Meiji Wars: They’re Over, Like This Post

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.

japan7-jmsdf

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.[1]

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[2] and increasingly automated Japanese economy, military recruiting is projected to get increasingly more difficult[3], 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.[4] 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.

Conclusion

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

Abe, Shinzo, Prime Minister of Japan. Address to Joint Session of U.S. Congress, Washington, D.C., 29 April 2015.

Central Intelligence Agency. “Japan,” The World Factbook. Accessed 4 January 2018. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ja.html.

Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field. Geneva, 22 August 1864.

Dunley, Richard. “‘The warrior has always shewed himself greater than his weapons’: the Royal Navy’s interpretation of the Russo-Japanese War 1904–5,” War & Society 34, no. 4 (October 2015): 248-262.

The Economist. “Barmy army; Japan’s self-defence forces.” Vol 422, Issue 9028 (Feb. 18, 2017), p. 53.

Gordon, Andrew. A Modern History of Japan. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Hamby, Joel E. “Striking the Balance: Strategy and Force in the Russo-Japanese War,” Armed Forces & Society 30, no. 3 (Spring 2004): 325-356.

Howland, Douglas. “Japan’s Civilized War: International Law as Diplomacy in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895),” Journal of the History of International Law 9 (2007): 179-201.

Kato, Yoko. “What Caused the Russo-Japanese War – Korea or Manchuria?” Social Science Japan Journal 10, no. 1 (April 2007): 95-103.

Koda, Yoji. “The Russo-Japanese War: Primary Causes of Japanese Success,” Naval War College Review 58, no. 2 (Spring 2005): 11-44.

Kuehn, John T. “Grudging Respect? Kaigun Through the Lens of the US Navy at the Time of the Sino-Japanese War,” The Northern Mariner/Le marin du nord 24, no. 3 (July 2016): 259-274.

Ministry of Defense of Japan. “National Security Strategy of Japan.” 17 December 2013. Accessed 4 January 2018. http://japan.kantei.go.jp/96_abe/documents/2013/__icsFiles/afieldfile/2013/12/17/NSS.pdf.

Murphy, Daniel T. “Giant Dragons Puffing Smoke: Understanding Japan’s Pacific War Strategy.” Center for International Maritime Security (blog), 15 November 2017. Accessed 27 December 2017. http://cimsec.org/giant-dragons-puffing-smoke-understanding-japans-pacific-war-strategy.

Nordlund, Alexander M. “A War of Others: British War Correspondents, Orientalist Discourse, and the Russo-Japanese War, 1904–1905,” War in History 22, no. 1 (January 2015): 28-46.

Pajon, Céline. “Japan’s Coast Guard and Maritime Self-Defense Force in the East China Sea,” Asia Policy 23 (January 2017): 111-130.

Schimmelpenninck van der Oye, David. “Rewriting the Russo-Japanese War: A Centenary Retrospective,” The Russian Review 67, no. 1 (January 2008): 78-87.

Steinberg, John W. “Was the Russo-Japanese War World War Zero?” The Russian Review 67, no. 1 (January 2008): 1-7.

Swope, Kenneth M. “Crouching Tigers, Secret Weapons: Military Technology Employed During the Sino-Japanese-Korean War, 1592-1598,” The Journal of Military History 69, no. 1 (January 2005): 11-41.

Warner, Denis, and Peggy Warner. The Tide at Sunrise: A History of the Russo-Japanese War, 1904-1905. New York: Charterhouse, 1974.

Yabuki, Hiraku. “Britain and the Resale of Argentine Cruisers to Japan before the Russo-Japanese War,” War in History 16, no. 4 (November 2009): 425-446.

Remaining footnotes:

[1] Céline Pajon, “Japan’s Coast Guard and Maritime Self-Defense Force in the East China Sea,” Asia Policy 23 (January 2017): 119.

[2] Central Intelligence Agency, “Japan,” The World Factbook, accessed 4 January 2018, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ja.html.

[3] The Economist, “Barmy army; Japan’s self-defence forces,” Vol 422, Issue 9028 (Feb. 18, 2017), p. 53.

[4] Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister of Japan, (address to Joint Session of U.S. Congress, Washington, D.C., 29 April 2015).

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Meiji Wars: (Mis)applying Lessons in the Post-Meiji Era

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This is what happens when you try too hard, Hirohito

With Japan having been so successful at past endeavors, the Meiji regime’s Showa successors expected the same playbook to remain effective in the following decades. Results indicate they miscalculated – but not irrationally so. The Meiji Wars provided Showa leaders with nearly a textbook example of (in descending order of importance) sober strategic assessment, careful operational planning, and competent execution to achieve strategic outcomes. However, Showa Japan failed to adapt the playbook to the evolving circumstances of the 1920s and 1930s, competently applying certain lessons, but disastrously misreading others.

Though it quickly got out of hand, Showa Japan retained the overall strategic focus on Korea and Manchuria that the Meiji had demonstrated. Throughout World War II, Japan continued to administer Korea and kept most of its troops in China, even defending Manchuria against a potential Soviet invasion that never came until the very end.[1] Protecting these mainland holdings remained Japan’s primary objectives; the Pacific war was a secondary effort.[2] Showa leaders miscalculated the scale of that secondary effort (to be addressed later), but nevertheless, they correctly understood where their main effort had to be.

Japan also had reason to believe its timing for aggressive action was suitable. Its adventurism in China in the 1930s was ill-managed, but the decision to go came in the midst of a global economic catastrophe, European political crisis, isolationist United States, and inward-looking Soviet Union focused on domestic five-year plans. No one substantively interfered with Japanese efforts in China in the 1930s, which validated them to a certain degree. Even Japanese moves into colonial areas came at opportune times – Nazi Germany had invaded France and Holland in 1940, leaving neither able to respond effectively to Japanese aggression.[3] Japan took advantage accordingly. Even if the time wasn’t perfect (the U.S. would still have to be dealt with somehow), Showa Japan was correct in assessing there would never be a better one.

Part of the reason for this good timing was divided forces on the part of enemies, actual and potential, in 1940-41. As mentioned, the colonial powers were occupied elsewhere. The United States was a bicoastal country preoccupied with European affairs, and could only send a portion of its fleet to the Pacific theater. Additionally, the Soviet Union (at least after 1938) was focused on Ukraine, Poland, and other areas to the west. Even if token forces were in theater (as the British and Dutch had), it was still far from the full weight of a country’s power projection capability. Japan proved correct in all of these assessments, except that of the United States.

Technology had been a key enabler for Meiji Japan’s successes, and Showa Japan assessed this as a continued strength. Notably, it built a world-class navy and some of the premier aircraft of the era. In a short conflict on the scale of the Russo-Japanese War (18 months), the Zero, for example, probably would have remained the top fighter aircraft in theater. What Japan actually got was a protracted war with an enemy whose technology quickly caught up and surpassed it, but had the war followed the template and timeline Japan expected, it was reasonable for it to believe that technology would remain an advantage.

