The Hard-Dying Myth of Edo Misrule
In many societies throughout history, the public servant has been an easy target of steam-venting abuse. There are apparent exceptions, such as the mandarins of the Chinese empire. Voltaire, in his Lettres chinoises, for instance, went so far as to claim that human wisdom could not have devised a political system more perfect than that in China and that its administrative setup was the best the world had ever witnessed. This view, though, may well be seen as a veiled criticism of the bureaucrats in Voltaires own eighteenth-century France rather than an objective assessment of conditions in China. One can wonder whether Voltaire would have adhered to this view had he actually been dispatched to China and dealt with officials there firsthand.
Some of the Western diplomats who visited Japan in the closing days of the Edo period (16001868) do claim to have been favorably impressed with the Japanese officials with whom they dealt. Ivan Goncharov, a Russian man of letters who served on a mission to negotiate a commercial treaty with Japan, recalls in The Frigate Pallada that Kawaji Toshiakira, the chief Japanese delegate, though a tough negotiator, inspired respect for the common sense, wit, perspicacity, and expert knowledge that he displayed at every turn. Kawaji was born into the lowest-ranking class of samuraibarely above the peasantrybut rose through the ranks to the highest positions in the bakufu, the government of the Tokugawa shogunate, and was held up as a model to be emulated. (But because of his remarkable success, some of his contemporaries denounced him as a crafty character.)
Certain other Westerners also expressed a favorable opinion of Edo officials, but the fans of Japans officialdom were far outnumbered by the japonisant lovers of the countrys art and handicrafts, such as ukiyo-e prints and Kakiemon ware. By writing harsh comments about the Japanese bureaucracy, foreign authors could release their pent-up frustrationsand works that did not serve this purpose rarely found a receptive readership. In this regard, bakufu bureaucrats fared no better their counterparts in other parts of the world. Rutherford Alcock, who was in Japan at around the same time as Goncharov as Britains first minister, wrote in The Capital of the Tycoon that it would be tedious to discuss Japans government and the bureaucrats serving it and that actually having to negotiate with these officials was a loathsome experience.
Alcock identified mendacity as the primary failing of the Japanese in general, but this vice was carried to an extreme, he asserted, by the “yakonin”his contemptuous epithet for Japanese officials, from yakunin (bureaucrat). This, he said, was because Japan had an oppressive, feudalistic political system that was sustained by spies and informants, and it was impossible for people to speak their minds freely. A more oppressive system was unimaginable, and as long as Japan remained under its shackles, genuine progress was unattainable. True civilization must be progressive, he declared. This diagnosissomewhat reminiscent of the rhetoric being directed at Iraq and North Korea todaydismissed the Edo bureaucrats as the front-line troops for the forces thwarting Japans progress and development.
It was not just this haughty Victorian Englishman who offered such a scathing indictment. Reading through the accounts of European and American visitors to Japan during this period, one finds many similar assessments.
Alcock was replaced as minister by Harry Smith Parkes, whose high-handed attitude (and short temper) outraged many Japanese officials. He not only criticized and ridiculed the shogunate and its bureaucrats at every opportunity but at times even openly supported antigovernment forces. The Meiji Restorationthe collapse of the Edo regime and the establishment of a new government under Emperor Meiji in 1868would surely not have come to pass as it did without such blatant political intervention by the Western powers, which in the twentieth century would have been censured as outside interference. And while it is natural for revolutionary governments to denounce the regimes they have toppled, the manner in which the Meiji leaders rejected the old Edo order as irredeemably backward seems to show the shadow of the influence exerted by the British Empire, the superpower of the time.
The image of the bakufu that took hold following the Restoration is not valid as a basis for historical research or narrative, but even this is less distorted than some views of Edo, such as seen in the political history that emanated from the former Soviet Academy. Starting early in the twentieth century, socialist and Marxist thinkers denounced not only the government of Meiji-era (18681912) Japan for its absolutist, bureaucratic tendencies but also the Tokugawa shogunate as an inhumane and feudalistic system divorced from historical progress. A strange congruence emerged between the views of Marxist theorists and those of the Meiji leadership owing to their shared condemnation of the Edo bureaucracy, and this further obfuscated the already warped assessment of the Edo period.
