In the early 1830s, the French political philosopher and historian Alexis de Tocqueville toured America. He compiled his observations in Democracy in America, widely recognized as a classic study of the cultural and political milieu of a country then only half a century old.
Tocqueville admired the decentralized framework of American government, and the vibrant civil society it helped to generate. He applauded the diminution of class rigidities that characterized the social stratification of the Old World. But he knew that egalitarian impulses, if carried to extremes, carry the seeds of destruction. In his words,
There is in fact a manly and legitimate passion for equality that spurs all men to wish to be strong and esteemed. This passion tends to elevate the lesser to the rank of the greater. But one also finds in the human heart a depraved taste for equality, which impels the weak to want to bring the strong down to their level, and which reduces men to preferring equality in servitude to inequality in freedom.
So powerful were Tocqueville’s insights that Democracy in America ranks as a must-read if one wants to understand what life was like here in the 1830s.
Far less known is another author who studied America three and a half decades later (the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era of the late 1860s and early 1870s). He hailed from half a world away—Japan—and his name was Mori Arinori. His book, appearing in 1871, resonates with penetrating discernment about America from a unique foreign perspective. Titled Life and Resources in America, it deserves much more attention and appreciation than it ever received.
This article is the first of a three-part series exploring Mori Arinori, his thought, and his observations about the United States. I will rely heavily on his own words from Life and Resources in America, particularly the 2004 edition as edited, annotated, and introduced by John E. Van Sant, an eminent historian at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. It is a superb starting point for understanding the man and his times.
Additional sources I will cite and strongly recommend to the interested reader are: Alistair Swale’s indispensable The Political Thought of Mori Arinori: A Study of Meiji Conservatism, Donald Keene’s exhaustive Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852-1912, and Ivan Parker Hall’s majestic biography, Mori Arinori.
Japan: A Brief History
Americans are a Euro-centric people, for understandable reasons. Most of us trace our ancestry to European countries. Our interests in nearby Latin America are rising in part due to immigration, though we are still sadly deficient in comprehending the history and culture of that part of the world. Our general knowledge of the Far East is even more limited, akin to what I suspect Japanese understanding of Africa might be. So a little background is probably in order.
Ask any random American what he knows about pre-20th Century Japan and you may not hear more than this: Japan had figuratively walled itself off from the world until a US naval officer, Commodore Matthew Perry, showed up with a fleet of ships in 1853 and forced the country to open up. His mission: Get the Japanese to embrace diplomatic and trade relations with the world. The result was indeed an opening, but one that was often marked by “unequal treaties” to the disadvantage of Japan.
That’s a basically accurate but simplified interpretation of a pivotal event in Japanese history. When Perry banged on Japan’s door, its government was already on its last legs. Known as the Tokugawa Shogunate, it was a military regime that since 1603 had enforced a rigid, internal class system, a feudal economy, and a radically isolationist foreign policy. It even banned Christianity. It would survive only fifteen more years after Perry’s expedition, its demise hastened by Japanese resentment of its illiberal mandates and a widespread desire to restore the role of the emperor.
The Tokugawa Shogunate was overthrown and the last shogun dispatched from power (after only a year in the job), ushering in the Meiji Restoration of 1868. That seminal event brought 14-year-old Matsuhito to the throne, known to history as Emperor Meiji (a term meaning “enlightened rule”). He reigned until his death in 1912. His tenure proved to be perhaps the most consequential of any of Japan’s 122 emperors to that time. The country transformed itself from feudal isolation to a largely market economy, engaged with the world and more tolerant at home.
A young Mori Arinori was a key leader in these profound developments.
Mori Arinori: A Remarkable Man
Who exactly was this fascinating man? By any measure, his short life was remarkable. Born in August 1847 into a samurai family (the hereditary military nobility), he enrolled at the age of 18 at University College London in Great Britain. There, he studied naval surveying, physics and mathematics, and was exposed for the first time to classical liberal ideas and Victorian social values. Both influenced him greatly for the rest of his life. The Meiji Restoration brought him back to Japan with an eagerness to advance in his home country much of what he learned in Britain.
While in London, he visited a school for the blind that was privately run by a Christian organization. It impressed him deeply, prompting him to praise Christianity for helping to create an “extraordinary degree of enlightenment” in the countries where it prevailed. He also wrote approvingly of the separation of church and state, suggesting once that Russia would greatly benefit if people stopped worshiping the czar and if politics and religion steered clear of each other. He staunchly defended secular government and complete freedom of religion at the same time.
Biographer Hall notes that Mori was “impressed with the civilizing aspects of Christianity as a social force and with the personal rectitude of individual Christians who lived up to their profession of the faith.”
Mori’s growing appreciation of both liberal and Christian values would prompt him to take aim at Confucianism, which had been imported to Japan from China. The most important disciple and interpreter of Confucius, Mencius, supported the same free trade, low taxes, and laissez-faire economy that Mori favored 2,000 years later, but Mori took issue with the more statist elements of Confucianism. He wrote,
The doctrine of obedience, the leading feature in the Confucian school of morals, was one of the most important levers of the central authority. Its evil effect upon society was seen in the manner in which it retarded the development of the vital spirit of self-reliance, destroyed the happiness of domestic life, and cultivated the feeling of subjection.