Lastly, the Showa leadership continued to support a strong navy and the concept of sea power, and by the time of World War II had developed a substantial domestic shipbuilding industry. It successfully acted upon on the lessons of Meiji Japan in this regard, though, still had difficulty replacing mounting losses as World War II ground on.

Although some lessons of the Meiji era were applied with reasonable expectations of success, others were abject failures. Whether out of hubris or simple ignorance, Showa Japan failed to evaluate how the attitudes and interests of potential partners and allies had changed since 1905. Just because the Meiji Wars were waged with Western indifference and, in some cases, approval, did not mean this would still be true thirty years later.

Showa Japan failed to analyze how its interests and objectives aligned with those of other countries, and consequently found itself with allies it couldn’t reach and enemies on all sides. Koda points out this confusion, noting that if Japan’s objective was to have settled its “collision with U.S. interests in China, the focus should have been the United States; with the cooperation of other Western countries, with which Japan might have had some common interests in China, Japan might have preserved some its rights there.”[4] Conversely, if Japan had explicitly aimed to liberate Asian colonies, Japan could have aligned itself with the U.S. and Australia against European colonial states, Koda theorizes.[5] Either course may have been a long shot, but surely either was better than the actual scenario, in which Japan made enemies of everyone and found its only allies in European fascists. This alliance “in fact isolated Japan itself from the rest of the world. Other than political propaganda and some psychological effects, the Axis alliance provided almost no practical benefit to any of its members,” Koda notes.[6]

Showa Japan did make an attempt to cast its efforts as a campaign of liberation in the information domain, such as by calling post-1931 Manchuria an “independent” state.[7] As Koda pointed out above, the United States – a former colony itself – opposed European colonialism (the Philippines notwithstanding) and might have been sympathetic to this allegedly progressive cause. However, Japan’s gradual shift from adjunct to the Western powers in 1905 to dominant regional power thirty years later forced a divergence in the fundamental interests of Japan and the U.S., who could credibly see one another as rivals in the Pacific. Thus, the U.S. (and Europeans, for that matter) were not susceptible to the same arguments that had earned their tacit acceptance of poor Japanese behavior in the Meiji Wars.

Additionally, as it planned the Pearl Harbor attack with Port Arthur as a precedent, Showa Japan forgot to consider the broader context that made earlier sneak attacks relatively consequence-free. In 1894 it launched a sneak attack on a diplomatically isolated China; in 1904, on an isolated Russia; in both cases, in contested foreign lands. Western acquiescence was not difficult to obtain; in many ways, Japan was doing their work of opening China and containing Russia. At Pearl Harbor, though, it attacked a Western powerhouse on its undisputed home turf. No diplomatic cushion existed as in 1894 and 1904; instead of acting on the behalf of the U.S. and West, Japan had shown itself to be in direct opposition. Moreover, the shock of the sneak attack had the opposite of the intended effect – instead of cowing the American people, they demanded war. Though it permitted Japan to rush unimpeded across the Pacific for the next six months, ultimately the Pearl Harbor attack brought about its doom. Showa Japan failed to analyze its presumed enemy in the way Meiji Japan had, and paid for the oversight.

Next Post: The End, Finally

[1] Yoji Koda, “The Russo-Japanese War: Primary Causes of Japanese Success,” Naval War College Review 58, no. 2 (Spring 2005): 42.

[2] Daniel T. Murphy, “Giant Dragons Puffing Smoke: Understanding Japan’s Pacific War Strategy,” Center for International Maritime Security (blog), 15 November 2017, accessed 27 December 2017, http://cimsec.org/giant-dragons-puffing-smoke-understanding-japans-pacific-war-strategy.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Yoji Koda, “The Russo-Japanese War: Primary Causes of Japanese Success,” Naval War College Review 58, no. 2 (Spring 2005): 40.

[5] Yoji Koda, “The Russo-Japanese War: Primary Causes of Japanese Success,” Naval War College Review 58, no. 2 (Spring 2005): 40.

[6] Ibid., 41.

[7] Andrew Gordon. A History of Modern Japan, 5th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 187.

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Meiji Wars: Political-Military Interplay

National effectiveness by Meiji Japan resulted from a combination of wise statesmanship and wily warfighting. These lessons look at the intersection of these two realms.

 Mind Your SLOCs

japan5-mahan

The Imperial Japanese were workin’ for Mahan

Sea power wins wars – especially for countries that deploy expeditionary forces overseas, as Meiji Japan was wont to do. This was a lesson learned and retained from Japan’s 1590s invasion of Korea, when Korean maritime superiority prevented reliable sea lines of communication (SLOCs) for the invaders.[1] The power of the British showed what an island nation could do with control of the sea (a comparison the British themselves often noticed about Japan[2]). When Meiji Japan set itself to securing resources to support a modern economy, its leadership immediately understood the value of sea power as a strategic and operational asset. They read Mahan – at least one Japanese strategist even visited him in person[3] – and understood the maritime sinews of an industrial economy. And Japan appreciated sea power’s operational necessity in a conflict. In planning the Russo-Japanese War, securing control of the Yellow Sea to protect Japan-Korea-Manchuria SLOCs was understood as a prerequisite for successful land operations in Manchuria itself.[4]

More importantly, it wasn’t just military leadership that understood sea power’s value, but also the political leadership. Naval construction is a major capital investment, requiring years of planning – and in Japan’s case, massive infrastructure requirements before building a single ship. The Meiji government sped the process by sourcing vessels from overseas. In the aftermath of the Sino-Japanese War, the Diet authorized the purchase of “104 new ships, including four battleships and eleven armored cruisers, to be completed between 1896 and 1905.”[5] In late 1903, a relaxation of South American tensions put four additional warships on the international marketplace. Japan was able to obtain two of them originally bound for Argentina,[6] while trouble purchasing the other two (retained by its builder, Britain) motivated an imperial ordinance funding the seeds of a domestic naval construction capability.[7] Collectively, the political-military synergy on this issue provided the means for Japan to gain a wide maritime empire in the ensuing decades. Holding it would be another matter.

 Buy Local

Dovetailing with the need for sea power detailed above, Japan identified a need to build a domestic arms industry, particularly shipbuilding. The lack of such infrastructure put severe limits on Japanese means to achieve military objectives – lost soldiers could be replaced (within reason), but ships and other capital-intensive equipment were essentially lost forever within the timeframe of a single war. Even if warships were on the market, there was no guarantee other countries would permit sales to Japan or that it could make a winning bid (fiscal trouble largely sidelined Japan’s bid for two ships originally built for Chile in 1903[8]). Thus, Meiji Japan resolved not to be subject to other nations’ whims in this regard.

