1 Early Modern Japan and the Road Not Taken
The modern age emerged from the seas of Asia_or, more accurately, new civilizations appeared in Japan and Europe in response to the impact of maritime Asia. This is the central thesis of the essay that follows.
The development of modern society is usually understood in terms of the evolution from agricultural to industrial society. In the first volume of Nihon bunmei shi (History of Japanese Civilization, 1990), for example, Ueyama Shunpei divides the history of the human race into three successive phases: natural, agricultural, and industrial society. According to Ueyama, Japan passed from the agricultural to the industrial phase around the year 1900. This is an almost universally held view of Japanese history, and few would venture to take issue with it. According to this orthodox concept of world history, England experienced the industrial revolution first, followed by Europe and the United States, with Japan trailing the West and other Asian countries entering the modern age much later. In this essay, I intend to challenge that orthodoxy.
One of the most important research topics in the study of world history is the emergence of modern society in Europe, which scholars have taken to referring to as the formation of _the modern world system:_ What is the basis of the appellation? History has seen the rise of a number of civilizations that can be considered world systems, including the Roman Empire and the Chinese Empire under the Han, Ming, and Qing dynasties. All of these, however, were world systems primarily in the political sense. By contrast, the one that emerged in Western Europe in the era commonly referred to as the modern age was primarily an economic world system. The term modern world system is meant to express this distinction. This is the position put forth by the American socioeconomic historian Immanuel Wallerstein, who argued that historians should replace the state or nation with the regional socioeconomic entity, or world system, as the basic unit of analysis, and it is a view widely accepted today. According to Wallerstein, the modern world system developed between 1450 and 1640 in the region rimming the Atlantic, with Western Europe as its core and farther-flung regions making up what he terms the peripheral and semiperipheral areas. (See The Modern World-System: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century, 1976.)
Let us focus, then, on the period between 1450 and 1640, which saw the rise of the modern world system in the West. In Japan, this is the period that witnessed the formation of early modern society, which reached maturity in the Edo period (1600_1868).
According to the historian Nait_Konan, _If one is studying Japanese history with a view to understanding today_s Japan, there is almost no need to study ancient history. It is quite sufficient to know the period since the Onin War [1467_77].
Everything before that is as the history of a foreign country. But Japanese history since the Onin War relates directly and concretely to our own existence, and if one understands that period, then one understands all one needs to of Japanese history._1 This assertion underscores the notion that the period from 1450 to 1640 was a critical one in Japanese history as well as in the West. We may call it the formative period of the early modern era in Japan and Europe.
Let us digress for a moment to touch on the difference between kinsei, the early modern era, and kindai, the modern age. Somewhere near the beginning of the nineteenth century, Western Europe underwent a major political, economic, and cultural transition.
In the political realm, this was embodied in the French Revolution; in the economic sphere, by the industrial revolution in England; and in culture, by the appearance of the German classicists. These developments marked Europe_s true entry into the modern age. The early modern era, as I use the term here, thus refers to the period from the mid-fifteenth century to around 1800.