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The Perry Legacy

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Commodore Mathew Perry's chief claim to fame is that, a little over 150 years ago, he forced Japan, at gun-point, to open up to the western world. Ten years before that ignominious episode, he had been magnanimously busy scaring off slave-ships on the African coast. The two events underscore western domestic and foreign policy: liberate the individual, and enslave the collective. 


The Japanese repaid Commodore Perry's surprise visit with another in 1941: they bombed Pearl Harbour, thereby ending American isolationism. "We used to be a nation of artists," a Japanese diplomat once remarked, "but now...we have learned to kill, you say that we are civilised."


The Tokugawa shoguns had run Japan for 250 years as a quasi-feudal system. Prior to their rule, in the fifteenth century, Japan had been a murderous place, in a perpetual state of warfare (depicted by the director Akiro Kurosawa in Ran). The daimyo, or lords, fought great wars among themselves: in turn, Oda Nobunaga, then Hideyoshi, and finally Tokugawa Ieyasu ruled. One super-daimyo imposed order over all the other daimyo. The great peace began.


In fact, Japan became too peaceful for its own good. The art of using firearms was completely forgotten; all battle-readiness was dropped. So when Commodore Perry sailed in, Japan was defenseless. As S. E. Finer observed in his magisterial survey, A History of Government: "...The most extraordinary feature of the Japanese armed forces was not just the ever-diminishing numbers of effectives nor their progressive loss of military skills, but their abandonment of firearms. The harquebus came in 1543. It had played the crucial part in the battles that ended the civil wars. But once the wars ceased the Japanese simply turned their backs on these unworthy, unchivalrous weapons.... " "The consequence was that the country lay wide open to the incursion of the West in 1853 . (S.E.Finer, The History of Government from the Earliest Times, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 1115, 1125)."


The westernization of Japan should serve as a salutary warning to us all. The peaceful people acquired the worst vices of the west: ideas of racial purity, the practice of colonialism, and the Christian notion of motivating soldiers with the idea of a single deity (in this case, a divine king) in place of all the lesser Shinto gods led to hatred of the Japanese throughout East Asia and China that endures to this day. Admittedly, the choices facing Japan were odious: to succumb like India to western rule, or fight for freedom. But freedom in the west, as we have seen, meant the loss of somebody else's freedom.


The fact that Japan had never been ruled by westerners explains their self-respect today and their indifference to western criticism or standards: only six Japanese have won the Nobel Prize so far. This is a reflection of the Japanese governments deliberate post-war policy to eschew pure research for applied technology. They have their own culture and their own way of life. Today, for instance, Japan is as safe internally as it was under the Tokugawa Shogunate. And this is largely because they have managed to preserve their Asian values – including authoritarianism, and one-party rule. One writer described the Shogunate as a 'highly effective police state' – effective, yes, but police state? Well, that's a matter of interpretation. But the slogan kanson minpi ('revere officials, despise the people') would be appropriate even today.


In 1991, the number of articles returned to the police (4.1m) exceeded the number reported lost (2.9m). 18.5 billion yen ($137 million) of lost cash were handed over by friendly citizens. And only three policemen died on duty – and two of them in a volcanic eruption. How was this possible? The main secret behind the safe streets of Japan is the man (sometimes his wife, too) in the koban – police boxes. 6,000 koban are distributed in the cities; another 9,000 in the country. These thinly-manned 'police stations' are designed to maximise the police force's contact with society. The police routinely – and very seriously – take part in community activities. Another outcome of the authoritarianism of Japanese politics is the extra-constitutional means used by the police in dealing with crime. This is common in most Asian countries, but in Japan there is a peculiar mix of leniency and harshness. Japan has a conviction rate of 99.8% despite the fact that, in 1990, 31% of offenders were released after signing an apology. But these were for minor offences; for major offences, the Japanese police only strike when they're absolutely certain. Most convictions are obtained by means of – unconstitutional – confessions. (The Economist, April 16th, 1994, pp. 32-34). Consequently, Japan has the lowest incarceration rate in the world: 48 per 100,000 population, against 700 for the United States, 132 for England and Wales and 85 for France, according to The Economist (August 10th  2002, p. 27). 


