The government sponsored a ceremony in Tokyo on Oct. 23 commemorating the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Meiji era in 1868, which triggered Japan's modernization. We would like to consider the meaning of looking back now on this point in history.
The leaders of the Meiji era (1868-1912) and their achievements have been popular subjects in Diet speeches and other remarks by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe since he came back to power in December 2012 under the slogan of "Taking back a strong Japan."
During the commemoration event on Oct. 23, the premier said that we are "effectively in a time of national crisis," and called for overcoming difficulties by thinking about "the people of Meiji" and "developing new ideas based on a study of the past."
Now let us compare these statements with people's perceptions at the time of the Meiji era's centennial in 1968. Twenty three years after losing World War II and 16 years following the restoration of independence, Japan hosted the 1964 Tokyo Olympics amid rapid economic growth, but a Mainichi Shimbun editorial at that time described Japan as a "semi-developed country."
Japan back then was emerging from the devastation of the war and entering the club of advanced countries, with a belief in the future of science and technology and industrialized civilization. For such a society, it should have been relatively easy to accept a thinking of following the spirit of the Meiji Restoration that drove a national spirit to catch up with modern countries in the West.
It thus made sense back then that opinion leaders and private entities were the initiators of public discourse on the centennial, not the government.
Half a century later, Japan now faces the tough reality of a rapid population decrease, declining birthrates, an aging society and financial woes. International order has become complex and murky, unlike the East-West confrontation during the Cold War 50 years ago. As Japan is accepting more foreign workers, trials and errors of living together with different cultures and diversified values will continue.
These problems we face stand outside the framework and thinking of the modern era we have gone through. There are no distinct role models for us. The structure of our society has experienced a sea change, and so have our challenges and the situations surrounding our times. And at this juncture, the premier chose to emphasize the importance of "learning from the spirit of Meiji and reconfirming Japan's strength." One has to wonder if such a statement resonated with many people. It is no wonder that the ceremony was lackluster as a whole.
In the first place, judging history varies depending on the viewpoint of the evaluator. The Meiji Restoration was a great achievement, but has its share of dark sides. Unilateral praise led by the government does not go well with its character.
A time of major changes requires people to take on new challenges and risks. Looking back on only the success of the past is not a good guiding principle for such an era.