Rethinking Japan Introduction To Modern Japanese Society And Culture


Japan has been an isolated country all through its recorded history, remaining secluded from its neighbouring countries China, Korea, and Vietnam. In the 19th century with the invasion of the Westerners, the scenario of Japan changed, with a greater emphasis on modernisation and industrialisation and expansion. It is during the Meiji period, that Japan saw its modernisation as well as rising imperialism (Duss, 1995), and unification (Ward and Rustow, 2015, p.34).

This essay discusses the extent of the political, economic and social changes that took place during the Meiji period and the extent to which it can be described as modernisation. The essay gives a detailed explanation about Japan’s initial failed attempts to enter the hierarchical order and the manner in which it progressed slowly from the 1890's to become politically, economically and socially sound to finally reach the hierarchy based on the concept of civilization. The essay also assesses the manner in which Japan was able to expand its territory into Korea using a successful method of economic invasion.

The extent to which the political, social and economic changes of the Meiji period be described as a process of ‘Westernisation’


All through the Japanese recorded history, it is seen that Japan has stayed in isolation from its continental neighbours with no attempt at expanding its political power, or even forming a link with the continental monarchies or attempting to establish a territorial hold. Apart from an unsuccessful invasion of Korea by Hideyoshi in 1590, there was no exploration abroad nor was there any migration like the Chinese diasporas migration in Southeast Asia. It was only after the Russian invasion in the 18th century and the 19th-century invasion by the British and the Americans, did Japan find a place for overseas colonies in its political disclosure (Shively, 2015, p.67). After these invasions visionaries like Sato Nobuhiro, Hayashi Shihei, and Yoshida Shoin started scheming for Japan's colonial expansion. As a strong central Meiji government emerged, the hypothetical visions saw a way into becoming a national goal.

Between 1800-1900, Europe expanded its territory nine times of itself, and its annexing domination on geographically and historically distant lands was the most important factor determining international politics in the Meiji era (Duss, 1995). 19th century Japanese imperialism was much different from Japanese imperialism of two and a half centuries earlier. 19th-century imperialism was post-industrial and post-nationalist. Irrespective of the reasons behind the expansion, the Japan began to acquire new territories and privileges abroad that would provide it with militia and financial resources for expansion and building new colonial regimes.

A world with Western imperialism provided Meiji modernisation with context and agents, politicians and bureaucrats, admirals and generals, entrepreneurs and financiers, intelligentsia and ideologues. Meiji modernisation imported, assimilated and transformed Western institutional and cultural structures as well as imperialist practices (Keene, 1969). Except for some dissent, there was no protest raised in the quest for expansion (Jansen, 2015, p.112). There were disputes on the matter of speed, direction and management but not legitimacy of expansion. The Western free trade imperialism provided Japan with its first lesson in imperialism culture. By the 1860s, Japan had accepted works like "Wheatley's international law" as a fixed and universal system (Duss, 1995, p.12). Westerners denied all the old forms of hierarchy and introduced a new form where higher civilisation led to higher hierarchy.

With better understanding of Western imperialism, Japan came to realize the nature of the national amour propre of the treaties with the Westerners. During the 1850's and 1860's Visceral Xenophobes had refused the foreign connection as according to him mixing with Westerners would be polluting, disgusting and defiling (Duss, 1995, p.13). The Meiji leaders were aware that the Japanese treaties with the Westerners had put them at a secondary position in the hierarchy power. After this there was a conflict between the new government and the leaders (Flickinger, et al. 2015, p.452). While the new government believed in abiding by the treaties, the leaders wanted to restore the national prestige and imperial prestige of Japan. Within a year of Meiji restoration, the foreign affairs office tried to unsuccessfully to revise the treaty with the Westerners. The Meiji leaders wanted to restore hierarchy to Japan and unsuccessfully tried to form an unequal treaty with China in 1870. The quest to gain an international status consumed the Meiji leaders till the 1880's. In 1870, Korea refused to enter into the triple intervention thus forcing Japan in returning the Liaotung concession to China in 1895.

Only after Japan consolidated the colonial empire was it accepted as a full-fledged power by Western nations. The Meiji foreign policy was characterised by a paranoid style, a policy that saw outsiders, especially Westerners, as hostile. Consecutively, even after the restoration, Japanese leadership were constantly insecure regarding Western aggression. This changed in the 1880's, with respect to Western states, but remained constant with respect China or Korea. Japan was afraid that China and Korea would fall prey to western powers, putting Japan at risk as well (Jansen and Rozman, 2014, p.231).

Western imperialism impacted Japan, in involving the latter into the world economy dominated by the Westerners, whereas earlier Japan had been isolated but self-sustained. However, the incorporation within the world economy also gave Japan access to modern technology. Prior to the restoration, the domains and the bakufu used to import foreign gunboats, small arms and munitions as they desperately attempted to build up the defence of the country against the intrusion of the Westerners (Clark, 2013, p.78). Meiji government invested in producing weapons, ships and munitions. Japan also found itself with a demand for iron rails, rolling stocks and steam engines, as the demand for modernisation impacted transportation. These products could only be obtained from the West. This resulted in half of the country's imports by the turn of the century. By the end of World War I, Japan was self-sufficient in producing its own military and naval weaponry. In the economic sector Japan started exporting raw materials such as tea and silk, however, they later realised that to survive in a globally dominated western market, it had to export manufactured products only.

