Modernization of Japan Term Paper

Excerpt from Term Paper :

Japan: Modern?

The word "modernize" is defined in the American Heritage Dictionary as: to make modern in appearance, style or character; to accept or adopt modern ways, ideas or style. If we utilize this definition to explain modernization, we can assume that the term refers to the application of such an action in a particular instance. At any given point in time, "modern" pertains to the latest developments in the area of discussion.

The modernization of a culture is often a difficult undertaking; the degree of difficulty involved corresponds to the rate at which that culture has developed. One of the most incredible modernization processes in the world's history occurred over less than half a century, in the still-enigmatic country of Japan.

Long History of Tradition

When Japan is mentioned to the typical Westerner, it conjures images of Geisha girls and dragons; samurai and shogun. Japan remained shrouded in mystery, in the eyes of the rest of the world, until the end of the 19th century. This country's refusal to participate in worldwide affairs has long been a subject of fascination for many a curious observer.

Upon the allowance of Western intrusion on Japanese society, much was learned about the culture -- and much was mistaken. The world's initial impression of Japan was one of a weak, antiquated and inferior nation with nothing substantial to offer other than natural resources. However, Japan's community traditions actually served to encourage, not hinder, modernization (Collinwood 161).

Before the intrusion of other cultures, Japan was ruled by a shogun, or military leader. The Tokugawa family held the position of shogun from 1603 to 1867, when the Meiji (enlightenment) Era began. The shogun were supported by the samurai -- the warrior class -- and the daimyo -- feudal lords. (Christensen)

Much of the long-held Japanese history of honor can be traced to the samurai. Positioned at the top of the social hierarchy, samurai warriors held themselves to strict principles such as loyalty to their masters, self-discipine and respectful, ethical behavior. After a defeat or disgrace, many samurai chose to perform seppuku, ritual suicide, rather than live without honor. The samurai legacy provides a basis for the high regard today's Japanese people hold for respect and discipline. (Busch)

Though tradition and ritual did not impede the country's emergence into the modern world, several factors did contribute to Japan's self-imposed segregation.

Barrier 1: The Role of Japanese Women

The Western world was initially under the impression that Japanese women were subservient, docile creatures; little more than ornamentation and a method of reproduction. Those opinions were not entirely correct.

In truth, the traditional Japanese woman was bound to her husband and family. Legally, even during the beginning of the Meiji period, women had few rights and were regarded as little more than disposable property. According to McClain, "The primary obligation of a wife as outlined in the Civil Code of 1898 was to provide the ie, or male head of the household, with a male heir, and the household with additional labor. Once wed, a woman could not testify in courts of law, bring a legal action without her husband's permission, transact business without his consent, or initiate a divorce except in cases of desertion or extreme cruelty (and a wife's adultery, but not her husband's, was ground for both divorce and criminal prosecution)." (259)

However, in practice the role of women in the family was more relaxed than the law's description. Most Japanese men held great respect for their wives. For those who did not, the women found ways to deal with bad marriages. Women from peasant and merchant backgrounds were allowed to divorce, provided they spend two years in an enkiridera, or divorce temple. Samurai wives were not allowed such action; they dealt with their miserable mates by constantly scolding and calling them disrespectful names, or building a wall of silence and withholding sexual favors. (McClain)

Arranged marriages were also common. In fact, one of the most infamous arrangements for the trading of a Japanese woman occurred with Japan's initial contact with the West. Townsend Harris, America's first ambassador to Japan, took a liking to a young peasant girl named Okichi Saito. The feudal lords in power at the time forced the girl to leave her family and travel with Harris to appease him, thus assuring what little cooperation they could obtain from the United States. (Kimura)

In Japan today, though many women choose to follow the traditional path of servitude, many also choose careers over family, or juggle both, just as their American contemporaries.

Barrier 2: Technology

Japan passed the first 250 years of its existence in blissful unawareness of most of the technological advances in other parts of the world. The arrival of the "black ships" of Commodore Matthew C. Perry on July 8, 1853, heralded an interest in modern developments that would quickly consume the Japanese empire.

According to Christensen:

Many characterize what Japan did at this time as "rational shopping." They borrowed technology, social systems, infrastructure, and educational methods from countries around the world and adapted and fitted them to their own needs and culture. They used what worked and abandoned what did not. To do this, the Meiji oligarchs set off on an around the world junket in 1871 known as the Iwakura Mission, named for the head of the delegation, Iwakura Tomomi. They spent several months each in the United States, England and Europe, and studied everything they encountered from banking systems to zoos. They brought home anything which might be useful to Japan, in one form or another, including a police system modeled somewhat on the French system, an educational system influenced by both America and Prussia, and new forms of agriculture.

The Japanese, especially the samurai, were particularly fascinated by locomotives. Ron Clough offers an extensive description of the machines as first viewed by a Japanese sailor named Nakahima Manjiro, in 1851:

Usually when people go on trips they go by a fire burning vehicle known as a 'reirote' [railroad]. This device is shaped like a ship, water is boiled in a cauldron, and with the force of the hot water the device can run about 300 ri [1,200kms] in a day. When you look outside the house-shaped object, it's as though you were a bird in flight, and there's no time to get a good look at things. They have iron laid along the vehicle's path.

The arrival of railroads in Japan went a long way in breaking down the native peoples' suspicions of foreigners, and helped to build modern Japanese industrial expertise.

The original visitors to Japan somehow received the impression that the Japanese were possessed of poor business sense -- a concept that is laughable, considering today's worldwide economy and the enormous success of Japanese businesses. Nonetheless, Japan was initially intimidated into a number of unequal treaties with the Unites States and other countries. Perhaps that explains their considerable reluctance, even today, to be involved in the U.S. market.

Barrier 3: Arts and Entertainment

Early forms of entertainment in Japan included the geisha, women who performed traditional dance for one or an assemblage of gentlemen. Geisha were not the Japanese equivalent of prostitutes, however; they were more an elaborate form of moving decoration. Though some geisha provided services other than a "floor show," it was not a requirement, and many chose not to degrade themselves by performing sexual favors for strangers. Foreigners were rarely invited to view the geisha dancers.

Art has always been important to the Japanese. Other than the traditional painting, sculpting and sketching, the country boasts an assortment of art forms uniquely Japanese: silk painting, flower arrangement, tea pouring. Even their writing is an art form unto itself. When Western culture threatened to invade Japan, many of its traditional artists were appalled. (Duus)

Eventually, though it gathered some aspects of Western influence, the art of Japan remained true to itself. The rich symbolism intrinsic to Japanese culture, from elaborate temples to breathtaking outdoor landscaping, remains in place throughout the country today.

The Meiji Era: Japan's Abrupt Transformation to Modernity

For 250 years, Japan lay in self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world. The arts flourished, and technology languished. With the introduction of Western culture in the mid-1800s, though, life as they knew it would change.

In what can be considered the most rapid evolution of a society in the history of the world, Japan moved from virtual anonymity to a powerful world culture in the space of half a century. As the rule of the shogun came to an end, the country immediately embraced the wonders of the modern world, making decisions about what to keep and what to discard that would help them to become a force to be reckoned with.

Seemingly overnight, the flow of goods to and from the country increased exponentially. Christensen states that, "by the end of the Meiji period, more than a third of the world's supply of silk came from Japan, and the percentage…

Online Sources Used in Document:

Cite This Term Paper:

"Modernization Of Japan" (2002, December 12) Retrieved August 18, 2017, from

"Modernization Of Japan" 12 December 2002. Web.18 August. 2017. <>

"Modernization Of Japan", 12 December 2002, Accessed.18 August. 2017,