by John D. Beatty and Lee A. Rochwerger
Most histories of Japan in World War Two are tied to battles won and lost, to campaigns doomed and promising, to men fighting and dying, and to a desperate and hopeless struggle against the overwhelming material supremacy of the United States. Why the Samurai Lost Japan is a study of a way of life that found itself unable to resist other ways of life that were encroaching on it. Their way of life tried to adapt some of the new ways and new tools but was either culturally or psychologically unable to adapt new mindsets that, ultimately, was even more ruthless and pitiless than it was. Long after the last shot was fired in the Pacific, a very wise person severely intoned:
History has proved again and again that whenever mankind interferes with a less developed civilization, no matter how well intentioned that interference may be, the results are invariably disastrous.
The quote above is from Symbiosis, an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that aired on American television in 1988. While the Star Trek franchise spent much of its time in the interstellar space of the 24th century, this particular sentiment should have applied back on Earth in the 19th, when the Americans and Europeans wedged the door of Japan open for their own reasons. The quote above is referring to what the Star Trek franchise called the “Prime Directive,” or General Order Number 1, which in the Star Trek universe was:
No identification of self or mission. No interference with…social development…. No references to…the fact that there are other…civilizations.
This is a more than an adequate argument for what should have restrained the West—in this sense, any state outside East Asia—in relation to Japan in the 19th century. But the United States, Russia, and Great Britain had their own priorities, and the result, arguably, was World War Two in the Pacific and Asia.
Why the Samurai Lost Japan does not look to excuse the Japanese for their beastly behavior in that war, or in any conflict leading up to it. Nor is it to accuse the West of somehow polluting, causing or enabling that beastly behavior. Rather, it is to advise the reader—carefully—that Japan did not develop a sense of loathing for institutionalized violence as Europe and the Americas did as they came out of their own feudal period. The Japanese felt that they simply lacked the time to adapt that circumspection.
Why the Samurai Lost Japan is also a cautionary tale about what happens when a society tries to catch up with its neighbors and rivals by borrowing the wares and ways of life of faraway lands, and of accelerating its technological development without allowing the people the development is most supposed to help to get used to the ramifications of those wares, and of those very alien ways of life.
But first and foremost,Why the Samurai Lost Japan is an examination of the role, the successes and ultimate failures of a social subgroup unique to Japan—the samurai—a subgroup that by dint of violence, numbers, breeding, habit, tradition and sheer force of will were the most influential society in Japan up until 1945. Many commentators argue that “the samurai” were extinct after 1867, but this book argues that simply declaring a tradition to be at an end is pretty useless when that tradition is the only unifying force and principle behind the controlling social groups of the state and was the only reliable subgroup at the behest of the monarchy. The concept of “samurai,” we argue, is far more than a bunch of colorful swordsmen that could simply be told to put their swords away: it was a way of looking at the world, a way of life, and a way of death.
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