Lecture Note: Psychoanalytic Approach of Studying Meiji Leadership – Dr. Gordon Berger, Professor Emeritus of USC, June 29, 2010

Nibei Berger

Dr. Gordon Berger, Professor Emeritus of USC

Nibei Foundation / Japan Study Club

Dr. Gordon Berger is a Professor Emeritus of Japanese History from the University of Southern California. He received his M.A. in East Asian Studies and a PhD in Japanese history from Yale University. He later received another PhD from the Southern California Psychoanalytic Institute in Beverly Hills where he completed his psychoanalytic training.

With such an impressive background, he concentrated his lecture on the psychological factors that helped shape the Meiji leader, Mutsu Munemitsu.  Through a pragmatic and psychological approach, he helped explain why Mutsu chose the political avenues that he did.

Dr. Berger stresses how Mutsu’s emotional development helped shape his character and behavior.  “Triumph over fear in pursuit of individual and collective goals” helps one to analyze the social history of Mutsu and many other samurai leaders of the time.

Even with the sweeping abolition of the samurai class, the samurai legacy continued to have a strong hold on the Japanese people’s psyche and the government itself.  Dr. Berger takes a psychological perspective on the transition in the late Tokugawa period to the end of the 19th century and tried to explain how it came about so successfully.

To understand Mutsu’s psychological make-up, Dr. Berger stresses the importance of how one’s circumstances, especially dramatic episodes in one’s life, can affect the individual.  Such dramatic events as experienced by Mutsu, had an enormous impact on his personal feelings and emotions.  Dr. Berger then went on to illustrate how such events played a major role in Mutsu’s life choices, both personal and political, and how other leaders of that time encountered similar challenges in their own lives.

One dramatic episode for Mutsu came at a very young age. Munemitsu was called Ushimaro in his childhood. His family name at that time was Date.

But this all abruptly changed when Munemitsu was only eight years old with the exile of his whole family from Wakayama.  “Falling from grace” took an emotional toll on the young Munemitsu that would affect him and his personal and political ambitions for the rest of his life.

He experienced, literally overnight in 1852, his father ‘s fall from power.  This adverse and most stressful situation helped shape the adult that he was later to become.  He experienced first-hand the alienation from the establishment; much like a ronin samurai, he felt at a lost.

Another emotional challenge was his relationship with his older adopted brother with whom he argued with in regards to the revenge for his father.  The exile was a blow to Munemitsu’s feeling of safety and then confronting firsthand the loss of face further intensified his feelings of inferiority.

This was definitely a defining moment in his life; loss of personal security and grace in one fatal swoop.   He felt the need for immediate revenge which followed along the ideals of the samurai and what then seemed most appropriate; nonetheless, he felt quite frightened.

The power of the Date house was now lost.  To accommodate and endure this most pressing psychological challenge, he developed a type of grandiosity.  Such a reaction is not by any means a “psychotic,” episode, but is actually a most common reaction understanding the circumstances as they were.

This is not a case of mental illness, but an understandable psychological outcome.  By not caring what others thought, he could enable himself to not show his vulnerability.  He learned very early that appearing weak is in itself shameful.

Bravery, after all, is an important trait of a samurai.  The exile put the family in a most stressful situation with outbursts of Munemitsu’s father adding to the sad situation.  When the family was sent to Edo with no protection, anxieties rose high.  A journey such as this in those days was not only difficult, but dangerous as well.  Unless one could become confident in oneself, it would be most difficult to endure such a trip.

For three years he lived on handouts in Edo where he studied Confucianism.  Through Confucianism, he also learned diligence and the power to control one’s depression and to develop one’s own inner strengths.  Grandiosity again comes into play to accommodate all these feelings under such trying circumstances.

When Munemitsu was nineteen years old, his father was finally able to be paroled.  With the anxiety of his own vulnerability, he again manifested his propensity toward grandiosity and then at this time adopted a new name for himself, from Date to Mutsu, to incorporate the whole idea of the province of Mutsu itself.  He then went to Kyoto to take over the Tokugawa house, but later traveled to Nagasaki and became a student of English.  But this Tokugawa warrior from Wakayama did not fail to have people suspicious of his true intentions.

He became involved in the shipping enterprise and connections with the Satsuma and Choshu domains.  The Satsuma and Choshu were feudal domains who had joined forces in its attempt to overthrow the Tokugawa shogunate regime.  These two domains had many samurai within their ranks.  The motto of the Choshu was to “expel the barbarians.”

Nonetheless, they knew it was difficult to arm themselves against the western powers and that military resistance was futile.  In 1868, the Satsuma and Choshu formed the new government. And Munemitsu joined the new government.

Yet difficulties with the new government developed and in August 1869, he resigned from his government post and two years later returned to Wakayama.  Later a military stand proved unrealistic against the Satsuma and Choshu and, in 1871, all domains were banned.

When an opposition movement arose, Munemitsu was confronted with the decision whether to work within or outside the government in order to attain his personal and political goals.  In 1877, the government at Kogoshima prefecture (formerly Satsuma) protested against the samurai and Mutsu’s connection and plot was uncovered.  He was sentenced to five years in prison, but was released eight months early due to his old ties with his Choshu and Satsuma friends.

This connection had also help make his jail stay more bearable.  From this experience, he learned it was more advantageous to work within the power structure, rather than outside of the power structure.  The government power regime then became his choice of the best avenue from that time on.  He also later went to Europe to study politics for two years.

In 1888, he became the Foreign Minister of Japan.  He died in 1897 with never again having any thoughts of overthrowing the government.

In 1890, as Foreign Minister, he was openly critical of some of the policies of the Meiji government and in 1892, he resigned to the relief of the Emperor.  Nonetheless, later the Emperor changed his position against Munemitsu and he was again active in government politics.

Accomplishments of Munemitsu could be seen in his establishment of more fair treaties that showed more equality of power between Japan and other major Western and European powers.

In the 1880s, compromises were made with other countries help establish a more favorable stand for Japan in world politics and trade. Tariffs was one very important area where Munemitsu made great gains for Japan.  Britain at first argued to the treaty revisions that Munemitsu was trying to establish, but later relented and other countries followed suit.

This was a big breakthrough for Japan in the eyes of the world in general.  Munemitsu was also active in making military decisions facing Japan and her relations especially with China, Korea, Germany and Russia.  Behind Muniemitsu’s career decisions, Dr. Berger traced how Munemitsu’s acknowledgment of his past personal struggles and weaknesses helped him confront his challenges and the ability to overcome them.  Therefore, his response to situations of high anxiety was an essential perquisite of how he would later help reshape Meiji Japan.

A Question and Answer session followed.

Question:  Who was Mutsu’s boss?

Answer:  The Meiji emperor was just sixteen years old at the time of the Meiji Restoration and therefore very young during the Meiji Period.  Also the Satsuma and Choshu domains were very dominant.

Question:  Was Japan really considered an “equal” partner in treaties that Mutsu negotiated?

Answer:  The short answer would probably be “no.”  Nonetheless, under Mutsu, great strides were made, especially in dealing with tariffs and ending extraterritoriality in Japan..  Such treaty revisions allowed Japan to compete domestically with imported western goods by the end of the 19th century,  thereby helping to protect the Japanese peasants and cottage industries.  Such revisions in 1894 and 1895 gave Japan further greater autonomy and by 1908 an ability to recover from prior restraints on her tariff autonomy.

The evening closed with the audience having gained a better perspective on how Foreign Minister Mutsu Munemitsu’s personal past, and the personal histories of his fellow leaders in Meiji Japan, helped shape Meiji Japan’s foreign policies and the creation of the Japanese empire.