In the midtwentieth century, E. Herbert Norman, who wrote Japans Emergence as a Modern State (1940) and lived in Japan following World War II as a Canadian diplomat, was influential in popularizing among English-speaking intellectualsmany of whom espoused Marxist ideology at the timethe image of the Edo masses suffering from and being exploited by a duplicitous and oppressive shogunate. (My motive for embarking on Edo-period studies, incidentally, was the tragicomic acceptance of this book among Japans so-called progressive thinkers for many years after World War II as a key reference point in assessing and discussing this period.) Anyone who might read Normans work now would surely conclude that Karl Marxwhose ideas inspired him as a youth and informed his historical perspectivewas a man whose mind-set, just like Alcocks, was deeply affected by the atmosphere of Victorian England, where history was seen as a struggle between “true civilization,” which marches toward the kingdom of justice under divine guidance, and the followers of evil, who are ultimately cut off from progress and cannot escape doom. In this scenario, the only available role for Edo bureaucrats is that of minor demons devoting their energies to preserving the empire of evil.
It is only fair to mention that even Alcock, who had a physical aversion to Edo “yakonin,” conceded that commoners led a peaceful and prosperous life under the shogunate despite supposedly being subjected to despotic rule. Traveling far into the countryside in the days before the Restoration, he discovered that villagers seemed more prosperous and happier than in Europe. Recounting his impressions, Alcock found it hard to reconcile what he saw with the idea that that Japan was a land whose people lived in destitution due to the exorbitant taxes of a tyrannical regime.
Alcocks observations are corroborated by Susan Hanley in her Everyday Things in Premodern Japan. She reveals that peasants tax burden in the late Edo period was relatively light and that their living standards rose over time, albeit gradually. But even though it is true as a general matter that despotic rule does not always beget economic hardship, Alcocks view of late-Edo Japan as a place where peace and prosperity managed to coexist with an autocratic government fails to present a convincing explanation. Part of the confusion probably arises from the mind-set that was dominant among the British of Alcocks day, a politicoeconomic philosophy that was centered on the West, and more particularly on Britain. The Edo regime was utterly foreign to the ideals of British governance, and hence it was equated with the worst forms of despotism. This very categorization engendered a need to explain the seeming contradiction of the happy Edo masses living under a terrible regime. But sometimes a “contradiction” can be more powerful than a rigid theory into which all the phenomena are forced to fit.
The image of government in the Edo period as set forth by Alcock, Norman, and others is actually more like a comic-book caricature than a historical interpretation. But views like theirs have a peculiar cogency precisely because of their arbitrariness and simplistic methodology. They amount to what may be called a Japanese version of the “Whig interpretation of history,” and like the imprinting mechanism that establishes an irreversible behavior pattern in young animals, these views cannot easily be swept away. They endured even long after World War II as the aftereffects of progressivism in such manifestations as discursive forms and paradigms. They have also served as part of the background to the political controversy over Japanese history textbooks in recent years. That these views die hard can be gleaned from the discourses by Morishima Michio, a Japanese economist who spent nearly 20 years at the London School of Economics and Political Science. An introduction and analysis of his arguments are significant given Morishimas position on the international scene and the role of his ideas in offering a frame of reference for criticizing Japans existing setup.
CONFUCIANISM AND AGE
In a series of autobiographical memoirs published in the monthly journal Ronza, Morishima in summer 1999 touched on the subject of Japans bureaucrats in his criticism of modern Japanese society. He contended that personnel practices in the bureaucracy exemplified the worst aspects of Japans Confucian tradition, saying, “Decisions on whom to promote to high-ranking positions are largely based on age in Japan, whereas in Britain age is as negligible a factor as body weight.” The prominence given to age offers irrefutable evidence, he concluded, that “Japan adheres to the precepts of Confucianism,” and he asserted that the nation would continue to be labeled Confucian “as long as the post of administrative vice-minister goes to the eldest official in each ministry.”
