Japan has a rich and full history that has gone through many different
periods and transitions. Many cultural artefacts represent these
sort of transitional periods and the cultural challenges that were present
at that time. Two such cultural artefacts are translations of two
Japanese novels written during the Meiji Restoration in Japan (or shortly
thereafter during Japan’s modernization drive): Sorekara (And then…) by
Natsume Soseki, originally published in 1909, and Yoakemae (Before the
Dawn) by Shimazaki Toson, originally published in 1929. The
Meiji period in Japan can roughly be defined as the mid/late 19th century
to the early 20th century. Although Japan was not formally colonized,
the actions of the Western powers do sort of mimic imperialism during this
time in Japan. The Japanese people were forced to fight back using
the West’s rules. They tried to accept Western culture and democratic
ideals. Along with democratic ideals came the notion of individualism,
a concept extremely foreign to the Japanese. The struggle between
traditional Japanese culture and the new Western ideals is evident in many
Japanese cultural artefacts, and does represent a colonial or post-colonial
power relationship during the Meiji era of Japan.
Natsume Soseki made extensive studies in European, especially English, literature, which made him highly qualified to judge the values of Western thought, as well as its shortcomings. He was in England for three years, from 1900-03. In Sorekara (published in 1909), Soseki makes critical judgments of the Meiji period and its anxiety to modernize (or what some would call Westernize). He felt that Japan overrated Western culture and that such indiscriminate copying of the West was wrong and destructive to the soul of Japan. The main character of Sorekara is a man named Daisuke. In the novel, Daisuke’s greatest struggle is with the moral and ethical principals being imported from the West. During this time, individualism, a Western ideal, was becoming the highest form of human behavior. However, in Japan the strength of traditional Japanese morality and ethics had not waned. This struggle by the Japanese is represented in Daisuke’s struggle with his own morals when he is confronted by his desires and adulterous intentions.
Daisuke is meant to symbolize the disillusionment of young Japanese intellectuals who have reached maturity after the Russo-Japanese War. At this point in history Japan had attained her goal of world recognition as a modern power, and the struggle for recognition had been replaced by the struggle for survival. Industrial expansion resulting from the war had introduced a new kind of insecurity, and thus selfishness and cruelty, into Japanese society. This new morality is no doubt blamed on the Westernization of Japanese morals and values. Daisuke becomes disillusioned because he represents old Japan, and in the new Japan men are only content if they are stupid or hypocritical. Daisuke suffers in this new society because he is honest and intelligent, but cannot cope and is finally brought down because of it.
Shimazaki Toson, like Soseki, spent time studying in Europe. He was in France from 1913-16. During his time in France, he became aware of the uniqueness, and the value, of Japanese culture as he lived in the midst of French culture; it was at this point in his life that he resolved to study in depth the period just before and after the Meiji Restoration. In effect, it was at this time that Toson was researching and planning to write Yoakemae. Toson’s novel, Yoakemae, is a historical novel published in 1929. It deals with the emergence of Japan out of the stage of feudalism and into the present stage of capitalism. The story follows Japan through the awesome social upheaval of the Meiji period where they are desperately seeking a solution to their need to modernize, while they are faced with the additional problem of dealing with external pressure: Western nations.
Although Toson never actually said so, it is clear from the novel itself and from what he said in other contexts that he was consciously and deliberately setting out to create a new vision of the Meiji Restoration. He found the then-current opinion of that time to be “spiritually unsatisfying, intellectually untenable, and socially and politically regrettable.” Japan in the 1920s was still struggling to free itself from the false impression that the country had no usable past of its own and that it was totally dependent on European and American history for guiding precedents. Foreigners had first advanced this proposition, but it soon came to be widely circulated within Meiji Japan. The new vision which Toson wanted to create had above all else to be a valid product of Japanese experience if it was to counter the negative view of a usable Japanese past. It could not be “subservient to the European norms that had both sharpened and beclouded Japan’s perceptions of itself in the three-quarters of a century since Perry’s arrival nor could it serve either its creator or its readers properly if it merely provoked unthinking reaction against them.”
