Central Themes for a Unit on Japan

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.

INTRODUCTION to the Themes

The "central themes" are distinctive and recurrent, so they are frequently touched on under different categories, producing a portrait across time. Of many possible themes, six are suggested as illustrative of the history of Japan and its relation to the world:

Theme 1
Cultural Borrowing and Japanization of Foreign Ways

All societies borrow from others, but the Japanese might be distinguished by the degree to which they have repeatedly 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 fostered a sense of social closeness, reflected in the structures of family, community, and workplace, as well as in the sense of national identity. The primacy of society as a central value characterized 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 condition of the country.

Theme 4
Inclination toward Political and Social Stability

An inclination toward political and social stability (or rather, a disinclination toward disorder) was 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 and Preservation of Cultural Values

Japan long accommodated an aggressive pursuit of change at the same time that it tenaciously preserved its distinctive customs and values, 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 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 East and West is the contemporary expression of the changing relationship between Japan and the world.

I. The Themes in Context

The Physical/Historical Setting of Japan

Island Country in a Regional Setting

  • Japan's external geography was characterized by the insularity of a country without land borders, a condition the Japanese regarded as fundamental to their psychology, often called the "island country (shimaguni) mentality." This insularity seemed to foster a sense of social closeness and national identity. Despite the repeated emphasis on distinctive insularity, the Japanese people probably migrated from the Asian continent via Korea and were thus less isolated from adjacent lands than their myths of national origin suggested.
  • Japan's cultural context was Sinic civilization, with China as the 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, another great source of Asian civilization, marking the perimeters of the first phase of Japan's relation with its world, a bit like the way England was linked to the civilization of Rome. In the process of adaptation both native and foreign forms were modified and preserved in a pattern of eclecticism that permitted Buddhism, Confucianism, and Shinto to coexist and also enabled the preservation of Japanese values even as foreign ways were adopted.

Mountains and Sea

  • 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 cultivable) 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 intensified the social closeness of the Japanese living and working together in small villages.
  • The lack of natural resources in the four Japanese islands 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 modern times
  • Shinto, the indigenous beliefs of Japan, celebrated nature, marking it with sites of awe and beauty. In both religious and aesthetic terms, nature figured strongly as a cultural value.

Men Among Men: The Government

  • The imperial institution, presented as the longest enduring institutional form in Japanese history, originated with the rulers of the tribe that conquered 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 figures who ruled in the name of the emperor, where it remained for most of Japanese history. This 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 occurred, while the emperor remained the symbolic center of the realm, neither ruling nor overthrown, its longevity contributing to the preservation of tradition embodied in the imperial institution and its national mythology.
  • 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 prized human feelings and human relations over abstract principles of morality, values later preserved as quintessentially "Japanese". The Heian period was one of adaptation, in which Japan retreated from relations with China and experienced cultural efflorescence in a time of geopolitical isolation.
  • 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 military feudal lords who possessed land and samurai retainers bound in close, stratified domains in the provinces. Samurai values of personal loyalty and service to the lord became a central value preserved over the centuries in tales like that of the 47 ronin and of samurai loyal to the imperial throne.

II. Dynamics of Change: Modernization

"Tradition" Defined

  • The Tokugawa period, 1600-1868, witnessed over 250 years of relative peace and stability in a system of centralized feudalism. Government was centralized under the Tokugawa shogunate but with considerable autonomy reserved to the approximately 260 individual domains. By avoiding complete unification, which might have proved 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, the Tokugawa peace.
  • A second great wave of cultural borrowing occurred in the 17th century, with Japan adopting neo-Confucianism from China as the elite 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. Over time each of the four designated strata of Tokugawa society — samurai, peasant, artisan, and merchant — developed a Confucian-based value system that stressed its particular role in support of the larger social order.
  • The inward economy depended in theory on the peasantry, 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 largely 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.
  • Genroku culture, in the years around 1700, as epitomized in 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 solely the samurai. At the same time village Japan, with its mutually dependent communal society, became the model of social closeness that was idealized in time to come.

