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The Real Stuff

Kenkenroku: A Diplomatic Record of the Sino-Japanese War, 1894-1895 Press)

by Mutsu Munemitsu, edited and translated by Gordon Mark Berger
The Japan Foundation (Princeton University Press/University of Tokyo, 318 pp., $27.50

The news that Mr. Reagan’s “peacekeeper” in Japanese waters is to be a better armed Japan makes one think back to the half century of Japan’s military expansion from 1894 to 1945. Fortunately a nation that has beaten its swords into Toyotas seems unlikely to revert to militarism as a way of life. But the springs of Japan’s modern performance, whether military or industrial, must have a message for us. How an island people poor in natural resources came from behind and have now almost got ahead of us in material technology seems worth pondering. The answer plainly lies in the immaterial realm of motivation.

These two autobiographical accounts in the new Princeton Library of Asian Translations come from different kinds of leaders—a cabinet minister and a conspirator in revolution—but they were both written in self-defense by public figures who were under attack at the time. Count Mutsu had been foreign minister during the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-1895. Miyazaki Toten was the most prominent Japanese supporter of Sun Yat-sen around the turn of the century. Mutsu and Miyazaki shared the Japanese sense of mission to superintend the Westernization of the rest of East Asia. In the 1890s, as Japan’s forty years of transformation under Western contact brought it onto the world stage as a great power, its sense of mission was still pristine and unsullied. Its future seemed full of promise and possibilities. One chief hope was to regenerate China, and indeed the Chinese revolution that brought Sun Yat-sen to prominence in 1911 was largely made in Japan—partly inspired by its example, partly supported by Japan’s pan-Asianist “men of high purpose,” latter-day ronin looking for an adventurous cause on the mainland.

Miyazaki Toten (1870-1922) was a big, bearded, fierce-looking man, full of high-sounding sentiments and loudly dedicated to a great altruistic cause if he could only find it while sober. His self-image as a “man of high purpose” was a vestige of Japanese feudalism in decay, when masterless samurai still aspired to be purely dedicated. They knew their martial arts and held themselves above the honest labor of commoners but had trouble finding a useful place in society. Their Western counterpart, if they had any, would be somewhere between a knight-errant and a Hollywood private eye.

Miyazaki’s Thirty-Three Years’ Dream was published in installments in 1902, when he was thirty-three by Japanese count, and after he had scandalously bungled the shipment of arms to Sun Yat-sen’s revolt in 1900 at Waichow near Hong Kong. One surmises that the author’s strategy to clear himself of the suspicion of corruption was to tell all and so make it plain that his entire life had been a well-intentioned bungle and that he was simply incapable of planned corruption, let alone planned revolution. At any rate Toten’s ruthlessly frank and very engaging autobiography reveals him as romantic and generous of spirit but in daily life a sake-swilling whore chaser, sentimentally devoted to his vague cause of rebellion as well as to his fellow conspirators and drinking companions and to his prostitute-friend of the moment (his little black book listed 285 of them). He was given to grand gestures and impulsive bravado rather than to practicality, the kind of man who could embark most urgently for Hong Kong only to find next day that the ship would stop at five places during eighteen days en route. With Miyazaki Toten as his trusted supporter, Sun Yat-sen truly had little need of enemies to thwart his plans. Twenty-two years would pass and Toten would be dead before Sun Yat-sen finally found Comintern and Soviet helpers whose arms would actually arrive on time.

The exemplary trans-Pacific collaboration of Professors Eto and Jansen has now given us a well-annotated translation of Toten’s famous and popular book. Their introduction gives Toten his due as an idealist of courage—chivalrous and unselfish. Though a rebel by nature, Toten was paid for a time as an agent of the Japanese government. He tried to secure unity and cooperation among the leaders of the Chinese secret societies. In 1898 he escorted the ousted reformer K’ang Yu-wei from Hong Kong to Japan and tried to bring K’ang and Sun Yat-sen together so as to unify the Chinese revolutionaries. All in vain.

Behind all this derring-do, the human appeal of Toten’s book lies partly in its vivid adventures and partly in its shrewd depiction of romantic ideals frustrated by personal foibles. Toten left his mother, wife, and children in dire poverty and himself lived on handouts. He spent much of the time in a dream world. “I imagined myself entering the Chinese continent in front of a host of Chinese, a general mounted on a white horse…. I would cry for joy and fortify myself with sake. At other times…the white-robed general would fall victim to the enemy assassin’s dagger…. I would end up heading for the geisha house…. That white-robed general [was]…but a phantom of my high ambition…. I hadn’t come to realize that half my life was made up of sake and sex…. How could I square such behavior with my original resolve to restore humanity?”

Count Mutsu Munemitsu (1844-1897) had no such problem. In fact, he had tuberculosis and died of it within two years after completing his service as foreign minister. He came from the minor feudal domain of Tosa, and his translator Gordon Mark Berger suggests that this gave him both the incentive to participate in the Meiji regime dominated by men from the great fiefs of Satsuma and Choshu and the capacity to view their oligarchy with the objectivity of an outsider. He joined their new government, but “in 1878 he was implicated in a Tosa-centered plot to overthrow the regime” and as a result spent five years in prison. However, the oligarchy then took him onto their team, partly for his ability, partly to placate the popular rights movement with which Mutsu had been associated. He served two years as Japan’s minister to Washington and then in 1892 became foreign minister in Ito Hirobumi’s first cabinet under the new constitution.

