Historical comparisons and analogies. How natural disasters change the political structure of the world.

1923 Great Kantō earthquake

Many scientists say that the consequences of COVID will be long-term. Someone notes that they may be akin to the effects of the Second World War.

But making historical analogies and comparisons is a very delicate moment since history is a rather complicated thing. Many factors are intertwined, which are rooted much deeper than the period under consideration.

In 1967, STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS published a translation of the Imperial Conference in Japan on November 5, 1941, when the decision was made to attack the United States. Recordings and translations were made by Nobutaka Ike, a former employee of the Japanese government. This is a fascinating document that captures the discourse about Japan’s decision, whether it should go to war, and, if so, how. The military’s pressure and dominance are very clearly traced. Military elites who believe that “diplomacy can be sacrificed”[i] for the sake of a secret successful military operation, the purpose of which was to raise the spirit of the Japanese and break the spirit of the Americans.

But where does this militaristic dictatorship originate, which ultimately led the country to a nuclear disaster, hundreds of thousands of victims, and humiliating conditions of surrender?

The original moment was taken on July 18, 1853, when the US Navy Commander Matthew Perry sailed with his armada to the shores of Kurigama and delivered an ultimatum that if Japan did not start trading with the United States, then his flotilla would attack Japan. Given the technological superiority of the United States, it was clear that Japan had no choice.

For the previous 250 years, Japan had been a feudal society under the Tokugawa shogunate. It was a relatively stable and isolated state on its islands, which was completely closed from the rest of the world. But the international situation was changing rapidly. Since the early 1800s, the British, French, and Dutch have pushed more and more aggressively into Asia, establishing colonial settlements searching for markets and raw materials. British merchants began to make significant profits by trading opium along the coast of China, and when the Chinese government tried to stop it, the British navy simply suppressed them by force. It was called “free trade”, with the inalienable right of British traders to come and sell addictive drugs to the citizens of any Asian country. The crumbling Chinese monarchy was simply too weak to resist. The Japanese watched all this with growing alarm. They knew that the French, British, Dutch, Russians, and Americans were eager to expand their trade in Asia. They suddenly realized that Japan, with its technical development level, is absolutely defenseless against Western expansion.

In 1858, the Japanese government was forced to sign a treaty with the United States, and a series of similar treaties with other Western powers soon followed. They became known as “inequality pacts” because they clearly reflected the one-sided power relationship between Japan and white foreigners from Europe and the United States. The treaties set tariff levels for imports and exports, stipulating that the Japanese government cannot cease these tariffs. The laws and courts of Japan did not have jurisdiction in these cases: all such trials will be conducted by foreign judges using the country of origin of the accused. This is known as the legal principle of extraterritoriality. In one way or another, the treaties grossly violated Japan’s sovereignty by imposing clearly unfair conditions to which the Japanese had no choice but to accept. These humiliating conditions of the foundations of Japanese nationalism determined the country’s development for decades into the future.

One of the Japanese government’s main conclusions was the understanding of the need for technological progress. All the state forces were thrown into Westernization, the adoption of technologies, ideas, and policies of the West. Hundreds of young people were sent to study in Western universities, the state adopted not only technologies but also the political structure of Western countries.

The forerunner of liberalism and democracy in Japan was the emergence of Parliament and the Meiji Constitution’s adoption. This era is called the Meiji Restoration or the Meiji Revolution (1867–1889). The old traditions were broken, and the Japanese state was created on the Western model. “Japanese traditions are Western values,” the Japanese proclaimed. The main flowering of liberal democracy comes in 1900–1925, Which is called Taisho Democracy. In those years, the country achieved significant success in developing a democratic government system on the Western model.

But along with liberal democracy, competing ideologies also entered the country. The specter of communism has already begun its march across Asia, taking root in China, Korea and seeping into Japan. The ideas of universal equality, social justice, even with terror and violence, were attractive to all proletarians, regardless of geography. Around the same time, in the second decade of the twentieth century, Japanese militarism began to manifest itself with the first manifestation of Korea’s annexation and victory in the Russian-Japan war. Japan won and the US decided to negotiate the truce to make sure other, non-White nations wouldn’t realize they could vanquish Western nations.

