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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #20

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #20
June 23rd, 2010

Chapter 3: Lessons From The Past

The Meiji Restoration

Japan of the 18th Century was a feudal society ruled by a series of territorial warlords, the shoguns. The society was also rigidly stratified, with the samurai or warrior class on top, followed by peasants, artisans and, way at the bottom, the merchants. Surprisingly the peasants were regarded higher than the merchants because those peasants, being farmers, at least produced something useful and tangible.

The foreign missionaries that had come to Japan were preaching to an increasingly receptive mass, a development that threatened the established social order. The Japanese were only too aware that in nearby countries, in particular China, the foreigners were becoming very assertive. The shoguns rightly viewed the mounting activities of foreigners around and within Japan with increasing alacrity.

The shoguns may not have cared about the British in China, but they had to deal with the foreigners within Japan. To control what the Japanese regarded as the “menace of the White man,” the shoguns decided to suddenly seal off the country. The missionaries were forcefully expelled, and those remaining were massacred. The sentiment of the time was encapsulated by the popular slogan, Sonno joi (Revere the emperor, expel the barbarians). This sealing of Japan lasted until the late 19th Century.

The Japanese may have thought that they had dealt effectively with the issue of foreigners by getting rid of them. The Japanese though that the only solution was simply to cocoon themselves. Unfortunately the world around Japan carried on with its own pace. The imperial powers of the day continued their activities in the region. To them Japan is no different from the other Asian countries, to be colonized or at least plundered through trading. Being dismissed as mere barbarians by the Japanese did not stop them from meddling with Japan.

Despite the sealing of the country, the Japanese were not totally unaware of the happenings around them. Nearby China had been “opened up” by the British through the Opium Wars. These developments further strengthened the arguments of the Japanese nationalists to keep foreigners out at all costs. The few realists among the Japanese knew however, that Japan must deal with the inevitable forces around them. Thus they advocated accommodation before Japan would be completely overwhelmed.

Others suggested the blending of Japanese and Western values, and coined the slogan Toyo no dotoku, Seiyo no gakugei (Eastern ethics, Western science), but these moderate voices were drowned out by the fierce nationalists. Those who advocated reform or opening up Japan to the West were ostracized and forced to commit suicide in shame. Those who failed to do so were assassinated. Thus the opposition forces were effectively neutralized.

Despite that, by the 1830’s the shoguns were clearly losing control, and with it the loss of respect. Their failure to deal with the concomitant internal crises of drought and crop failure, and the subsequent famine further undermined their authority. And with rampant corruption and incompetence in the ruling class, the stage was set for a revolution.

At about this time, in July 1853 the American steamship US Commodore under Matthew Perry steamed into Edo Bay with four other escort ships. His mandate was clear: to open up Japanese ports for provisions, fuel, and trade. He impressed upon the Japanese that, sealed or not, Japan had to accede to his demands. Having presented the ultimatum, he abruptly left, with the promise to return the following year to hear the answer. Such confidence and arrogance!

The Japanese were totally confounded by this brazen breach of their shield. They thought that they had effectively protected themselves against those evil foreigners. When Perry returned later in February of 1855, this time with nine ships in case his earlier message had not registered, the Japanese were powerless to resist. This show of power by Perry was so overwhelming that the Japanese had no choice but to agree to the terms dictated.

Having sealed their nation from the outside world they suddenly realized how far behind and backward they were. The Japanese door was not merely pried but smashed wide open. Emboldened by the American success, other foreign powers quickly forced Japan to sign similar treaties with them, with each nation seeking even greater concessions. The Japanese were forced to sign lopsided treaties. One galling aspect of those treaties was the extra territorial rights granted to foreigners. Foreigners who broke Japanese laws were to be tried by their own consul and not Japanese courts. This humiliated the Japanese.

Perhaps the shogunate would have crumbled anyway even without the foreigners greasing the skids. There were attempts at change from within; alas those reforms were too little, too late. With the shogunate weakened from within and without, supporters of the emperor (who hitherto had been shunted aside) seized power under the pretext of “restoring” the monarchy.

Thus began the Meiji Restoration in 1868; the emperor was only 15 years old when installed. The shoguns had ruled for over 700 years, and in the end they could not deal with the internal changes brought by their own corruption and incompetence as well as by the external challenges posed by the foreign powers.

It was unlikely that the “restored” Emperor Mutsuhito (only later called Meiji, the Age of Enlightenment), being only a teenager at the time, could have masterminded his own comeback. He was obviously the front or agent for his court officials or those who wanted to institute changes in Japan. Surprisingly, most of the emperor’s advisors were young men too. They were consumed with their desire to do good for their country and also of course, for themselves. Getting rid of the shogunate was their first objective, but unable to do that by themselves, they used the convenient banner and authority of the emperor.

Perhaps it was a blessing that the emperor was so young; he did what he was told by his equally young advisors. Or perhaps, advisor and advisee, being of the same generation, were more or less in sync in their thinking and attitude.

Next: The Reformers’ Charter Oath of Five Articles


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