Operationally, this meant that risk aversion had to dominate commanders’ priorities, at least where capital ships (battleships and armored cruisers) were concerned. This could contribute to suboptimal tactical outcomes, as at the Battle of Yellow Sea, described by Koda as “almost no victory at all,”[9] but in a battle for sea control, loss of such assets had the potential to be catastrophic. It was only by luck in 1904 that Japan was able to replace two lost battleships with armored cruisers from Italy.

Showa Japan took this too far, attempting to create an entire self-contained economic ecosystem within its Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Not only did it want to perform the construction itself, it wanted direct control of all resources necessary to feed the industry. This proved to be a bridge too far.

 Attack Now, Declare War Later

Japan initiated hostilities in both Meiji Wars with sneak attacks – in 1894, with a Japanese squadron off the coast of Korea engaging two Chinese battleships (followed by the Kowshing incident mentioned earlier)[10], and in 1904 by a torpedo attack on Russian ships at anchor at Port Arthur.[11] Given Japan’s relative weakness at the time, it considered surprise vital in order to minimize risk to its own irreplaceable forces and maximize the shock of their first engagement. “To have signaled his intentions in advance by a declaration of war would have been, in Togo’s estimation, an act of criminal folly,” the Warners write.[12] “Normally, a nation that attacks first and without a declaration of war is branded as the aggressor nation,” Hamby notes[13], but this was the case in neither 1894 nor 1904.

As seen earlier, Japan made successful legal arguments defending its 1894-95 actions in presentations to diplomatic gatherings – successful, not in the sense of winning a verdict as there was no trial, but in the sense of preventing potential diplomatic reactions stemming from Japanese conduct in the recent war. The Great Powers were satisfied and took no substantive action against Japan. It had an even easier time in 1904 since most of the international community appeared to be excited to humble Russia. “Instead of reacting negatively to a treacherous Japanese surprise attack, the European community, United States, and international press behaved as if the Russians had indeed brought it on themselves. On January 4, 1904, the New York Times quoted a correspondent as saying, ‘don’t look for a declaration of war… the Japanese are quite determined.’”[14]

Surprise attacks without formal declarations of war have immediate military benefits but potentially profound strategic implications. Japan’s use of them represents a mutual recognition by military and political leadership of their value and a mutual decision to carry them out. But most importantly, Japan was able to execute this gambit – twice – to Western acquiescence, and even applause. The Meiji regime successfully threaded this needle by remaining in alignment with Western regional objectives. Showa Japan failed to learn how to maintain such balance.

Next Post: Applications in the Post-Meiji Era

[1] Kenneth M. Swope, “Crouching Tigers, Secret Weapons: Military Technology Employed During the Sino-Japanese-Korean War, 1592-1598,” The Journal of Military History 69, no. 1 (January 2005): 22.

[2] Alexander M. Nordlund, “A War of Others: British War Correspondents, Orientalist Discourse, and the Russo-Japanese War, 1904–1905,” War in History 22, no. 1 (January 2015): 31.

[3] Daniel T. Murphy, “Giant Dragons Puffing Smoke: Understanding Japan’s Pacific War Strategy,” Center for International Maritime Security (blog), 15 November 2017, accessed 27 December 2017, http://cimsec.org/giant-dragons-puffing-smoke-understanding-japans-pacific-war-strategy.

[4] Hamby, Joel E. “Striking the Balance: Strategy and Force in the Russo-Japanese War,” Armed Forces & Society 30, no. 3 (Spring 2004): 335.

[5] Yoji Koda, “The Russo-Japanese War: Primary Causes of Japanese Success,” Naval War College Review 58, no. 2 (Spring 2005): 16.

[6] Hiraku Yabuki, “Britain and the Resale of Argentine Cruisers to Japan before the Russo-Japanese War,” War in History 16, no. 4 (November 2009): 425.

[7] Yoji Koda, “The Russo-Japanese War: Primary Causes of Japanese Success,” Naval War College Review 58, no. 2 (Spring 2005): 21.

[8] Hiraku Yabuki, “Britain and the Resale of Argentine Cruisers to Japan before the Russo-Japanese War,” War in History 16, no. 4 (November 2009): 429.

[9] Yoji Koda, “The Russo-Japanese War: Primary Causes of Japanese Success,” Naval War College Review 58, no. 2 (Spring 2005): 36.

[10] Denis Warner and Peggy Warner, The Tide at Sunrise (New York: Charterhouse, 1974), 51.

[11] Ibid., 16.

[12] Ibid., 17.

[13] Hamby, Joel E. “Striking the Balance: Strategy and Force in the Russo-Japanese War,” Armed Forces & Society 30, no. 3 (Spring 2004): 341.

[14] Ibid., 341.

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Meiji Wars: Force Planning & Operations

Meiji Japan had advanced military equipment, but very little of it. Its military leaders had to think hard about how best to design and operate their small force, producing these lessons.

 Rely on Technology (or Not)

The Meiji Wars taught two somewhat contradictory lessons to both Japan and the wider world – that technology could make the difference in war, but so could the fighting spirit of the ordinary soldier. Certainly the evolution of massed artillery ashore and naval tactics at sea owe a debt to experiences in the Russo-Japanese War – but so does the French belief in the superiority of its troops’ élan in the opening weeks of The Great War a decade later, and the efficacy of Japan’s own banzai charges a generation after that.

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This meme actually exists on the Internet, which is wonderful

The Meiji Wars were not the first time technology had played an important role in Japanese warfare on the mainland. Hideyoshi had used armies equipped with European-inspired arquebuses to unify Japan itself, and expected that similar weapons and tactics would subdue Korea in his invasion of the 1590s.[1] He did not count on complementary innovations by the Koreans, particularly at sea, where their armored “turtle boats” and superior naval gunnery cut Japanese supply lines and doomed the invasion’s long-term prospects.[2]

Three hundred years later, Japan would remember Hideyoshi’s experience and avoid similar mistakes. Its small but modern navy dominated the Chinese fleet in 1894-95, and was even more refined by 1904. “The Russo-Japanese War was the first modern war to feature joint, full-scale tactics conducted by an army fighting on land and a navy fighting at sea,” Kato writes.[3] The process of learning how to best apply new technology continued even during the fighting, Koda observed: “[W]ithout the Battle of the Yellow Sea, which was almost no victory at all, Admiral Togo probably would have gone into the Tsushima battle without thorough preparations – without the best concept of operations, doctrine, or plan, and without the best tactics or fully trained forces and sailors.”[4]

On land, though, the impact of technology on the outcome is less obvious. Its influence on conditions is clear enough – “The early twentieth-century battlefield proved to be far more lethal than ever before. This heightened killing power was a direct result of the development of modern armaments, ranging from rapid firing artillery to machine guns and more accurate carbines,” writes Steinberg.[5] However, as both sides were at rough technological parity, it was the men doing the fighting who determined the final result. For every observation about artillery placement, construction of entrenchments, and colors of uniforms,[6] there was one about the “the fanatical determination of Japan’s ‘human bullets’,” leading to the perception that morale was the key to victory in modern industrial war.[7] Today’s observers such as Koda may call this “overconfidence in the fighting spirit of the Japanese soldier,” but at the time, it was a studied opinion that appeared to be borne out by Japanese victory.[8]

Showa Japan pursued both courses, building a technologically advanced fleet and air arm, while also relying on infantry with suicidal dedication. However, Japanese ceded the technological high ground after the U.S. committed its scientific energies to war – no samurai ethics could defeat flamethrowers and atomic weapons. Today, Japan maintains highly advanced self-defense forces that give it a qualitative edge over most potential opponents.[9] Fortunately, that force’s morale remains untested.

