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Why was 19th-century Japan able to modernize and not China?

Why was 19th-century Japan able to modernize and not China?


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At the start of the 19th century, Asian countries had militaries less effective than Western nations.

In 1853, the US Navy forced Japan to enter into trade with the United States. The Japanese realized they were too weak to defend themselves then and had to agree to the terms. Thereafter, the Japanese started to modernize themselves and became a major Asian power in the 20th century.

China had its own humiliating experience that should have jolted it into similar action like Japan. It was the first Opium War with the British. It occurred even earlier in 1839 and was far more unjust and humiliating. China suffered another major humiliation at the hands of the Western powers during the Boxer Rebellion. Unfortunately, China did not modernize and remained weak throughout most of the 20th century.

Why was 19th-century Japan able to modernize and not China?


The Qing Dynasty had run out of steam by the 19th century.

The government did try to modernise (the Self-Strengthening Movement) but the imperial government's authority was too weak and its civic infrastructure was too corrupt to embark on the systematic modernisation that Japan undertook in the Meiji era. The factions within the Qing imperial court and the vested interests of provincial governors subverted the wider social and economic reforms that underpin a modern army. The "blockage" couldn't really be resolved until the Qing dynasty was overthrown; although young Emperor Guangxu did try.

Looked at from another angle: China did start modernising in the 19th century; but the sheer volume of China's internal problems at the time meant that a lot of foundational groundwork was needed. The sort of progress that isn't very visible in coal and steel production or ship deadweight tonnage. China's modernisation didn't necessarily start later but took longer and with more temporary setbacks.

So, in much the same way as electron transport makes heating up metal quicker than water, the cohesiveness and economic velocity of Japanese society made their modernisation faster - but a metal teaspoon and a glass of water both heat up in the end.


The key to the successful modernization of Japan was the successful Meiji Restoration of 1868. This centralized the national power in the hands of the Emperor, taking it out of the hands of the warlords. (The last warlord was defeated in Hakodate, Sapporo, in 1869.) Once the centralization of power occurred, it was much easier to project Imperial power over the relatively small area represented by the main Japanese islands, well connected by sea routes, putting "everyone on the same page." Finally, when initiatives were undertaken by various parties, the effect of those initiatives was spread out over fewer people than in China (Japan's population was only one-fifth of China's), thereby having greater impact. The result was a self-reinforcing virtuous circle.

Such a circle never got going in China (at least not in the 19th century). The Emperor Kuang Hsu tried to institute a series of reforms, but was defeated by his own aunt, the Empress Dowager Cixi, and warlords associated with her. This meant that the Chinese government was never fully centralized (until the time of Mao Zedong, over fifty years later). China is a much larger country physically than Japan, with major communications problems, so any resolutions agreed to by the central government were not fully transmitted to much of the country. And there were so many people in China (some fraction of one billion through most of the 19th and 20th centuries), that whatever was accomplished affected a relatively small part of the population.

Many of China's problems persist until this day. "Modern" China probably consists of about 100-150 million people about the same (finally!) as modern Japan. But there are 1.2-1.3 billion people behind this group, most of them in a very backward situation, pulling down the Chinese "average." So while Chinese GDP is now a bit larger than Japan's (in the aggregate), the per capital GDP is still much lower.


In addition to Tom Au's answer on the Meiji Restoration above, is the break down of the central coordinating mechanisms of the Tokugawa or Edo Era that preceded the Meiji Era. In ca 1600, Japan was unified under a military regime (bakufu or Shogunate) led by the supreme military leader, the Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu who had his castle in Edo (now Tokyo). The system set up by the Tokugawa regime functioned for ca 260 years as a strict caste society. There were four castes (with the shogun and his top leaders above all four): samurai, peasant, craftsmen, merchants. There was one caste below, the untouchables or eta, who dealt with anything related to death including tanning.

Peasants comprised the vast majority of the population (ca 80%) and owned the land; the economy was based on rice production. Other commodities (barley, millet, soy, etc) were traded but rice was like gold today. Merchants were essential to moving goods around the country (including seeds and new technology for improving harvests) and developed skills in handling / storing commodities (including sake, silk, soy sauce, dried fish and items made by the skilled craftsmen). A money economy developed in the merchant caste and many of them became skilled in banking and a small futures market developed in Osaka. Over time, merchants accumulated wealth while many a high-class samurai went hungry. The Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa's 1956 film) depicts some aspects of the life at that time including the rigid caste system and masterless samurai (ronin).

