Japan's Aristocratic Revolution
Thomas C. Smith
"An aristocracy," Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, "seldom yields [its privileges] without a protracted struggle, in the course of which implacable animosities are kindled between the different classes of society." Despite our democratic partialities, most of us would add, "And why should it?" To know the exalted pleasures of power, and the grace of refined taste with the means of satisfying it; to believe oneself superior on the only evidence that gives conviction—the behavior of others; and to enjoy all this as birthright, with no vitiating struggle, nor any doubt that one's privileges are for God, King, country, and the good of one's fellow man—what happier human condition, for a few, have men devised ?
Yet, not all aristocracies have behaved as one fancies they must. Japan's warrior class, a feudal aristocracy though it differed from European aristocracies in crucial respects, did not merely surrender its privileges. It abolished them. There was no democratic revolution in Japan because none was necessary : the aristocracy itself was revolutionary.
Consider the bare outlines of the case. Until 1868, Japan was ruled by a class of knights who alone had the right to hold public office and bear arms and whose cultural superiority the rest of the population acknowledged. A party within this aristocracy of the sword (and swagger) took power in 1868 and embarked on a series of extraordinary reforms. Where there had before been little more than a league of great nobles, they created an immensely powerful central government: they abolished all estate distinctions, doing away with warrior privileges and throwing office open to anyone with the education and ability to hold it; they instituted a system of compulsory military service, although commoners had previously been forbidden on pain of death to possess arms; they established a system of universal public education; and much else. The result was a generation of sweeping and breathless change such as history had rarely seen until this century. I believe, though of course I cannot prove, that these decades brought greater changes to Japan than did the Great Revolution of 1789 to France.
Why was the Japanese aristocracy—or part of it— revolutionary ? Why did it abandon the shelter of its historic privileges for the rigors of free competition, which, incidentally, many warriors did not____________________