The Ambassador in Japan (Grew) to the Secretary of State

No. 2722

Sir: Whatever may be the label put on the conflict with China,26 it has led to the placing of Japan on a war basis. About one million men are estimated to be with the colors, and every form of national effort is being subordinated to the attainment in as short a time as possible of military and political objectives in China. There is taking place, as a normal consequence of the mustering of Japan’s material and spiritual resources, a change in virtually every aspect of Japanese life. There is a pervading consciousness of the consequence of failure in the present effort, and that consciousness, stimulated by the disapprobation and moral opposition of the greater part of the world, has developed a sense of national unity which does not nourish political factionalism. It is not being suggested that the decline of political parties in this country can be attributed entirely to the conflict with China, which in the larger sense began, not in July 1937, but on September 18, 1931; that trend really falls within a trend with a wave-length of far greater amplitude.

Japan as a world power is still in a transitional stage. It renounced medievalism eighty years ago, and although amazing progress has been made in “things that are of the earth earthy”, and although there have been advances in certain social problems, notably in the position of the womanhood of the country, there has not been sufficient time for dilution by purely natural processes of archaic spiritual and moral ideas. There are Japanese still living who wore armor and fought with bow and arrow. The “revolt of youth” after the World War was considered to be something of a phenomenon in America and Europe, but, ever since the middle of the Nineteenth Century there has been in Japan a chronic revolt of each new generation against its predecessor. The impact of events and new ideas [Page 721] varies with the individual and with the measure of medievalism he has inherited and assimilated. The political struggle in Japan, therefore, is primarily a struggle between generations, and not between classes.

During a period of forty years after the establishment of the Diet in 1890, there appeared to be a substantial, if slow, progress out of military oligarchy, through bureaucracy, and toward constitutional democratic government. The first twenty years were the concluding decades of the Meiji Era, one of the most brilliant epochs in Japan’s history, and from the point of view of progress they were the most important decades. Behind a “modern” political facade, an extra-constitutional group of powerful personages—the so-called Elder Statesmen—ruled the country, but as time passed and these personages grew older or died, men came who performed in plain view on the political stage. These flourished and gained influence, and around them collected the minor political fry. It was from such agglomerations that the “old line” parties developed. They were not, however, associations of persons animated by a common political objective, but rather they were loosely formed groups of which each member was bound to its leader under a tacit agreement by which the leader gave patronage and in return he was given support. In 1913 there occurred the first change of government arising out of defeat in the Lower House on a vote on a Government measure, and by force of repetition there evolved the beginnings of a tradition—for the Constitution is silent on this point—of a parliamentary system. A further impulse in this direction was given by a tendency which became marked during the second decade of this century for the parties to divide along the lines of conflict of interest between the industrial and agrarian elements of the population. Owing to circumstances which need not be gone into in this despatch, the landowning classes tended to support the Seiyukai, and the perversity of politics made the Minseito the instrument of their opponents.

The two parties thrived so long as men with capacity for leadership, such as Count Kato and Mr. Hara, could be found to fill the shoes of such political geniuses as Count Okuma and Prince Ito; but when they died their places were taken by party wheel-horses with nothing to raise them above the common ruck. Personal leadership, the element which created parties and gave them cohesion, was lost, and they have since been beset with factional jealousies and strife. To add to their troubles the venality and corruption which existed on a wide scale in politics were brought to light by a series of prosecutions conducted with courage by the law-enforcing authorities against a number of politicians of no small importance, including former Cabinet officers. The disclosures of the immorality of the politicians, in contrast with the standards enforced among public servants, especially [Page 722] Army and Navy officers, have created such mistrust and suspicion of party politicians that no competent observer today seriously believes that these parties can be rehabilitated without reforms so drastic as to change them out of all recognition.

There appeared in the meantime two new elements in the political situation. The adoption in 1924 of universal manhood suffrage made possible some concerted expression for liberal thought. There was at first a general movement of the newly enfranchised toward the parties then existing, but these were firmly controlled by conservatives. In their disillusionment, they found much that was attractive in advanced Marxian thought, or they turned to the Second International, or again to the ideas of the British Labor Party. Each of these various groups produced a party, and from the three there finally appeared the Social Mass Party. At the opposite end of the political scale an effort was being made to bring together a large number of reactionary and nationalistic groups. These are the lineal descendants of the faction in the Shogunate who agitated, under the Prince of Mito, to “Drive out the Barbarians.” Some of these groups are completely disreputable and, under the guise of patriotism, exist only for blackmail and bullyragging. The most important is the notorious Amur (more commonly translated as the Black Dragon) Society, the head of which is the equally notorious Mitsuru Toyama, a colorful and venerable political adventurer.

Until quite recently the indications were strong that a basis was being formed for the revival of government by political parties—not by the old-line parties, which are not divided by any difference of political doctrine worth mentioning, but by the Social Mass Party on the left and by a Nationalist Party in process of creation on the right. The Social Mass Party gained considerably in respectability when, some weeks ago, it purged itself of the Moscow element and eliminated from its platform certain planks which the Moscow element insisted upon when the party was formed. Certain progress was apparently made toward unification of the nationalistic groups by the promoters of this idea, the most indefatigable of whom is Mr. Shiratori (who obtained considerable publicity during the Manchuria Incident as the “Foreign Office Spokesman”), as indicated by the fact that Toyama, Prince Sanjo, a kugé, or one of the ancient nobility, and Admiral Yamamoto, a retired naval officer, issued jointly a manifesto advocating the formation of a Nationalist Party. The stage seemed set for interesting developments, but during the closing days of 1937 the police undertook an extensive round-up of “Communists” and among those gathered in was Mr. Kaju Kato, a member of Parliament and one of the leading spirits of the Social Mass Party, who was arrested as he returned from making a “comfort visit” to the soldiers in China! This has lead to further upheavals [Page 723] in the Party, and it is now difficult to say what the future will bring.

The collapse of party politics after almost fifty years’ effort can be attributed in the final analysis to ignoring the real bases for political divergencies. These bases exist in the conflict between medievalism and modern thought. The mechanization of industry is affecting every aspect of Japanese life and is bringing in its train a horde of new problems which in advanced countries would be primary political issues. Instead, they have in effect been banned from the political arena, and effort is being made with the cooperation of the politicians to solve them within the framework of what the press is pleased to call “Japanese tradition and polity”. An example from the particular will clarify this generality: The cotton spinning and weaving industry is the most important industry in the country. The fact that the operatives are largely young girls recruited from the farms, that they are indentured for a period of years, and that they are housed in dormitories and paid a low wage is well known. This arrangement works admirably in the interests of both the mill operators, who are supplied with cheap labor, and the landowning classes, whose tenants obtain added income, but at the same time it is admirably calculated to preserve medieval concepts and to prevent the inevitable—a desire by labor for a greater share in the profits of industry.

These conditions lead to the observation that it is unlikely that a two-party system can rest on solid ground in Japan until there comes into existence a substantial number of trained mechanics and artisans employed in mechanized factories. Unlike the native artisans, working along manual lines, they divest themselves readily of feudal concepts of relations between employer and employee, and what is also to the point, they are apt to have more schooling than the average laborer. One of the results of the war with China is a growing heavy metals industry, and as aftermath of the war there might well be introduced into Japanese politics a new honesty and vigor.

Respectfully yours,

Joseph C. Grew