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27 May 2006 Blog Home : May 2006 : Permalink

England, Japan and Imperialism

Over at the Marmot's Hole the proprietor wrote a couple of interesting articles about Japan's imperialism and how it can be compared with the imperialism of the European powers etc etc. I wrote a couple of comments to the second one and I think I probably ought to put them here with some further background and related thoughts.

Firstly a minor declaration of possible bias. I am a descendant on both sides of the family tree from people who were British imperialists of one sort or another with various levels of power and influence (top ranks being one who was ambassador to the Ottoman court thanks to flagrant nepotism/calling-in-of-favours from Canning and the not terribly brilliant Admiral Gambier). I am proud to be descended from these people and I think that on the whole they and the rest of the bankers, merchants and country squires etc. in my family tree did far more good than harm in their imperial adventuring.

English Imperialism

The first thing to note is that the English are not a particularly honourable race when it comes to war or empire. From the Elizabethan commerce raiding by Drake & co via the looting of cultural relics from campaigns against Ethiopians, Chinese, Greeks, Indians and pretty much any one else, to the ruthless suppression of revolts in Kenya, India etc. the English military has provided plenty of ammunition to those who wish to criticise it and many English political decisions have been worse. However there are redeeming features which I will get to later. Before that though it is worth recllaing that England has almost never lost a war in the last 500 years.The Englsh record, since the French kicked us out of France finally in the mid 1500s (the American revolution doesn't count since at the time the colonists were almost all English, although the war of 1812 might), is one that is unmatched by any other European power and the reason for that is that they have typically done whatever it takes to win.

In fact the only exceptions to this rule looks to be the Afghan wars, the Crimean war and, arguably, the Jewish insurgency in Palestine prior to 1948. Despite occasional lapses the English have turned out to be good at fighting both at the indivudual level and at the larger startegic and geopolitical levels with, IMHO, a far larger number of admirals/generals able to successfully utilize new technologies than any other nation - and a habit of inventing or improving nasty weapons, something that started with the recognition of the deadliness of the longbow. Possibly due to its naval heritage one key differentiator is that English strategists have understood the importance of logistics and the use of non military means (e.g. paying large bribes to warlords, pirate chiefs etc. to attack other people) to buttress or support military actions. In the same vein as a general rule the English have also been very good at spinning the facts so that they look like the purest of pure good guys even when the situation on the ground is rather less clear. This tradition started with William Shakespeare and, in general, the quality of the English propaganda has remained near that high level, although we cannot take credit for that idea - Julius Casar and his fellow Romans figured out the bascis 2000 years ago...

The list of English atrocities on those silly enough to get in the way is large, and the list of English allies who have been subsequently stuffed in the subsequent peace treaty and/or the next war is also large. It was Lord Palmerston who stated this most clearly in his dictum that Britan had no permanent allies - only permanent interests - but he certainly didn't invent it and he certainly wasn't the last British leader to stick the knife in the back of some ally. Indeed arguably the first victims of ths process have been the English lower classes who were abused by their betters in fairly gruesome fashion for most of the last millenium. The one saving grace of the English system is that upward mobility for the lower classes had never been as impossible as some accounts would have you believe and this upward mobility applies just as much to immigrants and foreigners as to the native born - my hugenot descended Gambier ancestor and my part jewish Palgrave distant cousins are both past examples of this, the success of post war Chinese & Indian immigrants are proof that it still applies today.

However, despite all that, despite a half millenium of piracy, looting, mayhem etc. I think that on balance England has added more to the store of good things than bad ones. Free trade, property rights, equality under the law and just about every major scientific or technical advance since about 1700, as well as a number of earlier ones, has involved English people in pioneering roles. Furthermore it is worth pointing out that in the 18th and 19th centuries when England did most of its empire building there were not many "enlightened" regimes in the world. Although English propagandists have no doubt shaded the truth it is clear that the majority of rulers in the world at that time were despots who cared very little for the well-being of their subjects let alone anyone else and while they may have nicked the treasures of the rulers, on the whole invading English armies and the merchants and bureaucrats that followed them were not seen as anything worse by the average peasant in the field. For one thing English invading armies, unlike most others, tended to actually buy most of their provisions rather than simply grabbing them and they usually didn't rape or enslave their newly conquered subjects. Certainly I believe that compared to other European empires, the British one has been rightly recognised as being least bad. Robert also wrote in reply to another commenter:

New imperialism of the latter half of the 19th century/early 20th century sought to gain access to markets and resources, protect the colonies you already had, and deny access to said resources and markets to imperial competitors.

That I think is the true key to why the British Empire (and for that matter the various US imperialistic ventures) are better remembered than other imperial powers. The Anglosphere was pretty good at free trade and tended to raise the standard of living of those it ruled as well as encouraging trade and property ownership by people of all classes. It is true that some British merchants benefited from perferential access to markets compared to their native colonial competitors but in general the British were quite willing let their colonial subjects trade with whomever they wished and they invested in basic trade infrastructure (roads, railways, ports, law courts (, schools)) that helped both British and colonial traders. France was also fairly good, albeit on a somewhat lasser scale, but other imperial powers simply went in and took.