By the mid-1800s the Edo system was increasingly strained: the top samurai caste (and those above them) owed massive debts to the bottom caste (merchants). In today's world, it is not unlike the power (that is money) that multinational corporations have/control vis-a-vis many national governments. In short, the Edo Period was ready to breakdown, and the arrival of Matthew Perry's Black Ships from the USA helped it along that path.

During the Tokugawa / Edo Period, high-ranking samurai became skilled at bureaucratic management of the complex rice economy. At the same time, many low-ranking samurai seized opportunities in the money (gold and silver) economy such as schemes to create more land through landfill so they then could become land owners and gained the option to become wealthy peasants. Some of the more impoverished samurai relinquished their samurai status altogether and became bankers and traders. Some of Japan's early zaibatsu (financial cliques organized as family-owned holding companies) were founded with a strict code of honor, such as the House of Mitsui, patterned on samurai society.

Skilled samurai and merchants became essential to the early organization of the Meiji Era. (In the mid-1800s, educated males were ca 50% of society, females ca 15%.) Many former samurai with bureaucratic knowledge created the new government and naturally the modern military. Many leading merchants helped create a modern financial system including a new central bank, the Bank of Japan. Edo Period Japan had been closed off to trade and influence from outside, and so to remedy that gap, various missions to learn about the world were initiated. The most famous of these was the Iwakura Mission lasting from Dec 23, 1871 until Sept 13, 1873. The main aims of the missions were to renegotiate the unequal treaties that Japan had been forced into with the US and many European countries and to learn about the technology, science, social and economic structures of those modern countries. The learning that was brought back to Japan influenced how the country was modernized over the coming decades. By 1900, for example, 90% of the population was enrolled in elementary education.


Japan was under the threat of Western imperialism and modernization was a means of escaping humiliation. Feudalistic classes had also been abolished meaning that its people now had the opportunity to pursue their own talents. Rich merchants had saved large amounts of capital which would be invested industries


I would disagree with the other answers, which seem to suppose that some series of political events or other simple mechanic somehow miraculously led to industrialization in Japan, but not China. It's kind of asking why Japan produces higher quality economy cars than other countries. There is no easy answer.

Japan and China have extremely different cultures and attitudes. Also, Japan is a homogenous country, whereas China is heterogeneous, having many different languages and ethnicities.

One theorist I can recommend on why cultures progress or do not progress is Thorstein Veblen. Veblen wrote numerous books on these subjects, trying to figure out why some countries and cultures seem to advance and succeed, while others languish.


Why, in the 19th century, did Japan modernize so rapidly and successfully but China did not?

Both countries were isolationist, similar in culture, and were given a rude awakening when foreign powers exposed how backward they were. So why did China during the late Qing dynasty fail to modernize but Japan did (and very successfully I might add)?

I've heard the argument that the Chinese were simply more arrogant since they always viewed themselves as being at the center of the world and superior to all other cultures while the Japanese had a history of learning and borrowing from others (for example, they took many elements of Chinese culture during the Tang dynasty) so they were more willing to embrace western style modernization. But that argument seems too simple, and I don't buy it. Besides, prior to Matthew Perry's arrival, the Japanese held just as much contempt for outsiders as the Chinese. And I'm pretty sure the major defeats that the Qing dynasty suffered toward the end of the 19th century (not only to Western powers, but even to the Japanese, which must have been the ultimate humiliation) would have humbled the Qing court into action.

