Continuing Relevance Today
Several of the concerns addressed and lessons learned by Meiji Japan would be familiar to observers today. Geography remains static over the centuries, and similar strategic imperatives reign despite changed global economics, societies, and methods of warfighting.
Notably, the Korean peninsula remains critical to Japanese security. The nature of the challenge changes – invasion in either direction is not a serious threat today, unlike ballistic missiles – but the two countries’ proximity necessitates a relationship, for good or ill. While the United States could hypothetically bail out of the peninsula and rely on strengthened missile defenses to shield itself from North Korean threats, Japan has no such option.
Still on watch…
More happily, Japan remains a maritime-based economy linked to global trade, just as it had during the early years of industrialization. Meiji and Showa Japan took things in a more mercantilist direction, attempting to gain political control of resource-heavy areas, as opposed to simply purchasing goods on the market as Japan does today. But in both cases, Japan recognized its own islands could not support a modern economy, and took action to mitigate this deficiency. A corollary to this is Japanese recognition of the need for maritime forces to secure the sea lines of communication critical to economic sustainment. Today, even as a self-defense force and not a navy, so to speak, Japan’s fleet ranks as one of the world’s most capable maritime services.
As a maritime nation without land borders, Japan’s first line of defense against attack is its air and sea forces. Necessarily, these capabilities are driven by technology, and just like in the 1890s or 1930s, Japan remains at the forefront of military hardware. With today’s shrinking population and increasingly automated Japanese economy, military recruiting is projected to get increasingly more difficult, making technological solutions that much more appealing to defense planners. Even if new tools like robots and lasers are involved, this will still represent continuity with post-Meiji Japanese trends.
Lastly, Japan continues to look to the West for support as the Meiji regime did. In its imperial era, Japan allied with the British Empire and appealed to norms of Western civilization and international law. More recently, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in an address to the U.S. Congress, celebrated the U.S.-Japanese alliance, citing Japan’s stand with the West against the Soviet Union and its commitment to liberal democracy. This does not diminish the fact that today’s U.S.-Japan relationship grew out of postwar occupation and was not Japan’s idea. Nevertheless, the continued alliance reflects Japan’s ready access to the West via the maritime-based, globally-linked economy and its resulting alignment of interests in the Western Pacific.
Japan’s unparalleled rush to modernity during the Meiji Era showcased the country’s ability to learn and willingness to adapt. These traits served Japan well as it took on a leading regional role at the turn of the Twentieth Century, and Japan continues to exhibit them even today. Meiji’s successors, though, grew to take Japan’s lofty position for granted and failed to adjust their strategic assumptions to changing times, victims of their own success. It was the most human of failings – and a warning to us all.
List of Works Cited
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 The Economist, “Barmy army; Japan’s self-defence forces,” Vol 422, Issue 9028 (Feb. 18, 2017), p. 53.
 Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister of Japan, (address to Joint Session of U.S. Congress, Washington, D.C., 29 April 2015).