And indeed two of Britain's more shameful wars - the Opium wars - were fought precisely to open up a country to free trade. Although I'm not going to try and gloss over the fact that the opium wars were a disgrace they were however different in scope to any other previous war that I can think of, such as the various wars fought to turn India into a British posession. Instead of conquering territory the opium wars were fought for the rights to trade at will. Now what was being traded was truly vile and the trade was astoundingly hpocritical since opium was forbidden within Britain, but the fact that the war was different was illustrated by the fact that after the first opium war, when Britain had basically routed the Chinese forces, it sought merely the practically uninhabited island of Hong Kong as British territory. Moreover the opium merchants not directly forcing Chinese people to consume their drug, had there not been demand there would have been no supply (something worth thinking about in all discussions about "wars on drugs") and theywere selling opium and buying tea rather than taking the tea and not paying for it. To summarise, while the opium wars were despicable, they were not the typical war of conquest that had hitherto been the norm.

Japanese Imperialism

Japan, it seems to me, made attempts to imitate the better sort of British imperialism rather than (say) the Belgian model. I think that if anything the root of its failure was to try to do too much too fast. The Russo-Japanese war practically bankrupted Japan and that limited the amount of improvement it could make to its new dependancies. This may also help to explain why its Taiwanese adventure was rather more successful - there was a decade (1895-1905) during which time Japan had a booming economy and far less debt which let it get the new territory properly orgamized. Japan’s Taiwan rule also undoubtedly benefited from the fact that the previous Chinese rule was arbitrary, distant and unsatisfactory in all sorts of ways. In other words while the Tiawanese may not have liked becoming a Japanese colony their material standard of living rose significantly and their governance improved.

Compare this with Korea. Since the Triple Intervention forced Japan to hand back its Korean gains in 1895 it was colonized at a time when Japan couldn’t quite afford the investment needed AND it already had a perfectly good government which the Japanese had overthrown (twice). Hence Korea saw none of the improvement in governance that Taiwan saw and the change in its standard of living was also far less. Indeed Japan, it seems to me, falls partly into the "betrayed ally of the British" camp as it was throughly stuffed by the British as an ally in 1895 - the aforementioned Triple Intervention only stood up because the British failed to complain - and again after WWI where it was more or less told to go away and let the grown ups divide up the world despite having done a pretty good job on the German far east posessions. It doesn't surprise me in the least that Japan decided that the only way to gain influence in the world was to have colonies and that the grabbing of such permitted one to do practically anything one felt like because that was indeed what every other world power was doing. The fact that Japan boostrapped itself up from a backward feudal state in 1865 to a major world power 80 years later is more to its credit than anything else. And while some (most?) of its "coprosperity sphere" rhetoric was bunk there was a kernel of truth in it. The European powers did indeed treat Asia as a place where Europeans made the rules and most of the money, leaving the scraps to the locals. I don't particularly want to defend Japan's imperialistic behaviour but I will say that it was just one of the many things it learned it from the Europeans including the British.

Given that in the mid 19th century Korea and Japan started from more or less the same introverted base it is interesting to note the divergence of the two. Japan, after being forced to open by Perry et al., had a civil war between traditionalists and modernizers which the modernizers won. They then sent teams of researchers to Europe and America to gather knowledge and then implemented what it perceived to be best practise from what the teams reported back. Hence, for example, Japan's Navy was British, its Army German and its internal civil arrangements mostly French and it industrialized like crazy building railways, factories, mills, ships etc etc.

Korea, bascially, had precisiely the same opportunity and muffed it, deciding that it would prefer to remain aloof from the world and progress. Hence 30 years later it was a sitting duck for Japan and Russia to argue over - and BTW had Japan not invaded Korea and Manchuria I think it is certain that Russia would have done so. You can argue whether or not Japan's imperialism was bad for Korea or not but the choice in 1895/1905 was not between Korean independance and Japanese rule it was between Russian rule and Japanese rule. I think that on the whole Korea did better under Japanese rule than it would have done under Russian rule. This I think is one of the things forgotten by those who harp on the negative parts of Japanese rule. Another is touched on by Robert who wrote in re my “Korea muffed it” comment:

Secondly, while in hindsight, it’s easy to see how Korea completely muffed it, as you say, when given (or more like had forced upon them) pretty much the same opportunities the Japanese had. But at the time, this wasn’t so clear. Korea knew what happened when China tried to interact with the West—it got jacked. Hard. They must have also known what initial interaction with the West had led to in Japan—getting jacked hard, and civil war. So if you’re Korea, you might figure the best way to play the game is not to play at all.

I agree that hindsight is 20/20 and that at the time the choices were less obvious. But the Koreans were IMO dangerously complacent. Anyone looking just a little further beyond their doors than their adjacent neighbours would have seen that “not playing the game” really wasn’t one of the options on the table - the choice was either be looted/invaded/colonized eventually or get your own set of industrial toys. Indeed just looking at China should have made it clear that while Korea might possibly win the odd skirmish (and did), it was not going to win a prolonged war. This was, effectively what the Meiji restorers realized in Japan and there were similar groups of people in both Korea and China. Unforntunately for both countries these modernizers were unable to gain power the way the Japanese ones did and hence both nations failed to wholeheartedly modernize in the way that Japan did until it was too late.


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