical ultranationalism that triumphed in the same era.

As an expanding colonial power, Japan had already come into conflict with its neighbors by the 1930s. But in the 1920s, the Japanese government had not yet embarked on the path of military aggression. Under the party-led cabinets that sprang up after the institution of universal manhood suffrage in 1925, the keynote of domestic and foreign policy alike was coexistence. Indeed, as a founding member of the League of Nations, created to preserve world peace after World War I, Japan played an important role in mediating conflicts in Europe.

The Media and the Political Parties

Another important area of focus, explored by Professor Komiya, is the way institutions like the media and the political parties have contributed to the formation of these values. The media played a key role during the 1968 centennial by presenting special articles and TV programs, but it also contributed to a deeper, more multidimensional understanding of modern Japanese history by viewing it from different angles, such as the history of the common people. Today, we might add, think tanks play an important role in molding society’s values by deliberating and proposing new policies.

The crown prince (now Emperor Akihito) attending a Meiji centennial exhibition at a Tokyo department store (October 18, 1967). ©Kyodo News

With respect to the political parties, it is interesting to note that both the Japan Socialist Party and the Japanese Communist Party boycotted the 1968 ceremony. Again, this speaks to the ideological polarization of the era, reflected in deeply divided views of history. This was the heyday of the 1955 system, created when the Socialists united as one party and forced the fragmented conservatives to merge into the Liberal Democratic Party, which governed uninterrupted until 1993. Throughout that time, Japanese politics was defined by conflict and compromise between these two opposing forces, which represented very distinct constituencies.

In 1968, as previously mentioned, these forces clashed over the question of whether Japan should be celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration or the 20th anniversary of the postwar Constitution. The administration made the case that it was in effect doing both by focusing on the enduring tradition of internationalism and modernization predicated on an honest reckoning with past errors. Moreover, in Prime Minister Sato’s aforementioned address to the youth of Japan, he paid tribute to the reforms ushered in after World War II, explicitly mentioning postwar Japan’s commitment to civil liberties as well as its renunciation of war, enshrined in the postwar Constitution. Against the backdrop of the student protest movement and deep political divisions over the Vietnam War and the reversion of Okinawa, Sato’s interpretation of Meiji tradition went well beyond the LDP party line to create a meaningful framework for national reconciliation.

After the Centennial

The question we must ask ourselves now is whether, in the 50 years since the centennial, we have kept the promise of the Meiji centennial.

The interpretation of the Meiji tradition as internationalism and modernization predicated on self-examination was in part an expression of postwar Japan’s sense of apartness from the Japan the plunged into World War II. But it also reflected the rising international status Japan had achieved in the two decades since the war’s end.

Masataka Kosaka’s 1969 book Ichioku no Nihonjin (100 Million Japanese; the final volume of a series on world history published by Bungeishunju) opens amid the ashes of World War II and ends with a line from Soseki Natsume’s 1909 novel Sorekara (And Then). The quotation expresses Soseki’s fear, verging on despair, that Meiji Japan might never achieve its goal of economic parity with the strongest powers in Europe, even as it watched its traditional values succumb to the onslaught of European materialism. Kosaka’s closing message was that the Japanese people, having reached that goal of parity with the industrial West against all odds, were now facing an even greater and more fundamental test, that of setting and pursuing goals of their own making.

This, its seems to me, is the basic theme of the last 50 years, a highly significant period of transition in the history of civilization. As to whether we have passed the test, the verdict must hinge on our final assessment of the Heisei era, including Japan’s ability to adapt to its loss of regional preeminence, as Professor Miyagi so rightly points out. Of course, readers must decide for themselves, but it seems to me that Japan has thus far succeeded in preserving its national character while fulfilling its growing responsibility toward the international community through such avenues as development assistance and participation in peacekeeping operations. Adapting creatively to a changing environment, it has indeed guarded the flame that was passed to the younger generation at the time of the Meiji centennial.

Regarding our perception of history, Japan has continued to acknowledge its past errors, as we have seen in successive statements by Prime Ministers Tomiichi Murayama (1995), Jun’ichiro Koizumi (2005), and Shinzo Abe (2015) (see “Is Historical Reconciliation Possible? A Seventieth Anniversary Assessment”).

Another matter to consider when assessing Japan’s development over the past 50 years is the growth and spread of new values. At the time of the Meiji centennial, much of the historical discussion focused on Meiji Japan’s success in avoiding colonization. Since then, we have become much more sensitive to the damage prewar Japan inflicted by colonizing our neighbors. Needless to say, we will need to continue fostering new values in the years aheadーamong them, a deeper concern for sustainability at the domestic and global level.

I see no need for splashy events to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration. It will be sufficient if this latest milestone provides an opportunity for a wide range of thoughtful, factually grounded historical perspectives to share the stage with one another. Our observance of this 150-year milestone allows us to take time out to contemplate our place within the long arc of history. And those discussions will doubtless inform efforts to explain contemporary Japan and its origins to people here and abroad when Japan hosts the Olympic Games in 2020, just as the themes of the Meiji centennial reverberated at Expo ’70 in Osaka two years later.

Prime Minister Sato was very fond of the word chowa (harmony), which cannot be mandated or imposed from above. It requires understanding and ongoing effort to allow disparate elements to coexist. The Sato cabinet pursued chowa at the domestic level with its economic and social development plans, but it also sought to leverage that domestic growth and stability to forge a new role for Japan in the international community. This is a vision that calls to mind the concept underlying the name Heiseiーthat is, the external fruition of internal peace.

But Japan in 2018 is no more immune to discord and strife than it was in 1968. Opposition to the US military bases in Okinawaーwhich was still under US administration at the time of the centennialーhas escalated. A national celebration would be counterproductive if it were to provide a target for protests and exacerbate internal divisions, instead of reinforcing the sense of democratic community that emerged in the wake of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Other threats to long-term harmony include poverty and the difficulties facing today’s teenagers and young adults, given that the voting age was lowered from 20 to 18 in 2015. Still, I am optimistic that party politics in Japan will rise to these challenges.

We have marshaled all our wisdom and ingenuity over the past 50 years to maintain a harmonious society that has upheld the traditions of internationalism and modernization. We must be prepared to devote as much effort in the years ahead.

    • Project Member, Political and Diplomatic Review
      Professor, Faculty of Law, Komazawa University
    • Ryota Murai
    • Ryota Murai

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