Mori took time out from his London experience to visit the US in August 1867. He was just 20. Four years later, he would be named Japan’s first Ambassador to America, a post he held for two years.
Alistair Swale, author of The Political Thought of Mori Arinori: A Study of Meiji Conservatism, reveals that at age 24, Arinori thought “his youth made him a particularly inappropriate emissary of the Emperor.” He certainly had his critics in the government back home, but he nonetheless strengthened the good relations between the two countries while impressing Americans with his intellectual depth and innate curiosity.
I cannot verify that Mori was the youngest person in history appointed as ambassador from one country to another, but if he wasn’t, he certainly was one of the youngest ever. His resume thereafter is just as impressive:
- Ambassador to China, 1875.
- Founder, in 1875, of Japan’s first commercial college, the precursor to what is Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo today.
- Ambassador to Britain, 1879 to 1884.
- Minister of Education in Japan, 1885-89.
Unfortunately, his incredible career was cut short in 1889. At the age of only 41, he was assassinated. (More on that tragedy in Part 3 of this series.)
A Japanese Tocqueville?
Amongst the books in Mori’s personal collection was a copy of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. A voracious reader, it’s quite likely that he knew it from cover to cover. Certainly, more than a few of his observations about America sound positively Tocquevillian, such as these:
The secret of the unparalleled growth and the daily increasing power of the United States is that the Government, in its practical working, is confined to the narrowest limits; that it is the agent, not the master, of the people.
A prosperous, happy and permanent republican government can only be secured when the people who live under it are virtuous and well educated.
On his way home to Japan after his ambassadorship, he stopped in England and visited Herbert Spencer, a leading philosopher and sociologist of the day. Author of Social Statics and The Man Versus the State, Spencer generally espoused classical liberal ideas. It would seem from both men’s writings that Spencer’s influence on his young Japanese friend was considerable.
Spencer cautioned Mori to not push his people too far too fast, lest liberal reforms generate a backlash. Soon after his time with the English intellectual, Mori dropped his longstanding call to abolish use of the Japanese language and replace it with English. He embraced a more gradualist reform agenda, though his time back in Japan was brief. He was made Ambassador to Great Britain in 1879, at age 32, and served there for nearly five years.
In the interim years between ambassadorships, Mori established the Meiroku Society in Japan and became its first president. Swale notes that it was “one of the most significant institutions within the Japanese Enlightenment.” Though the views of its members were punctuated by notable differences, the Society generally sought to promote moderate liberal reforms within the Japanese cultural context, moral teaching and self-discipline, religious tolerance, rejection of superstition and embrace of reason, private property, and an openness to connections with the rest of the world.
With the insular Tokugawa shogunate gone and the Meiji Restoration in place, these once-unthinkable notions could take root in Japan. Mori championed this new direction, though not without the occasional statist baggage that would seem contradictory. For instance, because he thought the Japanese people were far behind the West in what they knew and thought, he supported a more activist role for government in education. He believed that certain moral and intellectual preconditions must take root before sweeping political reforms could be enacted and sustained, though the question of who was best capable of accomplishing that (government or private institutions) was more than a little debatable.
Context is important here. The society that Mori and his Meiroku associates sought to change had only recently emerged from a kind of moral, social, economic, and political darkness. Women in Japan, for instance, were traditionally subordinate to men in every respect; reformers wanted to move toward more equal rights and conditions for both sexes but knew that wasn’t likely to happen overnight. In another arena, foreign policy, Japan within Mori’s lifetime transitioned from a closed society to an open one. Birthing a new economy of global economic connections, the reformers knew, would be a bumpy process requiring a popular consensus that businesses once insulated and protected would now have to compete or disappear.
Mori was, in the words of Swale, “a reformer with radical and, in most regards, liberal objectives” but one who nonetheless argued for mostly incremental policy changes that respected Japanese history and culture. Political reforms, he believed, should be achieved as often as possible by broad consent rather than imposed suddenly from the top down. Influenced in this regard by Herbert Spencer, he believed that changes in law and governance would founder unless the necessary social and cultural transformations to support them were cultivated first. Consequently, he was attacked from two directions at the same time—from Japanese liberals impatient with his moderation and from anti-reform elements who saw him as too radical.
So now you know who Mori Arinori was and a little of what he believed. In Parts 2 and 3 of this series, we will explore his view of the United States as presented in his Life and Resources in America. But first, allow me to tantalize you with this:
Mori was so negatively impressed by American politics in the 1860s and ‘70s that one can safely assume he would be mortified by the level of its degeneracy today. Back then, he thought Congress was composed largely of “mere time-serving politicians.” He wrote, “This class of citizens has greatly multiplied…and it is safe to say that nearly all the troubles which befall the country are the result of their petty schemes and selfish intrigues.”
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