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  • Print publication year: 2009
  • Online publication date: June 2012

4 - Creating Japan



Seeking to validate early Japanese history by connecting it to European norms, 20th-century historians developed four strategies. They posited an essentialist Japanese identity at least as old as that of most European nations. They segmented Japan's pre-1870 past into approved European categories of ancient, medieval, and early modern. They explored similarities between western European and Japanese feudalism. And they emphasized a pre-1850 Western-style economic dynamism that anticipated Japan's 20th-century industrial success and that, according to some authors, rendered early modern Japan and western Europe blessed exceptions to normal human experience.

With the less self-congratulatory of these approaches I have no quarrel. My own periodization is basically tripartite and my approach, linear. Naturally, I employ the scholarship on Japanese feudal organization and Tokugawa dynamism. Yet, like most contemporary scholars, I am wary of essentialism. Moreover, rather than oppose the Japanese archipelago and western Europe to the rest of the world, I argue that these areas shared with Southeast Asia, Russia, and other parts of Europe developmental features characteristic of Eurasia's protected zone.

Let me outline some of these common elements. Extending from the Inland Sea transportation corridor to the Kinai and Nobi basins to the Kanto plain, the east–west axis of west-central Honshu gave Japan a political center of gravity comparable to the Irrawaddy and Chaophraya valleys, the Volga–Oka interfluve, or the Seine–Loire basins.

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