Japan & State Impulse. Part 1


Japan Against Western Powers

If we consider a state impulse to be all the policies made by a State to create or increase and of the elements that make up the power of that State, there is no room for doubt that Japan was the State that, throughout history and most systematically, used this “tool” to build its national power. It constitutes the paradigmatic example of how through state impulse the threshold of power, even when starting off with completely unfavorable conditions. Thanks to state impulse, Japan was able to go from being a feudal-agricultural state to being an industrial State-nation. Through that impulse Japan was able to make itself go from being an under-developed country to a world power. Thanks to state impulse, Japan was able to accumulate the quantum of power necessary to free itself from the subordination of hegemonic structures of world power and escape from the periphery.

Japan was on the verge of feudal anarchy when, in 1542, the Portuguese reached its coasts. The Japanese did not take long to understand the importance of ships carrying heavy canons and of soldiers armed with harquebuses. The great princes of western Japan – that had declared themselves independent - welcomed the intruders. The Japanese could not have been in worse condition to resist a European invasion. Fortunately for the country, from that difficult situation came a military leader magnitude, Oda Nobunaga, who managed to keep the power of the daimyo –the great feudal lords- in check and to thus hinder European powers from using internal quarrels to take hold of Japan. During the government of Nobunaga the Portuguese, and later the Spanish, peacefully began to visit and install themselves in Japan.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi, another great military leader, succeeded Nobunaga. Meanwhile, the Spanish, already established in the Philippines, planned to invade Japan from there.

In 1600, General Hideyoshi was succeeded by Ieyasu Tokugawa who in 1603 was proclaimed Sheitai Shogun, “great general submitter of the barbarians”, meaning the Europeans, who were – according to Japanese thinking, and rightly thought - on the verge of invading the Japanese islands. The Shogunato of the Tokugawa, though respecting the way and dignity of the imperial title, exercised, de facto, authority over all of Imperial Japan for 265 years. Fortunately as well for Japan, each European nation made sure to denounce the expansionistic intentions of the others.

During the era of the second Shogun, Tokugawa, the Japanese were well-informed of the activities of the Europeans in the islands of the Pacific, Java, the Moluccas and, especially, the Philippines, with whom the Japanese had commercial relationships from remote times. The observation of actions developed by the Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish and English took them to the conclusion that they should deny them setting foot in their territory: “In 1615, the Japanese sent a special spy to the southern regions to inform them of the actions that the Europeans developed there” (Panikkar, 1966: 77). The information – that reached them in 1622- confirmed their suspicions “about a Spanish plan to invade Japan itself” (77). The Japanese reaction was cutting. They began the deportation of all Spanish from the country and in 1937 they ordered the expulsion of all foreigners and the total closing off of the country to Western countries. To avoid a European material or spiritual invasion, the Japanese began a policy of severe isolation that lasted 216 years, during which the country hermetically closed itself off from the rest of the world. [1]

Liberationist Realism & Active Subordination

When on July 8th 1853 the Commodore of the America Armada Mathew Calbraith Parry entered Uraga Bay with two frigates and two war ships, Japan found itself in the exact same identical degree of development as its moment of “discovery” by the Portuguese. As a consequence, it had a “relative setback” of nothing less than two hundred years. In those two centuries of almost absolute impasse, it had remained an agricultural-feudal country, thus incapable of having a western invasion. Hurriedly, the Shogun called together all of his ministers: Should they open fire on that foreign fleet or should they negotiate with them? They soon sent out to palaver, with beautifully carved armor and helmets, with ivory sheathed swords, some of the most prestigious Samurai of Japan.

Commodore Perry carried with him a letter from President Millard Fillmore to the Shogun. The letter said, in a threatening tone: “Many of the great warships destined to visit Japan have not yet reached these waters, but we are expecting them within hours; the below signer, as evidence of his friendly intentions, has come with just four of the smallest ships, but if necessary he could come back to Yeddo next spring with a much great force” (quoted by Panikkar, 1966: 213).

