“Their impact and role in forming Japan’s earliest institutions are well‐​documented among historians. Why then do so few libertarians know about them?”

Michael received his B.A. (2016) from the University of Michigan in history, with a specialization in East Asian history. His thesis, “Reverse Course: The Secret Battle for the Japanese Economy”, focused on the ideological disputes involved in the reconstruction of the Japanese economy after World War II and won the William P. Malm Award for Outstanding Student Writing in Japanese Studies and the Arthur Fondiler Award for Best Undergraduate Thesis. He worked as an intern for the Cato Institute and Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org in Fall 2016.

On July 8, 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Edo Bay with a squadron of American steamships. He was under orders from then-U.S. President Millard Fillmore to open Japanese ports to trade with the United States, using any means he deemed necessary. In the wake of Japanese protests, Perry ordered his cannons aimed at the local town of Uraga, claiming he could easily destroy the town should he be refused an audience with its ruler. It was under these circumstances that Japan’s ports were opened first to America and then to the rest of the world.

Perry’s visit served as a wake‐​up call for Japan. In its two and a half centuries of self‐​isolation under the Tokugawa Shogunate, 1 it had fallen drastically behind the Western world. Their economic and military weakness in comparison to the West severely wounded national pride. In the tumultuous period known as the Bakumatsu, 2 Western ideas and technology entered Japan at a rapid pace. Many Japanese sought a modern state that could allow their country to compete with, and potentially exceed, the powers in the West. In 1868, amidst widespread unrest, samurai from the domains of Satsuma, Choshu, and Tosa revolted against the Shogun. The resulting conflict, known as the Boshin War, saw the end of the Tokugawa regime and the establishment of a modern government under the Meiji Emperor.

The creation of the modern Japanese state is often contrasted with the concurrent establishment of the German Empire in Europe. In both Germany and Japan, deeply conservative governments were established surrounding their respective monarchs, the Kaiser and the Emperor. Like Bismarck’s Germany, Meiji Japan was dominated by an aristocratic bureaucracy and liberal reforms were few and far between.

A more nuanced look at Japan’s transition to a modern state reveals the involvement of a large number of liberal actors. From the moment Commodore Perry opened Japan to the West to the drafting of the Meiji Constitution, classical liberals played a role in nearly every major development along the way, opposing first the Tokugawa bakufu and then the Meiji oligarchy. They argued for popular representation, open trade, democratic reforms, low taxation, and peace. Their impact and role in forming Japan’s earliest institutions are well‐​documented among historians. Why then do so few libertarians know about them?

A big reason is perhaps that Japanese liberals were tasked with communicating existing ideas to a new audience rather than contributing new ideas themselves. As such, there is no great Japanese libertarian thinker we might think of in the same light as Bastiat, Mill, or Spencer. Another, perhaps more important reason is that, while early Japanese liberals scored some major victories, they were ultimately defeated. Japan remained a deeply conservative country throughout the prewar period, only liberalizing in the aftermath of World War II (and even then some might contend otherwise).

However, it is important that libertarians are aware of Japan’s liberal heritage. Too often, Japan and other Asian countries are written off as being too collectivist‐​minded for classical liberal and libertarian ideas to take root. This stereotype is counter‐​productive and, as I hope you will see by the end of this essay, not true. The history of Japan’s earliest liberals is one that deserves to be known and accepted by libertarians as an important part of their own history.

The origin of Japanese liberal thought was, of all places, in the unassuming Tosa domain, located on the southern half of Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands. Tosa was a poor domain during the Tokugawa era, relying mainly on fishing for commerce. Tosa, like all other domains under the Tokugawa bakufu, 3 was ruled over by daimyo appointed by the Shogun. While its location on the Pacific Ocean should have made Tosa an ideal location for international trade, the policy of sakoku 4 limited all international trade to the ports of Tsushima and Nagasaki. Before the policy of sakoku was shattered by Commodore Perry’s act of “diplomacy” in Edo, however, Western ideas had already begun to reach Tosa in the form of a shipwrecked teenager.

Manjiro, a fourteen year‐​old fisherman from Tosa, was shipwrecked with several of his friends on the uninhabited island of Torishima after a large storm destroyed their fishing boat. Surviving for weeks by drinking rainwater and eating shellfish and albatross eggs, Manjiro and his friends were eventually saved by an American whaling vessel, the John Howland. 5 The whaling ship took them from Torishima to Honolulu, where along the way Manjiro grew close with the ship’s captain, William Whitfield, fascinated with both English and whaling. Rather than stay with his friends in Honolulu, Manjiro elected instead to go with Captain Whitfield on his way home to Massachusetts.