Divide the Enemy’s Forces

This is classic military advice, but takes on an existential quality when discussing Japan of the Meiji period. Its formidable land armies had only limited supplies. Its navy was small, foreign-sourced, and irreplaceable within the time span of a single war. “This fear of losing battleships probably dominated the tactical thinking of Admiral Togo and his staff,” Vice Admiral Koda writes.[10] Taking on a unified enemy force on land or at sea would almost certainly mean defeat for Japan’s small forces and an unfavorable conclusion to the war. But local, time-limited superiority over a segment of the enemy’s force was achievable.[11] This Japan did most dramatically with Russia, whose naval power was obliterated piecemeal in multiple discreet engagements, and against whom Japan conducted large-scale land operations prior to reinforcements arriving from Russia’s western regions.

This lesson is almost a truism, but it is worth noting because of Showa Japan’s misinterpretation of it. Given the United States’ bicoastal nature and ongoing trouble in Europe, Japan thought it could avoid the full weight of the inevitable American response to Pearl Harbor. Japan was correct insofar as U.S. forces were, indeed, divided between multiple fronts. It wildly miscalculated the sum total of U.S. capabilities, though, which could still provide enough resources to a secondary theater (Europe being the primary) for American forces to subdue Japan in less than four years. Today, China presents a novel problem for Japan in that all of its forces are in theater, in contrast to past conflicts and competitions with top-tier powers.

Don’t Believe the Hype

Japan had the good fortune to engage opponents in the Meiji Wars who looked much better on paper than they did in fact. The Chinese navy of the early 1890s was substantial. Several ships visited Yokohama in 1891 and wowed the crowds. “These ships were much bigger than the Japanese cruisers… and their armament was far heavier.”[12] But then-Commander Togo, invited aboard with other Japanese officers for banquets, also noticed a pronounced lack of professionalism in simple things, like laundry hanging from guns, and was unimpressed.[13] The Chinese fleet’s performance in 1894 justified his assessment. Likewise, in 1904 Russia had more battleships at Port Arthur (seven) than in all of the Japanese navy (six, two of which were soon sunk by mines).[14] Properly handled, they represented a serious challenge to Japanese designs. Instead, Japan was able to neutralize them through careful combat and blockade. By 1905, Meiji Japan had history of finding formidable opponents to be less capable than advertised. Showa Japan behaved as if this trend would continue unabated.

Next Post: Pol-Mil Interplay

[1] Kenneth M. Swope, “Crouching Tigers, Secret Weapons: Military Technology Employed During the Sino-Japanese-Korean War, 1592-1598,” The Journal of Military History 69, no. 1 (January 2005): 20.

[2] Kenneth M. Swope, “Crouching Tigers, Secret Weapons: Military Technology Employed During the Sino-Japanese-Korean War, 1592-1598,” The Journal of Military History 69, no. 1 (January 2005): 22.

[3] Yoko Kato, “What Caused the Russo-Japanese War – Korea or Manchuria?” Social Science Japan Journal 10, no. 1 (April 2007): 99-100.

[4] Yoji Koda, “The Russo-Japanese War: Primary Causes of Japanese Success,” Naval War College Review 58, no. 2 (Spring 2005): 36.

[5] John W. Steinberg, “Was the Russo-Japanese War World War Zero?” The Russian Review 67, no. 1 (January 2008): 4.

[6] David Schimmelpenninck van der Oye, “Rewriting the Russo-Japanese War: A Centenary Retrospective,” The Russian Review 67, no. 1 (January 2008): 83.

[7] David Schimmelpenninck van der Oye, “Rewriting the Russo-Japanese War: A Centenary Retrospective,” The Russian Review 67, no. 1 (January 2008): 84.

[8] Yoji Koda, “The Russo-Japanese War: Primary Causes of Japanese Success,” Naval War College Review 58, no. 2 (Spring 2005): 28.

[9] Ministry of Defense of Japan, “National Security Strategy of Japan,” 17 December 2013, accessed 10 November 2017, http://japan.kantei.go.jp/96_abe/documents/2013/__icsFiles/afieldfile/2013/12/17/NSS.pdf, 20.

[10] Yoji Koda, “The Russo-Japanese War: Primary Causes of Japanese Success,” Naval War College Review 58, no. 2 (Spring 2005): 33.

[11] Ibid., 37.

[12] Denis Warner and Peggy Warner, The Tide at Sunrise (New York: Charterhouse, 1974), 51.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Yoji Koda, “The Russo-Japanese War: Primary Causes of Japanese Success,” Naval War College Review 58, no. 2 (Spring 2005): 22.

SW_icon_endnote

Meiji Wars: Playing to Western Vanity

Note: This continues yesterday’s theme of Strategic and Diplomatic Lessons. Though a single topic, it is far longer than the other Strategic and Diplomatic Lessons and gets its own post. Meiji skill in this area justifies the more thorough treatment.

japan3-WesternVanity

Western vanity! (I need to stop with the bad puns… no, I don’t)

 

Not only did Meiji Japan excel at following the Western industrial model, but it learned how to make Westerners feel they had a stake in Japanese success. Showa Japan failed to learn from this. A major reason Meiji Japan accomplished so much with its diplomatic and military elements of national power was it had laid the foundations in the information domain. In short, it learned to speak the West’s language – literally, in the sense of European tongues, but more importantly, Japan learned to speak (and manipulate) the language of a civilized people with pretensions of lawfulness, the sort which the Great Powers flattered themselves to be, and a progressive nation reaching toward an industrial future, like their Western peers. The fact Japan’s interests regarding China and Russia aligned closely with those of the Western powers didn’t hurt, either.