Despite the many problems of the Tokugawa system (the samurai system of government that was in place up until the Meiji Restoration), it showed no signs of collapse in the first half of the 19th century, and it might have continued for much longer if Japan could have maintained its isolation. But rapid technological advances in the West made this no longer possible. Industrialization and steam-powered ships were beginning to bring Western economic and military power around the shores of Japan with a pressure incomparably greater than exercised by previous Westerners that the Tokugawa shogunate had driven away.
By the middle of the 19th century the European powers had completed the subjugation of the Indian subcontinent, had taken over much of Southeast Asia, and were beating down the doors of China and forcing a semi-colonial system of unequal treaties on it. Various Western nations had repeatedly tried to persuade the Japanese to open their doors, before the United States in 1853 dispatched about a quarter of its navy, under the command of Commodore Matthew C. Perry, to force the Japanese to give American ships access to their ports. The Japanese were forced to give in. Perry’s ships with their more modern cannon could have destroyed Edo (modern Tokyo) and could even more easily have cut off its essential food supplies by blocking the entrance to Edo Bay. The treaty signed in 1854 achieved only a limited ‘success’, but Townsend Harris, the American consul permitted by this agreement to reside in Japan, finally managed to negotiate a full trade treaty in 1858, using the threat of British naval power then engaged in war in China to persuade the shogun’s government to comply. The other Western powers followed suit with similar treaties.
Through these treaties and subsequent agreements, the full unequal treaty system developed in China was applied to Japan. Foreign traders became sheltered at the new port of Yokohama, near Edo, and at other treaty ports, protected by European military forces and the extraterritorial privilege of trial by their own judges under their own laws, while treaty limitations on Japanese tariffs left the whole economy open to the machine production of the West. Japan, with its purely pre-industrial economy and its archaic feudal system of autonomous domains, seemed as defenseless before Western imperial expansion as the other countries of Asia that had already succumbed. Japan had quite essentially been colonized.
Within this historical colonial context, both Soseki’ s and Toson’s novels are excellent examples of cultural artefacts that represent a colonial power relation/relationship. In Soseki’ s novel, Sorekara, the main character, Daisuke, undergoes a crisis involving his morals, values, and individual self much like the rest of Japan during the Meiji period. He enters into an adulterous relationship with his best friends wife, because of his moral confusion, and is humiliated because of it. He struggles with the decision of whether to follow his individual happiness and marry her, thus risking the censure of not only society, but also his own family, who eventually disown him. In Sorekara, Soseki describes the contradictions, the spiritual struggles, and the many problems of a man who had to give up his old ideas but was not very eager to accept the new ideas. Throughout the novel, Daisuke takes on a defeated tone and many times acknowledges to himself that he believes Japan to be subjugated to the West, representing a colonial power relationship. For example, Daisuke states:
It’s because the relationship between Japan and the West is no good that I won’t work. First of all, there’s no other country with such a bad case of beggar’s twitch…the point is, Japan can’t get along without borrowing from the West. But it poses as a first-class power. And it’s straining to join the ranks of the first-class powers. That’s why, in every direction, it puts up the façade of a first-class power and cheats on what’s left behind. The consequences are reflected in each of us as individuals. A people so oppressed by the West have no mental leisure, they can’t do anything worthwhile. They get an education that’s stripped to the bare bone, and they’re driven with their noses to the grindstone until they’re dizzy…They haven’t thought about a thing beyond themselves, that day, that very instant. They’re too exhausted to think about anything else. Unfortunately, exhaustion of the spirit and deterioration of the body come hand-in-hand. And that’s not all. The decline of morality has set in too. Look where you will in this country, you won’t find one square inch of brightness. It’s all pitch black.
Daisuke, in this extremely long monologue, makes it clear that the West
is to blame for the poor morality of the Japanese people and it is all
because the West is dominating Japanese thought.
Similar to the situation above, the narrator also describes Daisuke’s dismay at the Westernization of Japan.
