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An Interpretation of the Significance of the

Russo-Japanese War





“Meiji” means “enlightened rule.” This term was chosen by the present Emperor as the official title of the period covered by his rule. The present year (1903) is called in Japan Meiji 38, that is, the thirty-eighth year of Enlightened Rule, and the designation itself doubtless characterizes the Imperial purpose. From the start he and his councillors determined to depart from many ancient customs, notably those of international isolation.

To appreciate adequately the significance of the Meiji era and its consequences both to national life and international relations, we must glance briefly at the conditions and the spirit of the people in pre-Meiji times.

In the attitude of the Japanese towards foreigners, ancient history may be divided into two periods, that preceding the Tokugawa regency and that covered by that regency (1600-1867). As Occidentals we need to remember that self-sufficiency and self-determined isolation were matters exclusively of the second period. It would appear that from time immemorial Japan was entirely hospitable to foreign ways and foreign teachers. She welcomed Koreans and Chinese who brought to her new philosophical and ethical ideas, new religious creeds, and a new civilization. As in recent decades Japanese students have flocked to western lands, so in ancient times Japanese students went abroad for learning, some, if their histories may be credited, having travelled even as far as India.

How open-minded Japan was politically, intellectually and religiously in the sixteenth century may be gathered from the wide welcome given the first missionaries of Christianity. Not only Francis Xavier (1549) but scores of European priests and monks won their way into the hearts and homes of Japan. Within fifty years many hundred thousand Japanese had formally accepted the Christian faith; and not until the rulers began to suspect the monks of political designs, was the historic attitude of Japan towards foreigners changed. Nor was that change readily enforced. Edict followed edict, persecution followed persecution. Large rewards were offered for information as to the whereabouts of foreign monks and native Christians. Christianity was branded as “Jakyo,” the “Evil Way.” Yet in spite of Imperial Edicts and numberless “Banning Boards,” in spite of the popular condemnation of Christianity, and in spite of its persistent persecution by the government, Christianity was not finally exterminated, nor the foreigner completely excluded from the country until tens of thousands of martyrs had given their lives as well as their fortunes in behalf of their foreign friends and of their own faith. Well nigh fifty years of determined and ruthless persecution were needed by the government to drive the dreaded foe from Japan,— eloquent testimony to the fidelity and the open-mindedness of multitudes of the people to the creeds and the teachers from other lands.

The Occidental often finds difficulty in appreciating the significance of Japanese exclusion of Christianity and of Occidentals. We are too apt to count it a rejection of Christianity per se. But this is an error. Roman Catholicism has for a thousand years held the view that the church is superior to the state and should rule it. From time immemorial Roman Catholic missions have insisted on the ultimate political supremacy of the Pope of Rome. Japan’s suspicions of the political aspirations of Christianity were fully justified. She logically excluded all foreigners because all the foreigners she knew held to a political theory of the Christian religion.

It is safe to say that no form of Christianity which seeks to subordinate the state to the Church will ever find permanent lodgment in Japan. She builded better than she knew in excluding from her land an organized religion with political aspirations. It has proved the bane of Europe and would similarly have brought suffering to Japan.

Although Japan excluded Christianity and not only forbade the entrance of all foreigners but also made it a crime for the Japanese themselves to visit other lands, yet she was not wholly ignorant of the movements of the outside world. Three merchant ships from Holland were annually allowed entrance to Nagasaki, and her small colony of Dutchmen were permitted to live on a certain small island in the harbour. Through these Dutchmen she kept her eye on the West. Japanese writers indeed insist that they received far more from the West than we have realized. It must be granted nevertheless that the policy of exclusion was probably more complete for two hundred and fifty years than that which any other large nation has ever successfully maintained. Although the government itself might in a measure have kept in touch with the West, such persistent isolation, and for such definite reasons of suspicion and fear could not fail to develop among the people at large a profound antipathy to the foreigner as such. No caricature of his form or description of his character was too dreadful for credence. The Christian religion was popularly supposed to teach various forms of abomination and immorality. The very presence of foreigners on the sacred soil of Japan was supposed to pollute the land and to contaminate her people descended from the gods.

