The East Asian sphere has a history like no other part of the globe possesses. Seemingly peripheral, it has known all possible influences from all possible corners of the world and, in a strange way, retained a distinct set of identities despite it all. From Taiwan to Korea and Japan, like rocks in the sea, these cultures have taken the clashes, but they’ve remained firm and fixed in their core. Foundations as unshakable as the mountainous ranges that characterize the landscapes.
Most of Asian history saw the rise and fall of Chinese dynasties, but never the twilight of its status as the indispensable nation. If there ever even was such a thing as an indispensable nation, it was China, not the “City Upon a Hill” across the Atlantic that some of its hawkish citizens purport themselves to be.
China, for millennia, was the cultural, political and economical center of Asia. Some scholars would even argue ( and such a position isn’t that controversial anymore among historians ) that it was the most important nation in world history.
Regardless of that, all of this changed in the 19th century with the downfall of the Qing dynasty and an industrialized Europe and Japan in its seas encroaching upon it and seizing its ports and land. A raging thirst for markets and resources being the unmoved mover of this process. I won’t go into the details, or even the debate among world historians, but let’s just say ONE of the reasons ( not the determining factor ) was China unwilling to learn from the barbarians. It made perfect sense looking at the past ( the main source of inspiration for traditional societies ) where China had always been the preeminent power and the example for others to follow. Now it was being beaten on all fronts and it trying to get back on its feet after the continuous series of humiliating defeats would take another long and bloody century. A haul it recovered from very recently and a restoration which we are now witnessing each day with a growth that has never been seen before.
If there ever was a candidate among its neighbours to replace the Middle Kingdom, it was Japan. And indeed, as soon as the mosaic of infighting landlets got unified under a daimyo known in the annals of history as Toyotomi Hideyoshi, it aspired just that very position as the center of the world. Letters were send around East Asia letting everyone know who was the new and actual player in town, but with a rather aggressive tone. It wasn’t very much like the serenity of China, one where it got that position as the superior suzerain without the threat of force. But Japan, to actualize this ( and with that signifying a weakness it desperately tried to overcome ), had no other option than to make itself heard through the noise of clattering steel.
When Hideyoshi undertook the invasion of Korea, of which the city of Busan ( my last stop in Korea ) was the first to be attacked, he had far greater ambitions. China was the big prize. It seemed as if Japan was reaching out too soon, with the eternal hero of the Korean peninsula, Admiral Yi Sun-sin, foiling its plans.
After this failure, Japan let go of its ambitions as the replacement empire for East Asia and didn’t engage that much beyond the waters that surround it.
Only when modernity hit the island, and it, unlike China, being more prepared ( and eager ) to accept foreign ideas and tools, this ghost from the past reemerged. This time around, with a weakened China, nothing stood in its way for decades to come… Except for a former European colony that wasn’t there in the time of Hideyoshi… and was all too eager to accept the challenge.
We all know what happened. And despite history having repeated itself, Japan did not turn isolationist after this misadventure.
A new shogunate was installed, you could say, with General MacArthur at the top. He rewrote the constitution with western ink and the military industrial complex that followed the presidency of that other warlord, Eisenhower, retained that position as the de facto military ruler over a nation that recovered fast from the war. A guy like Yanis Varoufakis would tell you that the USA desired prosperous markets for their goods in Europe and Asia, especially Germany and Japan, the two defeated powers it now occupied, yet which had the extreme potential to become strong. In other words, they were the perfect “miracles” for the USA to utilize, now that it had become the world economy’s axis. But anyways, this is where we’re at today.
The Japanese Miracle has waned down. And the dreams and nightmares of a Japanese superpower steadily overtaking the USA by stealth are now replaced by one where China is allocated that very role. The Lost Decade, the 1990’s, still lingers, and it is uncertain how Japan can resolve the stagnation it suffered ever since.
Japan stands at a turning point because the USA is at one. The Middle Kingdom is back and it remains to be seen if the foreign shogun can keep its promise of defending the islands of Japan.
I’m in Japan right now and I breathe in an air that is stronger than I expected. It seems like this entire nation is waiting. Doing its job. Keep it well maintained. But the purpose of which seems unclear.
“What does Japan want?” is the Freudian question I’m asking here.