A mutual progressive outlook is exemplified by relations among naval officers, who were modernizing worldwide in the late Nineteenth Century, not just in Japan. Many foreign officers transitioned from sail to steam in parallel with their Japanese counterparts. In the case of the U.S. Navy, “it only began to modernize itself in the 1880s, almost at the same time the Kaigun [i.e. Imperial Japanese Navy] was growing and modernizing. The two navies were similar in size during this period and both had relatively enlightened officer corps; both, focused on developing a modem naval professionalism equal to the progressive times.”[1] An analysis of commentary in the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings in the aftermath of the Sino-Japanese War showed, “The officer corps appears to have gone from an attitude of grudging or even partial respect [toward Japan], due to ethnocentrism or racism, to one of clear respect and even awe.”[2]

Among officers of the Royal Navy several years later, “Japanese success was viewed and understood through the prism of British naval culture. The [Russo-Japanese War] was not merely seen as a victory for a British ally, but as a vindication of the Royal Navy itself.”[3] The Royal Navy’s attaché in Japan, who sailed with the Imperial Japanese Navy in the early parts of the 1904 war, paid it an enormous compliment when he wrote privately, “I am very certain now that the time has come when we may, with the utmost confidence, entrust our ships to the control of a Japanese Admiral, when we would sacrifice sentiment and tradition for the sake of the increased efficiency of concerted action.”[4] With such professional affirmation, it is little wonder that Japan had great confidence in its military capabilities. Interpreting such Western affirmation as encouragement to proceed with its plans would not be too much of a logical stretch.

Japan also played to Western preoccupations with “civilized” behavior and conformance to international law. Its 1894 aggression was defended as not an attack on China, but as an effort to “uphold the independence of Korea,”[5] in keeping with progressive sensibilities. In the case of the Russo-Japanese War, Japan successfully portrayed itself as a civilized underdog to a brutish Russian bear. To the British and Americans, Japan could justify its invasion of Manchuria as providing a free marketer’s “open door” as opposed to Russia’s uncivilized closed door to the territory’s economy.[6] The fact it could play the role of scrappy upstart against lumbering authoritarian only helped.

“The Japanese were in the favorable position of being the underdog in the struggle over Korea. In the international press, reports and articles were usually unabashedly favorable,” Hamby writes.[7] But it was Japan’s application of international law that is most striking. Howland notes, “Japanese leaders exploited the ambiguity in [international] law as they made their case for both civilized and sovereign legality,”[8] while at the same time, Japan used the very fact of its engagement with international law as an assertion of its own sovereignty.

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Scully: “You actually bought that line?” Mulder: “The autocratic despot said he cared about me!”

Japan committed objectively heinous acts during the Meiji Wars – not just sneak attacks, but mass murder – which were recognized as such at the time, and yet Japan continued to find legal arguments that kept it in good stead with the international community. In this it was aided by the British, who provided two legal scholars to help develop a legal brief presented in English and French at diplomatic forums to justify Japanese behavior in the Sino-Japanese War.[9]

The sinking of the Kowshing was an emblematic case. This incident was part of the war’s opening battle (before any formal declarations), in which Japan’s Admiral Togo sighted a British-flagged transport, the Kowshing, carrying 1,200 Chinese troops. After the soldiers took control of the ship from its British captain, Togo sank it. Not only did he refuse to rescue Chinese soldiers floating in the Yellow Sea (while rescuing Europeans), he actually sank two Chinese lifeboats with gunfire.[10] Among other legal arguments, it was noted that “no rule existed obliging a belligerent to provide care for enemy combatants in naval warfare. The fact of 900 dead was disconcerting but not illegal.”[11] Though Japan was a signatory to the Geneva Convention of 1864, the letter of the law only applied on land, to “armies in the field.”[12] Thus, Japan’s actions were ratified in the eyes of the international community, and it learned a cynical lesson – if it appeared to make an effort to support Western legal and diplomatic norms, it could keep the West’s blessing regardless of the underlying truth.

Next Post: Force Planning and Operational Lessons

[1] John T. Kuehn, “Grudging Respect? Kaigun Through the Lens of the US Navy at the Time of the Sino-Japanese War,” The Northern Mariner/Le marin du nord 24, no. 3 (July 2016): 262.

[2] Ibid., 273.

[3] Richard Dunley, “‘The warrior has always shewed himself greater than his weapons’: the Royal Navy’s interpretation of the Russo-Japanese War 1904–5,” War & Society 34, no. 4 (October 2015): 262.

[4] Ibid., 256.

[5] Douglas Howland, “Japan’s Civilized War: International Law as Diplomacy in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895),” Journal of the History of International Law 9 (2007): 182.

[6] Yoko Kato, “What Caused the Russo-Japanese War – Korea or Manchuria?” Social Science Japan Journal 10, no. 1 (April 2007): 101.

[7] Hamby, Joel E. “Striking the Balance: Strategy and Force in the Russo-Japanese War,” Armed Forces & Society 30, no. 3 (Spring 2004): 340.

[8] Douglas Howland, “Japan’s Civilized War: International Law as Diplomacy in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895),” Journal of the History of International Law 9 (2007): 201.

[9] Ibid., 188.

[10] Denis Warner and Peggy Warner, The Tide at Sunrise (New York: Charterhouse, 1974), 52-53.

[11] Douglas Howland, “Japan’s Civilized War: International Law as Diplomacy in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895),” Journal of the History of International Law 9 (2007): 194.

[12] Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field, Geneva, 22 August 1864.

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Meiji Wars: Strategic & Diplomatic Lessons

Meiji Japan presents several examples of calm, sober assessment by the highest echelons of strategic leadership. These lessons all emanate from that level.

 Identify Enduring Geopolitical Interests

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Those islands are right where we left them (image courtesy Britannica)

Japan has long known Korea to be of critical importance. The Warners characterize Korea as “a dagger pointing at their [i.e. Japan’s] underbelly,”[1] as it is the logical launch point for an invasion of the Japanese home islands. But it also represents the portion of the mainland most accessible to the resource-poor Japanese, and as such Japan could see Korea “as the linchpin of its continued economic and military prosperity.”[2] These ideas are not of recent vintage. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of Japan’s historic unifying figures, launched a cross-strait invasion of Korea in 1592 with the goal of conquering the peninsula and moving on to China. Hideyoshi’s invasion met with capable resistance and was abandoned in 1598, but the legend of the campaign remained strong even through the following centuries of the Tokugawas’ isolation. Swope explained, “for centuries the Japanese perpetuated a myth of victory in Korea, a myth so powerful that it fired the dreams of conquerors in the late Nineteenth Century until Hideyoshi’s dreams were finally realized with the annexation of Korea in 1910.”[3] Legends can skew judgment, as well be examined in a later section, but in this case the myth speaks to a truth – Korea is a vital and enduring interest of Japan.

