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38.11 The History of Japan

Figure 995

Figure 995: Japan and the East Coast of Asia

The pioneer country, however, in the recovery of the Asiatic peoples was not China, but Japan. We have outrun our story in telling of China. Hitherto Japan has played but a small part in this history; her secluded civilization has not contributed very largely to the general shaping of human destinies; she has received much, but she has given little. The original inhabitants of the Japanese Islands were probably a northern people with remote Nordic affinities, the Hairy Ainu. But the Japanese proper are of the Mongolian race. Physically they resemble the Amerindians, and there are many curious resemblances between the prehistoric pottery and so forth of Japan and similar Peruvian products. It is not impossible that they are a back-flow from the trans-Pacific drift of the early heliolithic culture, but they may also have absorbed from the south a Malay and even a Negrito element.

Whatever the origin of the Japanese, there can be no doubt that their civilization, their writing, and their literary and artistic traditions are derived from the Chinese. They were emerging from barbarism in the second and third century of the Christian Era, and one of their earliest acts as a people outside their own country was on invasion of Korea under a queen Jingo, who seems to have played a large part in establishing their civilization. Their history is an interesting and romantic one; they developed a feudal system and a tradition of chivalry; their attacks upon Korea and China are an Eastern equivalent of the English wars in France. Japan was first brought into contact with Europe in the sixteenth century; in 1542 some Portuguese reached it in a Chinese junk, and in 1549 a Jesuit missionary, Francis Xavier, began his teaching there. The Jesuit accounts describe a country greatly devastated by perpetual feudal war. For a time Japan welcomed European intercourse, and the Christian missionaries made a great number of converts. A certain William Adams, of Gillingham, in Kent, became the most trusted European adviser of the Japanese, and showed them how to build big ships. There were voyages in Japanese-built ships to India and Peru. Then arose complicated quarrels between the Spanish Dominicans, the Portuguese Jesuits, and the English and Dutch Protestants, each warning the Japanese against the evil political designs of the others. The Jesuits, in a phase of ascendancy, persecuted and insulted the Buddhists with great acrimony. These troubles interwove with the feudal conflicts of the time. In the end the Japanese came to the conclusion that the Europeans and their Christianity were an intolerable nuisance, and that Catholic Christianity in particular was a mere cloak for the political dreams of the Pope and the Spanish monarchy—already in possession of the Philippine Islands; there was a great and conclusive persecution of the Christians, and in 1638 Japan with the exception of one wretched Dutch factory on the minute island of Deshima in the harbour of Nagasaki was absolutely closed to Europeans, and remained closed for over 200 years. The Dutch on Deshima were exposed to almost unendurable indignities. They had no intercourse with any Japanese except the special officials appointed to deal with them. During those two centuries the Japanese remained as completely cut off from the rest of the world as though they lived upon another planet. It was forbidden to build any ship larger than a mere coasting boat. No Japanese could go abroad, and no European enter the country.

For two centuries Japan remained outside the main current of history. She lived on in a state of picturesque feudalism enlivened by blood feuds, in which about five per cent of the population, the samurai, or fighting men, and the nobles and their families, tyrannized without restraint over the rest of the population. All common men knelt when a noble passed; to betray the slightest disrespect was to risk being slashed to death by his samurai . The elect classes lived lives of romantic adventure without one redeeming gleam of novelty; they loved, murdered, and pursued fine points of honour—which probably bored the intelligent ones extremely. We can imagine the wretchedness of a curious mind, tormented by the craving for travel and knowledge, cooped up in these islands of empty romance.

