Delenda Est Carthago

Why not delve into a twisted mind? Thoughts on the world, history, politics, entertainment, comics, and why all shall call me master!

Name:
Location: Mesa, Arizona, United States

I plan on being the supreme dictator of the country, if not the world. Therefore, you might want to stay on my good side. Just a hint: ABBA rules!

23.10.05

What I've been reading

It's been a while since I rambled on about a book I just finished, so here's another interesting one. It's not that I haven't been reading, just that I read the latest Harry Potter book and didn't feel the need to expound upon its merits (or lack thereof, if you're not a fan), and then I read this book and wasn't terribly impressed by it, and why should I tell you to read a book that I don't like? I am, after all, the arbiter of culture around these parts. So. Moving on, I read:

The Yamato Dynasty: The Secret History of Japan's Imperial Family (although my book has a cooler cover) by Sterling Seagrave and Peggy Seagrave
394 pages, 1999, Broadway Books

As many of you know, I'm a big history buff, and not only for the Merovingian period (which is good, because there just aren't a lot of books readily available in bookstores on that subject). I go through phases of high interest in certain places and time periods of history, and recently I've been fascinated by Asia. I'm still reading my books in alphabetical order by author, so I'm not reading all my books on Asia at once, but I am buying more than I used to and spending more time in that section of the library than I once did, and more time there than in, say, the European medieval section. It's not because I don't like medieval Europe anymore, but the books in that section of any bookstore are woefully inadequate, and if I haven't already read the books, I've already read a lot on the subject and don't feel the need to buy yet another book about, say, Eleanor of Aquitaine.¹

Japan and China are just interesting for the complete difference in culture from ours. It's amazing finding out things about these cultures, and how the Asian cultures have an impact on history in general. I read a book once about the Pacific War from Japan's perspective, and the author mentioned that the attack on Pearl Harbor was simply a way the Japanese waged war, and any decent Japan expert in the United States would have been able to figure out what they were up to. Seagrave makes similar points in his book, pointing out the woefully bad diplomatic corps that resided in Japan prior to the war, a group that was far more concerned with securing loans for the great Japanese banking families than trying to rein in Japan's militarism. The Pacific War was a tragedy for a great number of countries, but, as usual with hindsight, we can see ways that it could have been prevented.

Seagrave is not concerned with the ancient history of the Yamato dynasty, which has "ruled" Japan for 1500 years.² He is more interested in the last four emperors and the current crown prince - Mutsuhito (known generally by the name of his reign, Meiji), Yoshihito (whose reign was called Taisho), Hirohito (whose given name is most commonly used, although his reign was called Showa), Akihito (the emperor since 1989, whose reign name is Heisei), and Crown Prince Naruhito. The reason for this is simple - the Meiji Restoration of 1868 destroyed the shogunate which had ruled the country for 700 years and supposedly brought the emperor back to a position of power. As Seagrave points out repeatedly, this is simply not true - Japan exchanged one shogunate for another, more insidious one, and the emperor continued to be a caged bird without much say in the running of the country. Seagrave wants to look at how the country became a modern power and, more importantly, how it failed in the post-war years to become a democracy. He blames both the Japanese oligarchy and the American occupational forces, led by General Douglas MacArthur, for this failure, and brings us up to the present by pointing out that whereas Germany, for the most part, has exorcised its war ghosts through public recriminations, Japan remains tied to the past and unable to move beyond it because their war guilt was swept under the carpet by these two groups.

The pre-1930s period is sketched more quickly than I would have liked, but as it is not the focal point of the book, I can understand it. Seagrave is simply laying the foundation for what Japan became in the 1930s and in the post-war period, so I can forgive him. For me, late 19th- and early 20th-century history is far more fascinating than World War II-era stuff, so I was slightly disappointed that, for instance, Seagrave didn't go more into the Sino-Japanese War of the 1890s and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. He goes over them, but with less detail than I would have liked. The reason I was surprised he didn't get into them more is because this is where Japan's modern militarism really begins, and because of his focus on the Rape of Asia and the war spoils this brought to Japan, as well as their idea of warfare as a business option, I thought he would examine its roots more. It's a minor complaint, because, as I mentioned, he's simply laying the groundwork.

He gives us much more on the rise of the oligarchy that dominated Japan in the 20th century and still dominates it today. The cast of characters is large and diverse, and I'm not going to go into them here, but Seagrave is able to give us an excellent sense of how Japan has always worked - a few families controlling everything and inter-marrying, with most of the political and economic decisions made in back rooms at family gatherings. He even shows how certain members of this oligarchy are "elected" to take the fall if a scandal ever develops (as it has numerous times over the past 40 years) and go quietly off to a country retirement as a reward for being the scapegoat, while the machinery continues to turn. Seagrave points out that Japan is very far from a "democracy," even though the Americans like to tout their achievements in turning them into a model for Asia. Modern Japan is ruled by a group of families that do not allow true democracy to flourish. Votes count for nothing, and the only thing that happens in Japan is that power rotates among the ruling families. If one of them gets voted out of power, another steps into the breach. Nothing ever changes.

The major focus of Seagrave's book is the Pacific War and its aftermath. This is where he sees the true tragedy of Japan. The emperor, despite having no political power, has great influence - if he chooses to exercise it. Being raised in a cage, the emperor is neutered from an early age, but Hirohito, especially, is a disappointment to Seagrave, as early in his life he was able to travel to Europe in the 1920s and soak up some of the liberal politics there. However, when he returned to Japan and took up his position, he was stifled by the rulers of the country. In the 1930s, a group of soldiers tried to overthrow the militarists who were leading the country into their expansive and ultimately disastrous war in Southeast Asia. They claimed that they were doing it to "rescue" the emperor from the oligarchs (the same thing the oligarchs said in the 1860s about the shogun), but when pressed on it, Hirohito caved and condemned the coup, allowing his country to spiral further into aggression.

