Monday, March 5, 2012

Rethinking the courage of the Meiji adventurers

In a week when there was so much to blog about, the pivotal moment struck in my class 'About Japan'. One of the things I love about teaching is the way the 'unscripted' comment in a class or during a lecture can trigger a stream of thinking and reflection on a range of otherwise unconnected events.

This week we talked about the Meiji Restoration (明治維新), generally considered to have started around 1868 and ending around 1912. It was the era in Japan triggered by the visit of US Commodore Perry's 'Black Ships' and the 'opening' of a hitherto closed Japan. It wasn't my intention to give a history lesson per se, there wasn't the time for that. Rather, in the short time available, I was seeking to convey a sense of  the magnitude of the changes that occurred in Japan during this time and how the legacies permeate contemporary social, educational, legal and political structures and institutions. We talked about the (mostly) men who were sent abroad to Europe and the US to find out all they could, about everything, and return with ways to help Japan 'catch up with the West'. And return they did with ideas and institutions which have wound their way down through the last 150 years or so. We will spend much of the rest of the semester discovering those legacies. 

But the interesting turn (I think) in the lecture came when I introduced some of my research on the era--the Japanese people who ventured to Australia at the same time and whose legacy is not talked about quite so much in the larger painting of Japanese Meiji history. As I showed students the map of Australia and lithographs of 1860s Melbourne and Sydney in Fukuzawa Yukichi's 1868 pamphlet on South America and Oceania, Watanabe Kanjuro's travels though Queensland in 1892-3 and the life of Japanese immigrant pearlers on Thursday Island, the 'opening' of Japan...and the possible role of some Japanese adventurers' travels to Australia...prompted some talk of the magnitude of the undertaking by Japanese political and intellectual leaders in the latter part of the 19th century. 'Think about it', I suggested. 'Two and a half centuries of closure and the decision to branch out and learn is in your hands. Do you think you would do it?' In other words, what does it take for a political and intellectual class to take the lead and make courageous decisions? Would they do it again? 

I directed the question to the class. Given the circumstances of the time, what would you have decided to do? I think we agreed, for that moment at least, it was a series of brave and courageous decisions to seek to enrich the country by learning from abroad. By way of comparison, we noted, Australia at the time of Watanabe's visit (1892-3) was not yet a nation, it was going through a decade-long series of constitutional conventions, it was trying to make whole, six disparate and mostly self-interested colonies. Australia was perhaps a little more insular and much of our social and political infrastructure was being absorbed via England, Ireland and other nearby countries. It seems our forebears brought it all with them, and tried to make it work. The Japanese set aside what they'd had, and set out to perhaps 'cherry-pick' the best on offer in the late 19th century. It gave us something to think about. As we proceed through the semester, we will see there were good and bad outcomes in Japan and for its neighbours, along the way. 

But later, it made me think about our present political milieu, both in Australia and Japan. The political class in both countries seems to have run itself into the ground. Apathy and dissatisfaction towards politics and politicians is something Australian and Japanese voters share at present. Confronted with a 21st century 'Meiji opportunity' what would our respective leaders do? In Australia, we hear talk of yet again (re)engaging with Asia. In Japan, the leaders struggle with coming to terms with an ageing demographic. They seem to be out of ideas. The question as to whether or not our contemporary leaders have the courage to make big, brave 'Meiji' decisions tapered off somewhat...I wonder if we'll have the opportunity to see a return to courageous leadership?