Sunday, August 8, 2010

How (American) Independence Stirred Japan

'How Independence Stirred Japan' was published in the July 4, 1976 edition of the Honolulu Star Bulletin. It was written by Ki Kimura, “president of Mejii Era Culture Institute and author of the book ‘A Study of the History of Literary Relationship Between Japan and the U.S.’ (in Japanese).

I came across this article by accident. It helps encapsulate the long and complicated relationship between America and Japan, briefly mentioning the “formal mission” to Washington, though nothing about the visit to Honolulu by the Japanese ambassadors in March, 1860.

The article is not available online, so it is transcribed here:

So isolated were the Japanese from world affairs that they remained unaware of the American Revolution for over half a century. This was due to an edict issued by the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1634 in the belief that the country’s peace and security would be best served by severing contacts with foreign lands and sealing out all outside information.

The sole exception was the Dutch who were permitted to trade at Nagasaki. They were allowed once every four years to visit Edo (today’s Tokyo), the seat of the Tokugawa Government for an audience with the Shogun.

In 1826, Philip Franz von Siebold arrived in Edo as a member of the Dutch mission. In a conversation with Takahashi Sakuzaemon, most learned of the Government’s astrologers, Siebold said:

“In America, commemorative ceremonies are to be held on a grand scale as it is exactly 50 years since Washington led the people of the 13 colonies to independence from Britain and founded the United States of America.”

Only a few Japanese at that time knew vaguely of North and South America on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. But even they did not grasp the significance of the founding of the United States. It took another 27 years, when Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry’s fleet arrived in 1853, for them to gain a real understanding of that event in 1776.

Perry persuaded Japan to abandon its two centuries of isolation. In 1860, the Shogunate sent its first formal mission to Washington to seal the treaty of friendship concluded between Japan and the United States.

Once contact was established with the United States, its influence was quickly felt in Japan even to the extent of a short-lived republic being established in a corner of the country. The fall of the Shogunate and the birth of a modern state saw forces loyal to the Emperor taking over all territories, troops and weapons with the exception of naval units which escaped from Edo Bay and reached Hokkaido.

Their commander was Takeaki Enomoto, who had studied in the Netherlands and was at the time Japan’s leading naval authority. He proclaimed the founding of a republic in Hokkaido with a blood relative of the former Tokugawa Shogun as its leader, persuading foreign warships and consulates at Hakodate to remain neutral.

Four top officials of the new republic –the president, vice-president and the navy and army secretaries- were elected by vote following the American system. However, the republic soon was attacked by the Emperor’s forces and defeated.

Thomas Jefferson’s influence upon Japan was even more direct than that of George Washington. The Declaration of Independence, largely a product of Jefferson’s work, was the first of the American state papers to be translated in Japan. The translator was Yukichi Fukuzawa, who spearheaded the nation’s modernization, authored many notable works, and founded Keio University, the oldest in Japan.

Fukuzawa had visited the United States and Europe in the last days of the Shogunate. It was in his monumental work Seiyo Jijo (Conditions of the West) published in 1869, that he included a complete translation of the Declaration of Independence.

The concept that Fukuzawa understood best in the Declaration of Independence was the idea of equality –that “all men are created equal.” As he put it, “Nature does not produce man above man, nor does it produce man beneath man.” Fukuzawa substituted the word “nature” for the occidental conception of the creator as the quickest means to gain understanding among his people.

Ranking on a par with Fukuzawa’s Keio University is Waseda University, founded by Shigenobu Okuma, one of the greatest statesmen of Japan in the Meiji Era. Although he headed two Cabinets, he remained mainly outside the Government, wielding great influence as the leader of the opposition group. American newspapers and magazines of the time referred to Okuma as “the Jeffersonian Premier.”

Okuma has studied under Guido Fridrin Verbeck, a missionary sent by the Dutch Reformed Church in America, and had learned English through the New Testament and the Constitution of the United States. He was particularly attracted by the fact that Thomas Jefferson had not only been one of the founders of the United States but had also established the University of Virginia.

In the early years of the Meiji Era, Okuma was named Chief State Councillor, which was then the nation’s highest political office corresponding to the prime ministership. He was forced out in a plot by court officials close to the Emperor.

Okuma then formed the Kaishinto (Progressive Party) in opposition to the Jiyu-to (Liberal Party) which was Japan’s first political party. Okuma was dissatisfied with the Liberals because their radical platform, based on Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Du Contrat Social. He preferred a platform closer to that of the British Gladstonian Liberals.

Later, following Jefferson’s example, Okuma founded a private school. That school is now Waseda University. Waseda and Fukuzawa’s Keio University are frequently compared to Yale and Harvard. Recently, in connection with the centenary of Waseda’s founding, steps were taken to establish ties with the University of Virginia.

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