A Relook at Japan’s Modern History: Autonomy and Maturity
Photo Credit: MIT History
By Yanming Li

A Relook at Japan’s Modern History: Autonomy and Maturity

Feb. 08, 2017  |     |  0 comments

This is the second part of a two-part article. The first part can be found here.

Another keystone of the IWANAMI series is the emphasis on the power, order and style of the traditional society, and the autonomy and maturity of the Japanese society. For example, in volume one, Inoue stressed that it was the mature society which had brought up the skilled diplomats of Tokugawa Bakufu (shogunate) and the crowd of export-import traders who gathered at Yokohama and supported the economy of Bakufu. As Inoue wrote in volume ten, “(the mature society) offered the very broad foundation of the Japanese nation’s independence and the whole revolution of the Meiji Restoration”.

Volume two illustrated the interactions between the Meiji government, the leaders of the Movement for Civic Rights and Freedom, and the people from the traditional society. It also described the tensions between the latter two and challenged the common theories successfully. As I have mentioned, the authors had a consensus on combining political, social and cultural history, and the view of the traditional society could thus also be understood as an outcome of recent research.

What is worthy of special mention is volume seven. Its main argument is that the total war system, in which liberalism and corporatism were located at opposite axes, remained till the postwar eras.

The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in 1955 consisted of politicians representing both liberalism and corporatism, which indicated that almost all the political elites from the war era returned to the political stage. A good example is Kishi Nobusuke, grandfather of current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. He was a former bureaucrat, Minister of Commerce and Industry during the war, and the Prime Minister from 1957-60.

In his book Amemiya, the author revalued and redefined the power of Japanese society as a strong tradition of corporatism, and argued that the dynamic of post-cold war politics was the reason why Japan developed a mixed political-economy of capitalism and socialism. He also claimed that the US occupation and reform did not have a big impact, and that the real dynamic came from society during the war.

What the US had really changed or interrupted was the denial of the autonomy of the Japanese nation, meaning that the Showa Emperor had expressed the will to take responsibility for the war onto himself, but had been stopped by the US. These arguments seem to be anti-US and skeptical of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (the Tokyo trials), and one may doubt whether the author is a historical revisionist.1 But if we put it in the logic of the whole series, which means to criticize and self-examine the process of Japan’s nation building, then it is easy to see that volume seven’s aim is reexamining Japan’s national rebuilding during the occupation era.

However, problems remain with the other East Asia countries, if we agree with this so-called total war system theory. Both China, Japan’s most important neighbor, and the Tokyo trials had built up a dichotomy theory in the postwar era, dividing the Japanese people into a small number of war-criminals and a majority of innocent people. If the total war system theory was closer to reality, then obviously one could not put all the responsibility on the class A and B war criminals. Even in the eyes of the first post-war generation like Miyachi, this was hard to accept. But this might only come from feelings, not reality, because Miyachi also pointed out that for the young generations whose parents didn’t even have war experience, this theory might be very easy to accept.

Yoshimi demonstrated that in the 1990s, modernity and the “built up” self-identity of the Japanese collapsed under globalization. The “trivial Japan” disappeared, and “who is Japanese” became a quiet question.

For the dichotomy theory supporters, the dichotomy is an important foundation for China-Japan relationship and should not be changed, as prominent China specialist Mori Kazuko claimed. But Mori also argued that the dichotomy was actually a “moral principle,” and that Chinese leaders wanted to build up a “moral diplomacy of the new China” through the adoption of this principle in their policies toward Japan.2 This assessment reflected that, in Mori’s view, the dichotomy was not based on reality.

Another China specialist, Amago Satoshi, pointed out more clearly in 2005 that the normal people in Japan, including himself, believed they were responsible for the war, and hence they believed that the dichotomy might not be an appropriate way to deal with their war responsibilities.3

Of course, we must also admit that the dichotomy theory has its own limitations. For China, the dichotomy was not only a theory to persuade the Chinese people to accept normalization with Japan and renounce war reparations, but also a traditional tactic in China’s Japan policy. From the late 1950s, the Chinese government had hoped to mobilize the Japanese people to put pressure on hawkish governments like Kishi’s to improve or change their policy towards China, while at the same time kept contacts with the hawks to a minimum. In the 21th century, this tactic didn’t work as well any more. The second Abe administration, while facing opposition regarding many policies (collective security, revision of constitution, etc.), has enjoyed a stable and relatively high approval rate, just as the Koizumi administration did.

How should we understand the normal Japanese people’s reception of their modern history? On one hand, they refuse the dichotomy and admit they have responsibilities, but on the other they support governments which are nationalist and revisionist. We may also ask whether pacifism as the base of the Japanese constitution has changed or is lost.

To answer this, volume nine and the whole series offer a good angle of view. Yoshimi, the author of volume nine and an excellent sociology and cultural studies scholar, demonstrated that in the 1990s, modernity and the “built up” self-identity of the Japanese collapsed under globalization, through changes in post-war left-wing/social events, industry structures/economy, family, local life, and diplomacy/relationship with the US and East Asia. He claimed that in this process, the “trivial Japan” disappeared, and “who is Japanese” became a quiet question. He also pointed out that this hollowing out of the modern nation state was the background of rising conservative politics.

Then, what is filling in the gap? Yoshimi did not give a straight answer, but in my opinion, the imagination of a mature traditional society, which the IWANAMI series has presented and examined, is a possible answer. Finding their autonomy from traditional society is the shared reception between today’s left- and right-wing. And maybe this is the reason why normal Japanese people don’t have concerns about and dislike discussing history-related matters with their East Asian neighbors, and why they are sympathetic to conservative rhetoric.

However, we must understand the following point very clearly too: finding their autonomy from traditional society doesn’t mean the normal Japanese people want to be re-nationalized. Traditional society only offers nostalgia to those who live in a post-modern hollowed-out society. At this moment, it is not easy to turn back time through measures like adding “patriotic spirit” to the Fundamental Law of Education in 2006.

To sum up, the IWANAMI series offers important views and knowledge of history, hints to understand the present situation of Japanese society, and a chance to re-examine policies toward Japan.


1. Amemiya is a well-known left-wing historian in Japan.

2. Mori Kazuko. (2013). Rebuild Japan-China relationship. Japan Studies (Chinese), 4, 25.

3. Special issue (2005). Is dichotomy toward Japan still necessary? World Knowledge (Chinese), 17, 58.

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