Japanese Childhood, Modern Childhood: The Nation-State, the School, and 19th-Century Globalization

By Platt, Brian | Journal of Social History, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Japanese Childhood, Modern Childhood: The Nation-State, the School, and 19th-Century Globalization


Platt, Brian, Journal of Social History


Japan's initial encounter with globalization was also its encounter with modernity. (1) In the mid- to late-19th century, Western imperialism in Asia plunged Japan into a new system of international relations, generating an unprecedented volume of interactions with other parts of the world. Most consequential for Japan were those interactions with the United States and Europe, for they brought to Japan, through a process of hegemony, the constellation of ideas and institutions central to the experience of modernity. Of interest here are three closely related points in this constellation: the political formation of the nation-state, the institution of the school, and a concept of childhood as distinct stage of life worthy of public discussion. (2) Japanese leaders during the early decades of Meiji period (1868-1912) believed that the source of Western power--and the key to Japan's national survival in the face of Western imperialism--lay in the nationstate's capacity for mobilizing human resources. When they set about creating institutions to accomplish this goal, they recognized the particular importance of the school, which extended the project of mobilization to Japanese children. In turn, they opened up the child to public inquiry, generating within an emerging mass society a new awareness of childhood--an awareness informed by an international discussion among social reformers in Europe and the United States about the problems facing urban, industrialized societies. The creation of modern childhood in Japan thus provides a case study by which we can trace how pre-existing local conceptions of childhood were transformed by an engagement with the field of ideas and institutions that began to circulate globally during the 19th century.

Using Japan as a case study for examining global themes or processes is a time-honored endeavor. For the first few decades following World War Two, the process under scholarly consideration was not globalization, but a concept equally grand in scope: modernization. As the only non-Western country to have modernized, Japan was the focus of intense interest from scholars seeking to develop a universal model of the process by which societies become modern. The implications of this scholarship were presumed to be global--after all, the context for this Cold War-era scholarship was the effort to present to unaligned developing countries a non-Communist path to modernity. Yet because these scholars tended to see societies as organic, self-contained units and modernization as internally-generated (though manifested globally), they often studied Japan in isolation. They also tended to emphasize the role of Japan's cultural values in facilitating and shaping its modernization, thus contributing to assumptions of Japanese exceptionalism that remain dominant outside of academia. (3)

In the last decade or so, historians have contested this notion of uniqueness by attempting to place the last two centuries of Japanese history within the larger context of the history of modernity. (4) While eschewing the term globalization, they nonetheless explore the global influence of modernity due to the sudden expansion of interactions between Japan and other parts of the world (mainly the United States and Europe) in the 19th and 20th centuries. This perspective has generated innovative scholarship on a number of areas of Japanese cultural and intellectual life--everything from gender to jazz to concepts of domesticity--and has emphasized the extent to which they were informed by, and contributed to, modern trends and debates that were international in scope. (5) I will attempt something similar with the topic of schooling and childhood. A couple of caveats are in order, however. First, as we shall see, in claiming that a modern concept of childhood was "created" in the context of Japan's encounter with modernity we need not assume that Japan lacked a concept of childhood before this encounter--even though modern Japanese commentators on childhood often made this claim. …

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