BOOK REVIEW / The Emperor's new shogun: 'The Nature and Origins of Japanese Imperialism' - Donald Calman: Routledge, 35 pounds

The opening of Japan by the so-called 'Meiji Restoration' in 1868 was one of the most important events of the 19th century, and one with lasting consequences in the 20th century: the industrialisation of Japan; Japanese economic and military aggression all over East Asia; the catastrophe of the Second World War and Japan's astonishing recovery and rise to the status of an economic superpower.

The 'restoration' was represented by those who carried it out as the rescue of the Emperor from the shogunate of the Tokugawa family. Because the Tokugawa shogunate adopted the policy of isolation, its overthrow was interpreted abroad as the 'opening' of Japan. Historians have long understood that it had another meaning: the revenge of the clans Choshu and Satsuma for the catastrophe of Sekigahara, the battle in which they were defeated in 1600. For a regime in which the Emperor was a figurehead for the Tokugawa shogun, Choshu and Satsuma (or 'Satcho') substituted something like a new shogunate.

In this courageous and controversial study of the great crisis of 1873, Donald Calman, an Australian scholar who left Sydney and Oxford behind to immerse himself in Japan and the Japanese language for almost 20 years, has produced a reinterpretation of the Restoration and the events surrounding it that challenges the orthodoxies of both Japanese and Western writing of Japanese history. His thesis may well infuriate both Japanese scholars and those Westerners, especially Americans, whose interpretations have been influenced by the wish to recruit Japan as an economic and political partner.

The Meiji Restoration, says Calman, is a polite fiction. The Meiji Revolution would be a better name. 'Restoration' translates a pregnant phrase in Japanese: fukko ishin. Fukko means 'to restore the old'; ishin 'to make new'. The idea was to restore Japan's rightful place at the centre of the universe, and the Emperor's place as nothing less than ruler of the whole world.

'The movement to restore power to the Emperor,' Calman writes, 'began in the second half of the 18th century.' Once Commodore Oliver Perry had brought his 'black ships' to Tokyo Bay, the movement to restore the Emperor became entwined with the movement to expel foreigners. The movement acquired critical mass, however, in the 1860s, when the leaders of Satsuma decided it was time to ally themselves with Choshu in order to overthrow the Tokugawas. Calman also argues, however, that the Restoration was an episode in another process with even longer historical roots: Japan's economic expansion. As a mountainous country with a teeming population and a chronic food problem, Japan had always looked, long before the shogunate, to the rich grain and rice harvests of Korea. In the decade before the western clans were defeated at Sekigahara, the shogun Hideyoshi invaded Korea and committed atrocities there on a scale that is remembered by the Koreans to this day. As the masters of western and southern Japan, Satsuma and Choshu and their allies had long dominated trade with Korea, the Chinese mainland and the rest of East Asia.

Although ostensibly the Satcho victors of the crisis of 1873 opposed the invasion of Korea, in fact, Calman argues, the majority of all factions wanted to open up the riches of Korea and ultimately of Manchuria and China. 'There was fairly general agreement that Korea could and should be taken,' he writes. 'But whose sphere of influence should it be in? The 1873 siehen (was) largely a fight over the spoils of wars yet to come.'

Calman traces the working out in Hokkaido, the big northern island, previously known as Ezo-chi, of the techniques that were later used in the Ryuku islands and in Korea and then in 1941-45 in the whole of the 'Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere'. They included trade, exploitation of natural resources by large-scale capitalist enterprise, and military government, not to mention an intelligence system using torture and spies.

Calman does not pull any punches in his description of the crimes committed by this system, But his main target is not Japan, but its historians, native and Western. The problem is, he suggests, that Western historians became the prisoners of documents which were usually collected by the Japanese 'Establishment'. They worship 'primary' documents which were often created to reinforce a case, and undervalue more trustworthy 'secondary' sources.

This is a book primarily aimed at specialists. It would have been greatly improved by a straightforward statement in the beginning of the conventional wisdom the author is challenging. The lay reader would also be grateful for a map showing clan lands and features mentioned in the text, such as mines. In spite of these defects, it is absorbing, not least because of the ingenious and imaginative way Calman teases information and plausible interpretations out of a vast array of sources, some of them obscure. It is undeniably, whether you agree with its thesis or not, an important and intellectually coherent reinterpretation of an episode of surpassing importance.

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama

TV

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living