Japanese Political Progress
Tokio, February 9th 1888
When, in September last, Count Inouye retired from the Cabinet, it was generally supposed, as I explained at the time, that either Admiral Vicount Enomoto or Vicount Mori would shortly succeed to the portfolio of Foreign Affairs, which had been temporarily assumed by the Minister President of State.
Public expectation, however, was in this instance at fault, and the announcement, made a few days ago, that the post of Minister of State for Foreign Affairs had been offered to and accepted by Count Okuma-Minister of Finance from 1878 to 1881, and lately leader of the only important section of the Government's opponents - fairly took the country by surprise.
The mere fact of Count Okuma's return to power was not the chief cause of this surprise.
That, indeed, had been regarded for months past as a more or less probable event.
Nor can it be said that there are any misgivings, as to the fitness of his nomination, for the new Minister justly fills a high place, among the most brilliant and renowned of Japan's modern statesmen.
But in the national mind his reputation is conspicuously that of a great financier.
As the head of the Treasury he directed the country's financial affairs with marked ability and success during eight years of unexampled stress and difficulty.
Though his measures of currency contraction had scarcely become perceptible when he left office, the people's belief in his financial genius has never wavered.
Naturally, therefore, it was anticipated that his return to office, if effected, would have some relation to fiscal business.
Only now, when he has taken upon himself the very different functions of Foreign Secretary, do men begin to recognize how well suited to such a post are his oft-proved qualities of clear judgment, tact, and courage.
Since the fall of feudalism, progress befoe all other things has been the watchword of every political party in Japan.
The whole nation is of one mind in its aims; the differences between the units are differences only of degree, and of opinion as to the safe limits of speed.
In the liberal temper of the present epoch, no political faction of a distintlly conservative tendency would command a fragment of popular support.
That the Government itself is in a high degree progressive is attested by the wonderful reforms that it has inaugurated and successfully accomplished during the last 20 years - reforms which, if judged by the ordinary canons of Western politics, would savour strongly of reckless radicalism.
No theory could warrant, nor could anything short of practical success justify, such a swift and wholesale substitution of the new for the old.
Yet, whenever the ranks of this emphatically progressive Government have been thinned, it has been found in nearly every case, either that the units from time to time detached were impelled by a desire to travel faster than their colleagues, or else that, having seceded owing to differences of opinion on questions unconnected with liberal progress, they had afterwards to choose between suffering political extinction and becoming advocates of a programme more advanced than that of the Cabinet.
The latter was the case with Count Itagaki, who, leaving the Government in 1873, on the ground that its policy towards Korea was too conciliatory, shortly became the leader of the Jiyuto, a party which may be said to have absorbed all the political electricity in the empire.
The former was the case with Count Okuma.
His retirement from the Cabinet 1881 was mainly caused by his strong liberal proclivities.
He aimed at giving to Japan with a very few years a Constitution on the English model.
Possibly differences of opinion on that point might have been got over, if they had not been intensified by the importation into the field of immediate dispute of certain burning fiscal questions which happened at the time to bring about a state of acute political tension.
Be that as it may, Count Okuma left the Cabinet for the broad reason that his colleagues could not assent to the constitutional experiment on which he was bent.
Soon afterwards he became the leader of the Kaishinto, or party of progress.
This party, as well as the Jiyuto, ceased three years ago to be a distinct organization, but, unlike the Jiyuto, it has nevertheless preserved its integrity as a powerful political faction.
Its rank and file are for the most part men of substance and erudition, commanding public regard and respect by their character as well as their social status.
Its methods, moreover, are essentially moderate, in no sense partaking of political agitation.
Count Okuma himself, since his retirement, has seemed to shun rather than to court publicity, leading a quiet and comparatively secluded life, devoting his ample means to deeds of charity, and maintaining, unaided, a large school of high educational type.
When raised last year to the peerage he made over to this school the whole sum - $30,000 - that accompanied his patent of nobility.
Of the two political parties hitherto forming the Opposition, the Kaishinto alone could boast the possession of any solid elements of strength and practical ability.
Out of these a working Cabinet might, perhaps, have been constructed in the event of the present Ministry's downfall.
The Jiyuto, on the other hand, has no fit components for an Administration.
It, indeed, contained such heterogenous elements, and showed itself so evidently incapable of self control, that Count Itagaki retired from its leadership some years ago.
Thereupon the party lost all semblance of cohesion.
Though its fragments still give occasional signs of vitality, its importance as a political factor is, for the time at least, at an end.
Thus, Count Okuma's return to office, as an index of a more or less complete fusion between the Government and the Kaishinto, may be said to have removed all formidable obstacles from the path of the Ministry, and to have given them an additional title to be called representative.
The Cabinet, then, is now essentially a coalition.
Public attention is of course riveted upon the new situation.
Men ask each other whether it implies any serious surrender of principles on either side - whether the administrative lump is to be changed by the Okuma leaven, or whether the working of the political machine will be unaffected by the new ingredient.
But there is, in truth, very little room for such speculations.
Things are not as they were when Count Okuma left the Government.
Then neither had the date of convening a national Assembly been fixed nor had the preparations for constitutional government been carried to within easy sight of consummation.
Two years hence Japan is to have a Parliament and a Constitution.
Her most eager reformers can now desire nothing more rapid.
It is true that Count Okuma's view as to the nature and details of the Constitution have generally been understood to be more liberal than those of the Cabinet.
Yet the difference was never radical, and the end in view was always identical.
Both alike aimed at the enfranchisement of the people.
But while Count Okuma, seven years ago, would have wrought this great change almost without halting, the Government viewed it as a measure fraught with grave difficulties and even perils, only to be approached by degrees and with extreme circumspection and foresight.
