Aizawa Seishisai's anti-foreignism

The early 19th-century roots of Japanese imperialism

By William Wetherall

A review of
Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi
Anti-Foreignism and Western Learning in Early-Modern Japan
(The New Theses of 1825)
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986
xvi, 343 pages, hardcover

A version of this article appeared as
"Plague of historical bugs" in
Far Eastern Economic Review, 135(10), 5 March 1987, pages 50-51

An earlier version appeared as
"Perennial Questions" in
Asahi Evening News, 10 October 1986, page 9

Blue phrases appeared in the AEN but not the FEER version.
Other phrasing may also differ from the AEN version.

This book is a timely translation and discussion of one of the most important collection of essays in the history of Japanese political though. The essays became a corner-stone in the ideological foundation of modern Yamatoism -- that religion which continues to move not a few Japanese to believe in the moral superiority of their imperial family and to advocate a fusion of Shinto and government as a means of maintaining ethnic unity and allegiance.

Wakabayashi's summary of Japanese history from the 17th century to 1825, when the essays were written, is succinct, and his perspective is novel.

Some Japanese so feared the political incursions of Christianity into Japan that they proscribed the proselytisation of the alien religion. Japan entered a period of quasi-isolation following the persecution of Japanese and foreign Christians (and deportation of some around the time of the so-called "Seclusion Edicts" of 1633 and 1639. Yet only Iberians were officially excluded. No 17th-century laws restricted trade or forbade the return of Japanese emigrants or castaways, and indeed more material barter and human exchange took place than is usually thought.

The illusion of a closed country was partly created by Dutch efforts to keep others out of Japan. "This was to protect the Dutch East India Company's trading interests in the Far East," Wakabayashi writes.

On the surface this observation is true. But Wakabayashi should have added that the Dutch had been coopted by the Tokugawa government, just as some foreign defenders of Japanese policy today are courted as outlanders who "understand" Japan.

The general labelling of Westerners as barbarians did not take place until the first of the 19th century. A policy of national isolation was not clearly established until 1793, the term sakoku (closed country) was not coined until 1801, and edicts ordering the exclusion of foreigners by force and forbidding fraternisation with foreigners were not issued until 1825.

It was shortly after these edicts that Aizawa Seishisai (1781-1863) published his influential Shinron (New Theses), a collection of essays mainly on kokutai, or "what is essential to a nation".

Aizawa's writings inspired the "revere the emperor, expel the barbarian" (sonno joi) slogan of the xenophobes who advocated armed expulsion even after Commodore Perry and Consul Harris "forced Japan's ports open in the 1850s." Japan's leaders, though, recognised the "inevitability of 'opening the country' [kaikoku] to trade and diplomacy, and of joining the world community of nations."

Aizawa regarded Japan as the true "Middle Kingdom" of the world, and he lamented that by his time it had become a mere shadow of the empire that he believed had once encompassed Siberia, Manchuria, Korea, Kamchatka, Sakhalin, and the Kuriles.

As though anticipating Japan's attempt to reclaim the territories it supposedly once owned, Aizawa refers to the remaining islands as naichi (inner territories) -- the term used during the colonial period to distinguish the "homeland" or "Japan proper" (both Wakabayashi's tag translations) from its colonial possessions, called gaichi (outer territories) until 1945.

Even American "three thousand miles" (a literal translation of the cliche sanzenri?) to the east is said to have once been claimed as "Part of Japan" by a government interpreter who showed in his act "the breadth of vision men had in those days." Aizawa advocates Japan's annexing at least the "Ezo Islands" before Russia claims them.

Wakabayashi does not concern himself with what he calls the long-range implications for 19th- and 20th-century Japan. He observes, however, that Meiji leaders carried out two of Aizawa's proposals: "To establish centralised government control over Shinto throughout the nation, and to create an emperor-centered state religion." He also contends that Aizawa had advanced the idea, adopted in the 1930s and 1940s, "to exploit foreign crises as a pretext to justify authoritarian controls and austerity at home."

The Imperial Rescript on Education issued in 1890 borrowed this line from Aizawa's New Theses: "All the people of the realm be of one heart and mind." Had Wakabayashi extended his "looking Ahead" chapter into the 20th century, he would also have noted that the Kokutai no hongi (Fundamentals of national polity, published by the Ministry of Education in 1937 to promote the kyoka (Wakabayashi's "moral suasion") of the people, deeply reflects the letter and spirit of Aizawa's Yamatoism.

Today, again, the Japanese government (that is, the political parties, bureaucracies, and public and private organizations which compete over who will rule the people are) is asking the perennial question: "What should Japan be?" And Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, for one, is advocating a resuscitation of the ethnic morality which he believes is unique to Japan as a putatively mono-ethnic state, while other neo-conservatives are openly calling for a restoration of the emperor as figurative head of state.

A reincarnated youthful Aizawa might feel an affinity with rightwing alarmists today. He argued 150 years ago that the emperor's religious authority should be used to bolster the Tokugawa government's political supremacy. Ironically, as Wakabayashi observes, "What he deemed 'essential' to sustain the Tokugawa polity proved decisive in undoing it." The Meiji Restoration of 1868 brought into being "an emperor-centered state and a mass conscript army" -- exactly what Aizawa wanted, minus the Tokugawa clan which, as a powerful member of its Mito domain, he supported to the end.

In 1860, horrified that his ideas were being used to justify insurgency, Aizawa wrote: "In truth [the sonno joi sloganists] twist the meaning of those words to suit their own purposes."

Many elements of Aizawa's world view still enjoys currency. This is not surprising, not because 1825 was only 150 years ago, but because many of Aizawa's proposals became the basis of the Yamatoism which spiritually fuelled the Japanese empire and inspired the education of most of Japan's present-day leaders, some of whom are having nostalgic fits about the victor's version of the recent past and the meaning of the "American" Constitution of Japan.

Although Wakabayashi's discussion focuses on the intellectual history surrounding Aizawa's essays, and leaves other stones unturned, it also uncovers some of the bugs that continue to plague Japan's political character today. The most persistent of these is the dual sense of superiority and victimhood vis a vis the White, Western, Christian world.

Wakabayashi's book also dispels the notion that Japan is misunderstood. Besides being very readable, it is a fine example of the high quality of scholarship on Japan that can come from barbarian universities.