Yet we must guard here against exaggeration. Such was doubtless the view widely taught and obediently accepted. From abundant personal experiences among the farmers and the merchants, I am persuaded that at the present time this anti-foreign sentiment has relatively but light hold upon them. Naturally enough it has been felt and fostered chiefly by the ruling classes, who have looked at the foreigner not merely as individuals, as specimens of humanity, but as potential political pirates, and not without much justification, as history has shown both in the past, and especially at the present moment.

But even in the early days of renewed intercourse with the West many experiences brought to unexpected light a real kindliness of heart on the part of the common people towards the Occidental. Dr. Beltz has told of one such experience. With a comrade he was travelling in the interior among farmers who had never seen a foreigner. At one place he and his friend proposed to climb a mountain but they were told that because it was sacred no one was permitted to do this. Should they try, some calamity would surely be visited upon them by the local Deity. The guides refused to go with them. Smiling at the superstitions of the natives and trampling on their religious scruples, the enterprising foreigners pressed on. Strangely enough, after a hard tramp of several miles the comrade was suddenly taken ill, and there was nothing for Mr. Beltz to do but to return for help to the men whose council he had spurned and whose religious feelings he had ignored. Under such circumstances, what treatment was to be expected from the natives? No kind attention surely, yet as a matter of fact responding generously to the needs of the foreigner, and in spite of their own strong religious scruples, those natives climbed the mountain and brought down on their shoulders the afflicted white man.

Wide personal experience in the interior of Japan, where even to this day few foreigners ever go, and constant intercourse for seventeen years with merchants, farmers, and artisans, has convinced me that unreasoning, racial antipathy has today practically no existence among the common people; particularly is this true at a distance from the treaty ports: and if there is little of this sentiment to-day, is it not fair to argue that it could never have been deep-rooted? But I cannot say so much for official Japan nor for the common people in the ports. Here, suspicion and deep dislike have often been conspicuous. And by official Japan I do not mean merely officers who are on duty; I refer also to the social class from which they come, and particularly to the Samurai. There can hardly be a doubt that this old warrior class entertained a genuine antipathy to the foreigner as such. In view of past history, however, the marvel is that in less than two generations, so great a part of even this warrior class has been able to set antipathy aside and to treat the foreigner as a friend.

To sum up then:— no nation has on the whole left a more honourable record in regard to its attitude towards foreigners than has Japan. The Tokugawa period of fear, suspicion and intense antipathy on the part of the ruling class, is exceptional in the history of Japan. But the causes of that antipathy are clear and they have their justification.

The cause of Japan’s long isolation was the discovery of the white peril. The aggressive spirit and grasping ambitions of the white man compelled the rulers of Japan to look not only with disfavour on their politically organized religion, but altogether to forbid their coming to Japan, as the best and easiest solution of the problems connected with the white peril.

That full justice be done to Japan’s attitude towards foreign peoples, let the reader recall the mental attitude of occidental nations during the past four hundred years towards the African, the Chinaman, and the Hindoo. Do not the white peoples of Europe and of America feel that Africa, India and Asia are regions for legitimate commercial and political expansion? Do we not act on the theory that those regions and peoples are for us to exploit to our own commercial advantage?

It may be that we justify ourselves by enumerating our points of superiority. We note with pride our civilization, and contrast it with their barbarity; we exult in our strength and impose on their helplessness. We boast of our high morality and enlightened religion and decry their immorality and superstitions. In these things we think we hear the call of God to go forth to conquer and to rule. If we are evolutionists we appeal to the struggle for existence and felicitate ourselves on the fact that nature has made us the fittest to survive in the struggle of nations. In subduing and destroying other nations and races are we not fulfilling our destiny and theirs?

Since the discovery of America, the dream of conquest, of empire and of unearned wealth has intoxicated the white people of the earth and made them the curse and the scourge of all the world. Japan’s first reaction on coming into contact with the white man was to close her doors and decline to have anything to do with him. Who shall criticise or condemn her? If she has feared or scorned or disdained the white man, who shall say that her instinct for self-preservation has been at fault?

There is perhaps no truer sign of the essentially provincial character of the self-centred white people than their failure to discover or appreciate the noble and the beautiful in the great civilizations of the Orient, Hindoo, Chinese and Japanese. We have been blinded to these by the selfishness of our lives, the greed of our ambitions and the pride of our might. Surely the outstanding fact in the relations of the West to the East has been the peril to the yellow and brown races through the presence of the white man, whose assumption has been the theory that might makes right.



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