The National Museum of Ethnology (Minpaku) is a research center for ethnology and cultural anthropology.

Reconsidering Japan's “Modernization” in Comparison with other Asian and African Societies

Joint Research Coordinator KAWADA Junzo

Reserch Theme List


selective modernization of Japan, self-assimilation to Europe by leaving Asia, modern Japan seen by Asian and African countries


The Westernization or Modernization which Japan undertook from the middle of the nineteenth century was not caused by Japan's becoming a colony of the West. Westernization in Japan was independently generated by the Japanese and by choice, inviting from abroad at high pay elites who were considered the most appropriate advisors in their respective fields, including military technology, while dispatching Japanese elites to Western countries to study. The result was that Japan learned from the West as a whole in a way that was in one sense inconsistent. At the same time, Japan chose not to align itself and not to cooperate in resisting foreign pressure with other Asian societies, which were in a similar situation. Instead Japan decided to become a great power in its own right through a policy of enriching the nation and strengthening the military (fukoku kyohei) involving military aggression against neighboring Asian countries. The end result was that Japan lacked appropriate responses to the world situation, formed an alliance with dictatorial regimes in Germany and Italy, and embarked on a path of destruction culminating in the concept of the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere revolving around Japan. The objectives of this joint research are from a broad perspective to compare and contrast these characteristics of Japan's modernization with the modernization processes currently occurring in Asian and African societies, which continue to demand complicated responses from Japan, as well as to thoroughly reexamine modernization in Japan.

Research Results

This collaborative study started from a question posed by its leader, Junzo Kawada; “Is it possible for Japan to exist as an independent nation in East Asia?” Kawada proposed that the “modernization” of Japan should be considered in relation to the world, particularly Asia. His proposal was to focus on two periods for the “modern” period of Japan; before and after 1945, the year that saw the collapse of most colonial empires, including that of Japan.
The studies presented included research by Akira Usuki on Shumei Okawa and what the Empire of Japan called “the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere”; comparative studies by Abito Ito and Takami Kuwayama on the modernization of farming villages in Korea and Japan; a report by Shiro Sasaki, with comments by Yuki Konagaya, on Russian advances into East Asia during the waning years of imperialism; a report by Seiichiro Yoshizawa on the influence on China of the Russo-Japanese War, a proxy war orchestrated by Britain that formed an alliance with and supported Japan against Russian movements, and which arose from the  inability of Britain to dispatch an army to the Far East owing to exhaustion caused by the Boer War; and a presentation by Yuko Mio and Motoo Furuta that examined how Japanese rule in Taiwan and Vietnam influenced modernization in Japan, as well as an official revaluation of Japanese rule in Vietnam.
When considering the period of Japanese rule in Asia, it is necessary to go back to the chartered companies that existed before the era of modern nations. Yasuyuki Nagabuchi, of the Nagoya Institute of Technology (who did not participate in this collaborative study) researched this topic and traced the formation of Caucasian communities in Asia during the time of the British and Dutch East India Companies. His research reconsidered the 19th-century modern period, in which colonial rule was justified by the argument that Caucasian people were inherently superior to other races. Past discussions on independence movements in the Netherlands East Indies were centered on activists born in Java, like Sukarno and Suharto. However, Masanori Kaneko focused on three nationalists born in Sumatra, and who played an important role in anti-colonial struggles, despite being defeated in internal power struggles. In doing so, Kaneko considered the uniqueness of society in Minangkabau, the area from which the three nationalists originated.
Following the break-up of the former Soviet Union, conflicts between nation-states and ethnic minorities intensified. Meanwhile, superpowers like the USA and China gained louder voices in international relations. Takeshi Hamashita proposed the idea of “global nationalism” and Seiichiro Yoshizawa commented that China is in some ways more Westernized than Japan, as well as having a greater global presence, as exemplified by its advances into Africa.
The last two research meetings focused on the interaction between modernization and nation theories, from different perspectives. These theories are the key areas for this project. Hiromu Shimizu drew on his personal experiences to compare Japan and the Philippines. In addition, Eisei Kurimoto discussed the confusion in South Sudan. Focusing on West Africa, Makoto Katsumata redefined the meaning of states, and Koji Miyazaki compared the introduction of the Indonesian education system with that of Japan. In addition, Katsumi Tamura led an argument about the political society of Burma/Myanmar, where there are many questions about national self-identity, but no answers. Many reports and active discussions resulted from these meetings.