With America still reeling from the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict, and the deadly car attack that followed a few days later, the country seems to be on the brink of a domestic crisis. As ever, in a desperate attempt to explain today’s chaos, it’s become commonplace to fall back on the past. Parallels drawn between the US and Weimar Germany, accompanied by warnings that there are national socialists lurking behind every corner waiting to grab power and then do who-knows-what.
But comparisons to Weimar are a dime a dozen in the West, and their explanatory power is incredibly questionable. Our modern historical lexicon often seems to be a book with all the pages ripped out, save for one or two badly smudged chapters on the European interwar period. And this is a shame, because there are many other historical periods that could do more to advance our understanding of current political events, both in the US and elsewhere. History is, after all, quite expansive.
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More than any other, one particular moment, mostly unknown today, may have a lot to tell us about where the US is headed next: Japan’s bakumatsu period — the polarised and chaotic end period of the old Tokugawa shogunate.
To understand the bakumatsu, one should know what came before it. In 1600, Japan’s ‘warring states era’, or the sengoku jidai, came to a close with the Battle of Sekigahara. Soon afterwards, the victorious Tokugawa clan implemented a policy of almost total national lockdown, known as sakoku (literally: locked country). Generally, foreigners were forbidden from entering the country, and Japanese commoners banned from leaving on pain of death. Though there were some minor exceptions, Japan essentially closed itself off to the rest of the world.
There were a host of benefits to this, including more than two centuries of internal peace, economic growth and innovation in the fields of arts and culture. Under the surface, however, contradictions in Japanese society slowly built up. The samurai were now a caste of warriors without any wars left to fight, while low-born merchants grew in wealth, slowly undermining a society that assigned status according to birth.
Moreover, the divisions that led to the battle of Sekigahara were never really mended; Japan’s most powerful samurai magnates, or daimyo, were split into two different camps: the tozama, and the fudai. The former were descendants of magnates who had been neutral or against the Tokugawa in 1600, while the latter came from families that had been on the winning side. Still, the tozama remained quite rich and powerful, even later in the 19th century, but they were barred from almost every important post in the Government. Their resentment at this never dissipated, but merely simmered on a low boil for centuries, waiting for an opportune moment to roar back to life.
This brings us to the bakumatsu period itself. In 1853, the US Navy forcibly entered the bay of Edo (modern day Tokyo), and demanded that the country open itself up to trade. The Japanese, after their centuries of isolation, could do very little to defend themselves against Commodore Perry’s Black Ships. At gunpoint, the Japanese were forced to abandon a policy that had been the cornerstone of their existence for the last two centuries.
The immediate result of this shift in policy was the start of an extreme social and political chain reaction; abandoning isolationism at the hands of foreign barbarians upended not just Japanese public opinion, but the very basis of legitimacy for the Tokugawa shogunate. Meanwhile, uncontrolled foreign trade also led to a collapse of the Japanese currency system, which only inflamed public opinion further. Suddenly, Japanese society went from (a somewhat deceptive) placid calm, to rapid, uncontrollable polarisation. Street violence became common; there were attacks on foreigners by patriotic mobs, and armed violence between supporters of the Shogun and increasingly organised opponents of the status quo.
Sound familiar? Of course, elite consensus in 2016 America turned out to be, if anything, built on an even more precarious foundation than Tokugawa’s peace in 1853. Beneath the surface, all manner of social and economic ills had already built up; deindustrialisation was slowly choking America’s working and middle classes, while the wars in the Middle East were poorly run, costly, and corrupt. And, just as with Commodore Perry, the election of Trump merely served to topple the first domino, unleashing a chain reaction that was already primed into the system, inaugurating a period of intense polarisation that exists to this day.
What bakumatsu Japan and modern America share is a straightforward problem: that smashing an old, non-functional system to the point where it can no longer be repaired is not the same as building anything new. On the American Right, people today refer to the ‘dead consensus’ when they talk about political positions that everyone in the GOP had to hold to be taken seriously pre-2016. They do not talk about a ‘new consensus’, however, because no new consensus exists. And that doesn’t look like changing anytime soon.
