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Japan: Its Rise from Feudalism ...

Jack Weber

Its Rise from Feudalism to Capitalist Imperialism
and the Development of the Proletariat

(September 1932)

From The Militant, Vol. V No. 39 (Whole No. 133), 24 September 1932, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

When Marx and Engels issued the Communist Manifesto in 1848, Japan was still in its dark ages of feudalism, shut in as a hermit nation to hold back the threatening inundation by the rising tide of world economy. Today we must amplify the first sentence of the Manifesto. Less than a century after its issuance, a scant sixty-four years after the beginning of the modern era in Japan, the spectre of Communism haunts Asia as well as Europe. And in fact the spectre has materialized and taken on flesh and stands with a foot in either continent, so that even as Japan reaches maturity as a world capitalist power, world economy already includes within itself at least the framework of a more advanced stage of society.

Under the direct influence of the “independent reality of world economy”. Japan, the last of the powers to abolish feudalism, has itself become one of the capitalist powers. The unprecedented speed with which this process occurred has been the admiration of those bourgeois writers who attribute the “successes” of Japanese capitalism to the planful foresight of its ruling class. An examination of this planned economy will throw light on the present relation of forces in Japan and will serve to contrast Japanese with Soviet Russian planned economy. A picture of feudal and post-feudal Japan will not come amiss as a starting point.

The Feudal Period

When in 1853 Commodore Perry knocked at the gates of Japan with his cannon balls in the Bay of Uraga, ordering them opened in the name of the rapidly expanding American capitalism, he found Japan in the rotten-ripeness of a stagnant feudalism. More than two centuries earlier a new shogun (the Emperor’s chamberlain) had brought to a close the period of perennial warfare between rival military lords struggling for supremacy. His family, the Tokugawas, succeeded in maintaining the “great peace” among the “weltering mass of feudal atoms” until the Emperor’s Restoration in 1868. Simultaneously with the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate the entire Japanese feudal structure was threatened by the inroads of Portuguese traders and missionaries. The introduction of the cannon and the musket was not the only consequence of the impact with European civilization that aroused the fears of the ruling class for its preservation. One result of the trade with the buccaneer-merchants was the rapid draining of gold from Japan in exchange for silver, the ratio between the two being one to four as against one to sixteen in Europe. Shortly too the silver was in danger of exhaustion as Japan had little to offer in trade except copper. The spread of Christianity disturbed the entire ideational basis of feudalism and when a Portuguese sea captain frankly boasted that the missionaries were merely the advance guard whose function it was to undermine the existing authority so that the Portuguese could step in and rule, the shogun promptly closed the country to all but a limited number of Dutch and Chinese merchants, at the same time decreeing a death penalty for any Jap who tried to leave the country.

The Tokugawa Shogunate (1603 to 1868)

The feudal system is essentially a form of military dictatorship over peasants. Its economy is a barter economy and, in the case of Japan, its wealth was reckoned in bushels of rice. Takimoto states in the Economic History of Japan that in the latter part of the Tokugawa era the annual production of rice was 143,322,000 bushels. Of this amount 102,308,000 went to the feudal lords. The Tokugawas assessed a 50% tax on the remainder, leaving 20,476,000 bushels for the peasant producers. The great feudal lords, the heads of great clans, called daimyos numbered 437 at the end of the era. There were 420,000 samurais or military retainers whose families and servants brought the number of non-producers entirely dependent on the lords to well over one million. The entire population numbered 27,000,000, the vast majority peasants.

Despite the intense exploitation of the peasantry, the daimyos, with few exceptions, could not maintain their establishments without deficits met by borrowing from the rising merchant class. Frequently enough the debts were wiped out by the simple expedient of confiscation of the entire wealth of the rich merchant. The samurais were so deeply in debt that general repudiations of debts were common. Thus the shogun declared all debts of samurais null and void in 1716.

Evidently money economy was growing up side by side with the barter economy. The money economy whose beginnings traced back many centuries in Japan, secured a firm hold through foreign trade, although barter continued to exist side by side with it up to 1875 when the system of expressing wealth in terms of bushels of rice was abandoned. In fact trade had not ceased with the decreeing of seclusion. Down to 1700 the Dutch exported from Japan a total of 100,000,000 lbs. of copper. At the end of the 18th century they were still exporting 800,000 lbs. a year and the Chinese were then sending to China from Japan 1½ million lbs. a year. Several “progressive” feudal lords were enriched by engaging in this trade.