There is, admittedly, a marked tendency for personnel decisions to be made with a heavy emphasis on age. But in other respects Morishima can be said to misrepresent the situation. One point is a simple factual error: It is just not true that the highest-ranking bureaucrat in each ministry, the administrative vice-minister, is the oldest. It is true that “career-track” civil servants (those hired after passing the level 1 recruitment examination) often take early retirement, moving on to second jobs at other organizations, and that whenever a new administrative vice-minister is appointed, there is a fairly well established custom that any remaining senior bureaucrats who entered the ministry in the same year as the new appointee or earlier will leave the ministry at that point. As a result, the administrative vice-minister is often the eldest among the remaining members of this elite group of officials within the ministry. But this customary practice does not apply to the “noncareer” officials who carry out the bulk of bureaucratic tasks in each ministry. It is an easy matter to determine that many of these are older than the administrative vice-minister.
Morishima asserts that Confucianism is a quintessentially “class-based religion” and therefore that a Confucianist bureaucracy is also class-centered; it is a matter of course, then, for noncareer officials to be excluded from consideration. Morishimas definition of what constitutes “class,” though, is extremely vague and arbitrary. A proper understanding of Japans bureaucratic system requires due recognition of the existence and contributions of the midranking, working-level bureaucrat. This is also largely true of the bureaucracies of other countries, including China, and of earlier eras. Japan has been what one might call a “middle-management state,” in which midranking bureaucrats play a prominent role, since at least around the middle of the Edo period. I do not have space to discuss the grounds for such a position in detail here, but Kasamatsu Kazuhikos Shukun “oshikome” no kôzô (Structure of Lordly Confinement) is a useful reference on this subject.
If Morishimas position on the age factorleaving aside the issue of class for a moment is to be brought closer in line with reality, his assertion might be amended to say that the administrative vice-minister is the eldest among the elite members of a ministry. This seemingly minor revision would significantly reduce the need to raise an objection. But an even bigger problem from the perspective of arriving at an accurate understanding of the Edo bureaucracy and system of governanceand by extension of Japanese history itselflies elsewhere. Below I explore the historical features of Japans bureaucracy and the ways it has been interpreted with reference to Morishimas claims that the importance attached to age is a well-embedded tradition in this country and a sign that the Japanese are Confucianist.
HOW OLD WERE EDO BUREAUCRATS?
Even if Morishimas thesis is revised to refer only to elite members of the bureaucracy, his implied assertion that this practice has a long history in Japan is not accurate. With some exceptions, notably the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it was not until after World War II that current selection methods for administrative vice-minister came into wide use. The Ministry of Finance also employed a similar practice prior to the war, but the Ministry of Home Affairs, which at the time was an equal to or perhaps even more powerful than the Finance Ministry, completely disregarded it. (Corroborative data can be found in my Kanryô no fûbô [Portrait of the Bureaucrat].)
Was age the predominant factor in personnel decisions in the Edo period, when Confucian teachings made their broadest and deepest penetration into everyday life in Japan? Japans bureaucracy came under the particularly heavy influence of such neo-Confucianist thinkers as Zhu Xi following the implementation of the Kansei Reformswhich forbade the teaching of non-Confucianist precepts in the 1790s. If age-based personnel decisions are really grounded in Confucian thought, then they should figure most prominently during this period. Was this actually so?
Let us look at the example of the Kanjô Bugyôsho, the office of the commissioners of financethe biggest and most powerful institution in the Tokugawa shogunate, whose authority and functions were comparable to those of the prewar Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of Finance combined. In 1800when government support for Confucian teachings was at its peakthe Kanjô Bugyôsho had 16 kumigashira, equivalent to present-day bureau directors. At the time of appointment, their average age was slightly less than 45, the youngest appointee having been 29 years old and the oldest 57. Five years later, the average age of the six ginmiyaku, roughly equivalent to vice-minister, was under 50. At the time of their appointment, the youngest was 36 and the oldest 53. The disparity in the age of new appointees to both posts was quite wide: 28 years at the “bureau chief” level and 17 years at the “vice-ministerial” level.
I will refrain from citing additional data, but even this brief overview should be sufficient to show that Morishimas assertion that “decisions on whom to promote to high-ranking positions are largely based on age” cannot be extended back to the Edo bureaucracy. This does not prove that age was as insignificant as “body weight,” of course, but we can conclude that factors other than age were of much greater importance. There are similar disparities in age of top Kanjô Bugyôsho officials in other years as well as in other senior posts, such as kanjô (present-day division chief) and shihai kanjô (posts filled by what in todays Japan we would call "noncareer" officials).
