Stumbling to Glory

When an antiquated and undemocratic regime falls quickly, those who follow it often do so with little firm idea what they want or how they will achieve it. Slogans — “progress,” “prosperity,” “catching up with the rest of the world,” “freedom” — and a sense that there are places in the world where life is better — though those societies threaten the sovereignty of a nation in flux, while they inspire its inchoate leadership — are all the plan that really exists. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to suggest that there are many plans, for there are many individuals, each with a distinct (and sometimes small) constituency, who wish to speak to and for the nation. The old regime collapsed quickly but not entirely cleanly (some loyalists will fight on for months; anti-reform insurgencies and assassinations will continue sporadically for a decade), and there are social and legal and cultural obstacles to development, including clan leaders, hereditary classes, and a complete lack of traditions of democracy , civil discourse or universal rights.

Sound familiar? It should: Japan, 1868. From these unlikely beginnings arose one of the most powerful and important nations of the 20th century.

One of the great challenges of the historian is to remember, and recapture, the lack of inevitability of events. One of my favorite books, because it really was the first one in which I felt that uncertainty reconstructed and revealed, is Michio Umegaki’s After the Restoration: The Beginning of Japan’s Modern State. One of my great regrets about my undergraduate career is that I did not realize my interest in pursuing history seriously until it was too late for me to take any courses with Prof. Umegaki; we’ve never met, though our paths have certainly crossed. Umegaki describes the beginnings of the Meiji (1868-1912) state as a series of shifting coalitions, informal working arrangements, rapidly shifting ideas and priorities, policies promulgated by working groups which surprised half the leadership, and generally uncertain steps towards viable governance.

This contrasts sharply with the more conventional backwards looking view of the early Meiji state, which takes in the immensely successful first decade or so and sees in it all the necessary components of development: comprehensive social, legal, administrative, military and economic reforms, which were only shallowly applied at first but which were nonetheless the template for Japan’s seemingly meteoric rise to regional power status.

That the Meiji reforms were successful is largely incontrovertible (though we argue about long-term side effects and who should get credit). But that success was not always carefully planned, was rarely coordinated or forseeable. In fact, there are quite a few missteps, and shifts in policy along the way, as well as reforms that succeed in spite of, rather than because of, central (and centralizing) reforms.

There were foreigners, even some Japanese, who doubted Japan’s ability to manage its own affairs: Japan was subject to the odious “unequal treaty” system until the 20th century, for example. There were domestic and international observers who found Japan’s new leaders cliquish, unrepresentative, unrealistic, ineffective, disunified, oligarchic, and otherwise objectionable. But in spite of their missteps, and in spite of their uncertainties, they did succeed.

[Crossposted at Cliopatria]


  1. wow… I’m not sure if you’re advocating that Iraq go on to become an imperial superpower that
    take over neighboring countries and wage world wars to get a bigger piece of the global pie.

    I mean, I think US has doubts for Iraq to govern itself, which is why the war took place in
    the first. It’s kind of how Saddam had a positive relationship with the US when it did try to exercise
    its imperial ambition (its beef with Iran) but then when it hit up Kuwait, another US ally, the
    story became quite different.

    I’m of Korean descent, and I don’t know how many ppl in Asia (outside of Japan) will agree that the meiji reforms
    were successful.

    but if you’re writing this column to suggest that US should withdraw from Iraq, then I
    wholeheartedly support your cause.

  2. I am simply suggesting that those of us (and I’m one of them) who are carping on the lack of preparation, prepardness, planning, etc., with regard to the Iraq reconstruction need to remember that the equation between good planning and good results is not necessarily a straightforward one.

    The Meiji reforms were successful; the question of whether they were good is quite separate. I’m not advocating Iraq becoming (returning to) an imperialistic superpower, but I am suggesting that we have not yet seen developments which would preclude a good medium/long-term result in Iraq.

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