But in 1923, Japan was hit by the worst earthquake known as the Yokohama earthquake, which killed several hundred thousand people. Yokohama and Tokyo were nearly destroyed. For 3 days, the Kanto region was in complete chaos, accompanied by looting, violence, and looting. But literally, on the third day, the army took power into its own hands. The robberies and murders immediately stopped. After the military firmly demonstrated to society the advantages of definite Order over Chaos, the stocks of democracy and freedom fell sharply. The “Law on maintaining calm” was issued, which declared socialists, communists, and republicans to be criminals because they undermine Kokutai 國體 “The body of the nation” an ideological construct, a set of ideas up the national identity of the Japanese. Criticism and pessimism fell into the category of anti-Japanese activity. Democracy was over, a militaristic dictatorship began in the country.

Half a century of humiliation by the Western world has taught Japanese nationalists a good lesson. On December 25, 1926, the 25-year-old Showa (Hirohito) inherited the Japanese imperial throne. The first twenty years of his reign (1926–1945) were marked by the country’s growing military power. Since 1932, when the next prime minister, Inukai Tsuyoshi, was assassinated, the Japanese military, who had veto power in forming the cabinet of ministers, almost wholly controlled Japan’s entire political life. Taught by the bitter experience of military expansion of the United States, Great Britain, and other Western countries, the Japanese government built its own doctrine. Japan has defined its role as the principal hegemon in Asia. This led to the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945) and then to Japan’s entry into the Second World War, which ended in the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the Americans.

The critical moment in unfolding the trend towards liberal democracy in Japan was precisely the Yokohama earthquake, which increased public support for the army and untied the chauvinist military dictatorship’s hands.

#COVID-19 is an even more epochal global disaster in scale. But the consequences are not necessarily dire. The priorities of society in terms of the forms of government will be formed based on the results of which form of government will show itself to be more effective in post-like recovery. COVID crises have revealed the global problem of inequality that undermines democracy and pluralism globally.

Democracy and pluralism are under assault. Dictators are toiling to stamp out the last vestiges of domestic dissent and spread their harmful influence to new corners of the world. At the same time, many freely elected leaders are dramatically narrowing their concerns to a blinkered interpretation of the national interest. In fact, such leaders — including the chief executives of the United States and India, the world’s two largest democracies — are increasingly willing to break down institutional safeguards and disregard the rights of critics and minorities as they pursue their populist agendas.

In the US, the most unequal nation of the OECD, the middle class became smaller than the rich and the poor combined in 2015. The real ‘buffer’ against the extremes in a democracy is the middle class. Because they usually have too much to lose (the comfort of life, stable income, etc) by letting the extremes triumph. In the US, the middle class has been wiped out.

So there is a raising question, does democracy we know for the last 80 years really works and reflects the needs and hopes of many?

In this article, French researcher Eugénie Mérieau ponders whether Western democracy or Eastern authoritarianism is better at coping with the pandemic. This is an exciting question. Someone may note that China managed the epidemic more effectively, but Chinese censorship prevented attention at an early stage and more effective measures. Some countries, like Vietnam, have been able to show outstanding achievements in managing the COVID crisis. Still, this effectiveness is based on implementing a total tracking system and has received some criticism from human rights organizations.

Digital authoritarianism is especially dangerous because modern technologies allow them to control and track almost every citizen and influence our beliefs. Through a whole system of manipulations on social networks, from data analytics to Internet trolls and disinformation, public opinion is created, which is presented as dominant in society.

Surveys by the Pew Research Center on global attitudes towards democracy have in recent years revealed a disjuncture between still-high levels of public support for democracy across the globe and deep popular disappointment with the functioning of democracy and systems of political representation. Perhaps the next 2–3 years are the last years of democracy as we have known it over the previous 80 years.

But what our global system of public administration is transforming into is a big question and depends on what conclusions we draw from the current crisis.

[i] JAPAN’S DECISION FOR WAR RECORDS OF THE 1941 POLICY CONFERENCES. Stanford University Press. Stanford, California 1967

Sources:

Bess, Michael. Choices Under Fire Moral Dimensions of World War II in Choices Under Fire Mor [42–57]

Ike, Nobutaka. Japan’s Decision for War Records of the 1941 Policy Conferences in Japan’s [262–283]

Harvard graduate, open society advocate, social innovations fan