In 2018, Japan marked the 150th anniversary of the collapse of the Tokugawa shogunate and the establishment of a new government under Emperor Meiji. This was not simply a transfer of political authority but instead signaled revolutionary transformation in Japan, including the abolition of the domains and the formation of a modern nation-state in the years that followed. A period of radical social change was ushered in with the abolition of the class system, the introduction of Western industrial and military technology, the development of mass media, and the establishment of constitutional government.
The impact on Japan of diplomatic, economic, and cultural pressure from the United States and other Western powers from 1853 onward was previously thought to be the immediate catalyst of this “Meiji Revolution.” But Japan’s modern transformation was rooted in a much deeper process of social and intellectual development that gradually unfolded throughout the latter half of the Tokugawa period. Surveying a diverse group of thinkers spanning the Tokugawa and early Meiji years—Ogyū Sorai, Yamagata Bantō, Motoori Norinaga, Rai San’yō, Fukuzawa Yukichi, Takekoshi Yosaburō, and others—this ambitious book liberates modern Japanese history from the stereotypical narrative of “Japanese spirit and Western technique,” offering a detailed examination of the elements in Tokugawa thought and culture that spurred Japan to articulate its own unique conception of civilization during the course of the nineteenth century.
In the latter half of the Tokugawa period, Japan faced many possible alternate paths as it gradually advanced toward its encounter with “civilization”—which could also be described as an encounter with the unknown. This book offers the reader a bird’s-eye view of this process of encounter, which provides a fascinating model for the advancement of understanding and coexistence among the world’s diverse cultures. Exploring the legacy of Japan’s quest for “civilization” in the nineteenth century thus serves as a lens for examining our world today, while also suggesting an alternative narrative to the conventional success stories of Japan’s modernization.