Political development in Japan
Tokyo, September 24th, 1892
During the five years that have elapsed since I was last in Tokyo many things have changed.
The Europeanization of Japan proceeds apace, though, perhaps, with a less headlong rapidity than before.
Short lines of railway at that time ran in the neighbourhood of the two capitals, Tokyo and Kyoto, and of the Treaty ports, Kobe and Yokohama.
Now it is possible to travel by rail within a single day from Tokyo to Kyoto, while over 1,500 miles of the iron road are recorded in the statistical calender.
In the capital, tramcars clatter along the street; gas flames in some of the principal highways; and the electric light is uniformly employed in the public buildings, in many of the residences of Ministers and nobles, in the tea-houses which figure so largely in the holiday life of the Japanese gentleman, and in quite a number of stores and even small shops.
Telephones and telegraphs stretch a web of wires overhead.
The long picturesque lines of yashikis or fortified city residences of the feudal lords and their sworded retainers, that covered so great an area within the moats, have almost all disappeared, and have been replaced by public offices of showy European architcture and imposing dimensions.
An immense pile of scaffolding, surrounding a space much larger than the Law Courts on the Strand, conceals what will presently be known as the new Ministry and Courts of Justice, where will be dispensed a jurisprudence that has been borrowed, with a truly Japanese eclecticism, from the codes of half the nations of Europe.
The perpetual bugle-note, and the sight of neat figures in white cotton uniforms and black boots, is indicative of a national army, whose mobilized strength in time of peace is 50,000, and whose discipline, physique, and weapons are the admiration of European critics.
Out in Tokyo Bay the smart white hulls of gunboats, lying at anchor, represent a navy whose creation has forcibly stirred the national ardour, and which is destined in future to be no mean factor in the politics of the Pacific.
Finally, after a 20 years' travail Japan has given birth to a Parliamentary Constitution; and an unpretentious but roomy temporary structure, built, like its predecessor which was burnt down last year, of wood, and with no trace of native art or architecture about it, accommodates the nominees of royalty or the people, who, in the two Chambers, created by the Constitution of February, 1889, and respectively entitled the House of Peers and the House of Representatives, constitute the Imperial Diet of Japan, and are swiftly introducing her people to the amenities of Parliamentary existence - obstruction within the Chamber, platform oratory out of doors - to the phenomena of Radical and Progressive parties and to the time-honoured palaestra of begging and refusing supplies.
The Diet is not now sitting, but will reassemble in November.
In the two and a half years of its existence it has passed through three sessions and two general elections.
The two Houses, the Lower 300 and the Upper 270 strong, meet in Chambers identical in size and design, almost the only difference being the presence of the Imperial Throne behind the President's chair in the House of Peers.
Their ground plan had been borrowed from that of the bulk of foreign Legislative Chambers, the seats and desks of the members being arranged in the arc of a circle fronting a raised platform, upon which are the Presidential chair, the Speaker's tribune, the desk of the official reporters, and - a speciality of the Japanese Diet-on either side of this centre a row of seats occupied by the Ministers or Secretaries of the various departments who are in the Chamber, yet not of it and who sit there without votes to defend their departments, to make speeches, or to answer questions.
The Japanese appear to have acquired with characteristic facility the external features of Parliamentary conduct.
They make excellent speeches, frequently of great length, and marked by graces of style as well as by quickness of reasoning.
On the whole, considering how immature is the Lower House, and how inevitaby, as I shall presently explain, it is by its constitution afflicted with the voices of an irresponsible Opposition, it appears to conduct its operations with a creditable decorum.
Very full and accarate reports of the speeches are published by a Government staff of reporters, whose stenographic attainments are on a par with the most highly trained experts of Europe or America; and a condensed version of the debates in English appears in the columns of the Japan Daily Mail from the able pen of its well known editor, Captain Brinkley.
The new Parliamentary regime has developed a prodigious mushroom growh of native journals, few enjoying at all an extensive circulation, but each attached to the creed of some party or section or inspired by some leader.