Japan’s foreign policy from 1894 to today can be interpreted through this lens. After the wars of the Meiji period, Japan ruled Korea outright between 1910 and 1945, supported the United Nations in the Korean War of 1950-53, and even today partners with the United States on initiatives aimed at containing the threat from North Korea, such as ballistic missile defense. Japan’s interest in Korea, manifested in the Meiji Wars as much as it is today, is the very definition of enduring.

Pick Your Battles

Japan’s state as a rising but still relatively weak power imposed rigorous discipline upon Meiji leaders. Engagements with large powers such as China or the European “Great Powers” required the most efficient use of economic and political capital, and the application of force only when its objectives were achievable and the adversary’s response manageable. The Japanese leadership of the Meiji period – such as Prime Ministers Hirobumi Ito and Taro Katsura, who each served multiple terms and led Japan during the wars discussed here – deserves recognition for its careful assessments. They knew the value of timing, and showed it time and time again. Arguably, the Sino-Japanese War was timed such that Russia would have difficulty taking advantage of a loss of Chinese prestige. Vice Admiral Koda writes, “In the early 1890s… Japanese leaders estimated that it would be difficult for Russia to seize and permanently occupy [Manchuria and Korea] until the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, probably more than ten years in the future.” Japan picked that moment to strike at Chinese influence in Korea, and succeeded in a military sense, though diplomatic maneuverings still awarded Russia the Manchurian foothold Japan was attempting to prevent.

In 1904, Kato writes that Japan identified a rare moment when it could fight Russia one-on-one: “Great Britain was embarking on conflicts in South Asia and the US was coping with a rebellion by the Filipino military. Additionally, there were factors that made Germany and France hesitant to support Russia. As a result, a situation emerged in which Japan and Russia alone faced off against each other.”[4] And Japan successfully planned when to pursue war termination in 1905, requesting American mediation before Russian reinforcements could arrive in the vicinity of its own undersupplied troops in Asia.[5]

The Showa regime retained this lesson to a degree in the 1930s, invading China during the depths of an international depression and European political crises that kept other major powers from intervening. Its adventures elsewhere in East Asia came after colonial masters were occupied with war at home and unable to maintain their empires. In fact, Showa strategic timing remained satisfactory until its attacks on the United States and Australia.

 Seek Partners but Be Wary of Trust

Japan proved adept at international diplomacy in the Meiji period, most notably gaining an alliance with a global empire and obtaining a favorable mediator to resolve the 1904-05 war. At the same time, it learned to maintain a level of distrust of the West. These somewhat contradictory outcomes informed Japan’s future perceptions of its diplomatic abilities – but may have inflated its own self-assessment. Vice Admiral Koda notes that Japan learned distrust the hard way after the Sino-Japanese War; by having wartime gains stripped away in postwar negotiations by wily Westerners. He writes that the Japanese people “now saw the cold reality of international relations – that the weak were the victims of the strong.”[6] Understanding its own weakness relative to the West, Japan sought means of amplifying what power it did have. It identified Britain, diplomatically weakened at the time by the Boer War, as a potential partner whose regional interests aligned with those of Japan.[7] They consummated an alliance in 1902.

Japan also cultivated positive relations with the United States, which were eventually used to facilitate mediation by President Theodore Roosevelt to conclude the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. But even with these positive developments showcasing Japan’s ability to win powerful friends and operate at the highest levels, it understood a need to maintain a level of distrust. Signs abounded that a Western alliance with an “oriental” nation could not be equal. Even after the 1902 alliance, opposition remained at the highest levels of the British government. “Lord Walter Kerr, the first naval lord, favoured self-contained British naval supremacy, and had doubts about the alliance with an oriental nation. For him, such an alliance was unreliable and uncertain,” writes Yabuki.[8] In the United States, it seemed the federal government was happy to maintain good relations with the Japanese state but local authorities did not wish to deal with any Japanese people – in the years following the Treaty of Portsmouth, San Francisco schools segregated Japanese students, and the state of California undermined property rights of ethnic Japanese farmers.[9] The ingredients existed for alliances of convenience, but not long-term friendship.

Next Post: One More Strategic and Diplomatic Lesson… Last but Not Least

[1] Denis Warner and Peggy Warner, The Tide at Sunrise (New York: Charterhouse, 1974), 82.

[2] Hamby, Joel E. “Striking the Balance: Strategy and Force in the Russo-Japanese War,” Armed Forces & Society 30, no. 3 (Spring 2004): 329.

[3] Kenneth M. Swope, “Crouching Tigers, Secret Weapons: Military Technology Employed During the Sino-Japanese-Korean War, 1592-1598,” The Journal of Military History 69, no. 1 (January 2005): 13.

[4] Yoko Kato, “What Caused the Russo-Japanese War – Korea or Manchuria?” Social Science Japan Journal 10, no. 1 (April 2007): 100.

[5] Yoji Koda, “The Russo-Japanese War: Primary Causes of Japanese Success,” Naval War College Review 58, no. 2 (Spring 2005): 22.

[6] Yoji Koda, “The Russo-Japanese War: Primary Causes of Japanese Success,” Naval War College Review 58, no. 2 (Spring 2005): 16.

[7] Ibid., 19.

[8] Hiraku Yabuki, “Britain and the Resale of Argentine Cruisers to Japan before the Russo-Japanese War,” War in History 16, no. 4 (November 2009): 427-8.

[9] Daniel T. Murphy, “Giant Dragons Puffing Smoke: Understanding Japan’s Pacific War Strategy,” Center for International Maritime Security (blog), 15 November 2017, accessed 27 December 2017, http://cimsec.org/giant-dragons-puffing-smoke-understanding-japans-pacific-war-strategy.

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The Salty Wog Lives… Here, Read a Paper

It’s been a while. Growing families, jobs, Reserve obligations, and school can do that. As the old Klingon proverb goes, c’est la vie. Never mind the fact it’s been the worst year for the surface Navy this century, and there’s been plenty to say. But at the very least, now that grades are done and in the books, I’ll post at least a little of what I was recently doing for the school for wayward adults up in Rhode Island. This’ll take a few days in blog format. So take your time.

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Meiji, Emperor of Japan and Dude with an Agenda

And so it begins…

The Meiji Wars: Lessons (Not) Learned

An isolated backwater in 1805, a century later Japan had taken the world by storm, adopting modern technology, industrializing its economy, and defeating the venerable Chinese and expansionist Russian empires. In so doing, the Meiji regime catapulted Japan into a leading role in the Western Pacific, but also laid the foundations for that theater’s horrors in World War II. In particular, Japan’s dual successes in militarily defeating China and Russia on the Asian mainland in 1894-95 and 1904-05, respectively, taught Japan new lessons and reinforced certain old ones that helped drive its decision making in the post-Meiji decades. Some takeaways were wise, others just wishful thinking, but all of them must be examined in order to understand Japanese decisions of the Showa era and, to an extent, its strategic situation today.

