1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Japan/10 The Claim of Japan

JAPAN

X.—The Claim of Japan: by a Japanese Statesman[1]

It has been said that it is impossible for an Occidental to understand the Oriental, and vice versa; but, admitting that the mutual understanding of two different races or peoples is a difficult matter, why should Occidentals and Orientals be thus set in opposition? No doubt, different peoples of Europe understand each other better than they do the Asiatic; but can Asiatic peoples understand each other better than they can Europeans or than the Europeans can understand any of them? Do Japanese understand Persians or even Indians better than English or French? It is true perhaps that Japanese can and do understand the Chinese better than Europeans; but that is due not only to centuries of mutual intercourse, but to the wonderful and peculiar fact that they have adopted the old classical Chinese literature as their own, somewhat in the way, but in a much greater degree, in which the European nations have adopted the old Greek and Latin literatures. What is here contended for is that the mutual understanding of two peoples is not so much a matter of race, but of the knowledge of each other’s history, traditions, literature, &c.

The Japanese have, they think, suffered much from the misunderstanding of their motives, feelings and ideas; what they want is to be understood fully and to be known for what they really are, be it good or bad. They desire, above all, not to be lumped as Oriental, but to be known and judged on their own account. In the latter half of the 19th century, in fact up to the Chinese War, it irritated Japanese travelling abroad more than anything else to be taken for Chinese. Then, after the Chinese War, the alarm about Japan leading Eastern Asia to make a general attack upon Europe—the so-called Yellow Peril—seemed so ridiculous to the Japanese that the bad effects of such wild talk were not quite appreciated by them. The aim of the Japanese nation, ever since, at the time of the Restoration (1868), they laid aside definitively all ideas of seclusion and entered into the comity of nations, has been that they should rise above the level of the Eastern peoples to an equality with the Western and should be in the foremost rank of the brotherhood of nations; it was not their ambition at all to be the champion of the East against the West, but rather to beat down the barriers between themselves and the West.

The intense pride of the Japanese in their nationality, their patriotism and loyalty, arise from their history, for what other nation can point to an Imperial family of one unbroken lineage reigning over the land for twenty-five centuries? Is it not a glorious tradition for a nation, that its emperor should be descended directly from that grandson of “the great heaven-illuminating goddess,” to whom she said, “This land (Japan) is the region over which my descendants shall be the lords. Do thou, my august child, proceed thither and govern it. Go! The prosperity of thy dynasty shall be coeval with heaven and earth.” Thus they call their country the land of kami (ancient gods of tradition). With this spirit, in the old days when China held the hegemony of the East, and all neighbouring peoples were regarded as its tributaries, Japan alone, largely no doubt on account of its insular position, held itself quite aloof; it set at defiance the power of Kublai and routed utterly the combined Chinese and Korean fleets with vast forces sent by him to conquer Japan, this being the only occasion that Japan was threatened with a foreign invasion.

With this spirit, as soon as they perceived the superiority of the Western civilization, they set to work to introduce it into their country, just as in the 7th and 8th centuries they had adopted and adapted the Chinese civilization. In 1868, the first year of the era of Meiji, the emperor swore solemnly the memorable oath of five articles, setting forth the policy that was to be and has been followed thereafter by the government. These five articles were:—

1. Deliberative assemblies shall be established and all measures

of government shall be decided by public opinion.

2. All classes, high and low, shall unite in vigorously carrying out the plan of government.

3. Officials, civil and military, and all common people shall as far as possible be allowed to fulfil their just desires so that there may not be any discontent among them.

4. Uncivilized customs of former times shall be broken through, and everything shall be based upon just and equitable principles of heaven and earth (nature).

5. Knowledge shall be sought for throughout the world, so that the welfare of the empire may be promoted.

  (Translation due to Prof. N. Hozumi of Tōkyō Imp. Univ.)

It is interesting, as showing the continuity of the policy of the empire, to place side by side with these articles the words of the Imperial rescript issued in 1908, which are as follows:—

“We are convinced that with the rapid and unceasing advance of

civilization, the East and West, mutually dependent and helping each other, are bound by common interests. It is our sincere wish to continue to enjoy for ever its benefits in common with other powers by entering into closer and closer relations and strengthening our friendship with them. Now in order to be able to move onward along with the constant progress of the world and to share in the blessings of civilization, it is obvious that we must develop our internal resources; our nation, but recently emerged from an exhausting war, must put forth increased activity in every branch of administration. It therefore behoves our people to endeavour with one mind, from the highest to the lowest, to pursue their callings honestly and earnestly, to be industrious and thrifty, to abide in faith and righteousness, to be simple and warm-hearted, to put away ostentation and vanity and strive after the useful and solid, to avoid idleness and indulgence, and to apply themselves

incessantly to strenuous and arduous tasks . . .”