Meanwhile the great World outside went on to wider visions and new powers. Strange shipping became more frequent, passing the Japanese headlands; sometimes ships were wrecked and sailors brought ashore. Through the Dutch settlement at Deshima, their one link with the outer universe, came warnings that Japan was not keeping pace with the power of the Western world. In 1837 a ship sailed into Yedo Bay flying a strange flag of stripes and stars, and carrying some Japanese sailors she had picked up far adrift in the Pacific. She was driven off by a cannon shot. This flag presently reappeared on other ships. One in 1849 came to demand the liberation of eighteen shippwrecked American sailors. Then in 1853 came four American warships under Commodore Perry, and refused to be driven away. He lay at anchor in forbidden waters, and sent messages to the two rulers who at that time shared the control of Japan. In 1854 he returned with ten ships, amazing ships propelled by steam, and equipped with big guns, and he made proposals for trade and intercourse that the Japanese had no power to resist. He landed with a guard of 500 men to sign the treaty. Incredulous crowds watched this visitation from the outer world, marching through the streets.

Russia, Holland, and Britain followed in the wake of America. Foreigners entered the country, and conflicts between them and Japanese gentlemen of spirit ensued. A British subject was killed in a street brawl, and a Japanese town was bombarded by the British (1863). A great nobleman whose estates commanded the Straits of Shimonoseki saw fit to fire on foreign vessels, and a second bombardment by a fleet of British, French, Dutch, and American warships destroyed his batteries and scattered his swordsmen. Finally an allied squadron (1865), at anchor off Kioto, imposed a ratification of the treaties which opened Japan to the world.

The humiliation of the Japanese by these events was intense, and it would seem that the salvation of peoples lies largely in such humiliations. With astonishing energy and intelligence they set themselves to bring their culture and organization up to the level of the European powers. Never in all the history of mankind did a nation make such a stride as Japan then did. In 1866 she was a mediaeval people, a fantastic caricature of the extremist romantic feudalism; in 1899 hers was a completely Westernized people, on a level with the most advanced European powers, and well in advance of Russia. She completely dispelled the persuasion that Asia was in some irrevocable way hopelessly behind Europe. She made all European progress seem sluggish and tentative by comparison.

We cannot tell here in any detail of Japan’s war with China in 1894-95. It demonstrated the extent of her Westernization. She had an efficient Westernized army and a. small but sound fleet. But the significance of her renascence, though it was appreciated by Britain and the United States, who were already treating her as if she were a European state, was not understood by the other Great Powers engaged in the pursuit of new Indias in Asia. Russia was pushing down through Manchuria to Korea, France was already established far to the south in Tonkin and Annam, Germany was prowling hungrily on the look-out for some settlement. The three powers combined to prevent Japan reaping any fruits from the Chinese war, and particularly from establishing herself on the mainland at the points commanding the Japan Sea. She was exhausted by her war with China, and they threatened her with war.

In 1898 Germany descended upon China, and, making the murder of two missionaries her excuse, annexed a portion of the province of Shang-tung. Thereupon Russia seized the Liao-tung peninsula, and extorted the consent of China to an extension of her trans-Siberian railway to Port Arthur; and in 1900 she occupied Manchuria. Britain was unable to resist the imitative impulse, and seized the port of Wei-hai-wei (1898).How alarming these movements must have been to every intelligent Japanese a glance at the map will show. They led to a war with Russia which marks an epoch in the history of Asia, the close of the period of European arrogance. The Russian people were, of course, innocent and ignorant of this trouble that was being made for them half-way round the world, and the wiser Russian statesmen were against these foolish thrusts; but a gang of financial adventurers surrounded the Tsar, including the Grand Dukes, his cousins. They had gambled deeply in the prospective looting of Manchuria and China, and they would suffer no withdrawal. So there began a transportation of great armies of Japanese soldiers across the sea to Port Arthur and Korea, and the sending of endless trainloads of Russian peasants along the Siberian railway to die in those distant battlefields.

The Russians, badly led and dishonestly provided, were beaten on sea and land alike. The Russian Baltic Fleet sailed round Africa to be utterly destroyed in the Straits of Tsbusbima. A revolutionary movement among the common people of Russia, infuriated by this remote and reasonless slaughter, obliged the Tsar to end the war (1905); he returned the southern half of Saghalien, which had been seized by Russia in 1875, evacuated Manchuria, resigned Korea to Japan. The White Man was beginning to drop his load in eastern Asia. For some years, however, Germany remained in uneasy possession of Kiau-Chau.

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