Perry demanded permission from the Samurai to send the letter from the American President to the Shogun and to negotiate with him without intervention from the Dutch. When the American ships – that carried the best and most modern artillery of that country -, with the pretext of a greeting, shot off a lateral salute, the Samurai stopped stuttering and Perry obtained his permission to send the letter to the Shogun. Perry then retreated from Japanese waters to give the Shogun time to reflect. [2]

Japan knew that, due to the war the English had carried out against China – the famous Opium War of 1839 -, the city of Canton had been blockaded, the Chinese fleet destroyed and various points of the coast occupied. It was also not ignorant that that war had ended with the Nanking Treaty, in August of 1842. The treaty forced China to “reimburse” Great Britain, give up Hong Kong, “no perturb” the opium route and “open to trade” the ports of Canton, Fuchou, Amoy, Ningbo and Shanghai (Panikkar, 1966: 367).

In possession of this information and aware of the strategic vulnerability of Japan, one of the wisest counselors of the Shogunate, Ii Kaamon no Kami, created a document that pointed out the impossibility of resisting the Western barbarity suggesting “to adopt a complacent attitude until Japan, after having learned the secrets of the West, could deal with it on terms of equality” (Panikkar, 1966: 213). In conceptual terms Kami advised to carry out a policy of liberationist realism: a policy by which the Japanese State, starting with the real situation, meaning the state of subordination in which the technological setback had placed it, would decide to transform reality to begin a historical process during which it would seek to obtain the elements of power necessary to reach autonomy. In that process of construction of autonomy the first stadium that Japan would traverse would be that of active subordination. When Commodore Perry reappeared in 1854 on the coasts of Japan the Shogun, following the advice of Ii Kamon no Kami, showed himself willing to comply with the wishes of the Americans and he invited him to come to Yokohama. Commodore Perry lived the supreme moment of his life. Convinced advocate of the Manifest Destiny of the United States, “the opening of Japan was his supreme life objective” (Morrison, 1967: 324). For him, the Japanese –whom he considered weak, semi-savage, cheats and vengeful - had to be once and for all “civilized”. The Commodore had always dreamed of “drawing that strange isolated people to the bosom of civilized families” (Neumann, 1963: 31). Proud of having won primacy before the European powers, Perry entered Yokohama as if he were a circus master. The Admiral was surrounded by all his officials dressed in uniforms of gala, escorted by marine soldiers that held their bare swords up in the air. In front of Perry and his officials, two gigantic negroes, with unclothed torsos, advanced with the American flag and a band playing the music Yankee Doodle.

On March 31st of 1854 the Treaty of “Friendship and Trade” was signed between Japan and the United States. Its clauses established the right of the Americans to reside in agreed upon Japanese ports and the acceptance of the principle of extra-territorial jurisdiction. Nevertheless, these clauses would be resisted and only accepted after Towsend Harris –first American consul in Japan- warned the Japanese of the serious consequences that its refusal would have (Cosanza, 1930).

In 1853, Japan went into a deep crisis out of which it was only able to emerge – after fifteen turbulent years - in 1868 with the beginning of the Meiji Revolution. The crisis of 1853 allowed Japanese intelligence to understand that the industrial capacity was the decisive factor of the power of a State, that the relative power of a nation on the international stage depended, in large part, on its degree of industrialization. In this same way, the Japanese understood that international policy was a kind of oligopoly of industrial powers that, even while competing among themselves, they united to exercise a monopoly over the world. In the end, the crisis of 1853 unleashed in Japan a process of reflection –not exempt of acts of irrational violence and xenophobic reactions- that allowed it to understand that only through accelerated industrialization could it rebuild its national power. Thus the ideologists of the Meiji Revolution summarized their theme in two words: Sangyo rikkoko”, “reconstruction through industry”. Of all the countries of Asia only Japan was able to free itself of Western subordination and beat the West on its own soil.

The Silent Insubordination: the Meiji Revolution

From 1853 on Japan found itself divided and hesitating on the attitude to adopt before the “barbaric” westerners. For the first time the government solicited the opinion of feudal lords and of the most wisely considered Samurai. The intellectuals and educated officials debated vehemently. It seemed to be clear to all the intellectuals that, given the technological-military setback, direct resistance was impossible. Opinions swung conceptually between those that, before the evident inferiority of materials of power, technology and science, proposed the application of collaborationist realism, implied the flat out and full acceptance of subordination to the West, and those that proposed the adoption of liberationist realism. Nevertheless, the latter could not find an efficient formula to be carried out. The second defeat of China by Western powers, during the Second Opium War (1857-1858), that was followed with much attention by the Japanese ruling elite, accentuated the political crisis of the Shogunato that, in the eyes of the young samurai had shown its incapacity to act effectively before the “barbarians”.