In this way is being manufactured, with almost bewildering haste, the body of a public opinion whose movements it is impossible to forecast, and with which Japanese statesmen already find it difficult to grapple.
In the country we read of political clubs, of large meetings held in theatres and public places, of eloquent speeches, of cheering audiences, of the virtues and the wickedness of public men; and we realize that in Japan, as elswhere, Demos having found belated articulation, is repeating, for the comfort of the scientific historian, the familiar and venerable accents.
There are other evidences that Japan is in the bondage of a universal law.
Though the level of political intelligence in the Chamber is reasonably high, it does not appear that that of character or prestige is equally so.
The attraction of a salary (for each member of both Houses receives a yearly allowance of 800 yen, equivalent at the present rate of exchange to about 115 pound a year - no inconsiderable income in Japan) is not believed to add much to the popularity of a political career, since it is estimated that though a member receives 800 yen annually, he has to spend 2,000 at least, and since, also, the strongest discredit attaches theoretically to any suspicion of pecuniary motives.
But the system of education organized after the fall of feudalism - a system based on the aspiration of bridging, with all possible rapidity, the gulf that centuries of isolation had produced in Japanese knowledge - proved disproportionate to the practical needs of the nation, and called into existence a set of youths who regarded official and political life as the only sphere fitting their superior attainments.
From the ranks of this class there has gradually been formed a numerous body of professional politicians, who find in platform and Parliamentary publicity a compensation for the closed doors of rank or office.
These individuals are in a position of perpetual freedom and no responsibility; they can enjoy the luxury of attacking and paralyzing every Government in turn; and, while by their votes they can neither form nor oust a Ministry, they can fetter its limbs with any number of Lilliputian cords.
The predominance of this class at first deterred many of the older and more influential men from offering themselves for election; but there are signs that their reluctance is yielding to the necessities of the situation.
It may be said, indeed, that the Parliamentary experiment is being watched by the more stable elements of the community from a suspicious though narrowing distance, and that a sense of national obligation to the highest duties of citizenship has not yet been aroused as widely as was hoped.
At the same time, charges of Government nepotism and electoral tyranny are freely bandied about.
It is alleged that the Imperial nominations to life peerages, which are reserved by the Constitution for the reward of distinguished public service or erudition, are distributed among Ministerial adherents.
At the general election early in this year official interference appears to have been openly and flagrantly exercised.
At least, such was the declared opinion of both Houses of the Diet; for, whilst the Lower House only failed to pass by three votes a motion for a memorial to the Throne, declaring that in the elections administrative officials had wantonly perverted the authority of their office by tempting and inveigling voters or by resorting to force for their compulsion - and seeking to fix the responsibility upon the Government - a motion which, if carried, would have amounted to a direct vote of censure - both Houses passed by large majorities a representation to the Government urging them to punish the implicated officials; and the new Cabinet have so far accepted the instruction as to dismiss five of these offenders from their posts.
The general election was also distinguished by a good deal of rioting, and, for so peaceable and good tempered a people, by a notable percentage of broken heads.
We may detect similar reproductions, as yet in miniature, of Occidental form, in the commencement of an agitation for the reduction of the franchise, which is now based upon a high assessment to direct taxation; while the minimum age limit of members of Parliamenat - viz., 30 years, implies a mistrust of precocious genius which is naturally distasteful to the self-conceit of young Japan.
None of these "Rocks ahead," however, can be compared for seriousness with the main question of the relations of the Chambers with the Government, which reproduce in a different but not elss acute form the controvertial impasse that is from time to time presented in England, not between the House of Commons and the Ministry, but between a Radical majority in the House of Commons and a Conservative majority in the House of Lords.
Japan though governed by party men, is not blessed or cursed with party government.
The Ministers in Japan, like the President's Cabinet in America, are the nominees and servants of the Emperor.
They are not responsible to the Diet, and can remain in office as long as the Sovereign honours them with his confidence.
