Japan In 1861

The sudden appearance upon the Pacific horizon of Perry's blackhulled, smoke-belching warships was calculated to send a shook of consternation through the insular Japanese authorities. As a popular tanka (short poem) of the time put it,

Submitted by Spartacus on February 26, 2011

"Taihei no nemuri o samasu Jôkisen, tatte shihai de yoru mo nerarezu" Translated literally, this would come out something like "Jôkisen (a strong green tea) disturbs our peaceful dreams; just four cups and sleep escapes us night or day"

There is a hidden meaning, however. "Taihei" also refers to the Pacific Ocean; Jôkisen written with different characters and pronounced "shôkisen", means "steamships"; and hall means not only "cup" but also "vessel". The allusion is thus an ironic one to the fact that with just four ships Perry, appearing over the Pacific horizon, was able to put Japan - the Japanese authorities that is - a state of restless agitation.

The effect of Perry's arrival was to launch the first ripples of uncertainty within the ruling Tokugawa elite. The apparent superiority of the culture newly discovered via the medium of the Dutch trading post in Nagasaki, moreover, had already been exciting the interest of upper-class intellectuals. Eventually the elite split over the question of whether to respond to the westerners' demands, and in the midst of the political strife that followed even assassination became commonplace. As for the ordinary people, they too, for reasons they could never fathom, became immersed in a sea of uncertainty and responded in the most fundamental way: by joining forces and attacking the officials who they connected with the new state of affairs.

In the capital, Edo, the struggle between the anti-shogunate forces who, with the emperor himself at their head 1 , opposed opening the country and advocated expulsion of all foreigners, and the shogunate, which by and large favoured giving in where necessary to foreign demands, continued to rage for several years. Finally, only three years before Bakunin's visit, the leader of the pro-foreign faction Ii Naosuke (negotiator with Perry in 1853 and later to fall victim to an assassin's sword) took the fateful decision to Open Japan to foreign influences. Rather than admit the barbarians to Edo, however, the tiny fishing village of Yokohama, where the first JapanUS treaty was signed in March 1854, was scheduled to be rebuilt as the first Japanese port open to foreign trade and the first foreign settlement. Bakunin's Yokohama, therefore, was a bustling new community still echoing with the sound of the carpenters' hammers. Hakodate and Kanagawa had been opened to trade but not residence, and one by one other ports were opened up. The general ban on free movement by West-erners remained, though, and while the business of trade got under way between Western adventurers and Japanese entrepreneurs, political circles continued cutting each other's throats both literally and figuratively.

Outside the city of Edo it is unlikely that this political crisis made much impact. After successive crop failures and the resulting rise in prices, the Japanese peasants' discontent focussed primarily on the hardships which this situation had brought about, Their landlords, moreover - needless to say - did not see fit to reduce their levies on their tenants' produce, and the effect was to provoke numerous risings against the exploiting classes. These risings, however, were always scattered and disconnected, and with the poor communications which characterized pre-modern Japan, probably produced little stir in the capital.

All in all, the Japan in which Bakunin found himself was enjoying the lull before the storm. Unable to move outside the settlement, it must have seemed to foreigners a tranquil spot. It was only in the rears following Bakunin's departure for San Francisco that the storm was to break. The unease which had remained mostly beneath the surrace in the early days of foreign contact then, thanks to the government's trade policies, burst into the open. Levies on the people were increased to pay for the "modernization" programme, one which provided for little improvement in the people's standard of living.

Among the sufferers were the samurai class, whose fixed salary fell f ar below the level required for sustenance, reducing many to penury. 'he natural result was the growth of anti-shogunate and anti-foreign feelings among them, and the presence of a large proportion of intellectuals served to propagandize their discontent and bring the common people into the fray. In 1859 a Russian naval officer, a sailor and Dutch merchant captain were murdered. In January 1861 the interpeter attached to Townsend Harris, the first US ambassador, was cut own in Edo. In July and again in 1863 the British legation was burned. Wherever foreigners were found similar incidents occurred, and were usually sparked off by some trivial transgression of Japanese customs.

Much of the trouble was caused by the unequal treaties forced upon the government by the imperialist powers. Foreign expl ' oitation of the relatively-low gold-silver exchange rate (6:1 as compared to 15:1 elsewhere) produced wild fluctuations in prices. Their import of cotton fabrics and other cheap manufactured goods, as in China, ruined domestic industries. The shogunate, fearing for its survival, tried to restrict trade, but was defeated by the overbearing nature of the foreigners and the hunger for profit manifested by the Japanese merchant class (plus ça change...).

