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Significance of the Sociological and Political Consequences of Japan’s Historically Ambivalent Relationship with the United States

神奈川沖浪裏 Kanagawa oki nami ura (

神奈川沖浪裏 Kanagawa oki nami ura; Image via Wikipedia

Between 1868 and 2005, Japan and the United States sustained a tumultuous and complex relationship – one which, though ever-changing, repeatedly defined Japan’s course while contributing to her social and political upheavals. Beginning just before the Meiji Revolution with US intimidation of the waning Tokugawa Shogunate, continuing through the US steel and oil embargos that ignited the Asia-Pacific War, and culminating in the US occupation’s unilateral reorganization of Japan’s political identity, the US has been the central foreign catalyst of change in Japan’s modern history. This affair – always tense, often contentious – has overtly, deeply, and indelibly traumatized Japanese society, but also concomitantly, somewhat covertly and indirectly, undermined Japanese national identity, leaving the Japanese people trapped in what John Nathan calls a national identity crisis (Nathan, 2004).

Commodore Perry’s arrival signaled a turning point for the Japanese: the Emperor, recently resurrected by a surge of classical nostalgia, commanded the shogun to expel the “barbarians” and declare war on the US; but the shogun, whether weak or wise, instead negotiated the Harris Treaty of 1858, which, though favorable to US interests, left Japan intact and, in theory, free to set her future course. But the damage this treaty caused to the Shogunate system proved fatal.

Emperor Meiji of Japan; image from Wikipedia.org

From the ranks of the once powerful samurai class, shishi (men of purpose) responded to the influx of foreign influence by declaring, in 1867, 15-year-old Mutsuhito – Meiji – as the 122 Emperor of Japan, supporting his reclamation of full Imperial authority from the Shogunate, and suppressing revolts against the Emperor by forces loyal to the former shogun, culminating in the declaration of the Meiji (enlightened rule) era. These young Imperial revolutionaries, known as the Meiji Oligarchy, became the power behind the young throne and quickly established the “Five Charter Oath”, which made explicit Japan’s determination to modernize.

This, however, proved no easy task, and the early commitment to modernize using western knowledge while retaining Japanese character, though perhaps psychologically necessary, further pained the process. The Taisho period that followed saw further democratization and liberalization of Japanese society, largely in response to the growing economic and political disparities between the rich and poor and between urban and rural populations during the depression era of the 1920s, which were caused, in part, by government / private business collusions and restricted voting rights.

All the while, with the goal explicit in its charter, Japan had been building an empire. As early as 1895 and on Bismark’s advice, Japan leveraged conflicts with Korea and China into trading rights and international territories (Taiwan and the Penghu Islands). By 1905, Japan had won a surprising and decisive victory over the Russian Empire, securing control of Manchuria and Korea, and forcing the Western powers to reassess Japan’s status on the international stage. But this amazing transformation came at a cost – as it was driven by a fundamental sense of inferiority, a kind of overcompensation of achievement meant to hide the nation’s collective shame for its retarded cultural development.

Japan’s sense of inferiority was not all paranoia and self-invention; they were seen as inferior by their predominantly racist Imperialist peers, as well. Both the US and Russia passed laws discriminating against Japanese nationals, and with US interests being pursued in what Japan perceived to be its natural corridors, Japan’s pride was egregiously piqued. Fortuitously, Japan was temporally aided by the Western powers’ preoccupation with the war theater in Europe, leading to a short period of economic boom. Once Europe’s attention was reaffixed, however, Japan lost those boom markets, which sparked Japan’s depression well in advance of the global depression of the 1920s. With a weak Emperor and growing unrest, the government invested in the promotion of nationalism to maintain central control. But it was ultranationalism that would ultimately carry the day.

The forward magazines of the U.S. Navy battles...

Image via Wikipedia

By the time of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Japan had become dominated by an ultranationalist militarism determined to gear up for total war by producing an army strong enough to defeat the Soviet Union and a navy strong enough to defeat the US. Toward this goal, the state had gained control of major industries, established cartels to create and maintain order, and shifted the economy from the profit motive to state goal-production. Unexpectedly stalemated in China, Japan desperately needed external oil sources, but was strategically countered by US bases in the Philippines and US embargos on both oil and steel. To prepare for what they perceive as an inevitable conflict with the US, Japan signed the Tripartite Pact in 1940. In a calculated effort to dissuade the US from further adventures in Asia, Japan bombed the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, effectively beginning the Asia-Pacific War.