But whereas in America a majority hostile to the executive in both Houses is a phenomenon extremely rare in occurrence, and certain to be terminated in a short period of time, in Japan there is no a priori reason why such a situation should not exist in the first place, or be indefinitely prolonged.
The theory of the Japanese Constitution, therefore, being the rule of a Government, legislating through two Chambers, but not responsible to either, and treating their representations with comparative indifference, it may readily be understood that the popular Chamber at any rate, which rests solely upon election, though on a narrow franchise, becomes and almost automatic machine of opposition.
There is a more or less rough subdivision of parties, with supposed supporters or adversaries of the Government.
But these do not in either or any case sit in groups; nor can their votes be relied upon with any certainty, the "below the gangway" attitude being as popular in Tokyo as it is in Northampton.
So far, the Japanese House of Representatives has rendered itself as disagreeable to successive Governments as it could, obstructing their measures, defeating their Budgets, and generally betraying an attitude that might have been studied in Irish academies.
They have further developed a plan of acquainting the august person of the Sovereign with their desires or demands, by addressing memorials to him, which seems already to be in frank divergence from the spirit of the Constitution, and which may lead to trouble in the future.
The question of the hour, therefore, at least in the domain of Parliamentary tactics, is the attitude to be adopted by the Government towards this obstreperous nursling.
How is it to be controlled, by a policy of cuffs or one of caresses?
Shall the Ministry rule in despite of the Chamber, or shall it make terms with the latter, and treat it with that air of deference that is so grateful to injured pride?
The impression prevails that the new Government, of which I shall have something to say in my next letter, will endeavour to avoid the stormy existence and the premature fate of its predecessor by a more conciliatory attitude towards the Chamber.
There are some who see in the outcry for party government as understood in Europe, and for Parliamentary responsibility, a movement which will not lose but will, on the contrary, gain force in Japan until it has secured its object and revolutionized the Constitution.
On the other hand, all statesmen recognize that there is no riskier experiment than tampering with a brand new Constitution; the prominent men in Japan are almost unanimously in favour of the existing law; the so-called Popular party is as yet far too deficient in dignity or prestige to justify a demand for concessions that might transform these intemperate filibusters of the ballot-box into portfolio politicians; and the analogy of foreign countries suggests that a modus vivendi will gradually be established in the Chamber itself by an organized Government party less amenable than now to the shifting currents of popular caprice.
A curious feature in the new Japanese polity, in the midst of a welter of change, is the continued dominion of the old clan system, which has prevailed ever since, just as it did before, the revolution.
The principal clans, Satsuma, Choshiu, Hizen, and Tosa, still retain almost unchallenged supremacy, alike in the formation of Cabinets and the distribution of patronage.
In the old days this was due to the importance of powerful princes or nobles backed by formidable aggregations of armed men.
It is now the triumph, not of territorial influence, but of a civil and military hierarchy, largely organized upon the privilege of birth.
The Army, and still more the Navy, which in the background play a very important and a little-understood part in the politics of modern Japan, and which are the real mainstay of the Government against the subversive tendencies of Parliamentary majorities or demagogic Radicalism, are mainly officered by men belonging to the principal clans; and it will be long before a system disappears which so many of the hands that pull the strings are united to support.
Ultimately, it will perish, as did the influence of the Whig families in England.
Among the questions which are much discussed, alike by foreigners and residents, and about which very contrary opinions are expressed, not merely at different times, but by different writers at the same time, is the general attitude of the Japanese people, and particularly of the rising generation, towards foreigners.
It should not be inferred because Japan has recognized that Europe is ahead of herself in many branches of knowledge and resources of civilization, and that she must go to Germany for her guns, to France for her law, to England for her railways-that she is, therefore, an indiscriminate admirer of that which she imitates, or that the Western man is an idol in her social pantheon.
On the contrary, the more she has assimilated European excellencies the more critical she has become of European defects; whilst at times the precipitate rapidity of her own advance has produced a reactionary wave, which occasionally assumes serious proportions.
The existence of such a feeling is by no means surprising when we remember the forces by which it is recruited.
