Japan is Finally Here!

***Due to my vacation, this will be my last post until September 10th :)***

The wait is over. Christina and I will be flying to Japan this week, and I feel like my Chihuahua when he hears the words “let’s go bye-bye!” The travel will be arduous, but I am trying to remember that you have to eat an elephant one bite at a time. The flight is a 13-hour red-eye which will probably leave me depleted – I am bringing some boring books and Benadryl which will hopefully help me sleep.

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As most of you know, I have been reading various texts on Japan to obtain a greater understanding and respect for this complicated country. My last book before heading off was an excellent summary of the history of Japan by Christopher Goto-Jones – Modern Japan: A Very Short Introduction. This book is actually one of many in Oxford’s Very Short Introductions series; each book tries to concisely address difficult topics. These books are similar to my Tackle the Library series *cue shameless plug*  except they are longer and dryer in nature. Nevertheless, I was able to get a comprehensive view of Japan from its feudal past to its post-modern present; Japan’s history is pertinent to Western readers because it shows how modernization can both destroy a culture and uniquely define national identity.

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Today Japan is the third largest economy in the world with a population of nearly 130 million people – for context, Japan’s neighbor, Russia is the 12th ranked economy with a population of only 145 million inhabitants. Japan was not always a powerhouse of human resources, and it wasn’t long ago that it was completely isolated from the world. For 250 years, Japan had very little to do with the burgeoning powers of Europe and the United States. It wasn’t until 1853 that Japan was forced by the United States to sign a trading agreement – within 50 years of that date the entire country would undergo a political revolution, establish a new constitution, become an industrial economy, and begin a colonial empire.

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Japan was highly motivated to develop their country because of the “Unequal Treaties” which were Western treaties that viewed Japan as a backwater not worthy of fair trade. This view was partially accurate, but Japan was far from simplistic – by the 17th century, Tokyo was the largest city in the world and Japan had a sophisticated religious system that facilitated the famous samurai class and a revered Emperor. Suffice it to say, Japan in the 19th century was primed for development, and with Western technology, it shot off like a rocket into the “modern” age.

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At the turn of the 20th century, Japan was involved in a paradoxical policy of Imperialistic Anti-Imperialism. Confused? The Western countries were trying to dip their fingers into the honey pot of Asia – taking land from less developed societies in China, Korea, and Southeast Asia. Japan believed Asia should be in the hands of Asians and subsequently went to war with Russia, Korea, and China to secure their own holdings; they were extremely successful in these endeavors, and the Japanese began to get a taste for military power.

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By the time of WWI, Japan assisted the Allies and was given a seat for the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations. This “seat” was celebrated in Japan as a concrete symbol of their worldwide respect and modernity. All optimism was short-lived once Woodrow Wilson and the other Western nations decided that Japan would not have an equal voice. This “Western racism” highlighted to the Japanese that no matter how modern they became, they would be inferior because of their ethnicity and culture; this would lead to the conflicts of WWII in which the Japanese highlighted their national superiority.

 

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Following their hard-fought defeat in WWII, General MacArthur occupied Japan and modified their constitution: disbanding the military, adding a bill of rights, and transforming the role of the Emperor. In the 50’s Japan’s economy quickly rebounded thanks to the Korean War and by 1960 Japan was the world’s largest shipbuilder. The next 57 years followed a close line with the development of the United States – cars, technology, and the middle-class became the standard.

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Japan however to this day differs from other modern countries. Because of their early isolation and disrespect, Japan was determined to maintain their culture and their Emperor. With the US occupation post-WWII, Japan was able to stay out of the Cold War and invest in their country – leading to its cutting edge technology, education, and infrastructure. Japan’s forced pacifism has made it difficult for them to reconcile their past and to reconcile their place in the “post” modern world. With an aging population, an overworked middle class, and a technological-isolated youth the question for Japan today is defining what the “Japanese Dream” actually represents and how it is different than the “American Dream.”

The Last Samurai

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My wife and I are planning a trip to Japan for August 2017. It is a celebratory occasion because that month will mark my wife’s completion of her doctoral program to be a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner. Christina is working her butt off to finish this degree and I personally feel a lot of the stress that emanates from her little body. School by itself is terrible, but to make matters worse she is studying, working, and interning at the same time. I thought that I wanted to go back to school to study History or Religion but I have come to my senses and just want to keep writing my blog posts. To prepare for my trip, I wanted to read more about Japanese History-leading me to read The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigō Takamori.

Saigō Takamori was born in 1828 to a Japan that was on the cusp of national change. Japan was divided into classes of status that essentially preordained a person’s role in life. One of those classes included samurai, which in Japanese translates to, “those who serve in close attendance to the nobility.” Samurai only made up about 10% of the Japanese population and were trained in military skills for the protection of their clan or lord. Many samurai lived on menial stipends and practiced farming to make ends meet. Think of Samurai as the Army Reserves-loyal fighters who could be called to service at anytime. During most of Saigō’s lifetime, Japan was divided between domains that were somewhat autonomous-samurai did not fight for the “nation” of Japan but rather the lord of their domain. A similar situation can be seen in the US during the Civil War-Robert E Lee fought for his “domain” of Virginia over that of the “nation” of the United States. Samurai were taught to have the utmost virtue in obeying their lord and it was common practice to use ritual suicide if they were wounded/defeated in battle or if they were disobedient in their service.

Saigō, during his adult life, was used by his Lord to ascertain political information in the modern day city of Tokyo. This job led Saigō to make many important connections and would subsequently get him exiled two times because of political fallout related to his Lord. While in exile, Saigō’s popularity in Japan soared and on his return he was one of the most well known individual’s in the country due to his resiliency, virtue in service, and overall strength. Saigō was influential in helping Japan convert a divided island of domains into a united modernized country. Japan had to change their political system because western countries, like America, were much stronger militarily and Japan felt threatened by the tides of modernization crashing upon its shores. The Meiji Restoration in 1868 brought back imperial rule and drastically changed Japan’s feudal system to a modern-western system. Saigō, inadvertently, helped promote the eventually death of the samurai class and all classes for that matter. After the Meiji Restoration, all people were citizens of a “united” Japan and could move up the ranks of society based on their personal successes. In 1877, Saigō led a rebellion against the central government because of oppressive military policies against his domain. This was one of the last stands of a samurai class that was “technically” no more. In the end, Saigō was killed but was turned into a national hero because of his moral acumen against corruption, his unfaltering leadership, and his status as Japan’s “Last Samurai.”