IN January 1868 some young samurai and their merchant sympathisers overthrew Japan’s Tokugawa shogunate and with it seven centuries of feudal rule. The so-called Meiji restoration was the cue for such rapid industrialisation and modernisation that not even China’s more recent reforms have matched it. The effect was to vault Japan into the ranks of the world’s great powers. Today the government of Shinzo Abe is making much of the anniversary. For the prime minister, the proud story of the Meiji restoration is a lesson in how people should embrace modernity and change, while revering tradition. Many Japanese, however, are uncomfortable with this interpretation.
Before American warships showed up in 1853 in Edo Bay and demanded trading rights for their country, Japan had for over two centuries been a closed land. The ships’ arrival laid bare the inadequacy of the samurai warrior class. As Western pressure for trading rights and treaty ports grew, younger samurai bitterly criticised the military government for giving in to it. The hotheads...Continue reading