The Response to the West
Preserving Tradition in Modernity

A notable feature of Japan’s initial response to the West was the rapid collapse of its “ancient regime.”  At mid-century, the Tokugawa state, older than the United States is today, seemed rocklike in its solidity.  No one imagined that it would soon founder.  When the regime fell, foreigners resident in Japan saw it as just another proof of Japanese weakness.  Yet looking back, we now see the rapid collapse as a positive development that cleared the way for the construction of a new society. [The Heritage of Japanese Civilization (HJC), 94]
  • What does it mean to be a “modern” nation?
  • What is the relationship between “tradition” and “modernity”?

Shinto and the State
The Unity of Rites and Government

The Imperial Rescript on Education
Promulgated on October 30, 1890

Know ye, Our subjects,

Our imperial ancestors have founded Our Empire on a basis broad and everlasting, and subjects ever united in loyalty and filial piety have from generation to generation illustrated the beauty thereof.  This is the glory of the fundamental character of Our Empire, and therein also lies the source of Our education.  Ye, Our subjects, be filial to your parents, affectionate to your brothers and sisters; as husbands and wives be harmonious, as friends true; bear yourselves in modesty and moderation; extend your benevolence to all; pursue learning and cultivate arts, and thereby develop intellectual faculties and perfect moral powers; furthermore, advance public good and promote common interests; always respect the Constitution and observe the laws; should emergency arise, offer yourselves courageously to the State; and thus guard and maintain the prosperity of Our Imperial Throne coeval with heaven and earth.  So shall be not only ye Our good and faithful subjects, but render illustrious the best traditions of your forefathers.

The Way here set forth is indeed the teaching bequeathed by Our Imperial Ancestors, to be observed alike by Their Descendants and the subjects, infallible for all ages and true in all places.  It is Our wish to lay it to heart in all reverence, in common with you, Our subjects, that we may all attain to the same virtue. [Helen Hardacre, Shinto and the State: 1868-1988 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), pp. 122-3.]
  • Is this document a “religious” text?
  • How is the Rescript connected to the Shinto tradition?
  • Is it influenced by any other traditions?
  • Does it violate the “freedom of religions” principle?
  • Is it consistent with the “separation of church and state”?


Silk was the wonder crop. The government introduced mechanical reeling, enabling Japan to win markets previously held by the hand-reeled silk of China. About two-thirds of Japanese silk production was exported, and not until the 1930s did cotton textiles become a more important export. Silk production rose from 2.3 million pounds in the post-Restoration era to 16 million at the turn of the century, to 93 million on the eve of the Great Depression in 1929. [HJC, 106]

Inside the Tomioka Silk-Reeling Mill

Parliamentary Democracy

Opening Ceremony of the Imperial Parliament
November 29, 1890
The years before and after the turn of the century represented the culmination of what the government had striven for since 1868. Economic development was underway. The unequal treaties of the pre-Restoration years were revised in two steps; Japan got rid of extraterritoriality in 1899...and regained control of its tariffs in 1911. But it was only when imperial Japan became imperialist Japan that it was accorded recognition as a world power....The first step was war with China in 1894-1895 [i.e. the Sino-Japanese War] over conflicting interests in Korea....The fourth step was the war with Russia [i.e. the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905]....The resulting treaty gave Japan the Russian lease in the Kwantung Peninsula, the Russian railway in south Manchuria, the southern half of Sakhalin, and a recognition of Japan’s “paramount interest” in Korea, which it annexed in 1910. [HJC, 113-4]

The Manchurian Incident
September 18, 1931

Pearl Harbor
Sunday, December 7, 1941

Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima

The organized use of suicide tactics was indeed startling and new, but from every practical point of view it was an unmitigated failure....In order to enhance morale at a time when almost everything was going awry, the government clutched at the straw of supposed kamikaze triumphs and gave them the greatest possible publicity. Official propagandists not only made it appear that the imperial forces had developed a decisive new method to counter the enemy but used this dubious evidence to reinforce their pet theory about the superiority of the Japanese spirit. Thus contemporary reports concerning American ships sunk by suicide planes in the Philippines give double the actual figure; in the case of the Okinawa campaign a few months later, the rate of exaggeration is over six hundred percent....By the time it came to its explosive conclusion in August, about five thousand suicide volunteers had died in kamikaze craft of one kind or another. For all their frenzied efforts, they had succeeded in destroying only three capital ships, and this did not include a single fleet carrier or battleship. In the entire Okinawa campaign no American ships were sunk by an Oka and only four were damaged. It is true that almost three hundred vessels were damaged in kamikaze attacks, and many of them had to be withdrawn from the combat areas for repair. Usually, however, they were soon able to return to the fray, and such damage did little to slow down the American advance. [Ivan Morris, “The Kamikaze Fighters: ‘If Only We Might Fall . . . ,’” in The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1975), pp. 327-8]

Far from accomplishing its objective the Special Attack strategy may well have contributed to one of the greatest catastrophes that ever befell the disaster-prone Japanese people, namely, the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the first (and only) nuclear bombs ever used in warfare....Suicide tactics, instead of overawing the American’s as had been confidently expected, produced indignation and rage out of all proportion to their practical importance....This probably helped remove such qualms as President Harry Truman and his close associates may have felt about dropping atomic bombs on huge population centers at a time when Japan was already on the verge of surrender and busy with peace feelers. [Morris, “The Kamikaze Fighters,” p. 329]

On August 6, 1945, an American plane dropped one of the new [atomic] bombs on the city of Hiroshima. More than 70,000 of its 200,000 residents were killed. Two days later the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and hurriedly invaded Manchuria. The next day a second atomic bomb was dropped, this time on Nagasaki. An imperial conference was hastily convened to determine national policy....In a radio broadcast on August 15, the emperor told the Japanese people that Japan had lost the war and that they would have to “endure the unendurable.” [HJC, 127]

The Post-War Era
General MacArthur and Emperor Hirohito

Additional Resources