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  • Japan as an Exemplum of Social Order in Turn-of-the-Century British and American Educational Literature: Filial Paradise
  • Jenny Holt

It is a common presumption among scholars of Orientalism that the business of producing discourses about the East must be a one-way process; that the powerful West creates a fantasy east to justify its colonialist endeavors, to subjugate non-European peoples for profit and resources and flatter the Western ego. However, if we add another dimension to the equation—that of class—the picture changes. Often elites from radically different cultures have many interests in common; they share the desire to maintain the status quo at home and they cooperate together across ethnic boundaries when challenged from within by a different “other”—for example, the disenfranchised lower orders or the young. Middle- and upper-class British, American, and Japanese writers combined forces during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to promote the idea that civic harmony could only be achieved under the authority of an organically evolved “samurai” class. In the opening section of this article we see how these writers used ideas and images of Japanese filial piety and social consensus to promote an essentially conservative, antidemocratic social agenda to certain supposedly unruly elements in British and American society, and in the second section how authors of juvenile literature used idealized images of Japanese children and family life to promote these ideas among the young. Both British and American children’s authors are considered because the representations of Japan made by the two groups are so remarkably similar, in spite of differences in background. [End Page 417]

As self-appointed leaders of class societies, the British and Japanese ruling elites in particular had plenty of interests in common during the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Both countries were undergoing dramatic social change. Britain was in a process of rapid democratization and Japan was struggling with a large-scale restructuring of society and the influx of Western ideas that followed the abolition of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1867–1868) and the restoration of the Emperor as Sovereign that marked the beginning of the Meiji Period (1868–1912). The social elites of both countries were thus engaged in a struggle to maintain authority as liberal and egalitarian ideas began to filter through to the masses. As Frederick R. Dickinson remarks, Japanese social reformers (especially those from established upper-class backgrounds) considered that a special relationship existed between the samurai class and the English gentry and lobbied for a special political and military partnership, which materialized in the Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1902.1 As reformers at home, these individuals sought to devise ways in which Japanese institutions might be modeled along British lines. However, they were just as eager to advise Western governments on Japanese approaches to maintaining social order, and they promoted Japanese ruling class values in Europe as part of an effort, as Holmes and Ion put it, to “projec[t] the image of the new Japan to European observers.” These reformers included individuals who published works on Japan for English-speaking audiences, such as the Cambridge-educated statesman Kencho Suematsu (1855–1920), Major General Tadayoshi Sakurai (1879–1965), and the Christian author and diplomat Inazo Nitobe (1862–1933), whose English-language treatise on samurai values, Bushido (published 1900) will be discussed later.2

British Japanophiles were just as anxious to exchange ideas, particularly those who belonged to the “National Efficiency” movement, one of the aims of which was to cement upper-class power using a combination of social Darwinism and ideas of hygiene, eugenics and civic obedience. Its proponents, mostly members of the British social elite, represented themselves as liberals and socialists but actively pursued an authoritarian agenda. Impressed by Japan’s victory against Russia in 1905 and dismayed with Britain’s questionable performance in the second BoerWar (1899–1902), they sought to overhaul British society by promoting the principles of filial duty, patriotism and self-denial outlined in Nitobe’s Bushido. These principles were detailed by Alfred [End Page 418] Stead, East Asia specialist and enthusiastic social Darwinist, in Great Japan: A Study in National Efficiency (1908), a homily to Nitobe that discredited the...


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pp. 417-439
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