well, you are right in your skepticism. But you are a bit trapped by some outmoded concepts.
"were given a rude awakening when foreign powers exposed how backward they were" - this kinndd of attitude should be dispensed with. In 1853 Japan had a very advanced society, with the most modern a road system in the world, high literacy, and a very solid knowledge base of other nations. As one professor of mine (which one I cannot remember, and I paraphrase) said - the Japanese a lot more about Europe in 1853 than Europe knew about the japanese.
On the China side - in many ways we are also looking at a very advanced society, in terms of hydrology, salt mining, and the cultural arts, China was unsurpassed.
So why do people continue to hold to the idea that these two places were "backward"? Well, because they had not industrialized on their own of course!
But the key is this - nobody had industrialized very much outside of Britain and the US. Perry had steamships with guns on them, and certainly made his threats - but the Japanese cooperated not out of fear of american technological advantage, but because the ruling elite were growing more and more dissatisfied with the shogun. So the Perry "opening" was not an exposure of japanese weakness and backwardness, but the convenient event that gave the elites the impetus to institute a reform government. BUT this still wouldn't happen for 15 years after Perry first arrived. We must give the japanese, and not perry, credit for their own continuous advancement. It was then that the japanese really pushed hard into mechanization and industry.
On the China side - the myth of China's intransigence and backwardness is the horse that just won't die, no matter how much we beat and beat the carcass.
China did "modernize" shortly after the first opium war. However, the Taiping rebellion came at the worst possible moment, fracturing the already weak hold on the empire of the Qing government. The imperial family outsourced much of the fighting of the Taiping war to some very able and willing literati/generals - some of which built their armies on their own, with their own backers and little help from the central government. So, we have a pattern that emerges:
Very weak central imperial government.
Growing strength and influence of regional generals-cum-modernizers.
So the 50's saw the first major flood of mechanization and industry - which led the Chinese to push back against the British again, a foolish move, because this time the brits had steamships. The British were one significant technological step ahead of the Chinese, and so the second Opium war was a crushing defeat for the Qing imperial house.
Now, self-strengthening continued, and here is the most important detail - self-strengthening in China was guided by the literati elite, the top jinshi holders were at the heart of China's modernization between 1850-1895. However, The imperial house was intransigent and held some of the progress back. This was largely self-preservation for the imperial family. They undermined the progress of those individuals who became too powerful. They pandered to the British and other european powers at the same time as they tried to push them out through the duplicitous Zongli Yamen. It was a hot mess. BUT, we should not consider the entire Chines polity, in a blockish, un-critical viewpoint, to be backward.

So, context delivered - let's answer the question:
Meiji was greatly successful because the central government was the product of the reform and so was fully behind the mechanization of the military and and industry.
Self-strengthening in China did not come with a disruption of the central government, and was largely at odds with the imperial family's (personal, selfish) interests.


Why was Japan able to modernize so much faster than China in the 19th century?

The commenters forgo comparisons and instead summarize how and why Meiji Japan was able to modernize.

In this thread a flaired user goes into great detail about the cultural, political, and geographical reasons for why Meiji Japan modernized successfully.

The commenters in this thread discuss the state of technology, industry, and politics in Late Qing China while drawing a few comparisons with their Japanese contemporaries.

The commenters summarize the situations of both countries and also link to a large number of Wikipedia articles (mostly on the Chinese side of the matter).

This concerns the the use of Civil Service Exams and the state of Qing bureaucracy in the late 19th century with some discussion of a counterfactual involving modernization success on par with Meiji Japan.

Other Comparisons

Multiple flaired users of various specialties come together to compare and contrast the modernization attempts of the Ottoman Empire and Egypt with that of Japan, with a few references to Qing China thrown in.

If, after looking through the above threads, there are major questions that have been left unanswered or specific topics given insufficient detail, feel free to ask followup questions. Liberal quoting from these threads are encouraged to both allow for clearer answers and to prevent users from wasting time repeating points already addressed.

The following users are flaired on the topic and/or have answered questions on it in the past, and would likely be able to answer these followup questions:


Why was Japan able to modernize so much faster than China in the 19th century?

The commenters forgo comparisons and instead summarize how and why Meiji Japan was able to modernize.

In this thread a flaired user goes into great detail about the cultural, political, and geographical reasons for why Meiji Japan modernized successfully.

The commenters in this thread discuss the state of technology, industry, and politics in Late Qing China while drawing a few comparisons with their Japanese contemporaries.

The commenters summarize the situations of both countries and also link to a large number of Wikipedia articles (mostly on the Chinese side of the matter).

This concerns the the use of Civil Service Exams and the state of Qing bureaucracy in the late 19th century with some discussion of a counterfactual involving modernization success on par with Meiji Japan.

Other Comparisons

Multiple flaired users of various specialties come together to compare and contrast the modernization attempts of the Ottoman Empire and Egypt with that of Japan, with a few references to Qing China thrown in.