It is worth noting that a form of meritocracy, based on the principle of competition, was also seen in the Kanjô Bugyôsho. Starting at least as early as the first half of the eighteenth century, would-be bureaucrats were subject to an examination to ascertain their arithmetical and writing skills. Throughout the Edo period, moreover, there was an incessant flow of people from the peasant and merchant classes into middle- and lower-ranking retainer positions within the Tokugawa shogunate. This was particularly pronounced in the Kanjô Bugyôsho, where those of humble birthincluding people whose parents or grandparents were rural farming folkregularly played a prominent role, sometimes even being tapped for the highest posts. This suggests that specialist knowledge and expertise were regarded as of greater importance than age. (See my Edo no yakunin jijô [The Bureaucrats of Edo].) Much the same pattern can be observed in other administrative organswith the exception of “extraministerial” institutions, where many retired officials took cozy, largely ceremonial jobs.
This brief examination suggests that age was not an overweening factor in bureaucratic personnel decisions during the late Edo period, when Confucian thought exerted its strongest influence on government policy. Moreover, there is no evidence that the administrative vice-minister was the eldest (career-track) official in each ministry in the era from the Meiji Restoration to Japans defeat in World War II, which, while admittedly not as strongly Confucianist as the Edo period, was still much more so than postwar Japan. On the contrary, age has gained greater prominence today, when the vast majority of Japaneseincluding elite bureaucratshave little grasp of Confucian precepts or of the Chinese classics in general. It may be more accurate to say that there is an inverse relationship between the importance given to age and the prevalence of Confucian thought. Thus, while Morishimas attempt to ascribe Japans bureaucratic practices to a Confucian tradition appears, on the surface, to be grounded on a firm historical grasp of Japanese society, it is probably more accurate to view it as belonging to the line of thinking that began with Alcock and his contemporaries and was later taken up by Norman and the “progressive” thinkers of the postwar era. Holding bureaucrats in blithe contempt for their supposed lack of creativity and predilection for following precedent is not as innocent as it would appear.
Morishima brushes aside the seeming contradiction between his assertions and the factual record, contending that it is only natural for descriptive accounts of individual events to appear as exceptions to theories of history. Whatever the significance of such exceptions may be in economics, in history theories that ignore descriptive accounts lack falsifiability, which Karl Popper identified as an essential element of scientific hypotheses. Not only bureaucratic personnel practices since the Edo period but also the structure and role of the bureaucracy itselfand indeed of Edo society as a wholehave been distorted and willfully glossed over because of such dogmatism. This, sadly, has been the prevailing tendency in historical accounts of the Edo bureaucracy.
THE WORLD OF THE YAKUNIN
In what kind of a world did bakufu officials live and work? This is not easy to describe briefly. Poring over Confucian classics at the suggestion of an economist might not be without its merits, but it is certainly not an economical way of getting an accurate picture of the Edo bureaucracy. This is evident from the simple fact that there was never a full-scale attempt in Japan to introduce Chinas Confucian-based system of civil-service examination, despite ample knowledge in Japan of its existence and significance. Korea and northern Vietnam, which in a broad sense also belong to Chinas cultural sphere, did introduce the examination system. This should make it clear that the issue of the influence of Confucian thinking on Japan, whether in the Edo period or in modern times, is not something that can be settled on the basis of off-the-cuff generalizations.
How might one approach the task of understanding Edo bureaucrats? For readers outside the East Asian cultural sphere, I would suggest that rather than pull out translations of Confucian classics that one might find gathering dust in a corner of ones bookshelf, it would be more useful to familiarize oneself with accounts of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British civil servants. From the seventeenth century, the diaries of Samuel Pepys are well known and enjoyable to read. Ones enjoyment and understanding of Pepys can be enhanced by supplementary reading of works like The Kings Servants and The States Servants by G. E. Aylmer. Such reading would serve as one of the best ways of preparing to tackle any of the many diaries left by Edo-period bureaucrats. One example is Hayashi Kakuryô nikki, the diaries of Hayashi Kakuryô, who was born into a peasant family toward the end of the Edo period, became a civil servant on the strength of his knowledge of the Chinese classics, and was later granted a powerful governorship post. These diaries, unfortunately, are not yet available in translation, but they have been edited and republished as a recently completed series of books in Japanese, thanks to which they have become more accessible to modern readers. While not as entertaining as the accounts by Pepys, if read patiently, they offer a rich and warmly personal source of information about the world of the Edo bureaucrat.
