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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.