If, after looking through the above threads, there are major questions that have been left unanswered or specific topics given insufficient detail, feel free to ask followup questions. Liberal quoting from these threads are encouraged to both allow for clearer answers and to prevent users from wasting time repeating points already addressed.

The following users are flaired on the topic and/or have answered questions on it in the past, and would likely be able to answer these followup questions:


Why did Japan pull ahead of China in the 19th and 20th century?

Was it a way the Japanese government adopted western ideas? Something to do with culture? Why didn't China do the same as Japan?

I'm going to talk a little bit about colonialism here. One thing that distinguishes colonial empires is their essentially extractive quality--in India, for example, day to day governance was done by Indian civil servants and defense and the upkeep of order done by Indian soldiers and guards. This isn't to say that other empires are not essentially extractive, but the colonial empires political was very much secondary to extractive ones.

Which is all to say that the actions and aims of the Europeans in India and China were essentially the same, the difference is that Mughal institutions were weak, decentralized, or simply nonexistent, while the Qing institutions were still essentially functional. India could not be bled for a very long time, and so to satisfy the extractive aims of colonialism, Britain, acting at first through the East India Company, was forced to take over the institutions. The old Imperial rhetoric that Britain was sucked into Indian conquest is, of course, untrue, but the conquest was primarily carried out for reasons other than territorial conquest. China, on the other hand, was able to withstand the ever increasing bleeding carried out by the Europeans, and so the Europeans were able to leave the institutions in place, as they were still strong enough to perform their extractions for the Qing government and, ultimately the Europeans.

Which leads to Japan. People often say that Japan was not colonized, but this is no strictly speaking true, as the European powers could more or less dictate terms--for example, the Europeans forced a lifting on the ban on missionary activity during a time when the government was working very hard towards a basically nationalist program of religious reform and purification. It is also worth noting that the traditional narrative that the Japanese eagerly accepted Western sciences and reforms while the backward, arrogant Chinese did not is simply untrue: both nations had extensive debates, reform movements, conservative backlashes, and liberal resurgences. The difference is that japan's reform movement won out, or, it would be more accurate to say, won out earlier. The process of Japan's industrialization and modernization is actually quite similar to that of China's, only carried out on a much contracted timespan.

To tie this in to my main point, one of the reasons that Japan's timeline was compressed is that the colonial powers did not really have extractive aims on the Japanese, in large part because Japan simply does not have all that many resources to extract--and certainly not when compared to the "nearby" China and southeast Asia. Chin's central government was bankrupt, both financially and politically, when the reformist faction triumphed in 1911 and the country descended into civil war. Japan also fell into civil war, but much shorter--it took China's central, reformist faction over fifteen years to full the nation together, while Japan's did it in a year.

There are plenty of other reasons too--Japan's reformist faction had a stronger territorial base and were politically cannier than the 1911 faction, Japan had the emperor available to be a renewed focus of national loyalty, and Japan is smaller. But the gutting of the central government by the Western colonial powers must be one of, if not the, major reason for their different narratives.


Boxer Rebellion: Background

By the end of the 19th century, the Western powers and Japan had forced China’s ruling Qing dynasty to accept wide foreign control over the country’s economic affairs. In the Opium Wars (1839-42, 1856-60), popular rebellions and the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), China had fought to resist the foreigners, but it lacked a modernized military and suffered millions of casualties.

Did you know? America returned the money it received from China after the Boxer Rebellion, on the condition it be used to fund the creation of a university in Beijing. Other nations involved later remitted their shares of the Boxer indemnity as well.

By the late 1890s, a Chinese secret group, the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists (“I-ho-ch’uan” or “Yihequan”), had begun carrying out regular attacks on foreigners and Chinese Christians. (The rebels performed calisthenics rituals and martial arts that they believed would give them the ability to withstand bullets and other forms of attack. Westerners referred to these rituals as shadow boxing, leading to the Boxers nickname.) Although the Boxers came from various parts of society, many were peasants, particularly from Shandong province, which had been struck by natural disasters such as famine and flooding. In the 1890s, China had given territorial and commercial concessions in this area to several European nations, and the Boxers blamed their poor standard of living on foreigners who were colonizing their country.


Industrialization of Japan

Japan: Transformation without Revolution. Japan’s response to outside pressure was more direct and successful than that of Russia. The Japanese adapted to the challenge of industrial change and internal market reform. Many institutions had to be altered and much societal change resulted.

