Saturday, January 27, 2007

The end of the samurai

In the 19th century, Japan was far from the economic and political power we know nowadays. The Tokugawa system, feudal in most aspects, was based on the strict class hierarchy originally established by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The warrior-caste of samurai were at the top, followed by farmers, artisans, and traders.

The samurai, traditionally a warrior class that was at the service of a lord, had increased their political and social influence during the Tokugawa period, by becoming landowners, courtiers, bureaucrats, and administrators rather than warriors. However their aristocratic status still kept the same warrior meaning influenced by the teachings of Confucius and Mencius. They were an educated class, had a complex code of obligations towards their lord (usually a daimyo), and a formalized chivalry code (called "Bushido"). They had the legal right to wear weapons (they actually were the only granted that privilege) and to cut down any commoner who did not show proper respect, although to what extent this right was used is unknown.

As a consequence of the rigid structure that composed the social system, Japan was a backward country when compared to the overwhelming power of the European and American empires of the time. Like other subjugated Asian nations, the Japanese were forced to sign unequal treaties with Western powers, which granted them one-sided economical and legal advantages in Japan. The very inflexibility of the caste system, lacking all forms of economic dynamism and neglecting inflation effects, unleashed huge economic crisis and general empoverishment.

The Meiji Restoration

En 1867, an alliance of several of the most powerful daimyo (Satsuma and Kido) with the titular Emperor finally succeeded in the overthrow of the Tokugawa shogunate after the Boshin War, culminating in the Meiji Restoration. The power of the Emperor became increasingly stronger, and after a series of confrontations against his former allies, he gained all the lands under his own control. The result of this deep change in the political system was the establishment of a centralised power supported by a completely new oligarchy that undertook a series of reforms in the country.

The Emperor was convinced that Japan needed to become a World power by following the model of the Western empires. This way, the four-caste division of the society was abolished and freedom of social and occupational mobility was guaranteed. The education became compulsory, and the education system reformed after the French and German ones. Freedom of worship was also established, a constitution was edited and several forms of democratic participation of the citizens founded. Agrarian reforms and massive industrial development were succesfully undertaken, the concept of a market economy and the adoption of British and North American forms of free enterprise capitalism were welcomed by a country that soon showed its abundance of aggressive entrepreneurs. As a consequence, Japan emerged as the first Asian industrialised nation and one of the new great World powers.

What happened to the samurai?

All this logically meant the end for the samurai. As they received fixed revenues from the government, their upkeep was a tremendous financial limit for a nation in development (there were 1.9 million samurais at the time), so the Meiji government started a slow process to progressively abolish this social class. Most of their salaries were diminished or cancelled, and the ones that remained had to convert them into government bonds (which, of course, had no guarantee of being valid if the central government failed). A Western-like nobility classification was established among the remaining samurai and courtiers: prince, marquis, count, viscount, and baron were new conceded entitlements.

The reform of the military was the real end of the samurai privileges. In 1873, nation-wide conscription was established, and the right to bear arms was extended to every male in the nation. In this manner, the samurai lost their right to be the only armed force in favor of a modern, Western-like army. Moreover, their honorific right to wear a katana in public was eventually abolished along with the right to cut down commoners who paid them disrespect.

Although many samurai became wandering warriors and some riots arose (such as the major Satsuma rebellion, lead by the samurai Saigo Takamori), most samurai adapted easily to their new condition. Many found employment as policemen or in the government bureaucracy, which resembled an elite class in its own right. The samurai, being better educated than most of the population, became teachers, government officials or military officers. However, the ideal of samurai military spirit lived on in romanticised form and was often used as nationalistic propaganda during the 20th century.

Monday, January 22, 2007

The Army of Freedom

During the Pacific War, the so called "Army of Freedom" of the United States showed enormous racial prejudices among its soldiers, as a direct consequence of the segregationism in the American society. Black soldiers were denied basic services, given not enough or null ammonition in the battlefield, or were even murdered by white military.

In 1941, the army of general McArthur established its headquarters in Queensland (Australia), where more than 50,000 soldiers arrived. And also in Australia, while white soldiers were received in open arms, the laborist Government of John Curtin did not allow to entry (aprox.) 12,000 black soldiers, strictly following an ancient Australian law for the white conservation of the continent (The White Australia Policy). Thousands of soldiers had to stay in their boats for weeks until the pressures of the American Government convinced Curtin. However, black soldiers were confined in the degradated suburb in the South of Brisbane, at the other side of the river. They were not allowed to cross to the North suburb and neither to go in dance places such as Trocadero Dance, under very hard punishments.