The West in Asia

  • Asia in the age of Western imperialism, in particular, the l9th century, presented different patterns of experience: India, which became a British colony, later gaining independence through a nationalist movement; China, semi-colonialized, experienced internal rebellions in the l9th and two revolutions in the 20th century, resulting in the establishment of the 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 as much in differing domestic conditions as in the nature of the foreign intrusion. In Japan's case the economic, social, intellectual, and political developments of the Tokugawa period had seen many changes that proved favorable to 19th- century modernization. A commercialized economy, an increasingly literate population of stable size, an experienced samurai bureaucracy on both national and local levels, a small and relatively well governed country, and other such factors determined the course that Japan's modernization would take. Still, the nature of the foreign imperialist threat also mattered: unlike India or China, which were the targets of European territorial or commercial expansion, Japan faced the encroachment of the United States, which was at that time in the mid-19th century seeking trade rather than territory.
  • Japan's modernization during the Meiji period (1868 to 1912) is perhaps best seen as an instance of a general phenomenon that occurred in England in the 18th century and in developing countries in the 20th century. The defensive modernization of Japan again took the form of intense cultural borrowing, this time from Europe and America, no longer from China. And again the aggressive adoption of Western ways was accompanied by a move to preserve 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 into a West-dominated world order contributed to the heightened sense of nationalism that propelled Japan's modernization in the late 19th century.


  • 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 marked the end of the Tokugawa shogunate. The 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 surrendered their lands to the new centralized state, the samurai had given up their swords and hereditary stipends, and a peaceable transition — a not entirely but relatively 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.
  • Economic modernization primarily meant industrialization, which brought the inward and outward economies into interrelation once again, with the export of agricultural commodities, predominantly raw silk, paying for the domestic 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 path 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.
  • Social modernization included the abolition of the traditional status hierarchy and the declaration that all Japanese subjects were 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 seeds of a modern middle class — all these phenomena wrought great changes in the social closeness that had long been thought to characterize the rural village. In ideological response to this, the village was idealized and efforts were made to reproduce its values, human relations, and group associations in urban counterparts.

Imperialism and War: 1905-1945

  • 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, by imperial expansion 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 set out to go it alone as the self-appointed “leader of Asia." The result was aggressive war against China in 1937, then the attack on 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 aggressive attempt to secure geopolitical stature in the modern world order had led to catastrophic failure.
  • Politics and economy in the prewar and war years. 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 Japanese came to call "the dark valley" of militarism and war, which lasted from the invasion of Manchuria in 1931 until 4 defeat by the Allies in 1945. To a considerable extent, social relations of family and community retained their primary value, contributing both to submissiveness to the state and, later, to endurance of wartime hardship.

III. Contemporary Nations and Cultures — Postwar Japan

Postwar Reform: 1945-1955 and Thereafter

  • Peace and Democracy. The dual goals of reforms under the Allied Occupation of Japan, 1945-52, were shared by many Japanese, who were eager to be rid of war and authoritarianism. This second modern phase of aggressive adoptive change based on Western models (now primarily American) resulted in fundamental reforms comparable to the Meiji reforms of the 1870s. A new constitution (1947) established a democratic polity with popular sovereignty, the emperor redefined as the symbol of the state, and a provision (Article 9) that renounced war and the maintenance of armed forces.
  • A preference for political stability supported the long rule of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party, in power from 1955 to the present, with only brief breaks in 1992 and 2009, while the related inclination toward social stability underlay the relative coherence of Japanese society through the postwar decades, despite outbreaks of labor struggles and student protests.

Economic Recovery and Growth

  • The domestic economy was rebuilt after the devastation of the war and then expanded by export-led growth in the 1950s 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 1970s elicited criticism from its trading partners, particularly from the U.S. The combination of dependence upon — and difficulties with — the world economy presented one of Japan's vexing international problems.
  • The “period of high growth” that brought prosperity to Japan in the 1960s was followed in the 70s by problems associated with the costs of rapid development: pollution, emphasis on national growth rather than individual benefit, etc. In the post-industrial economy of the 1980s, greater emphasis was 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). The recession of the “lost decades” of the 1990s and 2000s set Japanese economy back and increased income inequality in a society that had long considered itself mostly middle class.

