History · Other Stuff

Semester Review: History of Modern Japan

This course was a lightning-fast survey of basically the entire history of Japan, from a cursory tour of the islands’ prehistory up until the modern day. I learned a lot I didn’t know, not only about Japan but about the whole region. Things are different and strange, but not completely opaque — human motivations are basically the same everywhere you go. Lots of cool stuff here, so I’m just going to hit a couple of highlights… Not necessarily the most important ones or those we spent the most time on, but some things I found interesting or surprising.

Here are the books we used:
A Modern History of Japan by Andrew Gordon, 2013 edition. Good overview but dry, I mostly used it for reference and review after class.
Peasants, Rebels, Women, and Outcastes by Mikiso Hane, 2003. Most of our lecture time was spent on big political events, but discussion time was dominated by the living conditions of the everyday poor. Let’s just say they were miserable.
Kokoro by Natsume Soseki, 1914. One of the famous novels in Japanese literary history, and for good reason. The title means “heart,” including feelings and “the heart of things.” It begins as a relationship between a student and older teacher, then flashes back to show the teacher’s young romance and a dear friendship that went bad. We read it as an illustration of Japanese family life and culture in transition.

Commodore Perry and the Barbarian Invasion

Japan had maintained itself separate from the rest of the world for hundreds of years, retaining its traditional, loosely-united feudal society well into the 1800s! Western ships were only allowed into one port on one small island for limited trade, and very rarely allowed to travel further into Japan. Unfortunately for the Japanese, by the 1800s the Western world was growing ever more powerful, and wanted to trade for Japanese silk and other commodities. Commodore Matthew Perry fired shots on Tokyo Bay in 1854 and forced Japan into trade negotiations, culminating in a set of agreements generally termed the Unequal Treaties. Efforts to equalize the trade relationship motivated much of Japanese policy thereafter. What’s kind of cool about this whole situation is that even though we think of feudal societies as more barbaric and primitive, and Western culture in the 1800s as reasonably “civilized,” Japan thought of the Westerners as the “barbarians” in this equation, storming in to corrupt traditional values and tear down refined culture. The anti-foreign movement used the slogan, “Revere the Emperor, expel the barbarians!” Check out the PBS program “The Return of the Barbarians” for more on this.

The Emperor of Japan

I took the emperor and state religion as my term paper topic, so I did some independent research about this. For most of Japanese history, the emperor was a religious figure, not really a political one. To begin with, Japanese religion was a local nature-based system of spirit worship. Over time, a divine mythology developed in Japan, with the Sun Goddess Amaterasu being most significant for agriculture. The Yamato family, believed to be descendants of this Sun Goddess, became the most powerful family in Japan, eventually transforming into Japan’s Imperial Family. Local communities revered their ancestors and local spirits, while the emperor was expected to do the same for more significant spirits and deities, particularly Amaterasu. The earliest word for “government” was matsurigoto, meaning “religious observances.”

The emperor retained this spiritual role well up into the late 1800s, nominally the ruler and a symbol of the country, but with no political power. Japan was ruled by the shogun or military warlord, who derived his legitimacy from the emperor’s consent. At this point, at the height of the “revere the emperor, expel the barbarians” furor, royalist factions wanted to “restore” the emperor to power. This was the Meiji Restoration, named for Emperor Meiji, another big keyword for Japanese history. It wasn’t his idea at all, and he didn’t have any more power after the restoration than he had before, but it was a big symbolic move, and led (in a roundabout way) to belief in the emperor’s literal divinity, which was then renounced after World War II. In the present day he once again has little or no political power, perhaps comparable to the Queen of England, but he remains deeply important to the Japanese people.

I get the feeling there are a lot of interesting stories buried in imperial history, but they’re hard to dig up. Since he didn’t have much to do with actual politics, most books mention the imperial office in passing and then focus on other subjects. People’s reverence for the emperor also makes it hard to get unbiased or intimate stories. I’ve got more research on the emperor and Shinto and might convert that paper into a post, if anyone’s interested.


Map of Manchuria and Japan

Japan had longstanding economic interests in Manchuria, a province of China. It was an economic corridor to the rest of Asia, via the Trans-Siberian Railroad. After the fall of the Chinese Qing Dynasty in 1911, China fell into bickering and warlordism, and Japan felt its economic interests were in danger. They sent in peacekeeping forces around 1930, which then staged a bomb attack on the railroad, resulting in the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, one of the first acts of hostility in and around World War II. Open conquest and colonization weren’t in vogue at the time, so Japan set up a puppet government in the province and named it the kingdom of Manchukuo. They even brought in a Manchu royal by the name of Puyi to rule the place. (Just imagine being that guy). The League of Nations refused to recognize the country’s legitimacy, prompting Japan to withdraw in 1933 and adding to a pile of perceived slights against Japan that made attacks in World War II seem quite necessary.

Bits and Bobs

Cool guy: Albert Kahn, a Frenchman who in 1909 launched a project to take color photographs of everything. An “Archive of the Planet.” He was a particular Japan enthusiast, and on his trips there he took films of traditional kabuki theater, color photos of famous geishas, and a bajillion other awesome pictures. By 1931, his archive contained 72,000 color pictures from around the world, plus films. You can check out some of his stuff in this documentary (Japan stuff starting around 25:00), and other documentaries on YouTube. All we need now is someone to digitize his whole collection and make it available online.

I think we effectively covered a lot of ground in this class with a quick-paced lecture schedule, but we also spent an awful lot of time in discussions. I don’t get much out of class discussions unless it’s more of an opinion-based class, but I know others do. As I mentioned, the discussions were based around the book Peasants, Rebels, Women, and Outcastes. It was good to have that history of the average person throughout the class, it’s a real tragedy how badly the peasant classes were treated and for how long. They were thought of as sesame seeds — the more you squeeze, the more sesame oil you get. Disposable workers.

Maybe it’s inevitable that world histories become histories of Westernization past a certain point. There’s obviously a ton of interesting things I haven’t mentioned, and plenty more I know we didn’t have time to cover in class, but it strikes me as sad how much of it was about Western demands and Japanese efforts to appease the West, “catch up” to it, or compete with it. (There was a very interesting bit though about how, after Westerners entered the country, Japan invented its own traditionality, bestowing rituals and reverence upon old hobbies that hadn’t possessed them previously. This includes no, kabuki, and puppet theaters; geisha entertainment; bonsai trimming; Shinto; etc.)

Obviously it was outside the scope of a history survey course, but I would like to have some kind of survey of modern Japanese attitudes and culture just to complete it in my mind. (This is how I ended up with my political science minor).

Ever study Japanese history? What jumped out at you? Recommend me some books or media you think are vital for understanding Japan.

2 thoughts on “Semester Review: History of Modern Japan

  1. Re: Japan inventing its own traditionality. I was once doing research for an essay on kimono (which, incidentally, is still unfinished), but the impression I got from it all was that that was exactly the case with kimono. Nowadays, there’s a lot of meaning attached to kimono as Japan’s national dress, which there necessarily wasn’t before the adoption of Western dress, and kimono variation and change has practically disappeared. At least, that’s the impression I got.


    1. Interesting! That’s the kind of impression I got too. Those things really are traditional, obviously, but the rigid codification came about after coming in contact with the West and wanting to “rediscover” and exalt the past. Not necessarily a bad thing, but very interesting psychologically. The books Kirinyaga and The Handmaid’s Tale from my SciFi and Politics post reminded me of the same thing. In looking to the past for an “ideal” society, we create variations on a theme, but often (necessarily?) are “recreating” a world that never actually existed.



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