The Final Decades of the Shogunate. During the first half of the nineteenth century, the shogunate continued to combine a central bureaucracy with semi-feudal alliances between regional daimyos and samurai. The government encountered financial problems because taxation was based on agriculture, while the economy was becoming more commercialized. Reform spurts met revenue gaps until the 1840s, when an unsuccessful effort weakened the government and hampered responses to Western pressure. Japanese intellectual and cultural life continued to expand under the Tokugawa. Neo-Confucianism kept its hold among the elite at the expense of Buddhism. The upper classes became more secular, with variety among Confucian schools preventing the intellectual sterility common in China. Education expanded beyond the upper classes and led to the highest literacy rate outside of the West. Even though Confucianism was dominant, there were many intellectual rivals. A national studies group venerated Japanese traditions, including the position of the emperor and Shinto religion. Another group pursued Dutch studies or an interest in Western scientific progress. The Japanese economy continued to develop as internal commerce expanded and manufacturing spread into the countryside. By the 1850s, economic growth was slowing as technological limitations hindered agricultural growth and population increase. Rural riots reflected peasant distress and helped to weaken the shogunate.

The Challenge to Isolation. In 1853, an American naval squadron commanded by Matthew Perry forced the opening of Japan to the West. Later negotiations won the right to station a consul and open ports for commerce. European nations quickly secured equal rights. The shogunate bureaucrats had yielded to Western naval superiority other Japanese favored the ending of isolation. They were opposed by conservative daimyos. All sides appealed to the emperor. The shogunate had depended on the policy of isolation and proved unable to withstand the stresses caused by foreign intervention. Internal disorder resulted in the 1860s and ended in 1868 with the defeat of the shogunate and the proclamation of rule by Emperor Mutsuhito, called Meiji.

In Depth: The Separate Paths of Japan and China. Japan and China, despite both being part of the same civilization orbit, responded very differently to Western pressures. Both nations had chosen isolation from outside influences from about 1600 to the middle of the nineteenth century, and thus fell behind the West. China had the capability to react to the challenge, but did not act. Japan, with knowledge of the benefits of imitation, acted differently. Japan’s limited population pressure, in contrast to Chinese population growth, also assisted its response. In political affairs China, by the middle of the nineteenth century, was suffering a dynastic crisis Japan maintained political and economic vigor. In the late nineteenth century, the east Asian world split apart. Japan became the stronger of the two nations.

Industrial and Political Change in the Meiji State. The Meiji government abolished feudalism the daimyos were replaced by nationally appointed prefects in 1871. The new centralized administration expanded state power to carry out economic and social change. Samurai officials were sent to Europe and the United States to study their economies, technologies, and political systems. Between 1873 and 1876, the government abolished the samurai class and its state stipends. Most samurai became impoverished, and revolt resulted in 1877. The reformed army, based on national conscription, quickly triumphed. Samurai continued to exist many sought opportunities in commerce and politics. By 1889, the political reconstruction was complete. Political parties had formed on regional levels. The Meiji created a new conservative nobility from former nobles and Meiji leaders they sat in a British-style House of Peers. The bureaucracy was reorganized, expanded, and opened to those taking civil service examinations. The constitution of 1889 gave major authority to the emperor and lesser power to the lower house of the Diet. High property qualifications limited the right to vote to about 5% of the male population. The system gave power to an oligarchy of wealthy businessmen and former nobles that controlled political currents into the twentieth century. Japan had imitated the West but had retained its own identity.

Japan’s Industrial Revolution. Japan’s reorganization went beyond political life. A Western-style army and navy were created. New banks were established to fund trade and provide investment capital. Railways and steam vessels improved national communications. Many old restrictions on commerce, such as guilds and internal tariffs, were removed. Land reform cleared the way for individual ownership and stimulated production. Government initiative dominated manufacturing because of lack of capital and unfamiliar technology. A ministry of industry was created in 1870 to establish overall economic policy and operate certain industries. Model factories were created to provide industrial experience, and an expanded education system offered technical training. Private enterprise was involved in the growing economy, especially in textiles. Entrepreneurs came from all social ranks. By the 1890s, huge industrial combines (zaibatsu) had been formed. Thus, by 1900, Japan was fully engaged in an industrial revolution. Its success in managing foreign influences was a major accomplishment, but Japan before World War I was still behind the West. It depended on Western imports—of equipment and coal –and on world economic conditions. Successful exports required inexpensive labor and poorly paid women. Labor organization efforts were repressed.

