By the time Commodore Matthew Perry sailed his fleet of American gunboats into the harbor of Edo (now Tokyo) in July 1853, the days of the 250-year-old Japanese military regime were already numbered. “Japanese society was unraveling from within,” writes Historian John E. Van Sant.
The weakness of the Tokugawa Shogunate was laid bare for all Japanese to see when it quickly caved to Perry’s demands that Japan open trade and diplomatic relations with the world. Since the early 17th Century, it had straight-jacketed Japan with a rigid class system, hereditary privileges, a feudal economy, and near-total isolation from the world. Among the disaffected were rice farmers, who labored under an oppressive rice tax that claimed half of their harvests. For the objectives the American government of President Millard Fillmore sought in the Perry expedition, the timing couldn’t have been better.
In an interview for the Pall Mall Gazette in Britain, Mori Arinori distilled the dramatic transformation underway in mid-19th Century Japan:
Three hundred years ago a change was introduced. The feudal system was established, and Japan for three centuries ceased to display her national characteristic and remained stationary and shut up within herself. But at the close of that period she shook herself free from the burden of feudalism and assumed her old national role.
This is the second in a three-part series focusing on Mori Arinori. He played a key role in liberalizing Japanese society after the Shogunate was abolished by the Meiji Restoration of 1868. See Part 1 to learn more about this man who became Japan’s first Ambassador to the United States at the age of 24 and wrote a Tocqueville-style book of observations about America.
Here in Part 2, I share some of the insights and remarks from Mori’s Life and Resources in America. From the unique perspective of a young Japanese visitor, America in the years following the Civil War comes alive. Published in 1871, the book recalls the earlier and more famous survey of America in the 1830s, Democracy in America, by the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville.
Though Mori deeply appreciated the principles which animated America’s founding, he expressed a general dismay toward its public officials. Americans seemed to care more about the quality of their local and state politicians, he believed, than they did those at the federal level.
Perhaps it’s inevitable that an idealist will be disappointed by human reality. Mori set a high standard for government that none in history has ever perfectly achieved:
Since it is the primary business of the State to uphold justice, and thereby to protect all the legal rights of every person, especially those related to property and liberty of conscience, it may be concluded that every legislative act ought to be so conceived so as to effectually achieve such results.
His visit to America in the late 1860s, several years before he became Ambassador, introduced him to the shortcomings of democratic governance. He noted, for example, that
When a young man has determined to lead a political life, his first desire is to be elected to the State Legislature, then to become Governor of the State, and from that position he thinks himself entitled to go into the United States Senate…Generally speaking, the career of public men in this country is measured more by their cunning or success at managing the people who have votes, rather than their abilities.
If your response to that citation is something like “the more things change, the more they remain the same,” you’re sadly right. I see that fact as a good reason to keep government small and I think Mori would agree. He saw a centralizing undercurrent in American political life and an unseemly rise in power-seeking that he believed “beyond all question [to be] great disadvantages to the Republic”:
They naturally interfere with the proper and regular working of the machinery of the Government and are the primary cause of the bitter political dissensions which have long prevailed, and continue to prevail, among the American people. And what is more, they lead to all kinds of corruption; and at the very time of our writing these lines, the people of New York are greatly convulsed over the discovery that the Treasury of the City and State have been robbed to the extent of many millions of dollars, growing directly out of the evils of office-seeking.
Mori was far more sanguine about America’s immigrants, farmers, artisans, entrepreneurs and housewives than he was about the country’s political class. “The secret of the unparalleled growth and the daily increasing power of the United States,” he wrote, “is that the Government…is confined to the narrowest limits.” Moreover, he continued,
It is the agent, not the master of the people….It is, therefore, the condition of the success of a settlement that the immigrant relies on his own strength and responsibility, and seeks by his own efforts the prosperity which he is sure to find if undisturbed. Despite obstacles and disappointment, he will make his way and ultimately attain his objects.
With approval, Mori devotes several pages to the plethora of “amusements and festivals” in American farming communities—including “sugar-making frolics” in New England, “corn huskings” in the Midwest, “clam-bakes” along the Atlantic, “barbecues” in the South, and others common to all parts of the country, such as “ball-playing,” “sleigh-riding,” “house-raising,” “shooting matches,” and, as he puts it, “to the discredit of the participants, cock-fighting.” He saw private life and civil society in America as remarkably cheerful and robust, reserving special praise for a particular day:
The crowning custom, and the one most universally recognized by the American people is the celebration of what is known as Thanksgiving Day…Of all places to enjoy it, none can be compared to the house of a successful farmer. The primary objective of this festival is to recognize the goodness of the Almighty in crowning the labors of the field with prosperity, and the occasion is made especially joyous by the gathering together, under one roof, all the scattered members of the family in the old home.
“The business of America is business,” President Calvin Coolidge famously said in the 1920s. Mori Arinori would have agreed. Moreover, while allowing for the occasional shyster, Mori believed that “permanent success in business is chiefly dependent upon character.” The “average American merchant,” he wrote, “is a man who deserves and receives universal respect.” Furthermore,
He considers his word as good as his bond and, to protect his credit, will make the greatest sacrifice of property. He is liberal in his feelings and gives freely to all objects which have the sanction of his good opinion…When overcome by reverses he takes a new start, changes the character of his business, perhaps, and will not acknowledge himself as overwhelmed, and proves his mettle by attaining final success. Perhaps there is no feature in the character of the Americans which is so remarkable as their spirit of enterprise (emphasis mine).
The philanthropic generosity of Americans dazzled Tocqueville 40 years earlier. It also impressed Mori. Of merchants in particular, he wrote: “They devote themselves to business with ceaseless activity and are the men who generally take pleasure in expending their surplus capital upon all sorts of benevolent, religious, and educational institutions.”
The abundance of private, charitable and usually faith-based activities, noted Mori, was a remarkable credit to America:
To give an account of the hospitals, the homes for the orphan and widow and other charitable institutions of the country would occupy more space than can be afforded in this work, but we can state that they are very numerous, liberally endowed, and as efficiently conducted as any in the world. When necessary, people from every clime can find a convenient place where they may be cared for, whether their troubles are the result of poverty, of accidents, of sickness, or any other misfortunes.
In Part 3, the final portion of this series, we’ll uncover more of Mori Arinori’s impressions of America. We’ll also touch on his untimely death at the age of 41.
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