As a reaction against the Shogunato, in 1858, those young samurai began a true “wave of violence”, terror and murders, as much against foreigners as against unpopular rulers. The failure of the Shogun to deal with the foreigners became more and more evident and as a consequence the revolt of the extremist Samurai took on the form of a restoration of imperial power against the Shogun. There were two consignments that synthesized the thoughts of the young Samurai – whose average age was barely over thirty years old-: “Kick out the barbarians” and “Venerate the Emperor”. Luckily for Japan, between 1858 and 1868 the majority of the most xenophobic young samurai activists perished during their campaign of terror.

On January 4th of 1868, a group of samurais –after a short civil war- expulsed the Shogun and restored royal power to the Emperor. Emperor Mutushito – young successor to the xenophobic Emperor Komei - under the name of Meiji Tenno then became the founder of a new era in Japan. The Meiji Revolution was the revolution of a select minority. [3] The fundamental objective of the Meiji Revolution was that Japan be able to reach the new threshold of power – the minimum power necessary for the Nippon State to not fall into the stadium of subordination - through accelerated industrialization and the construction of a modern State that would serve that goal. [4]

From the Meiji Revolution, through state impulse Japan created, in less than twenty years, a modern industrial apparatus and a prosperous national bourgeois. In record time it not only raised factories where there used to be rice paddies but it also made its samurai important captains of industry.

One of the first measures of the Meiji government was to found several industrial companies of state management. The Japanese government  began the industrialization process by creating those industries that it thought most important from the point of view of the construction of national power in hopes to reach, as soon as possible, the new threshold of power:

Given that the government was made up of members of the intelligentsia (ex-warriors in their majority), aware of the need of a new era, the creation of state-managed companies also fell into the hands of these types of people. An as their ideology was Confucian, the ideology of the industrials also became Confucianism. All of these businesses were factories of huge dimensions and needed the organization and disciplined work of large numbers of workers. However, since the farming, artesian and merchant classes of the age showed little willingness to that kind of discipline, workers even had to be found in the beginning primarily in the warrior class. (Morishima, 1997: 118).

In order to evaluate the magnitude and the scope of the effort that Japan carried out in order to reach the threshold of power, it is necessary to remember that the Japanese Empire, at the time the Meiji Revolution took place, it was made up of 3,500 islands, and the total land surface of its territory was only 34 percent inhabitable and barely 14 percent was cultivatable. Twenty-six million inhabitants lived on the islands and Japan had reached the highest point of its population, to the point that it could not cultivate and more food in its poor soil to maintain more human beings. [5] Japan did not possess, except for copper, practically any important raw materials and it could therefore not employ neither agricultural products nor basic raw materials in any significant way to fund the huge purchase of machinery that it needed to build its industrial apparatus.

Furthermore, even with the advent of the Meiji government Japan opened up without restrictions, this opening only applied to commercial property. The opening did not reach the point to which the Japanese government would allow the importation of foreign capital. Thus, in order to carry out the accelerated industrialization process, the government had to “create” the necessary capital by its own means, subjecting the population to great sacrifices. Internal capital was meager as well and, clearly, insufficient. Only merchants had some gold stored away that, with great patriotic spirit, they lent to the State. The first internal loan, titles in the value of 30 million Yen, was made in 1872. It is true that some feudal lords had committed to the industrialization process – such as Prince Satsuma, who in 1862 founded the first Japanese factory, a cotton spinning factory with five-hundred spindles, or the lords of the Maebashi fief, who created the first silk spinning factory in 1870 - but the capital they were able to gather was insufficient in relation to the amount necessary to build the shipyards, the iron and steel works, and the railways. [6] So, as the greater part of public income of the time came from agricultural contributions, “the government increased the charges and applied start-up collection fees of several companies, by way of this sort of internal savings”(Morishima, 1997: 121).

Furthermore, the government began to exploit the few gold and silver deposits that were to be found on the islands in order to increment the capital that would allow it to contribute to the undertaking of the necessary investments. Simultaneously, it began work on copper mines, the only mineral that Japan possessed in abundance. The State was able to exploit in a direct way three-hundred and fifty mines and with the profits from these it was able to create the textile industry.