Social and Cultural Effects of Industrialization. Industrialization and other changes went along with a massive population increase that supplied cheap labor but strained resources and stability. In the cultural sphere, the government introduced a universal education system stressing science, technology, and loyalty to the nation. The scientific approach enhanced the earlier secular bent of elite culture. Western fashions in dress and personal care were adopted, along with the calendar and metric system. Christianity, however, gained few converts. In family life, the birthrate dropped as population growth forced movement from the land and factory labor made children less useful. Family instability showed in a high divorce rate. The traditional view of the inferiority of women in the household continued formality of manners and diet were maintained. Shintoism found new believers. The changes in Japan’s economic power influenced foreign policy. By the 1890s, they joined the imperialist nations. The change gave displaced samurai a role and provided nationalist stimulation for the populace. Japan’s need for raw materials helped pressure expansion. China and Japan fought over Korea in 1894-1895 Japan’s quick victory demonstrated the presence of a new Asian power. A 1902 alliance with Britain made it an equal partner in the great power diplomatic system. Rivalry with Russia brought war in 1904 and another Japanese victory. Korea was annexed in 1910.

The Strain of Modernization. Japanese success had its costs, among them poor living standards in crowded cities and arguments between generations over Westernization. The emergence of political parties caused disputes with the emperor and his ministers, leading to frequent elections and political assassinations. Many intellectuals worried about the loss of identity in a changing world others were concerned at lack of economic opportunities for the enlarged educated class. To counter the malaise, officials urged loyalty to the emperor as a center of national identity. Japanese nationalism built on traditions of superiority and cohesion, deference to rulers, and the tensions from change. Its strength was a main factor in preventing the revolutions occurring in other industrializing nations. No other nation outside the West matched Japan’s achievements.

Global Connections: Russia and Japan in the World. The rise of Japan and Russia changed the world diplomatic picture by the early twentieth century. Japan was not yet a major world power, but Westerners thought about a “Yellow Peril” as they watched its new strength.


Why was 19th-century Japan able to modernize and not China? - History

Scholar Joshua A. Fogel discusses the history of interactions between Japan and China.

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Transcript (Text)

Because the disciplines of history tend to be national histories, people tend to be historians of Germany, or historians of France, or historians of Great Britain—and that, I imagine that will work to a certain extent in modern history. But in earlier times in history, the borders are much more fluid—they're different borders. And I often tell my students—I think this is an interesting exercise—if you can get a book of historical maps of a country like China, which has been around for thousands of years, and just flip through them, it's like the old cartoons—you'll see China, its size gets bigger and smaller.

The China that you see today is not the China that was several millennia ago. In Japan, it's a little easier because it's an island country, but even Japan, the northernmost island wasn't part of Japan until a couple of centuries ago. History doesn't respect national borders. History is history—it just does what it does, and if you just follow the national history of one country to the expense of another, where the countries are coming together, you're going to miss a fair amount of the picture.

The history of China and Japan together go back a long, long ways—trade, diplomacy, and of course, cultural. And in those earlier years, the general flow is from China to Japan, and oftentimes that occurs—in fact, most of the time—via Korea. That meant, for instance, 1,000, 1,200 years ago, thousands of Japanese came to study in China. I mean, thousands. And it was dangerous, believe it or not—now it's an overnight boat trip, but it wasn't the same thing 1,200, 1,000 years ago. These students were both secular and religious, coming to study in Buddhist monasteries or coming to study secular subjects. Then they would oftentimes go back to Japan and bring with them all the books and learning that they had acquired.

In the sixth and seventh centuries, Chinese cultural elements flowed more steadily into Japan than at any point prior. First, the Chinese script, kanji, provided the Japanese with their first written form of communication. Confucianism and then Buddhism followed shortly thereafter, and by the end of the seventh century, Buddhist culture formed the basis of Japanese lifestyle, arts, religion, and literature. Exchange between the two countries reached its peak during the eighth century, when Japan sought to absorb China's thriving and highly developed Tang culture and political institutions.

This would soon change. The Heian period in Japan saw a shift in power from the Confucian political system that mirrored China's to a system dominated by regional officials, aristocrats who ruled from the top down and left the emperor with merely symbolic power. Japan would move even farther from China's system in the 12th century, with the ascension of the samurai or warrior class.

