24 October 2014

The danger of ideological monarchism - Japan

Empress Myeongseong of Joseon

The Mad Monarchist is probably a textbook example of the dangers of making even a well-intentioned ideology out of monarchism – which is to say, when you reduce monarchism to an unreflective devotion to any system with monarchical characteristics, regardless of how those characteristics are reflected at the levels of theology, of politics or of policy. Now would probably be the proper point for me to point out that I am, to quote a certain Romanist saint, ‘the king’s good servant, and God’s first’. I am a monarchist, insofar as that is demanded by my religion and insofar as the saints, the apostles and the Tradition of the Orthodox Church support monarchy as just and wise. But my sympathy for monarchy ends precisely where its implementation eats away at its own legitimacy, where it undermines its own raison d’être. (And, unlike the Mad Monarchist, I neither conflate nor confuse the one with the other.)

Take, for example, the Mad Monarchist’s devotion to the Empire of Japan, a devotion of the most quixotic, naïve and even unfeeling character. Japan is a brightly-coloured but empty shell. The Emperor remains, but as essentially a cipher. And in history, the Empire of Japan has arguably done more in East Asia to undermine the cause of monarchy by its own actions, great and small, than Mao Zedong could ever hope to do. This is, obviously, a highly controversial claim, and certainly TMM himself would dispute it. But his history of Japan’s actions on the world stage is highly incomplete, and I think it would be well to look carefully at some of the bits he overlooks.

The fact that he does not begin with, but rather glosses over, the millennialist Donghak rebellion or with the First Sino-Japanese War is highly significant. Japan certainly did not act as a friend to the Korean monarchy (which had requested military assistance from the Qing Dynasty), but used the Donghak rebellion as an excuse to undermine the legitimacy of the Korean government.

It is clear that there were legitimate issues of government corruption at stake in the Donghak rebellion, and that the Joseon Dynasty had some real problems negotiating the power balance between their two hostile neighbours, as well as some truly unsavoury cultural practices. However, the Korean caste system – which by this point had already weakened and was beginning to show certain fractures – was gradually being reformed out of existence under Qing influence. The Donghak rebellion, however, created an opportunity for an expansionist Japan to claim that the Qing were in violation of treaty, and therefore to declare war on the Qing. Once the smoke had cleared, the Japanese were in control of Korea and had begun embarking on a course of reforms inspired by Donghak demands. To give credit where credit is due, the redeeming feature of these reforms was the abolition of serfdom and the dismantling of the caste system – though, again, that was already being reformed out of existence prior to the Sino-Japanese War. Other than that, everything that the Japanese did in Korea was practically perfectly calculated to humiliate and discredit the cultural values which underwrote Korea’s monarchy.

There is no question about this. East Asian monarchies have historically placed a great deal of emphasis on form, on ritual and on music. Joseon was no exception. One of its means of resisting Qing influence was its use of the Ming Dynasty calendar to determine dates – this was the Joseon state’s explicit way of expressing loyalty to the Ming Emperor and to the Confucian ideals that he represented. The Japanese, who fully understood this, abolished the Ming calendar and replaced it with the Japanese one. The two messages sent were crystal-clear: Joseon was no longer an independent monarchy, and the monarchical rituals demonstrating the Korean devotion to the Ming Emperor no longer applied. The Mad Monarchist says that ‘the Japanese were much more careful than other powers in ensuring that the monarchial principle was not damaged’ by allowing the Korean royal family to retain its lifestyle; but this is exactly wrong, and this must be attributed either to an ignorance of Confucian philosophy or to a blinkered devotion to the Japanese state. The Japanese had done something far worse to the monarchy: they had cut the taproot between the Joseon monarchs and their past allegiances, the Confucian inheritance, the Korean people themselves.

The Japanese added insult to injury by centralising and bureaucratising the administration (that is to say, making a legalist standard of merit normative rather than a Confucian one); by reorganising Korea’s geographical subdivisions; by robbing Korea of its own monetary policy, introducing Japanese currency and thus ensuring its finical dependence on Japan; and introducing the Western practice of remarriage for divorced and widowed women. In 1895, the Japanese orchestrated the murder of the Korean Empress Myeongseong (the woman responsible for rehabilitating Catholicism in Korea) – an historical tidbit that the Mad Monarchist quite conveniently elides. Still worse, they burned her body, which was from a Confucian view a calculated insult to her father and particularly her mother, and by extension the entire Korean royal family.

As far as Korea was concerned, the Japanese occupiers were regicides, though no doubt The Mad Monarchist considers this an ‘incredibly petty’ point. The Japanese managed to extradite the men responsible for this most heinous crime to a military tribunal in Hiroshima, and proceeded to acquit them all. It was after this constant barrage of crimes and insults directed specifically against the monarchy that traditionalist Confucian scholars and peasants united in the Uibyeong uprisings against the Japanese. TMM seems to be under the mistaken impression that the later act of keeping and educating the Korean crown prince in Tôkyô was some sort of act of friendship, but he seems utterly ignorant of the old warring-states Japanese practice of keeping the close kin of one’s enemies as hostages in the capital… just in case one of these Uibyeong uprisings came close to succeeding.

