The Influence of Iwakura Tomomi on Japan

In the middle of the nineteenth century the fate of China was a source of no small concern for Japan. The Middle Kingdom with its reputation for great wealth and vast population became a prey for the commercial countries of the West. They wanted trade and, when they found that it was restricted, they were ready to resort to warlike means. When their superiority was established over China as it was by wars in 1842 and 1858, they concluded Western-style commercial treaties, which secured for them open ports with extra-territorial rights and consular representation and jurisdiction. These concessions were extended by most favored nation provisions to all their trading rivals. These were involuntary concessions by China because the strength of the maritime Powers could not be resisted.

If China was unable to resist the inroads of the foreign merchants and their governments, Japan, a much smaller country, was doubly at risk. In mid-century she was governed by the Tokugawa Shogunate which had ruled by a stern autocratic regime for two and a half centuries. In order to consolidate their power, the rulers had issued regulations which ensured that Japan continued for two centuries as a 'secluded country' with only minimal contacts with the West. By the 1850 s this state of seclusion was breaking down. The Tokugawa and their feudal rivals, the clans on the periphery of the Japanese islands, were cultivating relations with foreigners for the technical know-how which they obviously possessed and the Japanese badly wanted.

When Commodore Perry of the United States navy visited Japan in 1853-1854, the Shogunate was inclined to drift in the direction of opening the country. More or less on its own responsibility, it concluded that it was too weak to withhold from the Americans the full commercial treaty which they sought. Such was the Treaty of Edo (Tokyo) of 29 July 1858 which was signed with the American representative, Townsend Harris - the first of the so-called 'unequal treaties'. While this was an act of wisdom in so far as the shogun's government had a realistic appreciation of Japan's inability to resist, it was an act of political desperation within Japan where its opponents at court who were bitterly opposed to dealings with foreigners could make political capital by dwelling on the unpopular foreign treaties. The 'unequal treaties' were indeed to be used as the thin end of a wedge which was to be driven into the already-crumbling Tokugawa administration in the hope of bringing about its complete collapse. Thus, from the very start of the New Japan, issues of foreign relations were to be sensitive factors in the domestic politics of the country.

At this time Iwakura Tomomi (1825-1883) was an official of the court of the emperor at Kyoto, which had throughout the Tokugawa period played no part in government but had performed some formal state functions. As the Tokugawa regime fell into difficulties, the court officials were not unaware that they might be able to organize a coalition which would topple the shogunate. It was from a standpoint of opposition that Iwakura regarded the treaties. Since he had no hand in their making, he was ready to see them reversed. But, when the Shogunate pleaded that to end the treaties would only annoy the foreigner and convince him of Japan's bad faith, Iwakura was ready to concede the danger inherent in this: 'the five enemy Powers [presumably Britain, France, the United States, Prussia and Russia], crowding in upon our ports, might open hostilities, interfere in our domestic politics, and seize by aggression such territory as they covet.' Such was the fear common to all those in authority: Japan was growing up in a hostile world and must build up her military strength before she could beat off the challenge of her 'enemies'. Iwakura's view was that the shogunate was too weak to resist the foreigner effectively and that its weakness could be exploited by the court in order to secure the restoration of its authority? but it would be better to hasten slowly in order to prevent the outbreak of civil war, which would only encourage foreign intervention. If an anti-foreign atmosphere were to be created, Iwakura thought, men of violence might well take advantage of the situation by damaging the premises of the five foreign Powers; and, under the pretext of protecting their nationals against civil disorder, the foreign Powers would make common cause and lay claim to territories along the Japanese coast. Whatever was done should not give foreigners any justification for raising their flags on Japanese soil.

Such was the early view of one who, while he had a political axe to grind, was obsessed with the foreign danger. While Iwakura was no admirer of the Shogunate, he would not go along with the incautious anti-shogun forces if they were likely to lay Japan open to the treatment that the European countries had meted out to China. This is typical of the balanced and farsighted approach which was to characterize Iwakura's long public career during the Tokugawa Shogunate period.

07 July 2022
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