For the most part though, the majority of people in either society would not have been aware of their roles in this cultural and political transmission until the countries' push to modernize in the late 19th century.

Even 150 years ago, 200 years ago, I think if you were to ask somebody, who are you? They would say, oh well, I'm a native of such and such a village. Well, what domain are you in? I'm sure many of them may not even know. Japan would have been a vague kind of cultural entity. Their first point of identity would have been the family, the village, and then slightly above that.

There's an old saying that heaven is high and the emperor is far away. In China too, though, your first point of reference is your local area, and then slowly but surely as time moves on, you might understand there are bigger entities. China was an empire. China, a couple of thousand years ago, was a fraction of its present size, but it slowly colonized south. It didn't have the language of colonialism and imperialism, but that's what it was.

They spread south. They talked about it as the spread of Chinese culture. It was the spread of a lot—it was the destruction of local cultures, but it's the spread of Chinese culture south. Northeast Asia has only been part of China because the Manchus who used to live there invaded China and conquered it, and then the Chinese said, yeah, but it's part of China too.

The Manchu defeat of China would beget the Qing dynasty in the mid-17th century, which would rule China all the way until 1911. Japan simultaneously underwent a cultural closing-in under Edo rule, a program called the kokugaku, or national learning, sought to counterbalance traditional Chinese learning with studies of ancient Japanese writings and promoted indigenous ways of thinking.

Although contacts with the West were sharply restricted during the Qing and Edo periods, Western guns and Western ideas began to be viewed as increasingly inevitable and necessary to survival, especially in Japan. Efforts by the United States to open up trade by anchoring a fleet of gunboats in Japanese waters in the mid-19th century exposed the Japanese to the superior military power of the West, and would lead to a prioritization of strengthening the country's sovereignty against Western powers.

Nation-states are creations of human beings. They didn't fall out of the sky one day. China and Japan got to this nation-state business somewhat later because it was an invention of the Western world. And nation-states cooperating on developing ways to have state-to-state diplomacy, economic relations, treaties, all this kind of stuff—the nation-state as equals, that's a relatively recent phenomenon. Japan came to the realization earlier, possibly because it had taken the contact with the West more seriously earlier, and reinvented itself as a nation-state.

Japan's movement into a more modernized system of government in which its people recognize themselves as contributing citizens of the country would take a turn in the early 1930s and foment a fervent nationalism. This would bring them to initiate war in China, and within the context of aggressive war, it resulted in one of the worst atrocities of World War II—the massacre of thousands of Chinese women, children, and prisoners of war by Japanese Imperial Forces in the capital city of Nanjing.

The Japanese besieged the city on December 13, 1937, and committed widescale atrocities through the end of February 1938. Understanding the long history of nation-building in China and Japan sets the context for understanding the development of extreme nationalism and militarism in Japan. The Nanjing atrocities are only one result of this complicated relationship.

My sense is that, if you're interested as I am in the history of East Asia, then studying one country to the exclusion of the other—now that might work if you're studying some distant province in China or some tiny part of Japan that's unaffected by forces from elsewhere in the world. But if you're looking at bigger issues, you ignore the other country and forces coming from outside at your peril.


Summary of Japan vs China

Japan and China are two of the main Asian economies and two of the fastest growing powers in the world. Yet, despite their geographical proximity, they have little in common. Japan is a democracy – although the official definition is parliamentary constitutional monarchy – whereas China is a one-party system. The two opposing styles of governance have visible consequences on the population and on the repartition of wealth. In fact, despite being one of the world’s major powers and largest economies, China does not have one of the highest standards of living – whereas Japan does.

After having rejected the capitalist ideal for decades, China has finally opened up to progress and free market ideals, employing an economic system that was later renamed Chinese style capitalism. While the central government maintains strict control over the population and all provinces, local authorities are “free” to employ ad-hoc policies to promote the development and growth of specific areas. Yet, difference and gaps between poor and rich – and even more so between rural and urban areas – are evident. In addition, citizens can enjoy limited personal and collective freedoms. All such discrepancies are less evident in Japan, even though the country has an aging population and relies heavily on trade and exports to complement its lack of natural resources.



Comments:

  1. Vallois

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