Central Themes and Key Points

by Carol Gluck, George Sansom Professor of History, Columbia University

Originally designed in the 1980s to support the New York State 9th-10th grade Global History requirement, the themes are designed to provide an infrastructure for the myriad facts and dates encountered in studying the long histories of the East Asian countries. The themes are reprinted here for educators seeking new perspectives to bring to bear on the individual histories of each of the East Asian countries — China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam — and of South and Southeast Asia also.

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These "central themes" are distinctive, and recurrent, so that they are touched on again and again under different categories, until a portrait of cultural difference is accumulated. Of the many possible themes, six are suggested here as illustrative of Japanese culture and its relation to the world:

Theme 1: Cultural Borrowing/Japanization of Foreign Ways

All societies borrow from others, but the Japanese are distinguished by the degree to which they have engaged in deliberate, aggressive, and selective borrowing, followed by adaptation, or Japanization, of foreign ways.

Theme 2: Social Closeness and the Primacy of Society

Japan's insularity has fostered a sense of social closeness, reflected in the structures of the family, community, and workplace, as well as in the sense of Japanese national identity. The primacy of society as a central value characterizes the dynamic of Japanese ways of making decisions, setting goals, and resolving conflict.

Theme 3: Relations between the Inward and Outward Economy

Japan's lack of natural resources greatly affected the relation between the inward economy, which was predominantly agrarian until well into the twentieth century, and the outward economy, which flourished at times and languished at others but was often the critical factor in the economic situation of the country.

Theme 4: Inclination toward Political and Social Stability

An inclination toward political and social stability (or a disinclination toward disorder) is reflected in the continuity of political institutions which survived after power had in fact devolved to other sectors as well as in the tendency toward evolutionary rather than revolutionary change.

Theme 5: Pursuit of Change/Preservation of Cultural Values

Japan has long accommodated aggressive pursuit of change at the same time that it has tenaciously preserved its distinctive customs and culture, often by enshrining them in forms altered to suit the contemporary age.

Theme 6: Japan and the World

In Japanese history periods of reclusive isolation have alternated with times of active engagement both with Asia and the world. Japan's search for its proper place in a global order no longer defined in terms of only East and West is the late twentieth century expression of the changing relationship between Japan and the world.

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I. The Physical/Historical Setting of Japan
  1. Japan's external geography is characterized by the insularity of a country without land borders, a condition the Japanese regard as fundamental to their psychology, often called the "island country (shimaguni) mentality." This insularity has fostered a sense of social closeness and national identity. Despite the emphasis on distinctive insularity, the Japanese people probably migrated from the Asian continent via Korea and are thus less isolated from adjacent lands than their myths of national origin suggest.

  2. Japan's cultural setting was Sinic civilization, with China as the great center of culture, from which Japan in its earliest historical times borrowed the main elements of its own civilization, from forms of government to written language to art and religion. This aggressive cultural borrowing had as its corollary the adaptation of foreign ways, in this instance the Japanization of Chinese forms. The adoption of Buddhism linked Japan with India, the other great source of Asian civilization, marking the perimeters of the first phase of Japan's relation with its world , much as England was linked to the civilization of Rome. In the process of adaptation both native and foreign forms were modified and preserved, in the pattern of eclecticism which permitted Buddhism, Confucianism, and Shinto to coexist and also enabled the preservation of Japanese values even as foreign ways were introduced.

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  1. Japan's internal geography is determined by the mountainous terrain, from the peaks of which the sea is nearly everywhere visible. The resulting lack of arable land (only 16% is arable) has had social consequences: wet rice agriculture, the staple of monsoon Asia, crowded into small lands that required intensive labor to transplant, irrigate, and harvest the paddy fields also intensified the social closeness of the Japanese living and working together in small villages.

  2. The lack of natural resources in the four Japanese islands has had obvious economic consequences, both for the inward economy, which was predominantly agrarian until the 20th century, and for the outward economy, which depended on the outside world for precious metals in ancient times and oil in the present day.

  3. Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan, celebrated nature, making the mountains and sea into sites of awe and beauty. In both religious and aesthetic terms, nature figures strongly as a cultural value.