China and Korea provided Japan with markets for its goods. In case these countries came under Western domination Japan would economically suffer, therefore, Meiji leaders understood that industrialisation and expansion went hand in hand. They were also aware of the European methods of invoking economic benefits in order to justify colonial territory acquisition. By the 1890's Japanese leaders were well educated about the significance of economic penetration. However, Japan was lagging behind in the race for economic advantage with the Westerners. Even though there was demand for expanding business in sectors of mining, inland waterways and railroad, Japan seemed to be making very little effort in order to expand so as to meet the western competition.

Meiji leadership saw a link between economic and political competition and between economic penetration and territorial expansion. Meiji leadership as well as business owners realised that if Japan did not move aggressively in East Asia, it may lose opportunities in trade, investment and political power (Hunter, 2014, p.87).

For the above mentioned reasons it was important that railroads in Korea be built by Japanese, instead of the French or Russians; that cotton mills in Shanghai be built by Japanese so that the textile markets be dominated by Japanese rather than the Americans. According to the recent historians of imperialism, conditions of periphery are extremely important in deciding the timing and direction in which the territorial expansion is to be made. For a successful policy of imperialism there has to be availability of a victim, which is, a less advanced, less organised and weaker country that is not able to defend itself against any outside intrusion.

At the time of intrusion by the Westerners, all the countries that put up a resistance against the intrusion dreaded the direct domination policy. At that time unlike its neighbours, Japan was able to maintain its independence against the Western intrusion. Had the country not modernised during the era of imperialism, it might have been in the same position as its East Asian neighbours. The Meiji leaders undertook a program that led to self- strengthening of Japan, and European powers never attempted to directly dominate Japan.

Japan regarded China as the region's ‘great power', however, their defeat in the hands of the Western intrusion revealed China's weakness. Japan and China, at the time of the Opium war were very close nations and after the defeat of China, Japan prompted on the idea of standing by China and defending it against the intrusion of the Westerners. However, China could not protect its borders from the continuous foreign invasion and thus the Meiji Leaders decided on staying away from its neighbours. By the end of 1870, Japan regarded china as its hypothetical enemy. After seeing China get defeated by the Western army in the 1890, Japan became confident that it could to defeat China (Chou, 2013, p.30).

The maturation of the civil society in feudal Japan led to the establishment of a firm centralised structure of the government. The development process Japan adopted allowed modernising. Contrastingly, the uneven development in the East Asian countries played an important role in creating a pathway for the expansion of the Japanese. The Meiji leaders lived in an environment with conflicting impulses, historical accidents and fleeting opportunities. The process of the Meiji restoration of Japan into a modern state, led the Japanese on the road of imperialist expansion. Each imperialist expansion in the nineteenth century was a different case requiring a separate analysis. The reason behind this diversity is that every expansion’s policy includes a coalition of groups and individuals with each having a different set of mind structure. In case of the Meiji imperialism, the expansion of Korea was a complex product including the Meiji leaders (Tate, 2015, p.67). They were supported by a combination of parties such as, journalists, businessmen, domestic politicians and military leaders along with the sub-imperialist community of the Japanese with Korea. The 1910 Japanese annexation of Korea resulted from two different but interlinked processes, one being political and the other being economic. The political process led the Meiji leaders to gradually gain influence and also control over the states of Korea. The economic process further led to a penetration within the Korean market by the Japanese traders, settlers and sojourners. Each increase in the Japanese influence led to a new advantage for the Japanese expatriate within Korea. With every new step of the Japanese economic interest into the trade networks of Korea such as landlording, or production increased the power of Japan in this context economically (Iriye, 2014, p.56).

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Japan's industrialisation or modernisation did not compel the Meiji leaders to assume a policy of imperialism in Korea but in fact empowered them in doing so. To imagine an imperial Japan without its industrialization is difficult. The reason behind Meiji leaders’ decision to industrialise and modernise Japan can be determined as a response to the Western intrusion but the reason behind the success of Japan is its modernisation before China, Vietnam or Korea. The Meiji leaders adopted a policy that included colonial expansion but no researcher or historian can categorise its modernisation to internal factors. The essay concludes with the fact the modernisation took place within Japan due to the intrusion of the Westerners in Japan. Due to their intrusion, the Japanese society found the need to expand and industrialize in the context of expanding their country economically with providing the country with railroads and manufactured goods. Modernisation brought in fixed and universal ideas within the community of Japan and changed the concept of the system of hierarchy. The hierarchy system was now based on the level of civilization within the country. In time with the political changes and economic and social advancement within the Japanese society, Japan modernized and could lead a successful expansion within Korea.

Reference list:

  • Chou, C.A., (2013). The Study of Linguistic Exploration of Mandarin in the Opium War Period (1840~ 1842AD). International Journal of Crisis Management, p.30.
  • Clark, R., (2013). The japanese company. Tuttle Publishing.
  • Duss, P., (1995). The abacus and the sword: The Japanese Penetration of Korea, 1895-1910. California: The University of California Press.
  • Flickinger, S., Podkowka, B. and Snyder, L., (2015). Voices from the Past: The Human Cost of Japan’s Modernization, 1880s-1930s.
  • Hunter, J., (2014). The emergence of modern Japan: an introductory history since 1853. Routledge.
  • Iriye, A., (2014). Japan and the wider world: from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. Routledge.
  • Jansen, M.B. and Rozman, G. eds., (2014). Japan in transition: from Tokugawa to Meiji. Princeton University Press.
  • Jansen, M.B. ed., (2015). Changing Japanese attitudes toward modernization. Princeton University Press.
  • Keene, D., (1969). The Japanese Discovery of Europe, 1720-1830. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Shively, D.H. ed., (2015). Tradition and modernization in Japanese culture. Princeton University Press.
  • Ward, R.E. and Rustow, D.A. eds., (2015). Political modernization in Japan and Turkey. Princeton University Press.

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