Long viewed as a slumbering giant, China has, in recent decades, awakened and rushed headlong into the ranks of the world’s most powerful nations. Some even consider it on the threshold of overtaking the United States (especially in light of its forceful response to the Covid-19 Pandemic) in most categories of world influence. Recall that as recently as the middle of the 20th Century, China had been humiliated by a catastrophic invasion by the Japanese and torn by a devastating civil war. But thanks to the emergence of a strong central government, a compelling ideology, and success in mobilizing China’s immense population it industrialized and modernized at a pace few thought possible. The Chinese people witnessed dramatic changes in their lives and now see a society, largely transformed, enjoy a quality of life few could have imagined not long ago. While there is serious fault to be found, no one denies the Chinese “miracle” has occurred, and that there’s scarce precedent for such a meteoric rise.
Would they, however, to consider the story of China’s long-time adversary, they would discover a nation that was itself dramatically transformed in rapid fashion a full century before China’s startling rise. The transformation of Japan, beginning in 1868, could even be considered more astonishing than even the Chinese ascendance, offering a model that China perhaps unwittingly followed, as it moved to replace a feudal society with a nation able to take its place among the world’s powers. General accounts mention Japan’s “Meiji Restoration,” and its abrupt awakening beginning in 1868, but then quickly pass on and omit what actually took place and whisk us to the end result of their process, i.e., the “proof” – Japan’s surprising victory in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5), the first instance in modern times of an Asian nation defeating an established European power.
Japan might have remained a backward, feudal, rigidly hierarchical society, dominated by local all-powerful Shoguns, had not Western nations posed a threat to its very independence and self-imposed isolation from the world. It all began when U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Tokyo harbor in 1853 unopposed, after which he persuaded the Japanese to sign a commercial treaty favoring U.S. trade. Certain European nations soon did likewise, as imperialist-minded leaders were eager to control regions and penetrate distant markets across the globe. Because the Japanese feared they might be next and understood how vulnerable they were, profound structural changes became imperative. Working in behalf of a new Emperor (a 14-year-old installed in 1868) a dynamic cadre of rising leaders ushered in an era of dramatic changes across society. Local potentates were undermined, the Samurai class had its privileges revoked, and land reforms were introduced.
A central authority assumed control and promoted the semi-divine status of the Emperor as the supreme symbol of national pride and unity. The leadership openly proclaimed its intention to import the most advanced technology available overseas, the Emperor announcing that “Knowledge shall be sought all over the world.” Students as well as delegations of Japanese went forth, encouraged to observe and absorb whatever could advance the nation’s interests. For example, new criminal and civil codes were introduced along lines similar to those in France and Germany. And in 1889 a Constitution was proclaimed establishing Parliament (Diet) and cabinet and the office of Prime Minister. National conscription was introduced (requiring four years of service), and a Japanese army created. Furthermore, a newly organized public school system was put in place and six years of education made mandatory, while a national dialect was introduced to further advance the process of reorganization and national unification. The economy took off, the result of direct government intervention and stimulus. There was impressive growth of railroads, a merchant marine, communication facilities, coal mines, as well as chemical plants, munitions production and textile manufacturing. After a time most of these operations were sold off to private entrepreneurs who consolidated them into powerful economic conglomerates (Zaibatsu).
Would this extensive national makeover now enable Japan to hold its own in the international arena? The question was first answered in 1895 when Japan defeated China in the Sino-Japanese war and again in 1904-5 when the Japanese humbled Russia in the Russo-Japanese conflict. But Japan came away from the latter clash embittered, convinced that U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt, serving as mediator, intervened prematurely, eager to conclude a peace treaty, thereby depriving the Japanese of what they believed to be their just reward, especially after devastating the Russian fleet at the Battle of Tsushima Straits.
In the years that followed, Japan and the United States, both rapidly rising powers, grew increasingly suspicious of one another. Many sources of conflict went unresolved. The day of reckoning finally arrived on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese launched a massive sneak attack against the U.S. at Pearl Harbor. As the Japanese flagship Akagi headed toward the target, and while its sailors cheered wildly, it ran up the very same battle flag unfurled 36 years earlier in Japan’s smashing navel victory over Russia. The attack against the U.S. about to be launched would, the Japanese believed, at long last demonstrate that they had arrived, achieved Asian Supremacy.