The Edo period began at the turn of the seventeenth century and continued for two and a half centuries. This was a time when wide disparities opened between East and Westand certainly between Japan and Britain. The West, for instance, witnessed such major developments as the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. But in spite of the growing differences, there were shared traits, such as the preoccupation with advancement of ambitious bureaucrats. The system of “patronized promotion” that has been identified as a feature of British aristocratic society, moreover, had its counterpart in Edo Japan. And it is interesting to note that Britains Robert Walpole and Japans Tanuma Okitsugu, famous eighteenth-century leaders who both earned reputations for corrupt practices, employed similar political strategies. A comparative study of these two men could shed new light on how a shared political approach manifests itself through the filter of cultural idiosyncrasies.
It also bears remembering that Edo-period Japan built a unique peaceful domestic order. Ostensibly, the ruling samurai class, comprising less than 5% of the nations population, maintained its rule during this extended period through the “law of the sword.” But in reality, the overwhelming majority of samuraithat is, bureaucratic officialsnever used the two swords they always wore as symbols of their warrior origins. They went out of their way to avoid having to actually pull one of their swords out of its sheath, and on the rare occasions that they were forced to do so, their biggest concern was not to injure their own hands (unless they were using a bamboo sword made to look like the real thing). And it was not just individual warrior-bureaucrats who would sacrifice almost anything to avoid armed conflict; the entire Edo establishment cautiously evaded the use of force.
Large-scale popular uprisings (called ikki) occurred around the country on numerous occasions throughout the Edo period, but even then there were severe self-imposed restrictions on the use of firearms and even of bows and arrows to quell the uprisings. There was a shared understanding between the ruling and peasant classes on the avoidance of force. This emerged as an important political rule in the second half of the Edo period and was upheld until the closing, tumultuous days of the Tokugawa shogunate. One American historian ascribed the peace of the period to the abolition of firearms, but this is clearly a misunderstanding. Both the government and the populace possessed many rifles, which were routinely used for nonmilitary purposes. But the masses that took part in the ikki and the ruling class that sought to restore order consistently refrained from using them. Peace was the result not of a lack of firearms but of a determination not to use them.
If the use of force or the threat thereof is removed as a political option, then the only means of exercising authority are through the powers of persuasion and the provision of benefits. Bribery and corruption are certainly not commendable, but they are nonetheless preferable to violent suppression or exploitation and also to puritanical oppression. Extensive reading of the volumes of administrative records available from the Edo period reveals the bakufu bureaucrat to have had a marked political and administrative preference for solutions based on mutual consent. It also shows that popular protests and resistance that were persistent and quite effective virtually prevented the shogunate from introducing new taxes or raising existing ones and that the government was powerless to reverse a gradual, long-term decline in the real rate of taxation. (See my Edo wa yume ka [Was Edo a Dream?].)
The result was an inefficient system of tax collection and a fragile fiscal foundation, the biggest victims of which were the samuraiparticularly the mid- and low-ranking members of this class, who spearheaded the overthrow of the shogunatenot the rural or city-dwelling commoners. The Tokugawa shogunate collapsed not because of inhumane or despotically oppressive policies; rather, its weak fiscal resources rendered it incapable of building a modern state and amassing a military force that could stand up to the Western powers. To use the term modern Japanese like, it was gaiatsuforeign pressurethat forced Japan, which up to then had no expansionary ambitions and indeed no capacity to wage war against others, to embark on a path of militarization.
Even if we accept the Victorian notion that the impact of the West represented the inevitable progress of history and the Marxist idea that freedom lies in recognizing the inevitable, it does not follow that the Western powers had carte blanche to extend their sway over this region of the world. Nor was Edo Japan a realm slumbering in stagnation, except in the military sphere.
Of course it may be possible to come up with other interpretations of the Edo establishment and the bureaucrats who supported it. But it will take considerable time for them to mature and gain cogency.
Translated from an original article in Japanese written for Japan Echo.
© 2003 Japan Echo Inc.