The antebellum period also allows Seagrave to examine the influence of the Americans on Japanese politics. American banks got involved early in turning Japan into an economic power, and their investments meant that they had to defend what Japan became in the 1920s and 1930s. After the war, this meant that American lobbyists in Congress, including Herbert Hoover, had great influence over how the Japanese government was restructured (or, more accurately, reconfigured, as the principal players stayed in place) in the late 1940s. Seagrave points out that MacArthur, who desperately wanted to be the Republican presidential nominee in 1948, allowed the business interests in the United States to dictate how Japan would be rebuilt. This, combined with the fear of the spread of communism, meant that true democracy could not be allowed to rise in Japan - those crazy Asians might vote Commie! The Japanese oligarchy also convinced MacArthur and his staff, who had no experience whatsoever with the Japanese psyche, that Hirohito was vital to the healing of the nation, and therefore the emperor - and anyone who "spoke for him," meaning those who really ran the country - had to be spared from any war crimes prosecution. Prime Minister Tojo Hideki, in classic Japanese fashion, became the scapegoat for the war, while the emperor, who could have stepped in a stopped the slaughter going on throughout the East, and his uncle, Prince Asaka Yasuhiko, who was personally in charge of the Rape of Nanking, one of the most heinous organized crimes in history, got off scot-free, both living happily and comfortably for 40 years after the war. They had to be exonerated, because if the Japanese oligarchy allowed the emperor to be punished, their whole way of life might come to an end. MacArthur and the American occupation forces had a golden opportunity to turn Japanese into a democratic model not unlike Germany became in the post-war era, but because the Japanese did not espouse as obvious a reprehensible ideology as the Nazis did, the pressure to remake Japan was not as great as it was in Germany.

Another large focus of the book is the plunder Japan took from the countries they conquered. Japan has never admitted to stealing gold and other treasures from China and the rest of Southeast Asia, and this was used to "prove" that the emperor and his household was broke at the end of the war, despite owning billions in hidden wealth. The OSS and other American groups witnessed the Japanese hiding boxes of bullion in caves in the Philippines, and although some of it has been recovered, MacArthur and the business interests remaking Japan were uninterested in finding it. Despite cries for the past 40 years for restitution, the Japanese government still insists that they not only don't have treasures of other countries, but that they didn't take it in the first place.

Seagrave sees the post-war era in Japan as a great tragedy. The economy, so envied by the West in the 1980s, is spiraling downward now, because it was never a true, robust economy, simply one propped up by the age-old Japanese tradition of bribery and backroom deals that were simply rotated among the ruling families. When it crashed, it could not recover because it wasn't a true cyclical capitalist economy. Seagrave also makes the point that because the Japanese have never confronted the war crimes of their leaders, they can't move past it. The older generation does not want to discuss it, but the younger generation, which didn't experience the war, still feels as if they are held back by these great crimes committed by their government. It was even more pronounced while Hirohito was alive, as the younger generation of Japanese became angry that this old man had been allowed to escape responsibility. When Akihito became emperor, there was great hope that the Japanese could escape their past and begin to move toward a constitutional monarchy on the model of England, but so far Akihito nor his son, Naruhito, has shown any inclination to exert independence and try to change the country. According to Seagrave, until the Japanese confront their past and how their country's political hierarchy is structured, they will not be able to become a functioning member of the world body.

This is a fascinating look at a part of history that often gets overlooked. Whenever we read about Japan and its history in the 20th century, it's all about Tojo and his crimes and Japan's subsequent economic "miracle." We never hear about the attempts by the women of the royal family to change the way the country is run, nor the influence of Christians, mainly Quakers, in how the country is governed (Hoover was a Quaker, and Quakers made great inroads in proselytizing in Japan during the early 20th century), nor how the Americans had but missed an opportunity to turn the country into a democracy. Although the book was written in 1999, I couldn't help but think of our current attempts in Iraq to establish a democracy and how often it's easier to allow the corrupt infrastructure to continue ruling than possibly allow the people to elect someone you don't agree with. Are we willing to allow the Iraqis to elect someone we don't like, all in the interest of democracy? We didn't do it in Japan in the 1940s, because the fear was too great. This led to decades of continuing corruption and a modern feudal society in Japan. We shall see where it leads in Iraq.

¹ Medievalists take note: I love Eleanor of Aquitaine. She is one of the most fascinating women in history. However, I've read a lot about her. I need an Eleanor break.
² I use quotes because the emperor has never really ruled Japan. In every sense of the word, the emperor has always been and always will be a figurehead.

3 Comments:

Blogger Thomas said...

What do you think people will think of our period, Greg?

23/10/05 5:33 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

I was going to post a link to a letter in the opinion page of yesterday's local paper, Thomas, that claims President Bush is the greatest president ever! I will probably still do it. I have no perspective on our period yet, but this current swing backwards to the Middle Ages is, I think, temporary. Iraq will, of course, be the big test by which Bush's presidency is measured, and we can't judge it yet.

23/10/05 7:23 PM  
Blogger Ahistoricality said...

Given your interests, you probably ought to check out Donald Keene's biography of the Meiji Emperor. No lack of details there!

I have mixed feelings about Bix's bio of Hirohito, though: the childhood/education section is fantastic, but the wartime/occupation period is pretty weak scholarship.

8/10/06 1:39 PM  

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