Growing up with the Whitfield family in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, Manjiro was the first Japanese person to visit American cities like New York and Boston. He studied English and a classical liberal philosophy at the Oxford School in Fairhaven, but his greatest passion was for whaling. When he was old enough, Manjiro joined a whaling crew, venturing to areas as far off as Azores, Cape Verde, Cape Horn, Guam, and the Philippines. In 1849, Manjiro even sailed to California in search of gold. Contrary to the experiences of many during the California Gold Rush, Manjiro actually did strike it rich, and used his gains to buy his own whaling ship, Adventure, with the intention of sailing himself and his friends back to Japan. 6

In accordance with sakoku policies, when Manjiro landed in Okinawa, he was promptly arrested and held at the domain seat at Naha. However, interest in Manjiro and his experiences soon grew, and he was soon awarded audiences with the Satsuma daimyo and the Shogun himself. It was the Tosa daimyo, Toyonobu Yamanouchi, who took the most interest in Manjiro, however. Impressed by Manjiro’s stories of America and the West, Yamanouchi awarded Manjiro and his friends a lifelong stipend. Manjiro was made a public official and raised to the status of samurai. In accordance with his new social station, Manjiro was forced to take a surname, where previously he had had none. He chose Nakahama, after his hometown. 7

Following Commodore Perry’s arrival, and the subsequent opening of Japanese ports to international trade, the traditionally poor Tosa domain saw an opportunity to enrich itself. While many Japanese were fearful of opening up Japan to the West and anti‐​foreign sentiment was strong, Manjiro urged Tosa officials to embrace foreign trade, having witnessed the superiority of Western technology firsthand. The Tosa domain invested heavily in shipping, and Western ideas were studied by samurai and scholar alike. Works from classical liberals such as Herbert Spencer, John Stuart Mill, Francois Guizot, and Jean‐​Jacques Rousseau were translated into Japanese. In the matter of a decade, Tosa had grown quite wealthy, and an even more interesting phenomenon began to take place. The Tokugawa hierarchy was breaking down.

In Tokugawa society, Japanese citizens were sorted into a rigid social hierarchy. At the top of this hierarchy was the Emperor, followed by the Shogun, and daimyo. Underneath daimyo were samurai. After the Tokugawa Shogunate unified Japan and put an end to constant warfare between daimyo, samurai were no longer needed for military purposes. Instead, the samurai of the Tokugawa era became scholars and bureaucrats, and many survived solely on a government stipend. Additionally, as daimyo no longer needed to field large armies, many masterless samurai, known as ronin, began to spring up. These ronin, despite their high social station, were often impoverished and understandably angry with the status quo.

Below samurai were peasants and farmers, followed by artisans. At the bottom of society were merchants, who were regarded as lowly since they merely sold what others had made rather than producing anything themselves. Despite this, merchants were frequently quite wealthy, and some merchant families became quite influential in Tokugawa era politics. There were also burakumin, untouchables who were denied a place in the Tokugawa hierarchy and often lived their lives in poverty.

In Tosa, however, the rigidity of this system began to weaken. Shojiro Goto, for example, was a low‐​ranking samurai 8 who, through recognition of his merits, came occupy a high ranking spot in the Tosa bureaucracy. 9 Manjiro himself became a samurai, after having been born into the peasant class. A more extreme example of Tosa’s social mobility comes from Yataro Iwasaki. Born a peasant, Iwasaki took an interest in shipping and trade following the end of sakoku. After amassing enough wealth, Iwasaki was able to “buy” the rank of samurai, and he took advantage of government patronage during the Bakumatsu to buy himself a fleet of ships, on each of which he painted his logo of three diamonds connected to each other at the middle. This “three diamond” logo became the namesake of his company, Mitsubishi. 10

Manjiro, for his part, became the teacher of future liberals such as Shojiro Goto, Taisuke Itagaki, Takachika Fukuoka, and Kaishu Katsu, all of whom would feed into the establishment of a strong classical liberal movement in Tosa. Kaishu Katsu, for example, was nearly assassinated by Ryoma Sakamoto, a disillusioned young ronin who blamed his woes on foreigners and Japan’s opening to the West. Rather than turn Sakamoto over to the authorities, Katsu instead took his would‐​be assassin on as a student. 11 Within a matter of years, Sakamoto was one of the most influential liberals in Japan, and played a crucial role in the overthrow of the Tokugawa bakufu.

While classical liberalism provided an outlet for the disillusioned in Tosa, this was not the case elsewhere. Anxieties regarding Japan’s military and economic inferiority to Western nations poured onto already existing frustration among the samurai class. In most places, classical liberalism, if it was known of at all, took a backseat to a volatile form of nationalism, which called for the overthrow of the Tokugawa, the expulsion of foreigners, and the establishment a new government under the Emperor. These feelings would fuel the coming Boshin War.

  1. The Tokugawa ruled Japan as Shoguns since 1600. The Tokugawa family was a noble family, who emerged victorious in the various wars of the prior sengoku period. The Tokugawa period is sometimes referred to as the Edo period, after the capital city from which they ruled.
  2. A portmanteau of “bakufu” (see below) and “matsu” meaning “end.”
  3. Bakufu comes from the Japanese for “tent government,” and refers to the office of the Shogun.
  4. Sakoku literally means “closed country.” Some historians prefer the term “kaikin,” meaning “maritime restrictions,” as trade was still allowed in Tsushima and Nagasaki, and thus Japan was not completely closed.
  5. Bert Webber, Wrecked Japanese Junks Adrift, (Fairfield, WA: Ye Galleon Press, 1984), 115.
  6. Ibid, 122.
  7. Ibid, 124.
  8. The samurai class was also divided further into several different ranks. A samurai’s rank often determined what positions he could hold in public office.
  9. Marius Jansen, “The Ruling Class,” in Japan in Transition: From Tokugawa to Meiji, ed. Marius Jansen and Gilbert Rozman. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986), 70.
  10. James McClain, Japan: A Modern History, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002), 234.
  11. Marius Jansen, The Making of Modern Japan, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 309.