The early stages of the struggle, however, marked by armed clashes, assassinations and counter-assassinations, were no more than a struggle for political survival between the more reactionary diehard clans of western Japan, Satsuma and Chôshu, and the progressive conservatives of Edo. In the course of the struggle, ironically enough, it was the former, originally aimed at the restoration of ancient imperial rule and expulsion of all foreigners, which came to appear more progressive than the latter, which while attempting to move with the times sought simultaneously to maintain the political status quo unchanged. The common people had yet to take any concrete role.2 The rare exception was a socio-religious reaction to the unease slowly settling over the country: the "Eija Nai Ka" movement of 1867.

One morning people all over central Japan and along the "Tôkaidô" route passing through Yokohama woke up to find holy talismans of the Ise shrine, most sacred of all Shinto shrines, fallen from the sky. The strange occurrence, repeated several times in various places, was taken as a message from the gods, and people immediately abandoned whatever they were doing and began dancing and drinking in the street and chanting the phrase "Eija Nai Ka?" (isn't it good!). Many of the groups began to converge upon the shrines at Ise, burning down as they went the homes of rich merchants and village headman who refused to acknowledge of the talismans: that the day of the people had come, blessed by the gods. Others contented themselves with turning the streets of their town into a people's fairground, disrupting the activities of merchants and Passing out sake freely in the streets.

The poor of all countries possess an unerring ability to lay the blame for their hardships where it should lay: at the feet of the rich, their oppressors. The people of Japan were expressing their resentment at the fact that Shinto, originally a popular, natural way of life, had been appropriated by their rulers and turned into a means of reducing them to superstitious quietism. The most prominent of the street dancers were, significantly, women, the most oppressed class in Japanese feudal society then as they remain today. It was. an indication of the oppressiveness and tedium of Tokugawa society that similar outbreaks - mass hysteria, blind rebellion, instinctive insurrection: call them what one will - had occurred on average once in every generation for 200 years. In all of them, moreover, women played a prominent part, as they have done in all revolutionary uprisings.3

The movement possessed no formal leadership and no organizational structure. It was, despite rumours of its being initially instigated by anti-government politicians seeking to create confusion, a totally anarchic popular phenomenon, a manifestation of the bewilderment which the spiral-Ling prices and land taxes had sparked off among the common people, and at the same time a warning that the latter would not take things lying down.

Had Bakunin stayed a little while longer in Yokohama, the "Eija Nai Ka?" movement could hardly have failed to come to his notice. Would he have reacted to it in the same way as he did to the news of the 1846 revolution in France or the 1849 risings in Dresden and Prague?

To sum up, at the time when Bakunin was in Japan there was not only no socialist movement akin to that currently emerging in Europe (since there was no proletariat), but no significant popular agitation at all. By the time they did occur he was gone, and it would be almost a quarter or a century before the first conscious popular rebellion against the state, the 1884 Chichibu Revolt spearheaded by the Chichibu Destitutes' Party (Konmintô) would take place.4

  • 1The Japanese emperor in pre-Perry days had become no more than a figure-head whose continued existence in Kyoto, the traditional capital, sanctified that of the Tokugawa shôguns or generals who eff ectively ran most of the country from what was then Edo, now Tokyo.
  • 2From 1863 to 1867 there were 61 recorded peasant uprisings; the most violent year was 1866 with 32. In 1867 the number fell off to only twelve and, it is said, a kind of calm pervaded the whole country. Soon after that the 'Eija Nai Ka’ movement broke-out (see below).
  • 3E.H. Norman, the Canadian progressive academic, suggested that the anti-Korean, anti-socialist pogrom whipped up by the Japanese govern ment after the 1923 Great Kantô Earthquake (see below) was made easier by the still-powerful social pressures on the people, which had forced them to keep their emotions in check for so long that they seized arty chance for emotional release (in his 'Feudal Background of Japanese Politics', contained in John W. Dower (ed.) Origins of the Modern Japanese State: Selected Writings of E.H. Norman (Pantheon paperback, 1975).

    Norman also worried (he was writing in 1944) that the Japanese authorities would provoke a similar outbreak if Japan was defeated in the war. On the contrary, the zaibatsu (financial cliques) had already arranged the enrolment of most citizens into a home defence corps precisely to prevent any kind of outbreak that would give the Americans cause to rule Japan with a heavier hand than necessary, and to stifle any chances of social revolution before they, the zaibatsu leaders, had had time to ingratiate themselves with their new rulers. The significant fact about the 1867 movement was that there was no open political interference, unlike 1923, when the government and police actually invited people to take revenge on their "enemies" the Koreans and the socialists.

  • 4Also known as the Shakkintô or Debtors' Party. The incident was one of the many which broke out in the early Meiji period in connection with the movement for civil rights. Local peasants, supported by militant liberals, created their own political organization and rais- ed the flag of rebellion against the central government. When the police and troops arrived the peasants resisted, but failed to get support from neighbouring, areas and were forced to flee, The leaders were arrested and executed, while soldiers were allowed to pillage and rape their way through the villages in a way that has not been forgotten to this day.


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