Chapter 3: Lessons From The Past
Next: The Reformers’ Charter Oath of Five Articles
Just three months after being restored, the reformers, through the emperor, made a historic proclamation called The Charter Oath of Five Articles. It promised:
1) Public discussion of all matters;
2) The participation of all classes, high and low, in the administration of the state;
3) Freedom of all persons to pursue their own calling;
4) Abandoning the evil customs of the past and to rely on the just laws of Nature;
5) Seek knowledge from throughout the world so as to strengthen the foundations of imperial rule.
Seen in the context of a feudal society, the declaration was truly radical. Calling for the participation of all classes in the administration of the state and not just the nobility and warrior class was distinctly revolutionary. Similarly, the freedom to choose one’s own calling or career represented a quantum leap forward in thinking in a society where previously what you did or who you were was dictated by your class or birth. The last two elements of the charter reflected the recognition by the young imperial advisors that the ways of the old were clearly wanting and that they had a lot to learn from the outside world. Merely shutting themselves off from foreign influence was not the answer. Instead the Japanese had to learn from the advanced societies of the time: the West.
The old mantra of revering the emperor and expelling the barbarians was replaced by more pragmatic and decidedly constructive slogans, such as wakon yosai (Japanese spirit, Western learning).
The Japanese took to learning from the West with a vengeance. Initially, as would be expected of a nation that had been humiliated, the Japanese were intent and content with merely aping the ways of the foreigners. Thus they began sporting coat tails and European-style sideburns. The latter must have been a particularly difficult for the non-hirsute Japanese! A minister even divorced his wife formally, Western style, instead of merely tolerating her and taking on concubines. That would have been, well, so Japanese! The Japanese even converted their calendar to the Western Gregorian one.
Amidst such banalities and trivialities however, the Japanese did commit themselves to learning the more enduring values of Western civilization. English classes were held everywhere and Western books were widely translated into Japanese. Japanese masses were now exposed to the great philosophers and thinkers of the West.
To dramatically symbolize its new beginning and a break from the past, the Meiji administration moved the capital from Kyoto to Tokyo. Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of the new regime was its committed and disciplined search for models outside of Japan that would be applicable in rebuilding its own institutions.
This commitment to Western learning was publicly demonstrated when the government dispatched a “learning mission” to the capitals of the modern world. The mission, composed of ministers and senior administrators, circled the globe visiting advanced countries, learning and making comparative studies of the various governments, systems of education, industrial development, and economic models. Japanese embassies were specifically instructed to observe the systems and institutions in their host countries that were worthy of being emulated, and to scout for talent to be recruited to teach the Japanese. Leading American educators were invited to help modernize the schools and universities. The Japanese were fully cognizant of their backward status, and they were intent on modernizing. They were committed to learning the best from the West.
The Japanese made the profound yet simple discovery that learning and interacting with foreigners did not in any way compromise their own culture or independence. More significantly, they realized that the advancement and superiority of the West was of recent onset and that Japan was not that far behind after all. And that with hard work and eagerness to learn, they were confident they could catch up.
That such a learning mission was created in the first place was remarkable. It conveyed the Japanese total commitment to learning from others. Imagine senior administrators and ministers leaving en mass for months on end, with Japan essentially under caretakers’ hands or absentee government. In many countries there would have been a coup d’etat. But those ministers and administrators returned with renewed vigor and utter confidence in their nation’s ability not only to learn the best but also to catch up and eventually join the ranks of developed nations. This Japan did very successfully, and like the West, Japan too went on to become a colonizing power, much to the chagrin of her neighbors, especially China and Korea.
Within a generation Japan was transformed from a xenophobic closed society, steeped in its feudal ways, into a modern egalitarian state, and at the same time restoring its traditional imperial emperor. Truly remarkable! With that transformation, Japan went on to become a major power, able to conquer militarily most of Asia in World War II, and to economically dominate most of the world in the later half of the 20th century.
In any revolution, and the Meiji Restoration was one, there would inevitably be winners and losers. In this instance, the nation as a whole emerged the winner. Within the society however, there were definite casualties.
Clearly the warlords and assorted nobilities lost; they became irrelevant with the centralization of administration in Tokyo. The egalitarian policies benefited the masses. The removal of the ban on intermarriages between the different classes was symbolic of this new attitude towards equality. Farmers too came out ahead as they were now no longer tenants but able to own the land they tilled; a significant step forward towards private property ownership.
When Emperor Mutsuhito died in July 1912, he was given the name of the momentous period he had overseen, the Age of Enlightened Rule: the Meiji Emperor. Japan and its people had indeed undergone a historic transformation, all within one generation.
Why did the young imperial advisors use the emperor and not do it themselves? They knew that the ideas they were contemplating and the changes they were embarking upon were truly radical. These changes would be more readily acceptable to the masses when presented wrapped within the cloak of their traditions. Thus they shrewdly used the emperor as a convenient vehicle.
A generation later at the end of World War II, General Douglas McArthur wisely used the institution of the emperor to successfully institute yet another radical change upon Japanese society. He effectively democratized Japan under the banner of the emperor.
To take home the Japanese lesson, I have little sympathy with modern-day Malay “reformers” who are intent on imposing changes on our society without heeding our underlying cultural traditions. Such calls as Melayu Baru (New Malay) and Reformasi would have Malays be ripped off the anchoring stability of our traditions and heritage. Such attempts at reform are bound to fail.
We must use the elements of our culture to effect changes. As an example, Malays are deeply attached to Islam and to the sultans. That being the case we should reform the institutions of Islam and royalty first, and through them effect changes on the greater society. We can begin by having enlightened and progressive ulama lecture to our students and in our mosques. We should have more reasoned and cerebral sermons instead of the usual fire and brimstone variety. If we can reform our ulama not to be obsessed with the hereafter and instead focus on the present life first, then we may be able to persuade the masses.
We do this by changing the way in which they are being trained. Exposed them to modern ideas! It is too late to change those already set in their ways but we can do something with the next generation of ulama. Likewise if we can reform our sultans and princes, making sure that they are well educated and exposed to progressive ideas, then they would become valued role models.
What impressed me about the radical changes in early Mecca during the time of our prophet, in medieval Europe during the reformation, and in Japan during the Meiji Restoration, was the exemplary leadership of those who were in the forefront of making those changes. The reforms began with them, and then filtered down. To effect comparable reforms in contemporary Malaysia, its leaders (political, hereditary, and religious) must first change their ways. Reforms must begin with them, and then through personal examples, filtered down to the masses.
While this chapter focused on examples from the past, the next will examine more contemporary societies, to reemphasize my theme of how to effect changes and reform.
Next: Chapter 4: Modern Model States