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  1. The imperial institution, the most enduring institutional form in Japan's history, originated with the rulers of the tribe which conquered the other tribes in early Japan. Their god, the sun goddess, became the god of the nation; their ruler the highest officer of the realm, the emperor. But real authority was soon transferred to men who ruled in the name of the emperor, where it remained for nearly all of Japanese history. This quiet devolution of political power from the highest office to offices around or below the emperor reflected the Japanese preference for evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, change and also the value placed on political stability. Political change took place, while the emperor remained the symbolic center of the realm, never ruling and never overthrown, contributing to the preservation of Japanese culture embodied in the imperial institution and its national mythology.

  2. Court culture, which reached its apogee in the Heian period, from the 9th to 11th centuries, constituted not only the political heart of old Japan but also its social and cultural center. Hereditary quasi-corporate court families were finely stratified within a small, interrelated ruling elite. These courtiers created Japanese high culture, epitomized by the elegance of Kyoto, the arts, the Tale of Genji. The aesthetic of court culture valued human feelings and human relations over abstract principles of morality, values that have since been preserved as quintessentially "Japanese". The period was one of adaptation , in which Japan retreated from relations with China and experienced cultural efflorescence in a period of geopolitical isolation.

  3. The rise of the samurai occurred during Japan's medieval period (12th to 16th centuries), which saw a further devolution of political rule from court nobles to warrior families, most notably a shogun who ruled in the emperor's name. The daimyo were feudal military lords who possessed land and samurai retainers bound into close, stratified domains in the provinces. Samurai values of personal loyalty and service to the lord became a central cultural value preserved over the centuries in tales like that of the 47 ronin and of samurai loyal to the imperial throne.

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II. Dynamics of Change: Modernization
  1. The Tokugawa period, 1600-1868, witnessed over 250 years of peace and stability in a system of centralized feudalism. Government was centralized under the Tokugawa shogunate but with considerable autonomy reserved to the 260 individual domains. By avoiding total unification, which might have proven too ambitious, and by establishing a complex system of controls to prevent rebellion among the daimyo, the founding shoguns sidestepped radical change in the interest of preserving political order. The result was the Pax Tokugawa.

  2. A second great wave of cultural borrowing occurred in the 17th century, with Japan adopting neo-Confucianism from China as the dominant social, political, and intellectual values, which were in the course of the 18th century adapted to Japanese society, so that, for example, the Japanese structures of hereditary stratification would not be violated by a Chinese system based on status according to merit. Each of the four strata of Tokugawa society — samurai, peasant, artisan, and merchant — developed a value system that stressed its particular role in support of the larger social order.

  3. The inward economy depended in theory on the peasant, but in fact thrived increasingly because of the commerce and industry of the merchants. The outward economy was shut off, as relations with the outside world were broken off in the 17th century, favoring seclusion over possible colonization and disruption at the hands of Europe. Once again Japan experienced a period of cultural effloresence in geopolitical isolation.

  4. Genroku culture, ca. 1700, represented by the puppet plays of Chikamatsu, the haiku of Basho, and woodblock prints, centered around the urban commoners, the merchants and artisans, no longer the courtiers or even the samurai. Village Japan, with its mutually dependent communal society, became the model of social closeness that remains idealized to this day.

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  1. Asia in the age of Western imperialism, the l9th century, presents different patterns of experience: India, which became a British colony, later gaining independence through a nationalist movement; China, which experienced internal rebellions in the l9th and two revolutions in the 20th century resulting in the establishment of the contemporary People's Republic; and Japan, which modernized on the basis of a nationalism defensive against the threat of the Western powers. In each instance the reasons for the patterns of response lay more in differing domestic conditions than in the nature of the foreign intrusion. In Japan's case the economic, social, intellectual, and political developments of the Tokugawa period had prepared the way for modernization. A commercialized economy, an increasingly literate population of stable size, an experienced samurai bureaucracy on both the national and local levels, a small and relatively well governed country, and other such factors determined the course that Japan's modernization would take.

  2. Japan's modernization during the Meiji period (1868 to 1912) was thus one instance of a general phenomenon that occurred in England in the 18th century and in third world countries in the 20th. The defensive modernization of Japan took the form of intense cultural borrowing, this time from Europe and America, no longer from China. The aggressive adoption of Western ways was accompanied by the preservation of Japanese values, including the age-old imperial institution and the model of village social relations. Adaptation of Western ways to Japanese society and the sense of an island country now thrust again into the world contributed to the heightened sense of nationalism that propelled Japan's modernization in the late 19th century.

