A History of Japan, 1582-1941: Internal and External Worlds

By L. M. Cullen | Go to book overview
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Introduction: Japan's internal and external
worlds, 1582–1941

The two most widely held historical images of Japan are its self—imposed isolation (sakoku) from the outside world for almost two and a half centuries, and admiral Perry's challenge to it in 1853. Japan is equally known for its rapid economic growth after 1868 and, already famous for its cars, electronics and pioneering high—speed trains, for becoming in the 1980s the world's second economic superpower. Two questions stand out. Why did Japan pursue from the 1630s a policy of isolation; and why abandoning it in modern times did it succeed so well economically? Between the sakoku period ending in 1853–9 and its post–1960 economic triumphs stand its years of wars and conflicts, culminating in its challenge to the United States in the Pacific war. These events raise their own questions. Were they in some way a consequence of aggression latent in Japanese history, or were they simply part of a complex and mainly post–1840 story embracing the western rape of China, a failed effort by Japan to fashion a successful security policy in a changing Asia, and America's aggressive exercise of its new imperial mantle in the Pacific?

Westerners had long seen a policy of exclusion as either irrational or unnatural (though this was qualified in the accounts by four keen—sighted contemporaries, the well—known Kaempfer and the much less well—known Thunberg, Titsingh and Golownin (Golovnin), all of whom spent time in Japan). Modern writing has often made a distinction between Japanese who favoured exclusion and those who wanted to end it. In other words, writers in recent times, Japanese as well as western, sought to find a tradition which it was hoped would underpin the struggling democracy of the 1930s or the Occupation—imposed one after 1945. There has even been more recently a popularisation inside and outside Japan of a view that a full—blown sakoku policy dates only from 1793 or 1804. Likewise, Japanese trade before the 1630s is sometimes presented in Japanese accounts as large and innovative, and as trade contracted, a traffic between Japan and Korea conducted through the island of Tsushima (in the strait separating Japan and Korea) has been seen rather loosely as much larger and more central to the Japanese economy than it was. Sakoku also has

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