In 1945, after years of protracted island and sea combat, the US used nuclear weapons on the Japanese mainland cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan unconditionally surrendered soon after.

During the US occupation that followed, Japan’s national psyche was further assaulted by the virtual deicide affected by MacArthur’s constitution. The US occupation, using the Emperor as a tool of reform, also superimposed democracy and labor unions to counterpoise the prevalent nationalist militarism only weakened by Japan’s defeat and surrender. But with communist paranoia swelling, the US abruptly changed policy in Japan, reinstalling conservative pre-war leaders as allies against the perceived threat of growing communist forces in Asia. On this footing, Japan set out to regain its former glory via economic, rather than military, power. This economic power was to be built upon three pillars: conservative political power allied with the US; labor stability, and bureaucratic guidance to unify the population (Woronoff, 1985).

Douglas MacArthur signs the formal surrender o...

Image via Wikipedia

The plan worked, and for decades, Japan’s new economy, built largely through technological innovation supported by state-sponsored capitalism and fueled by Ikeda’s simple promise of doubled wealth through hard work, prospered. But the central conflict between Japanese cultural identity and the modern, Western worldview that saturated the scientific knowledge upon which Japan’s new society was and must be based, has never been satisfactorily resolved. The sense of irretrievable loss, as expressed by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki in In Praise of Shadows (p42) in 1933, laments the incompatibility between the evolved Japanese aesthetic sensibilities (so culturally and psychologically defining and orienting for the Japanese people, yet so technologically inferior to the products of Western civilization) and the Western worldview (Tanizaki, 1977). In fact, the inherent contradictions have grown more pronounced, not less, over time, and the resulting cognitive dissonance for the Japanese people, more distressful.

Dusk in Tokyo, Japan

But there was a temporary reprieve: though the contradictions never abated, it was, for a period, possible to ignore them. The rhetoric of the state, that hard work and personal sacrifice would lead Japan to heights of power comparable to her former glory, seemed to come true. Until, and especially during, the 1980s, Japan’s economic growth was unprecedented and unmatched, and her corporate culture provided exactly the structured hierarchy through which the traditional Japanese psyche could find comfortable identity with the group. A kind of corporately expressed patriotism – a belief in a larger cause and collective, corporeal identity for which the individual, family, and community could sacrifice – had become the organizing principle of Japanese society.

But in the economic crashes of the early 1990s, that belief in the corporation and the state, and especially the certainty of the meaningfulness of all the sacrifices made in their names, was irreparably cracked. The disillusionment that followed left the Japanese defenseless against the existential emptiness temporarily forgotten during their heyday of growth and prosperity.

Japan Unbound author John Nathan tackles this dilemma, tracing its causes and especially its consequences over the last 1.5 decades. Nathan characterizes the dilemma as a national identity crisis; one in which the nation is given disparate and conflicting historical narratives from which to extract a sense of themselves and upon which they must base their individual and collective futures. The self-recrimination as aggressors; the sting of failure in both their traditions (the Tokugawa system, most recently) and their adopted imperialism; their subservience to US interests; their neutered military aspirations and externally-imposed pacifism; and the fear that even their modern economic empire may be tainted with the seed of ultimate failure; these all conspire against the Japanese psyche.

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko of Japan.

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko of Japan; Image via Wikipedia

Compounding the conundrum, many Japanese seek refuge in what Nathan calls a center of nothingness, the dream of Imperial glory, purity, valor and virtue projected onto the Emperor and the ancient court as exemplified in the Tale of Genji. Nathan also explores the growing nationalism, militarism, and anti-US sentiment that may well now constitute the new majority. Japan has had a long history of external cultural influences: early on from China and Korea, later from the Europeans and the US. But it wasn’t until commodore Perry’s arrival and implied threats that external cultural influences were forced on Japan, and forced specifically because Japan’s native culture was technologically and politically inferior. This realization of inferiority (since internalized as fear of a potentially permanent condition), and the consequences of the subsequent forced fusion of Western and native worldviews, created a psychological rift with which the Japanese continue to struggle today. Whether Japan’s healing will occur, and at what cost, while hoped for, remains to be seen.

Works Cited

Nathan, J. (2004). Japan Unbound: A Volatile Nation’s Quest for Pride and Purpose. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Tanizaki, J. (1977). In Praise of Shadows (First Edition.). Leete’s Island Books.

Woronoff, J. (1985). Inside Japan, Inc. Lotus Press Ltd.

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