We found ourselves on Wednesday afternoon in the heart of Tokyo just as the results of Election Day in the U.S. were reaching their inevitable outcome. Wandering through the forest like setting in the gardens of the beautiful Meiji Shrine in stunned silence, my wife and I tried to compose ourselves to the new, angry political landscape that awaits us back home.
We eventually made our way out of that perfectly manicured park, with its winding dirt paths under giant trees, past a fish-filled pond and around a submerged well, with its stepping stones hovering dry just inches above clear running water.
A quarter-mile or so down a widened path sat the shrine itself, built in the early 20th Century by the government to honor what’s known as the Meiji Restoration, an epochal time of political revolution that changed Japan.
Now, I’m no historian of Japan or that period, but the happenstance of being at that particular place on such an epochal date back home (we had voted by absentee ballot), really hit home.
Japanese society in 1868, much like America this year, was facing fundamental changes to its place in the world. Much as a plurality of my fellow citizens opted for on November 8, it chose a political revolution that upended the old order, one that eventually led to a militaristic nationalism that ended in disaster.
But whereas our current state of political revolt has been fueled by fear of the world and calls to shut ourselves off from it, the Meiji period at least began with no small degree of optimism about what needed to be done.
That difference is embedded in the very foundations of both periods. While the U.S. is now engulfed in a period of anger, distrust and vocal calls for reprisals, the Japanese began their march toward the future with what is known as the Charter Oath, and I think they are worth sharing now. In the words of the emperor who promulgated them:
“By this oath, we set up as our aim the establishment of the national weal on a broad basis and the framing of a constitution and laws.
Deliberative assemblies shall be widely established and all matters decided by open discussion.
All classes, high and low, shall be united in vigorously carrying out the administration of affairs of state.
The common people, no less than the civil and military officials, shall all be allowed to pursue their own calling so that there may be no discontent.
Evil customs of the past shall be broken off and everything based upon the just laws of Nature.
Knowledge shall be sought throughout the world so as to strengthen the foundation of imperial rule.”
Only a few days ago, those would have seemed quaint. Now, their optimistic simplicity can seem like guideposts calling for interpretation into our language and circumstances.