Monday, 27 January 2020

When did Japan become an Imperialist Nation? (2005)

When did Japan become an Imperialist Nation?
Written By: Nik Howard
Date: October 2005
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 25: Autumn 2005 

September 2005 marks the centenary of the end of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), providing an opportunity to look at the controversial beginnings of Japanese imperialism. At one extreme, there is the conspiracy theory view that asserts that even from early Meiji (1868-1912), Japan intended to attack China, annex Korea and then defeat the West, and all Japan’s foreign policy actions can be deduced from this goal of regional-Asian, then global domination. At the other is seen a poor, small, peace-loving country bereft of natural resources and bullied by the Great Powers into simply defending itself. Such apologetics, implicit or overt, is often linked to Pan-Asianism: that Japan fought its wars from Meiji onwards as ongoing struggles for national and Asian liberation.

But does this matter? It surely does, for in a world in which Chinese state capitalism plays an increasingly large and vocal role on the international stage and in which the former Allies still dominate the global capitalist scene including its ideological discourse, socialists have a duty to provide a sophisticated (i.e. non-demonising and anti-racist) analysis of Japanese imperialism, especially as nationalist and military-revivalist forces in Japan are strengthened as I write. In this context, the balanced socialist argument I offer that Japan was an aspirational imperialist nation from early Meiji matters.

In the academic literature, Peter Duus has stated that Japan’s imperialism took off after the defeat of the Russians in 1905. Paul Rodell has claimed that before 1900 Japan was more or less actively sympathetic to Asian liberation from the West, whereas after much less so due to its newly arrived-at imperialist status.

These arguments tend to underplay events in early Meiji, however. Thus, instead of the 1871 Sino-Japanese Treaty of Amity being used to forge an Asian Alliance against Western imperialist incursion (theoretically, it could have been), Michael Auslin argues it was mainly about “the desire to sever Korea from Chinese suzerainty”. Moreover, certain leading Americans in Japan tried to ensure no ‘calamitous’ ‘Oriental alliance’ would develop, and encouraged Japan first to conquer Korea (1873; Japan’s leaders eventually decided against this), and, more significantly, (in terms of active US manipulation), to launch an expedition against Taiwan (1874). They also prompted Japan to assert political hegemony over the Liu-ch’iu (Ryukyu) Islands.

These actions point to an important fact in the formation of Japanese imperialism: the massive impact of the West. From 1853-54, an American Commodore forced open Japan via crude gunboat diplomacy. By the 1860s, a Treaty Port system, including extraterritoriality and loss over tariffs, had been imposed by various Western nations, with Japan a semi-colonised polity till 1911.

Thus Japan’s mimetic imperialism (Robert Eskildsen) developed as a direct counter to the encroachments of imperial Western states. This ‘lesson’ (the ‘civilised’ colonise and ‘barbarians’ are colonised) underpinned the Meiji state’s commitment to ‘modernisation’ and the doctrine of ‘a rich country and a strong military’. With the Treaty of Kanghwa (1876), Japan even used Western-style gunboat diplomacy to impose an unequal treaty on Korea.

The 1880s and 1890s represented an ongoing struggle between China and Japan over Korea. In war (1894-95), Japan vanquished the Chinese, gaining more territory (Taiwan), plus indemnities. This set the stage for Japan’s increasing conflict with Russia, which had intervened to block Japanese control of the strategically located Liaotung Peninsula. The logic of capitalist state antagonisms and imperialist war is that, win or lose, one war leads to another. In no respect was the Sino-Japanese War different, as the Russo-Japanese War a decade on proved.

Japan’s early successes before 1905 in modernisation and development were down to its flexible following of Western (imperial) models, not in the sense of mere imitation, but rather in a way that showed from then on capitalism was no mere Western politico-economic structure but a global system that must be followed or traditional states and their regional systems would be bulldozed from outside, as Japan’s case unerringly attests. For socialists, it is no surprise the new capitalist state on the Asian block failed to consider a viable Oriental alliance with China. Rhetoric about Japanese leadership in an ‘Asia for Asians’ was always bound to degenerate into domination, development and then war, all in Japan’s interests. However, the notion that Japan represented some species of uniquely barbaric or pre-planned imperialist dominion is ridiculous not because Japan was not an incredibly brutal and repressive imperialist regime, both at home and abroad – of course it was – but rather because this kind of argument is often deployed to downplay the brutality and violence of the arguer’s nation’s past or present in comparison, whether the brutality of the Chinese state under Mao (and its undemocratic, repressive structures today), or the global leviathan of brutality (Western imperialism) that viciously exploited and underdeveloped the ‘Third World’ (and then today that occupies Iraq).

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