Reconcilement of these views under the circumstances of to-day, when years have multiplied the experiences and matured the judgement of their holders, need not call for any considerable sacrifice on either side.
By adopting German constitutional models, Japan's Government openly declares that it is but laying a stepping-stone for the nation in its political progress.
If Count Okuma agrees to co-operate in this work, it is doubtless because he is at one with its ultimate purpose, and also because he hopes that it will gain impetus from his aid.
By Japan's friends this strengthening of the Government at a critical period of the nation's history is greeted with unmixed satsifaction.
If they are wont to hold their breadth at the rapidity and extent of Japanese progress, it is not alone because her fleet strides are without any precedent in the world's annals.
It is also because a careful study of Japanese history reveals a deeper and graver cause of anxiety.
The men who planned the abolition of feudalism and undertook the task of constructing anew the nation's political and social fabrics did not encounter or expect to encounter any check from the nature of the materials they had to work upon.
On the contrary, they had every reason to anticipate that the forces they applied would, so to speak, work expansively, and would need firm and powerful hands to keep them from gaining strength beyond control.
For they knew full well that there was, and always had been, a Socialistic tendency among the Japanese people.
That the feudal chiefs recognized this tendency was long ago established by the ancient enactment, among other things, of stringent laws against the transfer of land by sale.
Without that prohibition, gratuitous parcelling-out of the land among the people would have been the first resort of political agiatators.
Under it other means for the distribution of wealth were adopted more than once in the past - notably on one occasion, when the promoters of a great political scheme sought to popularize their cause by constituting themselves money-lenders, with the distinct understanding that no legal remedy should be sought against defaulting borrowers.
Distribution of wealth, in short, was from early times recognized as the most powerful of all appeals to the national bent.
Again, while the spontaneous abandonment in 1869 of their fiefs, military power, and feudal splendour, by 300 nobles, occupying nearly the whole of the empire, stands out before Western eyes as the most astonishing of the many strange events which succeeded the Mikado's restoration, from a Japanese point of view the conduct of the barons seemed only natural and proper.
And when the Administration afterwards adopted very arbitrary measures for commuting the incomes of the feudal lords, it well knew that the national sentiment would condone the means for the sake of the end, which embodied the principle of distribution of wealth.
Another illustration is furnished by tenant right, which, in its amplest form, has existed in Japan for centuries.
Beyond the payment of rent, a tenant is under no obligation to his land-lords.
Routine of crops, methods of fertilization, and other such matters, are left to the occupier's discretion.
The whole system, in fact, although restrictions against the purchase of land disappeared with feudalism, is clearly adverse to the tenure of large estates by moneyed men.
Hence, there are no great territorial proprietors.
Nor, indeed, is there any marked inequality in the distribution of wealth at all comparable with that which exists in Western countries.
Judged by European or American standards, the life of the upper classes in Japan is extremely simple and unostentatious.
Yet at this very time, one of the stock outcries of political agiators is that the recipients of official incomes enjoy luxuries in excess of their deserts and in dangerous contrast to the condition of the masses.
All these things point an unmistakable moral, and may well inspire apprehensions that Japan needs the curb rather than the spur, and that when once set in motion her political progress may be too swift to be safe.
Nothing, indeed, is more certain than that, while great and early changes are inevitable, any precipitate measure of enfranchisement in the immediate future would be fraught with the gravest danger to the country.
Some recent events lend strength to the above conclusions.
It was always foreseen as probable, if not certain, that the sudden adoption of new standards of learning and new titles to respect would weaken the authority of the generation which has its roots in old times, and would render the rising generation dangerously independent.
Confirmation of this forecast is already forthcoming, and was strikingly brought out during the political agitation of last autumn.
Foremost among the agitators-and, indeed, constituting their great majority, were members of the student class.
It did not, apparently, seem absurd to these half-educated lads that they should besiege the doors of Ministerial residences and solemnly tender childish advice to gray-headed statesmen in respect of the nation's internal and external policy.
Three or four hundred of them did not seem to think that they were in any way violating the fitness of things when they set out for the capital from distant parts of the Empire, vowing never to return to their provincial homes until they had secured for the nation the rights of free speech and public meeting, and had accomplished sundry other administrative reforms culled from their text-books of economics and ethics.
Of course, these giddy youths soon found that their enterprise was hopeless, and that they were likely to cool their heels in Tokio to no purpose and for an indefinite period.
Then, however, with the desperate resolution of Japanese character, they began to plot arson and assassination, seeing that less illegitimate weapons were of no avail.
In the end, the Government had recourse to a measure which savoured only of charitable contempt.
It simply issued a peace-observation edict, under which the police soon ordered the hot-brained youths to remove themselves from the capital, and return to their homes and their studies.
With them were rusticated a few persons of maturer years, but still more immature discretion, who had taken part directly or indirectly in the movement.
This action of the authorities made some stir at the time, but the sequel proved that no more humane and effectual means could have been chosen for putting an end to a foolish agitation.
The lesson taught by the affair, however, is clearly to the effect that in entering on new paths of philosophy and science, the rising generation has cast loose some of the bonds which make for discipline and good order.
The new and mischievous element thus called into being, coupled with the Socialistic tendencies which are indicated by the natioinal history, offer additional arguments of political caution.
Japan's statesmen must be well alive to the whole situation, and to the warnings which it inculcates.
Already, indeed, they have given proof of their wariness and sobriety by a prudent choice of German models for Japan's Constitution, clearly recognizing, no doubt, that, however admirable the British Constitution, for example, may be in the abstract, to transplant it into this country without fully preparing the soil for its reception would be only to invite, in their worst form, dangers from which even the Anglo-Saxon race itself is not wholly exempt in its political progress.
The Times - April 5th
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