Historic Background

 The 1890s saw the Chinese Q’ing Dynasty on its last legs, while rival powers circled, looking to carve out areas of political influence and market access in East Asia as China’s historic hegemony waned. Japan was one such rising power, while Russia expanded towards the Pacific from the Siberian steppes. Korea, long a Chinese dependency, was caught in the middle. In short, Japan prosecuted the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 to eliminate Chinese influence on the Korean peninsula and establish a buffer state. It achieved this objective, but, at the behest of Russia and other “Great Powers,” gave away other hard-won territory in the Liaotung[1] Peninsula in peace negotiations, causing Japanese resentment. Several years later, the coalition response to the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 brought Russian armies into Manchuria – but the troops stayed after the crisis passed. In large part, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 can be attributed to Japan’s need to secure its Korean holdings by clearing Manchuria of Russian influence.

It is useful to consider the Sino-Japanese War and Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 as simply the “Meiji Wars” of shaping maneuvers and diplomatic interactions among Japan, China, Russia, and extraterritorial colonial powers (such as France, Britain, Germany, and the United States) punctuated by kinetic conflict. Consistent Japanese leadership and strategy guided the “sequential steps”[2] of both declared wars and the intervening period of relative “peace” (itself interrupted by the Boxer Rebellion). While Japan and the international community gained certain tactical lessons from discrete conflicts – especially the heavily-watched 1904-05 war – the takeaways discussed herein apply equally across the entire fin de siècle period.

An examination of the Meiji Wars shows Japan heeded enduring lessons of military strategy and regional characteristics, and their execution demonstrated those lessons’ continued relevance, in both the Meiji and Showa eras, and today. But such an examination also reveals lessons real and perceived that were woefully misinterpreted by Showa-era strategists, who plunged their nation into ruin in pursuit of national glory. Broadly speaking, these takeaways from the Meiji Wars fall into three categories: strategic and diplomatic; force management and operations; and the interplay between the political and military realms.

Next Post: Strategic and Diplomatic Lessons

[1] “Liaodong” in some references. This paper adopts the spelling used in Naval War College Review.

[2] Yoko Kato, “What Caused the Russo-Japanese War – Korea or Manchuria?” Social Science Japan Journal 10, no. 1 (April 2007): 97.

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Freedom of Information

Everyone has a means of distributing information

Strange as it may seem, most of what you need to know about what’s happening in the world is at your fingertips. If you want to understand the interests of a country, what its goals are, and what it’s thinking, there’s no need to delve into the Top Secret stash of operational details (today there’s one real winner about to get a cold dose of reality regarding that fact). Really, all you have to do is ask. They’ll tell you.

Of note this week, we have the annual report to Congress from the Office of the Secretary of Defense concerning Chinese military and security developments.

Want to know how the Chinese military is structured? Where their fake islands in the South China Sea are? How many troops are located near the Strait of Taiwan? The stated strategic objections of the People’s Republic? U.S. analysis of Chinese intentions? It’s all there – you – yes, you! – can read it.

But don’t take DoD’s word for it. Want to know the Chinese Military Strategy? They’re happy to fill you in – the white paper was released in 2015 for your eager eyes.

Forget China. What about that other big guy we often perceive as a mystery wrapped in an enigma, Russia? Well, I don’t read Russian, but if you do, have fun with this. It’s there for you! For the rest of us, we have an engrossing report by the Office of Naval Intelligence assessing the state of the Russian fleet.

Pretty much anything you want to know, you can. Between that and reading a map, you’ll be pretty much up to speed.

Highways of the Sea

Maritime power is much trickier than land power for the layperson to understand. Armies use weapons to control the land they stand on; navies cruise around singing to each other, or something – right? No. So, taking advantage of a couple recent events, let’s take a different approach.

Combined arms operations at a maritime choke point

Event one: It’s National Police Week and Washington, D.C., is crawling with cops from around the country. I drove home behind a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy yesterday, which is not a feature of my typical commute.

Event two: For some reason, Hollywood remade CHiPs. Fortunately the box office numbers indicate hardly anyone saw it, so they won’t feel compelled to do that again.

Why is this important?

Because the sea services are basically the highway patrol!

I don’t mean that literally – Posse Comitatus and such, after all – but in the sense that the fundamental purpose of a highway patrol, more so than municipal law enforcement, is the facilitation of commerce and connections across a wide territory. It keeps the roads open and functional. The sea services do the same in their environment.

In most states the highway patrol or state troopers are the only statewide law enforcement agency, so it’s true they spend significant time investigating criminal cases. Nevertheless, most people’s exposure to them is not in a criminal context, but just simple traffic enforcement. The purpose of enforcing safe driving and adherence to rules of the road is, yes, personal safety, but also to keep the roads open, keep the traffic flowing, and keep commerce humming. If you cannot trust that you will survive your daily commute due to unruly traffic-mates, you are unlikely to undertake it. The norms enforced over decades by the highway patrol are what give you the confidence you need. And that confidence is what enables the economic activity that supports us all.

That’s not to say some states and municipalities aren’t capricious or abusive in their manner of implementation. But the fundamental mission is critical.

On the sea, no one has to physically keep the ocean open – water is water, and ships float equally well anywhere. But, still, the world’s coast guards keep the busiest areas marked with buoys and cleared of obstacles – a job fundamentally analogous to transportation agencies ashore and the law enforcement agencies that support them. The world’s navies complement navigational safety by preventing brigandage and piracy of defenseless merchants. Such prevention and deterrence can only be conducted through presence. That presence gives bad actors a reason to stay home, and reassures legitimate mariners that they can come on in; the water’s fine. A navy or coast guard that isn’t visible on the sea lanes isn’t doing its job.

And in a world with a thoroughly global economy, it is up to the largest economic players to provide that global presence. Not even the California Highway Patrol is equipped for that job. But neither is France. Nor China. Nor Germany. Nor Brazil. Sadly, not even the queen’s Royal Navy can sustain such an effort nowadays. However it may grate upon you, America, to carry the weight for all those freeloaders out there, alternatives are lacking.

Without the highway patrol, you’ll have the Fast and Furious crew dominating the interstates with little regard for your safety. Without a forward-deployed navy, you’ll have contested chokepoints, maritime insurance premiums climbing through the roof and more expensive everything.

Fundamentally, the mission of a highway patrol is not to catch bad guys, and the mission of a navy is not to fight wars. Their common mission is to simply allow you and your things to get from place to place unfettered.

And, for the record, none of the four highway patrolmen in my family paid me to say a word of this!

Addendum: Please visit the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund or CHP 11-99 Foundation and consider a small donation.

Room at the Top

The masses look out upon the few

It’s baseball season, and the world is righted again. Apparently there was a basketball championship over the weekend, or something. Whatever. Now that bats are hitting balls across diamonds, sports actually matter.