The feudal revenue contributed another source of capital for industrialization:

In the era of the abolition of dominions, the government took charge ofthe allowances that each dominion anteriorly received; between 1873 and 1874 it handed titles of debt out to the old feudal lords and warriors that had renounced their revenue in the sum of around four to six years-worth of those payments. In this way the warriors found themselves in possession of money, and above all the old feudal lords and warriors of higher category became rich overnight, and they invested these riches in industry. The investor criterion of these men, in contrast to the merchants, were not cheap; they invested according to what they understood were strong national necessities and of national interest. Many of them had a strong national awareness and a relatively clear idea of what could be of national interest. (Morishima, 1997: 121) 


1. A sole window to the West was left open on a small island in the bay of Nagasaki, where the Dutch were allowed to maintain a trading post. No foreigner could enter Japan, and no Japanese leave the country. Contraventions were punished with death. Nevertheless, Japanese political power wanted to know the activities of the “barbaric white men” and due to that the Dutch were allowed to remain in Nagasaki. Though these, prudently, undertook no religious preaching of any kind or ideological cultural propaganda, they were watched over with great severity. They were motivated to take new European inventions and were forced to render reports to the Shogun of what happened in the world. A small number of Wiseman obtained permission to study Dutch. This small privileged elite therefore had access to the knowledge of the changes that vertiginously happened in Europe and they therefore understood the great strategic vulnerability of Japan. Nevertheless, they lacked sufficient clout to warn Japan of the great danger that waylay.

2. When Perry retired from the waters of Japan, English, French and Russians hurried to send war ships to the Japanese coasts with the intentions of snatching the “prey” from the United States. The Russian frigate Constantinine, under the command of Captain Putiatine, even bombarded and destroyed two Japanese forts. Japan was clearly boxed in.

3. According to Hobsbawm (2006a: 160), “restoration cannot be considered in any real sense as a bourgeois revolution, though it can be considered the functional equivalent of part of one”.

4. A chronology created by InazoNitobe (2004: 54) illustrates the reach of the enormous reforms and transformations that Japan effected during the Meiji era in order to reach the new threshold of power:

1868 Abolition of internal customs and the opening of highways that until that time had been closed by feudal lords. Implantation of the monetary insignia and regulation of the Yen in relationship with foreign currencies.

1869 The equality of the four classes is declared: the samurai, farmers, merchants and tradesmen. The first telegraph line is installed and the first newspaper is inaugurated.

1870 The first steam line is inaugurated between Tokio and Osaka. Public schools are founded in Tokio.

1871 The creation of the Currency Mint in Osaka. The post office of the primary cities of the country is installed. The building of the first house of bricks. The permission for marriage between different classes is granted. The first beer brewery is created.

1872 The introduction of paper money, according to the Prussian example. The first railway goes into use. The first natural gas factory is installed. The freedom to choose profession or trade is established.

1873 The Gregorian calendar is introduced and mandatory military service is established.

1874 The petition for the opening of the Parliament is made. The first political party arises.

1875 The first meteorological station is created.

1876 Swords are banned from being carried on the streets and the first agricultural school is created.

1877 Japan enters into the universal postal union and the first telephone is installed.

1878 The first horse-drawn vehicle appears. The purchase of the patent of Hotchkiss firearms is made.

5. During the entire period of hermetic isolation from all things foreign, there was a strict control of birthrate in Japan. The State tried to control births and the Shogun, who knew the sources of Japan’s food supply well, fixed a maximum population limit of twenty-five million inhabitants. Having passed that sum they thought that great famines would ensue. Nitobe (2004: 56) Japans upholds that: “During three centuries it was not only the limitation of allowed births, but rather imposed by laws, threatening the families with excessive offspring with severe punishment”. In a conference that pronounced in the 19th session of the International Statistics Institute celebrated in Tokyo in 1930, Honjo affirmed categorically: “The Japanese people –under the period of the Tokugawa- not mattering whether in the country or in the cities, saw no difference between infanticide and killing weeds. […] In Kiushu two of every five children must have died. In the province of Hyoga only the first-born had the right to remain alive, the others were killed upon birth or eliminated before being born” (ShitheruHonjo, quoted by Herbert Bix, 2001: 173).

6. On Japanese development until 1913, see Kamekichi Takahashi (1969).


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