Daisuke began to be beset by a kind of anxiety peculiar to modern Japan. This anxiety was a primitive phenomenon arising from lack of faith between individuals. Thanks to this psychological phenomenon, Daisuke experienced severe discomposure. He was a man who disliked putting his faith in gods, and, as an intellectual, was by nature incapable of doing so. He believed that if people had faith in one another, there was no need to rely on gods. Gods acquired the right to exist only when they become necessary to deliver men from the anguish of mutual suspicion. Accordingly, he concluded that in those countries where gods existed, the people were liars. But he discovered present-day Japan was a country having faith neither in gods nor men. He attributed it all to Japan’s economic situation.
This is a direct attack on Western morality and institutions.
For example, Western countries involved in trade with Japan are primarily
all Christian and rely on a God. Daisuke is essentially calling them
liars and placing the blame on them for Japan’s current ‘economic situation.’
If the West had not forced its will on Japan, the Japanese would have been
better off, at least according to Daisuke and the narrator.
This kind of domination during the Meiji period in Japan is somewhat, but not completely, similar to Abdul R JanMohamed’s notion of the hegemonic phase, or neocolonialism. He states “the natives accept a version of the colonizer’s entire system of values, attitudes, morality, institutions, and, more important, mode of production” The West is able to do this only with the consent of the Japanese, who have given in wholeheartedly to the Western traditions. At the beginning of the West’s involvement in Japan, when Commodore Perry opened Japan to the West, Japan was even faced with the threat of military coercion, something that no doubt led the Japanese to view Western traditions differently.
There is another view of the power of Western culture over Japanese traditional cultural that is related to Daisuke’s monologue above, his identity crisis, and his lack of desire to work. William N. Ridgeway discusses the notion of a male identity crisis within Japan. The Danpatsurei of 1871, encouraging samurai to cut off their chonmage (topknots), and the Haitorei of 1876, forbidding samurai to wear swords, were both promulgated in Soseki’ s lifetime and where emasculating gestures having profound symbolic meaning to the male population of Japan. According to one analysis of the self-made Meiji man, the key to manliness was enterprise. An enterprising male is manly: Enterprise in service to family, business and country makes a man. The myth that the enterprising man is a manly man is still alive and kicking in its popular manifestation of the Japanese salary man (Typical white-collar worker in America). By this definition, Daisuke, who most typifies Soseki’ s "ambiguous subject," was not manly because he refused to participate in his father's business enterprise. Daisuke is a high-class idler, who could not, or would not, engage with society in a productive manner. He was unproductive, a non-producer in a world in which production was becoming more and more valued. His rejection of enterprise in general was in a larger sense a rejection of Western technology and modernization.
Yoakemae, much like Sorekara, is a novel full of many overt and covert criticisms of Japan’s drive to Westernize. The hero of the novel is named Hanzo. At the beginning of the novel he is an idealistic young man with a decided social consciousness. He loves his people as much as he loves his country. As the story follows Hanzo, it also follows a history recorded in detail of the life of a whole nation in distress and at the point of social upheaval, seeking urgently for a solution at a time when they were faced with the additional threat from an external force: the Black Ships (American warships commanded by Commodore Perry who sought to open Japan to US trade).
Two passages stick out in Yoakemae as part of the narrator’s commentary on Westernization and represent a colonial power relation/relationship. Like Sorekara, they have to do with morality, religion, and uncontested change. The first example is in Chapter 11 where the narrator describes Hanzo’s feelings:
Since the beginning of Meiji, everyone in the country had been confronted with an overwhelming pressure to change everything, from the direction of scholarly inquiry to the least detail of customary behavior.
Hanzo is intrigued by the willingness of the Japanese people to change
customs and culture without question. He detests this willingness
and describes its effect as follows:
Hanzo had been Honjin at Magome at the time the ports were being opened and he could clearly remember how many people had come all the way to the Kiso to buy up the undervalued coins, and how quickly the old coins had vanished from circulation. The gold coins poured out of the country, and foreign coins of inferior quality were imported to replace them. He felt keenly the threat of the disaster that would ensue if something similar were now to happen in the cultural exchange between East and West. Here too all the equivalents of fine old gold might leave the country, to be replaced by debased Western coinage.