And in the presence of play at such an elite level, what better time to consider the matter of discord between the masses and the upper classes?

Seriously. Something is up, from the election of our current POTUS to the rise of Duterte in the Philippines, to Brexit and the real shot by the Le Pen faction in France’s upcoming election. At the same time, it is an absolutely amazing time to be alive, with dancing robots, reusable rockets, self-driving cars and the miracle of all miracles, duct tape.

I think it has something to do with the fact there are 30 Major League Baseball teams.

Bear with me.

Institutional Stasis

As the 1960s dawned, the majors included 18 clubs. As the country grew, so did interest in baseball, and in 1962 New York got a second team (the hapless Mets) while Houston brought the major leagues to a whole new region. Meanwhile, the 1960 Census counted just under 180 million Americans.

Over the next 36 years, four more rounds of MLB expansion followed, finally ending in 1998. By the time of the 2000 Census, there were 280 million Americans.

That is a 35 percent growth in population over 40 years (100 million people!), and a 40 percent growth in baseball teams – quite proportional. Assuming a 25-man regular season roster, that’s 450 Major Leaguers playing on any given day expanding to 750 over four decades, in line with the general rate of growth.

In the 17 years since the 2000 census, though, the U.S. population has continued to grow, now to more than 324 million (a 15 percent gain). But, on any given day between April and August (before the expanded September roster), there are still just 750 Major Leaguers.

There’s only so much room at the top.

This, of course, is true in many realms other than baseball. Take school. To use a prominent example, in 2000 Harvard admitted 2,035 applicants. In 2017, it admitted – wait for it – 2,056. The application pool was a “record” 39,494. Dude, of course it’s a record. The pool of interested students isn’t getting any smaller. Naturally, more will apply every year.

If schools like Harvard represent the narrow path into the elite (at least for those not born into it), simple math is making the path ever narrower. At least for now.

Of course, there is lots of educational growth out there in online programs and new campuses, and getting a quality education has, in large part, never been easier. But gaining access to the elite names with the elite alumni networks – and it’s all about the network – has been basically the same for decades. Established schools in college towns run out of real estate. They can only get so big.

Likewise, there can only be so many baseball games played before the snow starts to fall. There are natural limits to institutional expansion. But if the talent pool keeps growing, entering those institutions becomes progressively more difficult for an interested individual.

The Paradox

The institutions are harder to reach, but they will never burn brighter. Some of the greatest ball players ever are playing right now. You can go see them! Usain Bolt has run a 9.58 in the 100-meter. There are amazing scientists and engineers making amazing discoveries and potentially world-changing inventions. There’s some guy who wants to colonize Mars, and might actually do it. Life is pretty awesome!

The talent available in a world of seven billion people can make pretty much anything happen. Which goes to show that our number-one resource in any economy is not oil or minerals or fertilizer, but human ingenuity. Malthusian fears of global famine have not exactly panned out for this very reason.

But did you spot the paradox? The world of seven billion people provides a deep bench of smart people – but most of those smart people don’t get to be in the driver’s seat. Major research institutions or financial organizations are only so big, and expand so much. And building new ones is difficult. It takes time to build the credibility necessary to be considered elite, and the power of inertia means that which is already elite will probably crush upstart competition for the title. That means the number of seats remains limited.

It’s a buyer’s market for the global meritocracy, given the volume of qualified people. And, eventually, it really does work out for the world, as those smart people, given global resources, create solutions that end up benefitting everybody. But for those who don’t get to ride the escalator – you know, most people – it’s awfully disappointing. No matter what they do, there simply isn’t room. If you don’t know the right people or occupy the right place, it’s just not going to happen.

And so, despite the world being amazing – for a few thousand dollars, anyone can fly around the world with access to all of civilization’s accumulated knowledge in his pocket – there is also a clear disconnect between the top and everyone else. And so we are where we are.

The Military

This blog must address a military angle, of course. There is much hand-wringing over the fact that a majority of young adults are unfit for military service due to physical fitness, legal trouble or other reasons. However, I refer you back to the growing population above. It doesn’t make those problems – which are real – go away, but at the same time, the “deep bench” phenomenon does go a long way towards alleviating it.

The military may get bigger at the margins, as the Army is planning to this year. But this country is in no mood for any major expansion, and Congress certainly isn’t going to pay for it. So I think it is reasonable to expect a static force structure with slight variations over the years (barring a major draft-triggering war, of course). The pool gets bigger, but the demand signal will likely remain about the same.

This impacts the makeup of those who do join, though. Since they don’t have to take everybody (this isn’t “Starship Troopers”), recruiters can pick from among top applicants. It is already largely a middle-class force – the myth of poor enlistees used as cannon fodder has been false for the life of the all-volunteer force – but this will probably be further accentuated. Just like other high-performing but non-growing organizations, its quality will improve but an individual’s ability to access it will decline.

The Future

Demography may not be destiny, but it’s a pretty good leading indicator. We’ve been talking about the effects of population growth, but what goes up must come down. Global populations are probably peaking, and a great many countries’ birth rates are plummeting. The problems we discuss today about institutional growth not keeping up with the population will be reversed in the coming century – many venerable institutions will struggle to keep their doors open.

With fewer skilled workers, those willing to do the requisite studying will have (relatively) easy access to important jobs. Wages will rise, as money chases fewer candidates. Access to elite schools will be democratized, as they’ll need to lower admission standards in order to keep their dorms filled. The financial and political elites will remain, but getting to those points will be easier. An interesting precedent is Europe following the Black Death. With the loss of 40 percent of its population, life was not easy, but there were certain advantages for those who were left. The chances of finding work at good wages were much higher post-plague; something similar will happen – for a while – after our own demographic collapse. But because there will be fewer people, not as much work will actually get done. So an overall economic decline is likely, even as individuals’ experiences seem to indicate otherwise. (As an aside, it’s odd to compare a horrible plague with a simple lack of breeding. But it’s a similar demographic effect.)

The problem of fewer workers to produce the necessities of modern life may be partially alleviated by automation and artificial intelligence – but beware those who rely too much on them. Stuff breaks. The Machine Stops. Ultimately, someone will still have to do what needs doing.

End This Post!

What we’re seeing is a situation where institutions are doing their best to remain static and do what they’ve always done, but are out of step with population trends (both up and down). As a result, today’s average worker can buy amazing goods and have incredible experiences far exceeding what the Sun King himself could have imagined, and yet feel unmotivated and left out because of the intense competition to access the highest levels. Tomorrow’s average worker will have greater social mobility and will enjoy relatively high wages, but due to overall economic shrinkage, won’t actually be able to buy anything exciting (to them – we would marvel at what’s mundane in 2100).

If Western history is any indication, the only long-term solution is to colonize Mars.

And, probably, to build baseball stadiums there.