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A big what-if about the years 1853-1868

[In some cases] where you can get to depends on where you're coming from, and some destinations you simply cannot get to from here.
- Robert D. Putnam on his theory about Japan's path-dependent trajectory.

Japan underwent the baptism of an early-
day gunboat diplomacy when the fleet of
four "black ships" headed by Commodore
Mathew Perry made a surprise port call
at Yokohama harbor on July 8, 1853.

A samurai by the name of Zenzaburo Taki
was ordered to commit harakiri suicide
in the presence of European envoys and
generals to settle the 1868 skirmish called
the Kobe Incident.
As recently as six years ago, I still thought it was a total waste of time to ask a question using the past perfect subjunctive. Certainly I remained brainwashed into believing in the superstitious notion that what happened has just happened. But when I stumbled on the above-quoted words by Robert D. Putnam, my way of viewing things changed 180 degrees.

My former mentor once scornfully said of Putnam's theory: "It's yet another fatalism." As usual the self-styled political "analyst" who can't do anything but scratch the surface of things proved too ignorant to understand the intricate dynamics governing the real world. History never sticks with a linear path. If you look at current and historical events with unclouded eyes, you will see mixed signals everywhere in their zigzag motions.

Recently I have developed a tendency to indulge in the mental exercise of asking myself hypothetical questions about almost everything. It's true my new pastime makes it much easier for me to kill time. But it's not just a bitter-sweet mea culpa I seek when I look back on what has happened to me or my country of birth.

Over time I have arrived at the conviction that any future vision remains baseless as long as it's little more than an extrapolation from the past and that the best way to keep my crystal ball clear is to constantly pose what-if type questions. Just like the fancy time machine invented by Emmett "Doc" Brown of Back to the Future, this method often gives me a clear perspective about the future, and perhaps a few things more.

Without a doubt, the future mirrors what actually happened in the past, and perhaps vice versa. But it is also true that a future event is a reflection of what did NOT happen. (See Footnote for some examples.) You may wonder where to get a clue to identifying what didn't actually happen in the past and still has profound relevance today. Most of the time I get a good clue from the current state of affairs because the present time is the crossroad at which the past meets the future.

In other words, my time machine is designed to first send me forward to the past, and only then, back to the future. Quite naturally, one of my favorite questions is: "What would have become of Japan if the Civil War hadn't been fought in America in the first half of the 1860s?"

Initially I thought I might come up with an even more interesting answer if I asked what if those court-retained historians hadn't compiled Kojiki 1,300 years ago (712 AD) to seal off the prehistoric truth, entirely and for good. For that purpose I would be able to avail myself of Manyoshu (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves) which was compiled in the mid-8th century to metaphorically reveal, under the guise of poetry, the forbidden truth about the days before the Emperors successfully mythified everything about their imperial shithouse. But on second thought, I realized my answer to this question would make little sense because then the country named Japan would have ceased to exist a long time ago.

Another question I posed on this website more often than I do now is what if General Douglas MacArthur hadn't acquitted the Emperor of his crime of driving 3 million people to death in the unwinnable war. But in the end I realized that this exercise, too, makes little sense simply because the "postwar regime" is not a history yet; it's still there.

These are why I'm more and more inclined to focus on the last 15 years before the Shogun ceded power back to the Emperor.

It would have been a piece of cake for European expansionists to arm-twist poorly-armed samurais whose average height was a mere 5 feet. Hollywood had yet to invent all this myth about samurais' bravery. But as a matter of fact, Britain and France were already realizing they had been way too overstretched. That's why their half-hearted attempts to make inroads into Japan all ended up in local skirmishes breaking out here and there in the mid-1860s. Among other things, it's noteworthy that these incidents were, more often than not, settled in an exotic ceasefire ceremony in which one or more samurais committed ritual suicide by disembowelment in the presence of delegates from Britain and France.

In 1851, U.S. President Millard Fillmore, the last member of the Whig Party, sent Commodore Mathew Perry on an expedition to break this reclusive country open. Perry arrived at Japan only on July 8, 1853 because on his way to the final destination he'd stopped over at the Ryukyu Kingdom, today's Okinawa, and some other places, where he had a lot of fun.

The fallout of the delay was that by the time his 4-ship fleet finally anchored in the harbor of Uraga near Yokohama, Franklin Pierce had succeeded Fillmore as U.S. President. I know nothing about him except that some say the Democrat is one of the worst presidents in U.S. history. For an unknown reason, however, Pierce ordered Perry to refrain from using force to invade Japan.

Actually the Commodore did not have to use force because the Shogun at that time was yet another Japanese leader who, in the face of a crisis, would let things drift until the problem solved itself. And his samurais were equally incompetent. All they could do was to commit harakiri suicide to save their master's face whenever it was necessary. No wonder they were instantly caught in a panic at the sight of the "fireworks" from the Susquehanna, Perry's flagship, to belatedly celebrate the 77th Independence Day. Perry's mission was completed when Japan-U.S. Treaty of Amity and Friendship, also known as the Convention of Kanagawa, was concluded in 1854. Four years later, the U.S. chose to settle for an unequal treaty, known as the Treaty of Amity and Commerce, which unilaterally stripped Japan of the right to impose import duties on the goods from the U.S.

In subsequent years, there was no new development in the bilateral relations primarily because Abraham Lincoln was preoccupied with the First Civil War.