The ambition of the Japanese people has been, as already stated, to be recognized as an equal by the Great Powers. With this object in view, they have spared no efforts to introduce what they considered superior in the Western civilization, although it may perhaps be doubted whether in their eagerness they have always been wise. They have always resented any discrimination against them as an Asiatic people, not merely protesting against it, knowing that such would not avail much, but making every endeavour to remove reasons or excuses for it. Formerly there were troops stationed to guard several legations; foreign postal service was not entirely in the hands of the Japanese government for a long time; these and other indignities against the sovereignty of the nation were gradually removed by proving that they were not necessary. Then there was the question of the extra-territorial jurisdiction; an embassy was sent to Europe and America as early as 1871 with a view to the revision of treaties in order to do away with this imperium in imperio, that being the date originally fixed for the revision; the embassy, however, failed in its object but was not altogether fruitless, for it was then clearly seen that it would be necessary to revise thoroughly the system of laws and entirely to reorganize the law courts before Occidental nations could be induced to forgo this privilege. These measures were necessary in any case as a consequence of the introduction of the Western methods and ideas, but they were hastened by the fact of their being a necessary preliminary to the revision of treaties. When the new code of laws was brought before the Diet at its first session, and there was a great opposition against it in the House of Peers on account of its many defects and especially of its ignoring many established usages, the chief argument in its favour, or at least one that had a great influence with many who were unacquainted with technical points, was that it was necessary for the revision of treaties and that the defects, if any, could be afterwards amended at leisure. These preparations on the part of the government, however, took a long time, and in the meantime the whole nation, or at least the more intelligent part of it, was chafing impatiently under what was considered a national indignity. The United States, by being the first to agree to its abandonment, although this agreement was rendered nugatory by a conditional clause, added to the stock of goodwill with which the Japanese have always regarded the Americans on account of their attitude towards them. When at last the consummation so long and ardently desired was attained, great was the joy with which it was greeted, for now it was felt that Japan was indeed on terms of equality with Occidental nations. Great Britain, by being the first to conclude the revised treaty—an act due to the remarkable foresight of her statesmen in spite of the opposition of their countrymen in Japan—did much to bring about the cordial feeling of the Japanese towards the British, which made them welcome with such enthusiasm the Anglo-Japanese alliance. The importance of this last as a powerful instrument for the preservation of peace in the extreme East has been, and always will be, appreciated at its full value by the more intelligent and thoughtful among the Japanese; but by the mass of the people it was received with great acclamation, owing partly to the already existing good feeling towards the British, but also in a large measure because it was felt that the fact that Great Britain should leave its “splendid isolation” to enter into this alliance proclaimed in the clearest possible way that Japan had entered on terms of full equality among the brotherhood of nations, and that thenceforth there could be no ground for that discrimination against them as an Asiatic nation which had been so galling to the Japanese people.

There have been, and there still are being made, many charges against the Japanese government and people. While admitting that some of them may be founded on facts, it is permissible to point out that traits and acts of a few individuals have often been generalized to be the national characteristic or the result of a fixed policy, while in many cases such charges are due to misunderstandings arising from want of thorough knowledge of each other’s language, customs, usages, ideas, &c. Take the principle of “the open door,” for instance; the Japanese government has been charged in several instances with acting contrary to it. It is natural that where (as in China) competition is very keen between men of different nationalities, individuals should sometimes feel aggrieved and make complaints of unfairness against the government of their competitors; it is also natural that people at home should listen to and believe in those charges made against the Japanese by their countrymen in the East, while unfortunately the Japanese, being so far away and often unaware of them, have not a ready means of vindicating themselves; but subsequent investigations have always shown those charges to be either groundless or due to misunderstandings, and it may be asserted that in no case has the charge been substantiated that the Japanese government has knowingly, deliberately, of malice prepense been guilty of breach of faith in violating the principle of “the open door” to which it has solemnly pledged itself. That it has often been accused by the Japanese subjects of weakness vis-à-vis foreign powers to the detriment of their interests, is perhaps a good proof of its fairness.