Social Relations

  • The family retained considerable importance in the relationship between the individual and society; the vestigial reproduction of communal ties remained in schools, companies, and neighborhoods. Social habits of consensus and emphasis on harmony affected the processes of making decisions and resolving conflicts. Individual identity was to be gained within the collectivity rather than against it, so that growing up, for example, was less a matter of learning to "fight your own battles" than learning to pull together with others. Even as the family structure changed and young people increasingly pursued individual choices in marriage and work in the 21st century, the primacy of social relations could be felt in many aspects of Japanese society. Gender discrimination changed only slowly, with women doing most of the work at home and receiving less opportunity, status, and salary than their female counterparts in other advanced economies.
  • The relative homogeneity of postwar Japanese society may have conferred advantages in terms of social order and national identity but it also entailed disadvantages in dealing with people ethnically different, such as Koreans resident in Japan and foreigners in general. The network of human relations that is so important in Japan thus operated in a society in which many people were more alike than they were different. Japan remained resistant to immigration and foreign workers even as low birth rates and a rapidly aging population created labor shortages that could not be met within Japan alone (although in the 2010s these shortages began finally to benefit the employment of women).

School and Work

  • Education. The Japanese school system, operated 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 approaches to winning and losing than in the US, the phenomena of juku (after-school tutoring), "examination hell" (college entrance exams), and the overwhelming importance of school as the central experience of childhood all revealed aspects of Japanese society that can usefully be compared to the students’ own experience.
  • Workplace. The Japanese company was the locus of social value for men, as the family and neighborhood were for women and school is for children. "Lifetime employment" and promotion by "seniority" were until recently accepted features of the Japanese workplace, at least for permanent male employees.The samurai of old was transformed into the sarariman (salaryman) of postwar Japan, with loyalty to the firm compared to the earlier loyalty to the lord. These elements changed as leisure time expanded in the 1980s, the long recession of the 1990s continued, the nature of the workforce was altered by robots, and job mobility and precarity both increased.

Culture Preserved

  • As in earlier periods of Japanese history, Japan’s tradition-in-modernity accommodated the pursuit of change even as it preserved custom and culture, often by enshrining them in different forms. Frequently cited 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 holiday, and the infusing of ultramodern lifestyle with the reconstituted values of Japanese social relations.
  • The identification of Japanese culture as the defining characteristic of national identity created both a strong sense of Japaneseness and an exclusionary stance toward those who were not Japanese, which meant the rest of the world. Reconciling these two attitudes remained a problem for Japan, often evoked by the opposition between those who repeatedly called for "internationalization” and others who insisted on preserving nationalistic distinctiveness.

IV. Japan in Global Context

Japan and the World

  • Japan's relations with the advanced industrial world, especially its ally the United States. Japan possessed enormous economic power; in 2020 it was the third largest economy in the world after the U.S. and China. Over time Japan gradually increased its military presence without abandoning either its non-nuclear stance or the importance attached to the US-Japan alliance. Yet after the end of the Cold War Japan faced the challenge of finding ways to take international responsibility appropriate to its economic stature and to a world that was both increasingly multipolar and less US-focused.
  • Japan's relations with Asia and the developing world. The first challenge was to attend to Japan’s relations with Asia after so many postwar decades of alignment with the advanced industrial nations of the West. Rapid economic growth in South Korea, Taiwan, and China coupled with China’s expanding political, military, and global power vastly increased the importance of the region. Complicating the situation were the strong memories of Japan's imperialism and wartime aggression in these nations, which called on Japan officially to confront its wartime past. Apart from the major issues of East Asian regional security and relations, Japan greatly expanded its overseas aid to Southeast Asia, Africa, and elsewhere and established bilateral and multinational ties with nations around the world, thus moving out of the US-Japan sphere that had dominated from the end of World War II in 1945 to the end of the Cold War in 1989.

The Future of the World

  • 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, the Middle East, and elsewhere is a dilemma for Japan. How any country, including our own, fits — or does not fit — into these same continually changing linkages is a dilemma common to nations throughout the world.
  • 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. The nationalisms and populisms around the world today are in part a reaction to a world so interconnected that globalization can be denounced but cannot not likely be undone.


A summary of the six themes might consider how they appeared and reappeared 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 must confront together.