Among these may be counted the latent Conservatism in the national character, which, though but little expressed, still smoulders with an internal combustion that like those sudden shocks of nature that wreck the Japanese landscape, now and then breaks force in a passionate vendetta of outrage or assassination; inordinate vanity of the people, fostered at once by their illustrious antiquity and by the ease with which they seem to have planted themselves in the forefront of the files of time; the indiscreet rapidity with which they have been asked to swallow, almost in the same gulp, a foreign dress, a foreign language, and a foreign religion; and a consciousness of national strength that resents the suspicion of having bartered its birthright to aliens.
Political incidents - a proposal of treaty revision on terms at all derogatory to the natioinal dignity, the not too sensitive and sometimes brutal candour of the European Press, the resolutions passed at a meeting of foreign merchants - may excite this feeling to a white heat of fury.
At other times it slumbers.
A year ago it seemed for a time to have experienced a sharp inflammation, but since then to have subsided.
It finds its chief exponents among the student class, whose smattering of universal knowledge seems likely to create a considerable element of danger.
Its most innocent form is the continuous dismissal of foreigners from posts in the public service, or in the employ of business firms, their places being filled by Japanese specially educated, though not uniformly fitted, for the purpose.
The best authorities do not seem to anticipate any very perilous development of this phase of national resuscitation; and it may probably be regarded as the best safety-valve for emotions which might otherwise require a more tempetuous outlet.
A second question, much agitated by foreigners, and especially by English and Americans, is the liklihood of Christianity being adopted as the national religion of Japan.
A combination of circumstances - the disestablishment of Buddhism in the present reign, the reasonable characater and general freedom from superstition of the people, the admitted indifference to older creeds of the upper classes, and the unhampered field opened to the labours of the foreign missionary societies-has led many to suppose that here, at least, the Church of Christ was sure of a magnificent spoil, and that Japan was trembling on the brink of a mighty regeneration.
If I do not share these anticipations, it is not from any denial either of the strenous exertions of the reapers, or of the intrinsic richness of their harvest.
But, though the State in Japan has withdrawn its sanction from Buddhism, the stream of the common people does not appear to have been one whit diverted from its crumbling, but still hallowed shrines; and in the clapping of hands and short prayer before the gilded altar, and the practical sermons of the bonzes, the lower classes still find what is to them an adequate salvation.
At the old capital, Kyoto, there has been building for many years out of private subscriptions only, what will, when completed, be by far the largest Buddhist temple in all Japan.
Nor can a people be described as without faith who yearly send forth tens of thousands of pilgrims to climb the sacred summits of Fuji, 12,300 ft. high, and of Nanataisan.
On other hand, with the upper and lettered classes the advance of knowledge has brought a widepread sceptism, and a reluctance to accept a dogma that eludes the test of material analysis.
Neither can I think that the missionary army, though it enters the field with banners waving and soldiers chanting, utilizes its strength to the best advantage by dividing its host into so many conflicting and sometimes hostile brigades.
I find in the directory that at Tokyo alone there are represented 31 different missionary churches, societies, sects, or denominations, with an aggregate of 300 male and female missionaries.
When Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Baptists, Evangelicals, Lutherans, Church of England, Methodists, Reformed, Russian Orthodox, Quakers, Unitarians, and Universalists, appear simultaneously upon the scene, each claming to hold the keys of Heaven in its hand, it cannot be thought surprising if the Japanese, who have hardly made up their minds that they want a Heaven at all, are somewhat bewildered at the multiplicity of volunteer door-keepers.
Were the ethical teachings of the Bible to be offered to them in a systematized body of precept and of prayer, they might turn a willing ear.
Nay, I doubt not that a committee of Japanese experts would undertake to-morrow the codification of the moral, just as they have already done that of the civil and criminal law; and that they would turn out for the edification of their fellow-countrymen an admirable syhthesis of the ethics of all time.
Who shall say whether the new Japan may not yet undertake this momentous task?
In the meantime, the omens appear to be against the official or popular selection of any professed branch of Christian theology.
Going Back to Article List