The Journal of Japanese Studies 30.2 (2004) 515-520
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In the last five years, a spate of Japanese history texts has appeared that, with varying degrees of success, trace the rise of modern Japan. Most of these texts tell an all-too-familiar story, but others, focused on global modernity or regional ecologies, contribute fresh insights and heretofore- unknown information to our still unsatisfactory understanding of why Japan emerged as the only Asian country to successfully challenge the West in the [End Page 515] nineteenth and twentieth centuries.1 This fact still makes Japanese history important and fun to teach, even while the country remains mired in political cronyism and economic recession: there is a thrill in narrating to students how Japan withstood the onslaught of sixteenth-century Iberian missionaries and nineteenth-century Western imperialists, and how the ability to withstand these two waves of external pressure shaped Japan's rise as a nation.
L. M. Cullen's A History of Japan, 1582-1941: Internal and External Worlds focuses on the challenge posed by Japan's Asian neighbors and the West and how those challenges fostered administrative and economic changes over the course of three critical centuries. He explains:
The argument of this book in a nutshell is that the Japanese policymakers were rational and for its time sakoku policy was equally rational; the economy was highly developed; and the obsession by western writers for explaining why and how Japan could rival the west is not only patronising but, as far as its economic content is concerned, directed to a non-problem created by a reluctance to accept that an eastern country, or at least one eastern country, when it willed it, could apparently effortlessly equal the west.
The modern historian's penchant—or is it a conceit?—to focus on Japan's post-Meiji development is misplaced, argues Cullen, because "the country was already developed" by 1868 (p. 11). Decidedly, this is a text written with the Tokugawa and Meiji specialist in mind.
What makes Cullen's text so interesting, even for specialists, is that it does not simply rehash the same old story. Rather, like his earlier groundbreaking work in Irish history, Cullen's purpose is to revise our understanding of Japanese history in four important, and still highly contested, areas of study: first, the role of sakoku in cementing Tokugawa authority; second, the importance of northern and southern frontiers in Tokugawa affairs; third, the prominence of external pressure, and not internal forces such as peasant uprisings (ikki) and imperial philosophies (i.e., "restorationism") in sparking the Meiji Restoration; and finally, the political continuity that transcends the Meiji divide. Instead of highlighting the importance of global modernity in transforming early Meiji politics, for example, Cullen argues that "the new pattern of authority in 1868 rather repeated the pattern of Tokugawa power two centuries before: de facto government by four han within a legally ambiguous framework" (p. 207).
To begin, Cullen points out that, in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, three concerns were on the minds of Japan's unifiers: an economic boom, the nature of emerging central authority, and contacts with [End Page 516] European missionaries. Accordingly, restoring central authority and controlling Japan's external relations merged as interrelated priorities for the unifiers. Cullen argues that Hideyoshi sought to establish "bridgeheads" in Ezo, the Ryukyu Islands, and even Korea, in order to "ward off any prospects of disaffected han finding succor abroad" (p. 27). After 1600, even as Ieyasu stabilized Japanese politics, "particularism" continued on Kyushu and elsewhere; and Ieyasu and his successors did not distinguish the spread of Christianity from other European ambitions that might take advantage of that "particularism." Later, after the Qing overthrow of the Ming dynasty, sakoku was motivated more by fears of Manchu expansion.
By arguing that specific fears of Christianity did not trigger...