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  1. Political modernization consisted of the establishment of a modern nation-state, now fully centralized and unified in the wake of the Meiji Restoration of 1868, which saw the end of the Tokugawa shogunate. The loyal and enterprising samurai who "restored" the emperor to the throne then proceeded, as the new government which ruled in his name, to implement massive modernizing reforms. Again Japan experienced a profound change under the guise of continuity. Within five years the feudal lords had given their lands over to the new state, the samurai had relinquished their swords and hereditary stipends, and a peaceable transition — a nearly bloodless revolution — had secured the new order. By 1890 Japan had become a constitutional monarchy, with a parliament and bureaucracy and a revamped imperial ideology to weld the people into a nation.

  2. Economic modernization meant primarily industrialization, which brought the inward and outward economies into interrelation once again, the export of agricultural commodities like raw silk paying for the development of industry. The commercial tradition of the Tokugawa period became the entrepreneurial engine of Meiji Japan, and by 1900 Japan was embarked on the road to full-scale industrial capitalism, financed by domestic sources but dependent on foreign trade. A new tax system, based primarily on land, provided the public revenues that paid for modernization.

  3. Social modernization entailed the abolition of the traditional status hierarchy to make all Japanese subjects equal under the emperor. The establishment of compulsory education and universal military conscription brought both opportunity and dislocation, as youth moved to the cities for jobs and higher schooling. Urbanization, the development of a working class, the beginnings of a modern middle class — all these phenomena wrought great changes in the social closeness that had long characterized the rural village. In ideological response to this, the village was idealized and its values, human relations, and group associations were reproduced in urban counterparts.

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  1. Japan and the world order. Initially disadvantaged by unequal treaties imposed by the Western powers in the mid-nineteenth century, Japan succeeded in gaining legal equality with the West by 1900. Having learned the lessons of Western imperialism (cultural borrowing of a different sort), Japan began to practice them in Asia, first in Taiwan, then in Korea, Manchuria, and China. Never wholly accepted by the Western powers, Japan turned its back on the West in 1930s and prepared to go it alone as the self-appointed Leader of Asia." The result was war against China in 1937, then Pearl Harbor and war against the United States in 1941. For Japan World War II ended with the atomic bombs and unconditional surrender in 1945. Japan's first attempt to enter the modern world order had ended in catastrophic failure.

  2. Politics and economy in the prewar and war period. Rapid industrialization on a still predominantly agricultural base coupled with heavy dependence on foreign trade intensified the effect on Japan of the world depression of the 1930s. Economic crisis and a rash of political assassinations brought the end of party government in 1932, replaced by bureaucratic "National unity" cabinets in which the military held increasing power against the specter of social disorder. In an atmosphere of ultra-nationalism, the government mobilized the economy and society, plunging the country into what the Japanese came to call "the dark valley" of militarism and war that lasted from 1931 until 1945. Social relations of family and community retained their primary value, contributing both to submissiveness to the state and, later, to endurance of wartime hardship without society's falling apart.

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III. Contemporary Nations and Cultures: Postwar Japan
  1. Peace and Democracy. The dual goals of reforms under the Allied Occupation of Japan, 1945-52, were shared by the Japanese, who were eager to root out the causes of war and authoritarianism. This second modern phase of aggressive change based on Western models (now primarily America) resulted in fundamental, far-reaching reforms comparable to the Meiji reforms of the 1870s. A new constitution (1947) established a democratic polity with the emperor now as symbol of the state and renounced war and the maintenance of armed forces.

  2. The inclination toward political stability is revealed by the conservative Liberal Democratic Party having remained in power since 1955 and the related tendency toward social stability shows itself in the coherence of Japanese society through and since the postwar reforms.

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  1. The domestic economy was rebuilt after the devastation of the war and then expanded by export-led growth in the 50s and 60s. Trade provided the capital to purchase nearly all essential natural resources, from oil to food and lumber Japan's increasing success in world markets since the 70s elicited criticism from its trading partners, particularly from the U.S. The combination of dependence upon — and difficulties with — the world economy presents Japan's most vexing international problem.

  2. The period of high growth that brought prosperity to Japan in the 60s was followed in the 70s by problems associated with the costs of rapid development: pollution, emphasis on national growth rather than individual benefits, etc. In the post-industrial economy of the 80s, more emphasis has been placed on the individual consumer, spending for quality of life, and domestic consumption in general (an attempt to bring the inward and outward economies into balance.