The Japanese have often been charged with looseness of commercial morality. This charge is harder to answer than the last, for it cannot be denied that there have been many instances of dishonesty on the part of Japanese tradesmen or employees; tu quoque is never a valid argument, but there are black sheep everywhere, and there were special reasons why foreigners should have come in contact with many such in their dealings with the Japanese. In days before the Restoration, merchants and tradesmen were officially classed as the lowest of four classes, the samurai, the farmers, the artisans and the merchants; practically, however, rich merchants serving as bankers and employers of others were held in high esteem, even by the samurai. Yet it cannot be denied that the position of the last three was low compared with that of the samurai; their education was not so high, and although of course there was the same code of morality for them all, there was no such high standard of honour as was enjoined upon the samurai by the bushidō or “the way of samurai.” Now, when foreign trade was first opened, it was naturally not firms with long-established credit and methods that first ventured upon the new field of business—some few that did failed owing to their want of experience—it was rather enterprising and adventurous spirits with little capital or credit who eagerly flocked to the newly opened ports to try their fortune. It was not to be expected that all or most of those should be very scrupulous in their dealings with the foreigners; the majority of those adventurers failed, while a few of the abler men, generally those who believed in and practised honesty as the best policy, succeeded and came to occupy an honourable position as business men. It is also asserted that foreigners, or at least some of them, did not scruple to take unfair advantage of the want of experience on the part of their Japanese customers to impose upon them methods which they would not have followed except in the East; it may be that such methods were necessary or were deemed so in dealing with those adventurers, but it is a fact that it afterwards took a long time and great effort on the part of Japanese traders to break through some usages and customs which were established in earlier days and which they deemed derogatory to their credit or injurious to their interests. Infringement of patent rights and fraudulent imitation of trade-marks have with some truth also been charged against the Japanese; about this it is to be remarked that although the principles of morality cannot change, their applications may be new; patents and trade-marks are something new to the Japanese, and it takes time to teach that their infringement should be regarded with the same moral censure as stealing. The government has done everything to prevent such practices by enacting and enforcing laws against them, and nowadays they are not so common. Be that as it may, such a state of affairs as that mentioned above is now passing away almost entirely; commerce and trade are now regarded as highly honourable professions, merchants and business men occupy the highest social positions, several of them having been lately raised to the peerage, and are as honourable a set of men as can be met anywhere. It is however to be regretted that in introducing Western business methods, it has not been quite possible to exclude some of their evils, such as promotion of swindling companies, tampering with members of legislature, and so forth.

The Japanese have also been considered in some quarters to be a bellicose nation. No sooner was the war with Russia over than they were said to be ready and eager to fight with the United States. This is another misrepresentation arising from want of proper knowledge of Japanese character and feelings. Although it is true that within the quarter of a century preceding 1909 Japan was engaged in two sanguinary wars, not to mention the Boxer affair, in which owing to her proximity to the scene of the disturbances she had to take a prominent part, yet neither of these was of her own seeking; in both cases she had to fight or else submit to become a mere cipher in the world, if indeed she could have preserved her existence as an independent state. The Japanese, far from being a bellicose people, deliberately cut off all intercourse with the outside world in order to avoid international troubles, and remained absolutely secluded from the world and at profound peace within their own territory for two centuries and a half. Besides, the Japanese have always regarded the Americans with a special goodwill, due no doubt to the steady liberal attitude of the American government and people towards Japan and Japanese, and they look upon the idea of war between Japan and the United States as ridiculous.

Restrictions upon Japanese emigrants to the United States and to Australia are irritating to the Japanese, because it is a discrimination against them as belonging to the “yellow” race, whereas it has been their ambition to raise themselves above the level of the Eastern nations to an equality with the Western nations, although they cannot change the colour of their skin. When a Japanese even of the highest rank and standing has to obtain a permit from an American immigrant officer before he can enter American territory, is it not natural that he and his countrymen should resent this discrimination as an indignity? But they have too much good sense to think or even dream of going to war upon such a matter; on the contrary, the Japanese government agreed in 1908 to limit the number of emigrants in order to avoid complications.

It may be repeated that it has ever been the ambition of the Japanese people to take rank with the Great Powers of the world, and to have a voice in the council of nations; they demand that they shall not be discriminated against because of the colour of their skin, but that they shall rather be judged by their deeds. With this aim, they have made great efforts: where charges brought against them have any foundation in fact, they have endeavoured to make reforms; where they are false or due to misunderstandings they have tried to live them down, trusting to time for their vindication. They are willing to be judged by the intelligent and impartial world: a fair field and no favour is what they claim, and think they have a right to claim, from the world.  (K.) 

Bibliography.—The latest edition of von Wemckstern’s Bibliography of the Japanese Empire contains the names of all important books and publications relating to Japan, which have now become very numerous. A general reference must suffice here to Captain F. Brinkley’s Japan (12 vols., 1904); the works of B. H. Chamberlain, Things Japanese (5th ed., 1905, &c.); W. G. Aston, Hist. of Jap. Literature, &c., and Lafcadio Hearn, Japan: an Interpretation (1904), &c., as the European authors with intimate knowledge of the country who have done most to give accurate and illuminating expression to its development. See also Fifty Years of New Japan, an encyclopaedic account of the national development in all its aspects, compiled by Count Shigenobu Okuma (2 vols., 1907, 1908; Eng. ed. by Marcus B. Huish, 1909).


  1. The following expression of the Japanese point of view, by a statesman of the writer’s authority and experience, may well supplement the general account of the progress of Japan and its inclusion among the great civilized powers of the world.—(Ed. E. B.)