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The Beginnings of Modern Japanese Culture

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Saying the Japanese are industrious is like saying the sun sets in the west. In a recent post at Lit Soup, former agent Jenny Rappaport wrote about the reasons she'd miss Japan after her three-month sojourn there. Among them was: "The way that everyone really takes their jobs seriously. Even at a convenience store, they really want to do a good job. It goes beyond work ethic, I think."

In The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, Edward "Leviathan" Mallory is taken to a meeting with several Japanese men who demonstrate a tea-serving automaton developed in that nation, known as the Karakuri ningyō (a real device, by the way). The Japanese men then proclaim that Japan is the Britain of Asia, and will bring Industrialization to the East.

This isn't that tremendously far-fetched, truth be told, seeing as the Choshu Five (a group of Japanese men who illegally left Japan in 1863) spent their time at University College London learning how to construct innovations that would turn Japan into an industrial powerhouse. This of course started much later than the events of The Difference Engine, which takes place in 1855, as the Meiji Restoration didn't occur in Japan until 1868. The Choshu Five (image above right) would eventually become national heroes in their homeland, and the crash-course in industrialization they helped effect was so incredibly successful that Japan inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Russian Empire during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904.

Of course, the Choshu Five choosing to defy the Shogun and leave Japan wouldn't have meant a hill of proverbial beans if the Meiji Restoration hadn't happened. If one man can be said to have dragged Japan full-force into the Industrial Era -- then that man was most definitely Emperor Meiji (reign 1868 to 1912).

Emperor Meiji (pictured at left), unlike the Qing Dynasty in China, realized that he needed to change Japan if he wanted to remain an independent nation. He and his advisers sent Japanese scholars to Western nations to learn the mechanics and science of the Industrial Age. These men returned, and helped Meiji and the ruling elite effect sweeping changes through all strata of Japanese culture.

The Meiji Restoration could more truthfully be called a "revolution" because, while the Emperor did take back control from the Shogun, he didn't rule Japan directly. Instead, he was forced to accept the advice of a small coterie of men with revolutionary ideas that had done the real work in overthrowing the Shogun.

To give you a clearer picture: by the end of the Meiji period in 1912, Japan had (from a site hosted by Columbia University):

  • a highly centralized, bureaucratic government
  • a constitution establishing an elected parliament
  • a well-developed transport and communication system
  • a highly educated population free of feudal class restrictions
  • an established and rapidly growing industrial sector based on the latest technology
  • a powerful army and navy

The old han system of daimyos, bakufus, and other Tokugawa Shogunate institutions were swept into the past. Meiji and his crafted the first modern Prefectures, and solidified the allegiance of the daimyos by giving them state-approved governorships instead of lordships. The government took over the debts of the ruling elite, while still allowing them to keep their homes.

The old social classes of the Shogunate were declared null and void. Samurai no longer existed, and the daimyos lost all their power from 1871 on. Of course, this didn't sit too well with some members of the old system, and within a decade (when the leaders of the Meiji Restoration left to study the Western powers) there were rumblings from conservative quarters that there should be a good old-fashioned invasion of Korea. Luckily the Meiji Restoration leaders returned and quickly put a stop to that.

Meiji and his government honored preexisting treaties with the Western powers. Rather than try to fight them, and prevent an influx of new technologies, Meiji and his ruling elites welcomed the new science and technology will open arms. The Emperor realized that the only way to re-negotiate the unequal treaties that the Western Industrialized nations had inflicted on Japan was to turn the Land of the Rising Sun into a veritable powerhouse of industry and advancement.

Meiji and his ruling elite succeeded quite handily. In the span of 44 years, Japan was transformed from a mostly agrarian, feudalistic economy, to an industrial powerhouse with a thriving manufacturing capability, the first Western-style Parliament in Asia, and industries that exported product all over the world. If you want a better picture at Meiji's success in turning Japan industrial, here's a simple fact: In 1872 there were only 11 miles of railroad track in the whole of Japan. By 1913, the year after Emperor Meiji's death, there were more than 7,000 miles of track crisscrossing the Japanese islands.

Japan had arrived.

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