Mutsu’s Realpolitik in 1894 and 1895 accomplished far more than Miyazaki Toten ever dreamed of. In a little over twelve months Japan became dominant in Korea; spectacularly defeated the Chinese army and navy, contrary to general expectations; and at the same time freed Japan of the unequal treaty system (which gave special advantages to Western nations and continued to impair China’s sovereignty for another half century). Meanwhile Mutsu parried a succession of efforts by the Western powers to intervene and so forestall a complete upset of East Asian power relations. In the peace terms extorted from the Chinese leader Li Hung-chang at Shimonoseki, Japan secured both Taiwan and the Liaotung peninsula of southern Manchuria. Within a few days a triple intervention by the Russians, French, and Germans demanded that Liaotung be given back to China, and Japan complied. Yet the Japanese empire had been born. The Anglo-Japanese alliance followed in 1902 (until 1922) and Japan defeated Russia in Manchuria in 1905. The rising sun shone over East Asia.

Mutsu was at the center of these achievements, mounting a diplomatic offensive through able ministers in London, St. Petersburg, and other capitals. Step by step he worked with Prime Minister Ito, persuaded the cabinet oligarchs, and made use of a vociferous jingoism among the Japanese public. He combined force and guile in Korea, browbeat the Chinese, and all the time showed a punctilious concern for the niceties of international law and the special interests of the Western powers. He and his ministers abroad had to negotiate the new, equal treaties in the midst of a war that threatened the great powers’ interests. He had to get the Shimonoseki Treaty of April 17, 1895, ratified in spite of the Triple Intervention that undid part of it on April 23. (Japan accepted the Triple Intervention on May 4, exchanged ratifications of the Sino-Japanese peace treaty on May 8, and gave back Liaotung to China by an imperial rescript on May 10.) Such diplomatic footwork has seldom been equaled. Eliza never crossed such thin and treacherous ice.

Once it was accomplished, Mutsu collapsed and was replaced as foreign minister by Saionji on June 5, 1895. Japanese jingoists, drunk with glory, and opposition politicos seeing a good chance, stridently attacked the return of Liaotung to the Chinese, and Mutsu in self-defense wrote a documented inside account of the year’s work. However, Kenkenroku, as he called it, cut too close to the bone of truth. Prime Minister Ito found it “disquieting,” and it was kept from being published until 1929.

Mr. Berger’s translation and notes seem to be models of their kind except for one matter of editorial policy. The title Kenkenroku will of course be meaningful to those familiar with the Japanese pronunciation of obscure Chinese phrases in the Classic of Changes. Others may be told that it means “a record of strenuous effort.” Its eye-catching quality nevertheless raises the question whether the Princeton University Press prefers esoteric chic to intelligibility. In this spirit the bibliography and notes cite many Japanese, Korean, and Chinese writings but only in romanization and without characters. Surely a layman intelligent enough to read this well-made book deserves to have English translations added to such titles. She or he might have an amateur interest in the sources being used.

As Mutsu sets forth the rationale of policy at each stage of Japan’s aggression it becomes plain that he would have had a lot in common with John Foster Dulles and his brother Allen. At first the reason for sending troops to Korea in 1894 was to maintain a balance of power there with China. “We were determined to have the Chinese be the aggressors.” But when both Chinese and Japanese forces had arrived there, “in the absence of…even a plausible pretext for hostilities, no casus belli existed…it now became essential to devise some sort of diplomatic strategy paving the way for a transformation of this state of affairs.” The result was the Japanese demand for reform of the antiquated Korean government, a reform that a still antiquated China could hardly accept. The Chinese cleverly replied that “Japan clearly had no right to intervene because she had recognized Korea’s independence.” This stubborn attempt “to restrict the scope of our rights,” Mutsu wrote, showed how the Chinese “were prisoners of their own arrogance.”

The Japanese seized the Korean king, who installed in power the aged Taewon’gun, a sort of Confucian ayatollah who execrated all modernity. Mutsu candidly goes on to explain why reform in Korea then proved impossible, thus vitiating Japan’s reason for being there. As a hard-nosed realist he “saw no need whatsoever to launch any crusades in the name of national chivalry…. I had never felt that Korea’s internal reform was very important in itself.” It was simply a convenient pretext. One begins to understand why Kenkenroku was kept under wraps for thirty-four years.

A poignant moment occurs when Ito and Mutsu at Shimonoseki force their peace terms on Li Hung-chang, whose army and navy they had just destroyed. By refusing to grant a cease-fire they had the old man (Li was seventy-two) in a vise—either accept Japan’s terms at once or see the war come ever closer to Peking. But four days after beginning negotiations on March 20, Li was shot in the eye by a would-be Japanese assassin. Suddenly all Japan was deeply humiliated by this treatment of a guest. The empress herself prepared bandages. Ito and Mutsu feared that if Li went home ill, foreign powers might at last intervene and Japan would lose control of the situation. They finally persuaded the cabinet to agree to a cease-fire, and Li continued to negotiate swathed in bandages in his bedroom. By the time the Triple Intervention did occur, Ito and Mutsu were able to handle it.

During the strenuous spring of 1895 the emperor was in residence, and the cabinet and even the new Diet held meetings, at Hiroshima, just fifty years before its destruction. By that later date both the realistic skill of Mutsu and the romantic adventurism of Miyazaki Toten had long since been inherited by Japan’s imperial expansionists. As we confront today the rise of Sony, Mitsubishi, Nissan, and other Japanese participants in American life, perhaps we can see some of the same sterling qualities at work in a more constructive mode.

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