To return to the bakumatsu, Japanese society eventually polarised into two broad factions; those who were loyal to the Shogunate, and those who supported the Emperor returning to political power (at this point, the Japanese royal family have been powerless figureheads for about 800 years). What followed was a civil conflict defined by its confused and contradictory nature.
The backers of the Emperor attacked the Shogunate for being too friendly with the West. But many of the most powerful backers of this putatively xenophobic, anti-Western faction had also been the most eager importers of foreign instructors and weapons, who had then managed to defeat opposition forces with their smaller, far more Westernised armies. And indeed, once they won the ensuing civil war, their post-unification agenda turned out to be… the abolishment of the feudal caste system, the disarmament of the samurai, and the rapid industrialisation and modernisation of Japanese society. Whoops!
While ideology always plays a part in civil conflicts, the bakumatsu is not so much a story of traditionalism versus progressivism as simply what happens when a large political vacuum is created almost overnight, and there’s no good alternative on hand. The result is a very chaotic period of political free-for-all, as old coalitions rapidly collapse and new ones form, and centuries-old grudges suddenly come rearing back to life. And the creation of that vacuum, and the polarisation that fills it, is precisely what we are seeing in America today.
In the case of America, the empire is clearly in a very deep, systemic crisis. The military machine is deeply broken, the policy of spreading liberal democracy is a total failure, and the globalised economy has now frozen and seized up. Nobody, whether they’re on the Left or the Right, really has any solution to these problems. The vacuum is simply too big. And thus, we are slowly beginning to see the same sort of political dynamic manifest in America as it did in Japan during the bakumatsu. In America, just as in Japan, political street violence proliferates, and people form into armed and organised political gangs.
Yet, if 19th century Japan offers some interesting parallels in terms of what has already happened in the last five years or so, it also gives us some hints of what is in store in America’s immediate future. First, the chaos that defined the bakumatsu suggests it’s probably foolish to expect American polarisation to cool down or improve anytime soon. If anything, it is likely to get a great deal worse, as nobody really has any sort of practical solution on hand to address the fundamental rupture introduced into the American political economy by deindustrialisation. This problem is especially acute, given the supply crisis that is now slowly choking producers and consumers. The current model is broken, but that breach is the result of decades of active policy choices. It can’t be unbroken in a week, and like a rotting tooth, it’s a problem that will keep spreading pain until it is finally dealt with.
Second, one of the most serious potential flashpoints in the years ahead is going to be the relationship between the federal government and various recalcitrant states. In the bakumatsu period, the Tokugawa government slowly lost control over the tozama magnates, who increasingly came to either ignore orders from Edo, or explicitly worked to undermine the Shogun.
In America, this sort of political brinkmanship is starting to play out. Recently, Oklahoma’s Governor, Kevin Stitt, brazenly defied Washington by firing the commander of the Oklahoma National Guard, replacing him with a man whose first order of business was to free Oklahoma’s guardsmen from any obligation to comply with the Covid vaccine mandates. Though its effect didn’t extend beyond state borders, it’s a fairly ominous sign of where things are headed; the weight of federal writ is clearly not what it once was in America, and if the country continues to polarise and experience economic crisis, these sorts of conflicts will become increasingly common, and increasingly serious. In a couple of years, for example, if federal agents are ordered to arrest or imprison a popular state governor such as Ron DeSantis after some vexing display of Floridian insubordination, nobody really knows what could happen as a result.
More than anything, the most important lesson of the bakumatsu is simply to expect the unexpected in the days and years ahead. Political hypocrisy, back-stabbing, the embrace of exceedingly strange bedfellows, rapidly changing alliances, and much more; these things are not just likely but more or less guaranteed in times like these.
Just like the Japanese weren’t actually fighting merely for or against modernisation, or for or against the Emperor, the figurative (and increasingly literal) battles inside America today aren’t really about race, or taxes, or personal autonomy. They are about the heart, soul, and future of the nation, about what gets to fill the hungry vacuum left behind by the Black Ship that conquered the country in 2016.