Hanzo clearly believes that Japan is giving up a culture that he greatly
values for nothing. Hanzo places no value in what he considers morally
challenged Western culture. He questions what Japan will be left
with if she leaves behind the traditions of the past for these current
The second passage concerns Hanzo and his uneasiness with foreign religion and its effects on Japanese traditions and history. The narrator states:
There was nothing whose sources were so pure but whose consequences were so subject to pollution as religion. The history of the confounding of the Buddhist and Shinto faiths testified to that fact as clearly as anything could. It was not at all unlikely that a similar confounding of Shinto and Christianity might take place in the future. Nor was it in the least likely that determined, capable, and personable Christian missionaries might be able to play on the Japanese love of the novel and exotic, causing them to forget altogether about the distinction between the roots and branches of this nation. It was imperative that the religious basis of the nation be made explicit in these times when the restoration was not yet firmly established. This was what concerned Hanzo.
Hanzo has great anxiety about the effect of Western religion and thought
on the Japanese people. He questions whether they will just give
in to Western religion and accept it as the religious basis of the nation,
forgetting the traditional values of the past. He’s worried that
things from the West are supplanting those that are native Japanese.
In addition to the overt criticism of Westernization in the novel described above, Saburo Sato believes that the ‘Black Ships’ hold extra meaning as well. He writes that the “Black Ships are not merely intruders: they possess new values, morals and wisdom…these invaders destroy traditions, customs, values and morals, and they destroy Hanzo completely.” The ‘Black Ships’ did not come to Japan to merely open Japan to trade; they were there to make wholesale changes to the Japanese culture as well. For example, by the second chapter it is understood that the coming of the ‘Black Ships’ has brought about social disintegration. It has destroyed the morale of the samurai who served the Tokugawa Shogunate. The coming of the ‘Black Ships’ is the cause of everything negative. It forces Hanzo to consider the meaning and direction of life. At this time, Hanzo wants to follow the way of Japanese classical thought and decides to live the life of an outcast. Choosing this way of life is an important step for the Hanzo because Hanzo’s choice of way of life is the wrong way to confront the foreigners and their new world, as symbolized by the ‘Black Ships.’ The power of the ‘Black Ships’ lies in their ability to make these changes to Japans culture. The Japanese people would not have so willingly accepted them if they did not feel they were being enlightened in some way.
So how would one characterize the change in customs and the open-armed acceptance of Western culture and values in place of traditional Japanese culture and values? Frantz Fanon offers the best views on this subject. Fanon warned that in an era of global capitalism it was necessary to continue to fight against cultural and economic colonialism. Fanon writes that “when we consider the efforts made to carry out the cultural estrangement so characteristic of the colonial epoch, we realize that nothing has been left to chance and that the total result looked for by colonial domination was indeed to convince the natives that colonialism came to lighten their darkness.” The colonizers (Western nations in Japan’s case) legitimize their presence by making the natives believe that their presence is beneficial to them. The ‘Black Ships’ brought destruction to Japan’s old traditional culture and values, but were accepted by the Japanese because they believed the ‘Black Ships,’ in Fanon’s words, “came to lighten their darkness.”
There is an obvious power relation/relationship between Western nations and Japan during the Meiji era even though Japan was never actually colonized. Japan, with the help of military coercion from the West, was forced to open up to the world. This caused Japan to have to change many of its morals, values, and traditions, and this change is exactly why a power relation exists. In both Sorekara and Yoakemae, the heroes of both stories are struggling to find a balance between East and West, but both end up not being able to cope with it and the West wins. Daisuke struggles with the new individualism (a Western value), and Hanzo struggles with the power of the ‘Black Ships’ (Westernization). Like many other nations, Japan was subjugated not only because they were militarily forced to conform, but many Japanese were also convinced they were being enlightened, and that is where the West’s power lies in “colonizing” nations.