The Seven Ages of Japan, Part 2: Shinobi and Sakoku and Japanese Ambition

A real ninja. Note the lack of teenage, mutant and turtle qualities.

Constant war. Divided families.  Larger armies than had ever been seen before. And that most famous of Chinese imports, the musket. I’m not going to make a huge, arching generalisation here (…even though that’s exactly the sort of thing I do here) but it’s fair to say that brilliant combination can lead a country to turmoil. It near-destroyed the idea of a unified Japan. It near-destroyed the Shogunate, as even the greatest of warlords was suddenly susceptible to assassination or backstabbing.  And it near-destroyed the samurai system, as warlords moved towards the gun-toting mercenary class’ antidote to the honour and brashness of the warrior class – the ninja. If there’s one symbol of the Sengoku era that works better than any other, it’s the ninja – for a start, they never existed at any other point in Japanese history. Their success was based around the pragmatism of the war, and the (temporary) abandonment of all that was noble about feudal Japan – the disguises, poisoning, espionage and often just plain arson would be unthinkable outside of those desperate times. And on the other hand, they also show what was to become the height of Japanese technology for centuries – amazing military philosophy and technology that would make them icons of a strong and innovative Japan in later years. They are also, it must be mentioned, fucking cool – some of the jut su (techniques) wouldn’t be out of place in, say, a James Bond film. But they were not a permanent change, and as the Sengoku Era reeled to a bloody stop under the military genius of Daimyo Oda Nobunaga and the economic genius of the Portuguese firearms trade, the ninjas disappeared just as they had lived – quietly.

European trade had saved Japan from endless civil war – the cheap and high-tech firearms from Portugal and Spain in return for Japanese finery allowed the Shogunate to speed ahead of its protectionist neighbours and reunite Japan.  But the good, peaceful times were not to last. Because with each trade, the Europeans brought more and more of a commodity that the new Shoguns would find more terrifying than any other…Christianity.

Japanese Christians

Excuse me, do you have a minute to talk about our lord Jesus Christ?

It’s often just plain weird where the biggest decisions in history originate from. Arguably the biggest decision in Japanese history was made by a small Basque man in the crypt of a small French church. The man was called Ignatius of Loyola (because you can’t go down in Spanish history without a damned cool sounding name) and he’d just created a society to spread Christianity around the newly-discovered world outside of Europe – the Evangelical-Catholic Jesuits. You’d think Christianity and Japan would never mix what with Japan not being Christian in the modern age and all, but the Jesuits were actually really successful in the East – in under two decades 200,000 new Catholics were counted in the Japanese population. To the Shogun, this was a threat – fearing invasion as much as some mystical figure called the Pope – Japan needed a way to destroy the supposedly corrupting monotheistic influence before the country fell into another hundred years of bloodshed. The solution was pretty much the most drastic foreign policy idea in history. Japan completely closed itself off from the world.

If I only get one message across to you with Holistic History, it’s that the world is built on connections – trade routes and warpaths and migration patterns and the spread of ideas along any and all of the other three. So when a country closes its borders so completely, makes the punishment for attempted emigration death, goes to far as to bore holes every ship in the navy so the boats can’t reach a certain depth of water…that was more than unusual, that was unprecedented. It was also…successful. Sort of. It protected Japanese trade and culture at a time when even China, the freaking workshop of the world and birthplace of most inventions ever, was beginning to be threatened by Western ambition. But it also meant that, wile the world moved on around them, introducing industry, colony, new nations and new philosophies, Japan was completely oblivious.

Then, after around 250 years of self-imposed isolation, entered a final foreigner who would shape Japan forever. He hailed from a country at the other end of the world – the far west, a strange democracy on the other side of the Pacific. The man was called Matt Perry. And no, he wasn’t that one.

Disregard flag accuracy! Acquire Westernisation!

Commodore Matthew Perry (sadly without First Mate David Schwimmer or Admiral Matt le Blanc) was sent to explore the unknown island of Japan, and open up its borders to foreign trade. Because of a loose understanding of diplomacy, America’s attempt involved cannons, ironclad warships and state-of-the-art rifles. Japan was still using katana. I guess it goes without saying that the Japanese conceded pretty quickly, so Japan opened up its borders for the first time in centuries. And then the full force of the Victorian Era flowed into Japan. Samurai had their swords confiscated. The Shogun was usurped, the actual Emperor installed. The Meiji Restoration – kind of the industrial revolution at double speed – began a wave of technology that rapidly put Japan on the world stage. Unfortunately, it wasn’t just the good ideas from the rest of the world that Japan picked up. As time passed, and Japan’s nationalism became ultranationalism, an insatiable desire amongst many Japanese people for the empire they missed a chance to get. Military power grew, but not foreign relations. Technology exploded in its power, but pacifism didn’t. During the 1920s and ’30s, one final European influence arrived in Japan. It was called fascism.

If it's not love

“Now we are all sons of bitches”

In 1937, fueled by a war economy and the pressures of nationalism, the Japanese experienced something that their Yayoi ancestors would have found unthinkable. They invaded China. In fact, they invaded China really successfully; they turned the north into their puppet before going on to take over Korea, Taiwan and a good number of islands in the Pacific. But it was not without cruelty that they did it – their attack of Nanjing in China, for example, has’t gone down in history as a conquest or a heroic victory. It’s commonly just referred to as The Rape. But as more and more nations joined a growing war, Japan lost its bearings. On the 6th August 1945, while the Imperial Government were discussing the terms of their surrender, one of those new nations delivered its ultimatum. It came in the form of two atomic bombs, and the loss of 200,000 civilian lives.

Post-war, Japan was given the choice between democracy and…well, there wasn’t another choice, which is kind of ironic when talking about democracy. Japan, while it kept its ex-fascist emperor, was rapidly reformed into one of the fairest political systems around today, while a succession of reconstructionist presidents created something now called the Japanese Economic Miracle. It was kind of a big deal. After its 2,000 years of existence, Japan had seen Seven Ages – a Prehistoric Backwater, a Chinese Vassal, a Feudal Idyll and then a Feudal Disaster, an Industrial Autocracy and a lasting Democracy. The new calendar is still young. The question now is where it will go next.


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