The Peasants

Terrible as had been the lot of the peasants before the Tokugawa era their sufferings became indescribable during this period. “Even in normal times, the peasants did not have enough to live on. They ate the cheaper grains and potatoes, and very seldom tasted the rice they produced, for it was taken away as tax, and what little was left them had to be sold to get necessary money.” Under feudal economy crop shortages were the most frightful calamity (just as overabundance for the market is the contradictory capitalist calamity). From 1690 to 1840 there were 22 famines, – very destructive of human life. The famines were caused by floods, droughts, frosts, typhoons, volcanoes, insects, – but the suffering was due to the low stage of social organization, a stage in which ease of communication is not desired and roads are made impassable to prevent invasion by neighboring enemies. Desperation often drove the peasants to riot for rice. Fifty such riots are recorded. Five riots of national scope occurred between 1830 and 1846.

Such poverty and misery kept the population stationary throughout this period. It is recorded indeed that during the first decade of the 19th century the peasant population decreased by 1,400,000 due primarily to deaths by starvation, altho a small part of this decrease was due to the fleeing of peasants to the towns. Under such conditions infanticide was so common that in many districts only boys were raised and in others it was the custom to kill 2 out of every 5 babies. Near Nagano the large rock still stands where old women past the age of usefulness were exposed to die.

The Restoration

The most powerful rivals of the Tokugawas were the wealthy Choshu and Satsuma clans, both near the seacoast and both of whom had learned more of the arts of the West than any other groups in Japan. Just before the abolition of the feudal system the Satsumas had imported the latest cotton spinning machinery with 6,000 spindles from England, thereby starting the first great industry in Japan. These clans headed a revolt for the overthrow of the decadent Tokugawas and for the restoration of the Emperor, nominal overlord for many centuries, around whom had grown the usual numerous myths of divinity. Unwittingly, Com. Perry, by his “visit” helped these clans end the shogunate.

The New Militarist Bureaucracy

Lengthy as this historical outline may appear, it is essential to an intelligent understanding of modern Japan. In the Tokugawa regime, control was exercised by a feudal bureaucracy with the Emperor as a figurehead. With the much-heralded Restoration of the Emperor in change in form but remained exactly the same in essence, as it had to since the ruling class had not changed. The Emperor still remained a figurehead for state religious purposes, the actual power passing over to the new militarists of the successful clans, the Choshu and the Satsuma in particular. The daimyos and the samurais of these clans formed the new bureaucracy that ushered in capitalism under the leadership of feudal lords. Feudalism was abolished but the lords, now peers of the realm, retained most of their land and were compensated by a bond issue for the small part relinquished, and the samurais were granted a state pension as well as a sum of money outright. Feudalism was abolished but military dictatorship remains to this day. To the victors belong the spoils and so from 1868 to 1912 the samurais of the Choshu clan had complete control of the modern conscript army which they organized. Almost invariably the generals have been Choshus. Similarly the Satsumas, who had to play second fiddle because of a premature attempt to invade and annex Korea, [line of text missing] -ern navy. Almost every admiral has been a Satsuma. With minor exceptions these clans contributed between them the membership of that extra-constitutional body, the Genro or Elder Statesmen, who do not give counsel but dictate his policy to the Emperor. True, elements of democracy exist today in Japan but it need only be recalled that the male workers (over 25) were granted the vote only in 1926, exercising this right for the first time in 1928, to realize the role played by the military bureaucracy at the present time. The shadow government hardly conceals the mailed fist. Under the Constitution the Minister of War practically controls the cabinet. By resigning he forces the resignation of the entire cabinet (or parliamentary administrative body) since no cabinet is permitted to function without a Minister of War who must be either a general or an admiral. No general or admiral will consent to become Minister without the consent of his confrères. Per contra the Minister of War need not resign with the rest of the cabinet. In short the military clique form a class apart, “responsible” only to the Emperor, that is, to themselves. These glaring contradictions in Japanese “democracy” became the focus of attention in the invasion of Manchuria and China.

(To be continued)

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