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  1. The family retains its importance in the relationship between the individual and society; the reproduction of communal, village-like ties occur in schools, companies, and neighborhoods. Social habits of consensus and harmony characterize the Japanese means of making decisions and resolving conflicts, again stressing the primacy of the social group. Individual identity is gained within the collectivity rather than against it, so that growing up, for example, is less a matter of learning to "fight your own battles" than learning to pull together with others.

  2. The homogeneity of society as a whole in Japan has advantages in terms of social order and national identity and disadvantages in dealing with people ethnically different such as the Koreans within Japan and foreigners in general. The ethnic homogeneity is echoed by a greater socioeconomic homogeneity than in many other countries: the predominantly middle-class status of most of Japanese society. The network of human relations that is so important in Japan thus operates in a society in which many people are more alike than different.

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  1. Education. The Japanese school system, operates socially within classes, in terms of tracking for higher education and careers, and in relation to the social values inculcated in school. The role of sports, different values of winning or losing than in the US, the phenomena of juku (after-school tutoring) and "examination hell" (college entrance exams), and the overwhelming importance of school as the central experience of childhood all reveal aspects of Japanese society that can usefully be compared to the students' own experience.

  2. Workplace. The Japanese company is the locus of social value for men, as the family and neighborhood are for women and school is for children. "Lifetime employment" and promotion by "Seniority" have until recently been distinctive features of the Japanese workplace; the samurai of old was transformed into the sarariman (salaryman) of today, with loyalty to the firm resembling the earlier loyalty to the lord. These elements are changing now as leisure time expands, the nature of the workforce is altered by robots and an expanding service sector, and job mobility increases.

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  1. Japanese tradition-in-modernity accommodates the pursuit of change even as it preserves custom and culture, often by enshrining it in different forms. Examples include: festivals celebrated in city blocks as they once were in villages, the incorporation of Kurisumasu (Christmas) into the calendar without dislodging the traditional New Year's, and the infusing of ultramodern lifestyle with the reconstituted values of Japanese tradition.

  2. The identification of Japanese culture as the defining characteristic of national identity creates both a strong sense of Japaneseness and an exclusionary stance toward those who are not Japanese, which means the rest of the world. Reconciling these two attitudes is a problem for Japan today, often evoked by the calls for "Internationalization."

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IV. Japan in Global Context
  1. Japan's relations with the advanced industrial world, including its ally the United States. Japan's enormous economic power, its lack of commensurate military power and its commitment to remaining non-nuclear, its dilemma of finding ways to take international responsibility appropriate to its economic stature, and the friction caused by Japan's economic success, are of primary importance.

  2. Japan's relations with Asia and the third world. While Japan is aligned with the advanced industrial nations of the West, it is also an Asian country. The economic powerhouse of the region, Japan is now receiving competition from other countries (the NICs). Not only is the historical relationship of Japan's imperialism and war still a living memory in the other Asian nations, but the region is divided among Communist powers like China and democratic powers like Japan.

    Japan's proper place in the region remains an issue.

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  1. The shape of the world. Today there is no longer a single vision of the world order, but a global set of cross-linkages. How Japan fits — or does not fit — into these linkages, to the West, to Asia, to Europe, and elsewhere; how we fit — or do not fit — into these same linkages are all issues to be considered. The emphasis here is on our common dilemma.

  2. Global cultural borrowing and global economy. The globalization of patterns that once were national or regional characterizes the world as we know it today. Now the world borrows from Japan as Japan once borrowed from the world; now every nation's inward economy is dependent upon its outward economy; now patterns of national values are everywhere faced with challenges from other cultures and places. We are all in this one together.

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A summary of the six themes, how they appear and reappear throughout Japanese history, which of the themes still hold today and which no longer obtain in a globalized world order in which Japan is not just the borrower, but the borrowed from, in which habits of social closeness can be both an advantage and a disadvantage, and in which problems of Japan in the world are one of the most serious issues that Japan and the world have to confront together.

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This publication was made possible by grants from the United States-Japan Foundation and the United States Department of Education. The East Asian Curriculum Project remains solely responsible for its contents.

© 2019 Asia for Educators, Columbia University | http://afe.easia.columbia.edu