With regard to Russia, I have already talked some about the underappreciated life of Russia’s last monarch, the Tsar S. Nikolai II of Russia. The cowardly Japanese sneak attack on Port-Arthur, and the subsequent war between Russia and Japan, both gave significant intellectual ammunition to Tsar Nikolai’s domestic political opponents, who took every opportunity to portray him as both belligerent and incompetent when in truth he was neither. The Japanese military supported anti-Tsarist movements from that point on, particularly giving their logistical support and funding to Konni Zilliacus and the Menshevik revolutionary Georgiy Plehanov to coordinate with other anti-Tsarist and republican agitators in Paris and Geneva, whose activities culminated in the revolution of 1905. The Japanese were no friends to the Tsars. Only when it was demonstrably too late for the monarchist cause in Russia did Japan lend its aid to the White armies.

Towards Qing China, Japan was very little better. It is again highly convenient that The Mad Monarchist fails to recognise Japan’s active support for Sun Yat-sen’s revolutionary republican programme, both ideologically and materially. Sun fled to Japan when he sought asylum, and Japanese parliamentarians – especially Inukai Tsuyoshi – actively supported Sun’s anti-monarchist Tongmenghui. No such official support was given in Japan to Kang Youwei’s Confucian Qing loyalist reform movement, the Baohuanghui, which later became the Progressive Party. Again, only when it was too late for monarchist movements to stand on their own merits in China, did the Japanese give them anything resembling aid – and then always with the same strings attached as applied in Korea. What they did was never out of a desire to support monarchy with all of its local customs and characteristics intact. It was always to subvert the organic monarchical forms and replace them instead with imposed Japanese ones.

Speaking as an otherwise-sympathetic monarchist, The Mad Monarchist’s entire read of the history of East Asia is characterised by an extreme bias and a naïveté of the political and intellectual history of the region which borders on wilful ignorance. And of course, holding modern Japan up as any sort of monarchist model for the rest of Asia is utterly nonsensical.

Japanese society is sick – they have left off reproducing themselves to the point where they are in the midst of a horrific demographic crisis which will strain their society to the breaking point. Their public officials have long since cast off for vulgar capitalist reasons any sort of Confucian concern for their own elderly, let alone humane management of their own ecological or political resources for future generations. Those same public officials are seemingly making up for this by puffing out their chests and posturing with all their might over territorial disputes with China and South Korea. Not monarchism, but vulgar Caesarism rules – as long as Japanese men can afford to satisfy their perverse onanistic needs, and as long as Japanese women feel that making money in the Japanese corporate world is more important than the business of bearing and rearing the next generation, they will continue to support the most ugly and venal sorts of symbolic politics imaginable, particularly against their Chinese and Korean neighbours. The monarchy has done nothing to prevent this erosion of the bedrock on which it stands – and indeed, as long as Japan remains a subservient American client-state, its monarchy can do nothing.


  1. I'm not sure the Japanese monarchy can be blamed for the dysfunctional character of modern Japanese society though. The monarchy points toward tradition and continuity and the hope of restoring family life. Were Japan to become a republic, the problems in Japanense society would probably only get worse.

    I like the Mad Monarchist blog, but the post on his vision for the UK annoyed me a bit. I'm not at all comfortable with the idea of somebody who is not British having a vision for my country. I'm not sure it's a tactful idea to run a series of posts on how he thinks other countries should be run.

  2. I think TMM makes two mistakes regarding Japan - I should probably have made that clearer.

    The first is his uncritical approach to the post-Meiji Imperial government, which was essentially a revolutionary government that busily cut away wherever possible and however possible all remnants of state-Confucian governance in the name of modernisation. That forms the bulk of my critique here.

    The current malaise of Japanese culture also cannot be laid wholly at the Americans' door, but indeed must be recognised as having its roots in the Meiji programme. Even though that Meiji 'restoration' did not do away with the Emperor himself - just as WWII did not - it was nevertheless in many ways disastrous to his position in ways which were not obvious at the time. (As we are seeing now.)

    The second mistake he makes is to mistake the Japanese monarchy for the Japanese state, and to take the Meiji 'spirit' as the true 'spirit' of that state. TMM does, to his credit, recognise Japan's condition.

    But his solution to Japan's ailments - that is, education 'reforms' to encourage patriotism, bureaucratic 'streamlining', more militarism and more Japanese 'assertiveness' under the aegis of American power and protection, rings every bit as hollow as the promises of the Chinese Self-Strengthening Movement which prefigured the 1911 revolution there. It does nothing to correct the right-liberal revolutionary character of the Japanese state itself.

  3. Full disclosure: I'm a convert to Russian Orthodoxy with a Chinese wife and a half-Chinese daughter. I'm not going to hide my bias here - but I genuinely think TMM is mischaracterising Japanese history and the 'state of the state'.

  4. I think you are onto something. I think you are right that some of the problems of Japanese society were set in motion in the Meiji era.

    I'm a bit more comfortable with TMM's Japanese program than you are, being a bit militaristic and generally favourable to free-market capitalism.

    I say let the Japanese come up with their own vision for their future. They don't need Americans telling them how to reform their education system, just as we British don't need Americans telling us to support UKIP

  5. Amen to that, actually.

    What I'd really like to see in Japan is a Grey Panthers movement. Preferably one with a truly traditionalist bent, taking its political queues from the quasi-distributist People's Life Party.

    And I also agree with you: UKIP-loving Yanks are truly an obnoxious breed.

    Almost like us monarchist Yanks, right?

  6. Nothing wrong with being a monarchist American, as long as you are not advocating replacing our Queen with the Duke of Bavaria or telling the Spanish to change their branch of the dynasty. Thankfully our friend the MadMonarchist is not of that party.