The Relevance of Japanese History
To this day, Japan’s national ascendancy challenges many assumptions about world history, particularly theories regarding the rise of the West and why, put simply, the modern world looks the way that it does. It was not China’s great Qing dynasty (1644–1911), nor India’s sprawling Maratha empire (1674–1818), that confronted the US and European powers during the nineteenth century. Rather, it was Japan, a country, at 377,915 km2 (145,913 mi²), about the size of the US state of Montana (Map 1). Not only did this small island country hold the Great Powers of the nineteenth century at bay, it emulated them and competed with them at their own global ambitions, as contemptible as those often were. Then, in the second half of the twentieth century, after the Pacific War, Japan rebuilt and became a model for industrialization outside the US and Europe, with wildly successful companies such as Honda and Toyota, now household names. Soccer mums in the US drive Toyotas, as do Jihadists in Afghanistan. But today, Japan finds itself in the eye of a different global storm. In the early years of the twenty-first century, Japan is embroiled in concerns over industrial economies and climate change because, as an island country with extensive coastal development, it has much to lose from rising sea levels and the increasing number of violent storms in the Pacific. Japan remains at the centre of the modern world and its most serious challenges.
To help us acclimatize to the pace of Japan’s history, take the lives of two prominent figures. Fukuzawa Yukichi (1835–1901), a prideful samurai born in Osaka and raised on the southern island of Kyushu, exemplified many of Japan’s early experiences in the modern age. In one lifetime, he watched, not as a passive observer but as one of its principal architects, his country transformed from a hotchpotch of domains to a nation with vast military reach and global economic aspirations. As a samurai urchin patrolling the dusty streets of Nakatsu domain, Fukuzawa entertained lofty dreams of shattering the chains of backward Confucian practices and travelling the world in order to discover what made the Western world tick.