Because of the combination of these factors, which was largely accidental, America had to shelve its colonialist ambition for almost nine decades. As a result, the occupation of Japan involved much more bloodshed than if America hadn't postponed the implementation of its Japan invasion plan that long.

This always brings me to the most relevant and valid question: "What consequence would have ensued if Lincoln hadn't faced a lot of trouble at home?"

Japan would have been colonized - no doubt about it. Although there might have been sporadic insurgences seeking independence, these movements would never have turned into a fullfledged colonial war. Defeatist-minded rebels must have chosen ritual disembowelment over an all-out confrontation.

With Shogun's incompetence and samurais' cowardice in mind, I can tell for sure that Japan would have followed more or less the same course it actually did, except that more than 3 million lives, including those 225 thousand incinerated in the nuclear fireworks at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, would have been saved.

Now in the face of the protracted economic doldrums and the deepening political imbroglio, the Japanese are totally at a loss over what to do. But for you to agree to my retroactive forecast, you don't need to closely study the current situation here because there's absolutely nothing new in their endless repetitions of the same follies. Japan has nowhere to go but down. Likewise, it would still have nothing to do but go into pieces if what did not actually happen in the mid-19th century had ever happened.

And what about myself? Should this all mean that my entire life was "much ado about nothing"? Now am I about to die leaving nothing to my posterity?

My answer to the first question: No, not at all. It is true I also fought an unwinnable war throughout my lifetime. But in return I was rewarded with gorgeous prizes. That is more than enough.

My answer to the second question: As I told my audience in a recent post, I have already written off my immediate offspring. And yet I haven't really ruled out the possibility that in 20 dog-years from now, one of my remote posterity somehow hits this web-dust and takes a time-trip to meet me. I would certainly tell her something like this:

"It's not as bad as it looks to spend a whole life in a dead country like this one. Just because your nation is trapped in a path-dependent trajectory does not mean you can't change the course of your own life. To that end, you should always keep a life-size view of life. Don't you ever talk big if you are going to have to act small."

The single most important example of what did not happen when the Pacific War ended is the execution of Emperor Hirohito. Likewise, the dismantlement of the media, which had played a pivotal role in driving millions of Japanese to death for the absurd cause, did not take place in 1945 either. As a result, even what actually happened is often covered up by the media as if it didn't happen at all. I have always distanced myself from conspiracy theorists. Now I think you have understood one of the most important reasons. Conspiracy theorists are always busy proving that a crime was committed, but you needn't prove anything about a crime of omission. The evidence is always there. ·

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A big what-if about the years 1853-1868
Authored by: Diogenes on Thursday, September 13 2012 @ 07:10 PM JST
This is a fascinating question you pose, the "what if..." You might find this Phillip K. Dick book "The Man in the High Castle" worth reading.

He re-writes history after WWII to have Germany and Japan win, and together, they jointly occupy the U.S. As far as I know, no one, not one person that classifies themselves as a historical scholar, has done this, but Dick did it and did a good job.

This wikipedia link shows the original cover with the Japanese and German flags across the cover.

The visual impact is quite formidable. That's likely the reason that it was kept off in subsequent editions, you know, Americans aren't supposed to lose, at least in the Hollywood movies they don't.

Then there's this lecture by an Englishman named Terry Boardman, who posits the same question, only the fate of 19th century Europe and a little known political figure named Kasper Hauser.

This describes Boardman's lecture delivered, it seems, in Ireland.

Terry Boardman explores one of the great 'what if' questions in European history.

In 1828, a teenage boy was found wandering around the streets of Nuremberg, Germany. He was unable to communicate at first but later was able to reveal that he had been held in a dark cell for most of his life. Five years later, he was murdered at the age of 21.
This boy, who was found to have remarkable personal qualities, was actually the rightful prince of Baden. His abduction and later murder would play a decisive role in obstructing positive developments in Germany and Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries.


I saw one of the modern movies he mentioned in German with English sub-titles, so I could learn German while in school, but it didn't come close to the historical story Boardman is going to tell. Royal families are dens of intrigue, psychopathy, cunning leading to murder if necessary, all to gain power. Seems nothing has changed for eons.

A big what-if about the years 1853-1868
Authored by: Y.Yamamoto on Friday, September 14 2012 @ 04:00 AM JST

Thanks, Diogenes. I'm glad that we share the same pastime. Actually it's not just a pastime, but a hobby that requires a certain set of extraordinary skills. In order to improve our skills, we must practice it on a regular basis - at least one what-if question a day.

I think the closest thing to our mental exercise is the pommel horse, one of the gymnastic events, because balancing ourselves between two different dimensions is what it is all about.

Confucius famously said: "By learning old things, you can also learn new things so you can make a qualified teacher." Richard von Weizaecker, West German President was repeatedly saying basically the same thing whenever he mentioned WWII. But this is the easiest part.

On the other hand, we have to learn from the future. This is much harder.

And the hardest part is to try to keep ourselves well-balanced so we don't fall from the pommel horse on the sci-fi-like delusions.

And also thanks for alerting us to Phillip K. Dick and Terry Boardman.

These days I really wish I were a goat because then I could eat all the pieces of paper surrounding me. But now I simply wish I weren't penniless because then I could read "The Man in the High Castle."

I think I'll spend 2.5 hours tonight watching Boardman's video.

Yu Yamamoto