Incidentally, Japan is a standing rebuke to all those assertions and studies proclaiming a causal link between media violence and street-violence. An analysis of 217 studies done between 1957 and 1990 in America supposedly found that they showed "positive and significant correlation between television violence and aggressive behaviour. (" The American Psychological Association's commission on violence and youth concluded that "there is absolutely no doubt that higher levels of viewing violence on television are correlated with increased acceptance of aggressive attitudes and increased aggressive behaviour (" Yet Japan is famous for its nasty pornographic comics and gory cartoons, but suffers far less than other rich countries from violence. Indeed, in metropolitan districts, koban are necessarily situated near porno shops and pin-ball parlours. When Kinji Fukasaku, master of film violence, passed away, a western writer wondered in his obituary why such courteous people watch such cruel films. He was traveling on the subway, when he saw a couple looking at a cartoon: he bent down, and realized that it was the depiction of a rape. The couple, noticing his curiosity, invited him to join them (Obituary of Kinji Fukasaku, master of film violence, The Economist, February 1st 2003).  Perhaps Aristotle got it right a long time ago: the portrayal of violence and violent emotions act ac catharsis, and cleanse the soul (though his analysis would fail to accommodate the United States, where violence is 'as American as motherhood and apple pie'). Those American studies would do well to focus instead on the political culture that has rendered the District of Columbia the world's most unsafe place with a murder rate of 65 per 100,000. Is it surprising that, in a country where a third of all children (and two-thirds of black children) live in one-parent families, there should be so much crime? A high divorce rate may be good for the individual, but bad for the collective.


We have much to learn from Japan, which makes a careful distinction between 'western things' and 'western ways': the former are desirable, the latter not (though that didn't stop them from adopting some of the worst western 'ways', as we have seen). To modernize technologically, without emulating the west must be the desiderata for all Asian societies. The Chinese Communist Party, the rulers of Thailand, Mahathir Mohammed of Malaysia have all drawn inspiration from Japan. Unfortunately, we in Bangladesh draw our inspiration from the west and from India. India has been ruled by the west and has turned out to be a monster, despised by its neighbours and held together by violence; Japan tried to imitate the west and turned into a monster. Whenever the east tries to mimic the west, it loses its innocence, and becomes a monster.


Japan has no civil society: civil society, like the Israel lobby, Christian evangelicals and the Viswa Hindu Parishad, cause instability and violence (where they are not overtly violent, they cause harm tantamount to violence by focusing on their narrow agendas, such as the American and European farm lobbies that ensure that millions of farmers in third world countries remain mired in poverty; Christian groups and the Catholic Church try to ensure that contraception and abortion remain unavailable to third-world countries; trade unions focus on raising their members' wages even if it means causing widespread unemployment; and, earlier, both Catholic and Protestant Churches vigorously promoted the slave trade....). As John Keane observed in his book Civil Society, the idea of "Asian values" originated in Japan: "...the Civil Society School of Japanese Marxism developed an early version of what later would be called 'the Asian values argument'. Particular emphasis was placed upon the survival in modern Japan of unusually strong premodern sentiments, such as communalism, patriarchal family life and individuals' deference towards power....The weakness of civil society, in the sense of shared social networks that infuse individuals with a strong sense of their individuality, enabled Japanese capitalism to grow at an exceptional speed without significant social resistance. (italics original)." Elsewhere he observes that civil society contains the seeds of incivility and tends to promote violence. "A highly developed civil society can and normally does contain within itself violent tendencies." Again: "Those who work for a (more) civil society must recognize not only that violence is often the antithesis of civil society, but also that every known form of civil society tends to produce the same violent antithesis (John Keane, Civil Society, (London: Polity Press, 1998), pp.13, 136, 141)."


Women do not work in Japan after they marry: they bring up the children, thus providing young people with a firm emotional anchor. The illegitimacy rate is the lowest in the developed world: 1%.  They do not debate and argue in the Diet: they work by consensus. About Japan's change of government in the mid-90s, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew had said (The Economist, Survey of Asia, October 30, 1994, p. 23): 'I do not see them becoming a fractious, contentious society like America, always debating and knocking each other down. That is not their culture. They want growth and they want to get on with life. They are not interested in ideology as such, or in the theory of good government. They just know a good government and want a good government. Americans believe that out of contention, out of the clash of different ideas and ideals, you get good government. That view is not shared in Asia."

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Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English and economics. He was born and lives in Dhaka, à ‚¬Å½Bangladesh. He has contributed to AXIS OF LOGIC, ENTER TEXT, POSTCOLONIAL à ‚¬Å½TEXT, LEFT CURVE, MOBIUS, ERBACCE, THE JOURNAL, and other publications. à ‚¬Å½He (more...)
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