The last days of March have some special significance to Japan, for it was in March from 1854 to 1945, things seemed to go a little…mad. And it all started, ironically, with a treaty.
On 21 March 1854, Matthew C. Perry secured the signature of the Tokugawa shogun of Japan on what was called the Treaty of Kanagawa, ensuring enduring peace, friendship and diplomatic ties. While contemporary audiences may not think a great deal of that, it was shocking to Japan. Traditionally, Japan was a closed-off, secluded place, with a single paved road, a few wheeled carts, no seagoing ships to speak of, and a dominant, militaristic social group–the samurai–that made 19th century Prussian militarists seem like pacifists. For centuries they had imprisoned or simply murdered shipwrecked sailors, and for two hundred years they had but one trading outlet on Kagoshima Island in Nagasaki harbor.
But then came Perry, and Perry came because the Americans, sharing Pacific Rim status after their purchase of California from Mexico (at gunpoint, but purchased nonetheless), were concerned about their whaling and trading fleet. More than one shipwrecked Yankee had been hanged or crucified in Japan. Further, the growing Russian presence in the Pacific was of some mild concern, as were the Russian trading posts in Alaska, along the Canadian Pacific coast, and the growing British bases in Hong Kong and Hawaii–then the Sandwich Islands. The growing United States needed some assurances that American trade with China–America’s oldest trading partner–was safe from predation.
But societies are closed for a reason, and the reasons Japan was closed from 1635 up to the mid-19th century are somewhat complex, but they usually begin and end with the Japanese concepts of cultural and racial purity, and of the supremacy of Japanese exceptionalism. These concepts were enforced at the point of the sword by the samurai, who had dominated Japanese society since anyone could remember.
In practice, Japanese society was stratified into three layers. The nobility, notably the Emperor and his family, but also other petty nobles (daimyos) who had little function other than to provide brides (and the occasional groom) to the royal family, sat at the top. Directly beneath them were the samurai, who had since time immemorial been providing a totem/warlord/top gang leader called a shogun, who enforced what little civil law there was but mostly just kept the peace. In 1604, the Tokugawa clan took over the shogunate after a disastrous invasion of the Asian mainland that ended in 1600. Beneath the samurai there was everyone else. Social mobility was practically unheard of.
The shoguns may have ruled the country, but they were not the only ones who had, or craved, power. Since the provincial warlords had a great deal of power themselves, rivals to the Tokugawas were numerous, and dangerous. Japan’s polity was never inclusive: the bottom 90% existed to support the top 10%. Peasant revolts–primarily over food– averaged two a year, and were always put down in oceans of blood. When Ieyoshi signed the Kanagawa treaty, he was signing the death knell for Japan’s way of life. Almost instantly rival clans claimed that the Tokugawa shogun, whose duty it was to keep the long-nosed barbarians away from the emperor and the islands of Japan, had betrayed his duty.
Within two years, Japan was in civil war along the length and breadth of the archipelago. There were two factions: the one that favored Western contacts and expanded trade–generally aligned with the Tokugawas–and those who did not. Ironically, it was the samurai that did not favor expansion of trade who modernized first, adapting western firearms and artillery. By 1867 the Meiji Emperor proclaimed the end of the samurai tradition…which in fact only meant the end of Japan’s social structure. While Japan modernized its industry and economy, its society was left to itself. The result was, eventually, a polity that regarded China as a resource-rich wilderness infested with vermin–the Chinese–that would have to be subjugated so that the 70 Million (as the Japanese began to refer to themselves) could take what they needed. On 27 March 1938, one of the most ferocious battles of that subjugation began at Taierzhuang (or Shandong), on the eastern bank of the Grand Canal of China. When the battle ended on 7 April, there were some 44,000 casualties, a ruined city, and a defeated Japanese host.
But Japan’s March Madness continued. in the very early morning of 27 March 1943, two Japanese heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and four destroyers commanded by Boshiro Hosogaya met a US Navy heavy cruiser , a light cruiser and four destroyers under Charles McMorris near the Komandorski Islands in the north Pacific. After four confused hours the Japanese retired, not understanding how much damage they had done. What might have been a Japanese victory turned into a strategic disaster, as it ended the surface resupply efforts for the Japanese garrisons in the Aleutians, leaving it to submarines and condemning many to starvation. It was also one of the last daylight naval actions conducted without air power: in fact, it was Hosogaya’s fear of American air attacks that compelled him to pull out.
Two years later, as Iwo Jima was declared secure on 26 March 1945, the garrison on Okinawa grimly watched the huge Allied fleet gathering and bombarding offshore, and wondered when the madness would end. On 1 April, the Americans landed on Okinawa, and the last stages of Japan’s Madness in March began.