Courtesy Reuters

Japan Looks Back

October 23, 1968, is the date on which Japan will mark the Centennial of its modern transformation. On that day one hundred years ago it was announced that the era designation would henceforth be "Meiji," enlightened rule. The régime of the Tokugawa shogun had fallen, but the new forces grouped around the boy emperor were still struggling to assert control; they had to promise and persuade, for they could not force. Yet it was soon clear that the Meiji Restoration was a political overturn whose consequences for Japanese history were incalculable. By the end of the century it was apparent that its significance for world history was scarcely less great.

Despite this, the Meiji Centennial is receiving little commemorative attention in the West-certainly nothing comparable to that which was accorded the fiftieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. More striking still is the way its commemoration is surrounded by controversy within Japan. The mass media have not let it be forgotten, and publishers have seized the opportunity to unloose a torrent of publications for the occasion. But important groups of historians have organized to oppose the manner and content of the commemoration. A recent writer goes so far as to bracket the Centennial with Okinawa as two major political issues for 1968. The Restoration seems as political and controversial in 1968 as it was in 1868. Its events and the recollection of those events can tell us a good deal about the historical present in which Japanese live.

In 1868 Japan was disunited, poor and weak, its people compartmentalized in an outworn social structure topped by an hereditary military caste. The country was divided into some 250 domains ruled by daimyo, feudal lords who enjoyed degrees of autonomy that varied with the definition of their vassalage to the shogun. The samurai had experienced little challenge during the two and one-half centuries of peace, and their preference for swords over more modern means of destruction gave the military advantage to the few areas that had profited from trade with

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