Australian population, however, never rejected these exotic soldiers, but on the contrary. They had specially success with Australian girls, so much that in the end, white American soldiers felt envious (never did Australian soldiers, their eternal party fellows). The American Military Police, formed by white men, made use of their power by putting lot of pressure on black soldiers, blaming them on false crimes, applying specially severe punishments and murdering several persons.

In March 1942, fights between these two groups made black soldiers to be moved out of the city, and installed in the forest near Townsville, living in subhuman conditions. In November the same year, serious confrontations arose again in Brisbane between the remaining white American soldiers and the Australian ones, which shows what was the source of the problem. However, black soldiers were not better treated from them on, and no war report ever mentioned the very serious facts that had happened.

Saturday, January 13, 2007


Dome is a particular type of vault, with a semispheric form, without angles or corners, which allows huge spaces in buildings, as well as the possibility of a powerful lighting. Despite they are thin, domes are the strongest architectural element, thanks to compressive and frictional forces the create.

Before domes, buildings were very space unefficient, as big columns were necessary to support the roof. Although the first examples of wooden spherical structures appear as soon as 6000 BC in Cyprus, they are not big enough to be considered true domes. The first big stone domes are built for tombs such as the tholos of the Treasure of Atreus (Mycenae, 13th century BC) and the Stupa in Sanchi (India, 3rd century BC). These structures are not high since they lie directly on the ground, being he dome subterraneous.

From the Pantheon to Hagia Sofia

It was the Roman civilisation the first to construct buildings with semispheric domes. Examples are known since times of Nero, achieving the culminating point with the Pantheon of Hadrianus, built in 125 AD, and still standing. Due to its huge weigth, engineers had to carve hollows inside the dome, and besides build very thick walls able to support it.

Paralelly, in Persia appeared the first domes in which pendentives were used from the beginning. This new element provided a strong support to domes, allowing them to become higher and the walls to become progressively thinner. First examplesare found in the Sassanid palaces of Firuzabad and Fars, erected around 240 and 430, respectively. The technique spread to other areas of Central Asia, being most importants the mausoleums of Bokhara (943) and Tim (978), but it did not evolve dramatically.

The idea of the pendentive arrived in Byzantium, and there it was very used and improved. The maximum achievement of this technique was Hagia Sofia in Constantinople (537), a true architectural wonder of the era, which was the largest dome in the world for almost one thousand years. The lighting provided is particularly good, thanks to the possibility it left to unload the building walls with weight, and inserting windows instead. It was also Byzantine engineers who designed the Mosque of the Rock (691) in Jerusalem and the Great Mosque of Damascus (715). Soon the Islamic style adopted the so-called onion dome, which later passed to Russia in the XIII century.

Meanwhile, in Western Europe, domes disappeared from architecture after the fall of the Roman Empire. There were several good attempts, such as half domes (apses), rib vaults or troncoconic domes such as the one in the Baptistry of Pisa, finished in 1363 (the current one is more recent, though), but the technique of the semispheric dome had disappeared.

The reinvention of the dome

Then, Brunelleschi reinvented it with much style. He built the great dome of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence (finished in 1418), winning his design proposal among others, even if he presented his project uncomplete to avoid being copied. He took inspiration from the circular dome in the Rome Pantheon, and designed his with double shell and octogonal shape. The dome lied on a drum, instead of directly on the roof, thus avoiding scaffolds from the ground level. In this manner he built the highest dome at the time, and a true architectonic model, since it was copied in Saint Peter of Rome by Giacomo della Porta (not Michelangelo) in 1593. The later domes of Saint Paul in London (1708) and the Capitol in Washington (1850) use the same technique.

Still paralelly, in Persia, the dome of the Oljeitu Mausoleum (Soltaniyeh, 1312) was built. This was, in fact, the first double-shell dome, and was additionaly reinforced with arches between both shells, which was an architectural revolution in the Muslim world, comparable to that of Brunelleschi. It started an architectural trend that designed domes as big as the Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasavi (Kazakhstan, 1405) and the Taj Mahal (India, 1653).

One of the most characteristic elements of the Baroc architecture was the oval dome, invented by Giacomo da Vignola (chapel of Saint Andreas, Rome, 1553) and especially developed in the churches of Bernini and Borromini. This kind of dome gave a dramatic dynamism to Baroc churches. The biggest of this kind was built by Francesco Gallo in the Basilica of Vicoforte (Italia, 1773).

In modern times, one of the greatest improvements has been the invention of the geodesic dome by R. Buckminster Fuller in the 1950's. This technique, based on the utilisation of triangular elements that distribute the forces in the structure itself, allow the construction of huge domes with great stability. Currently, the biggest semispheric dome in the world is the Globe Arena in Stockholm, finished in 1989.