Japan as a natural cultural experiment

History of Japan is a good survey for anyone curious about the topic because it is short enough to not be intimidating (this was a complaint from friends who I recommended read The Making of Modern Japan), but dense enough to actually be much more informative than a Wikipedia entry. Unlike many surveys of Japanese history, it does not operationally begin with Oda Nobunaga. The extensive treatment of the Nara and Heian period is something that I particularly appreciated since often these are explored only in specialist monographs with any depth.

One of the curious things about Japan is that since the conquest of the Emishi of northern Honshu around 800 AD, the Japanese lost an external frontier with another people. True, there were periods of endemic warfare between Japanese when central authority collapsed, but by and large, these conflicts were arguably less destructive than shocks from without would have been. Wars within cultural groups are highly destructive, but often they are governed by unified cultural scripts and mores.

In Strange Parallels: Mainland Mirrors: Europe, Japan, China, South Asia, and the Islands, the historian Victor Lieberman examines Japan as a case study of a “protected-zone” civilization. In Lieberman’s framework, the emergence of organized steppe nomadism in the years after the fall of Rome and China caused stress and chaos across what Nichols Spyman would term the “Eurasian rimland,” and what the ancients would have termed the civilized oikoumene. The same model crops up in Ian Morris’ War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots.

The development of the chariot during the Bronze Age was arguably an integrative force in the evolution of agricultural polities. Chariots were useful for the transport and deployment of elite warriors and archers. But, they were not utilized as shock troops, as would be the case with the rise of mounted cavalry. First emerging around 1000 BC on the western edge of the Eurasian steppe, by 0 AD the mounted cavalry had given birth to full-blown nomadism from Europe to China. To some extent, the only way that core civilizations on the Eurasian rimland could maintain themselves in the face of the pure nomadic assault was through co-option and assimilation. Arabs, Turks, and Mongols all swallowed up earlier settled civilizations. In the Near East, China, and India,  peoples of nomadic origin became the ruling classes, synthesizing and integrating with the traditions of those they conquered.

In contrast, much of Western Europe and Southeast Asia were protected from these incursions due to distance, topography, and climate. The German barbarians who took over the reins of power in the post-Roman world were agro-pastoralists, not nomads. In mainland Southeast Asia, the Tai incursions was a migration of agriculturalist warrior elites. The modern states of Cambodia, Vietnam, and Burma withstood the assaults and maintained cultural continuity with their past. In Western Europe, Ireland can be thought of as an analogous case, though the Viking shocks, and later Anglo-Normand conquest, disrupted its continuity.

Lieberman argues in Strange Parallels that these protected-zone societies are much more natural nation-states than elsewhere, in part because their organic identity from earlier cultural traditions persisted down to the modern era, as opposed to having been created anew through novel ideologies. And is it a surprise that of the European nations England, which has not undergone a mass invasion since 1066*, has one of the deepest self-conceptions as a nation-state?

Which brings us back to Japan: its imperial family dates at least the early 6th century AD. Though we don’t have verified dates before the Emperor Kinmei, it seems likely that the Imperial House of Yamato is quite a bit older than that. Unlike in the West then the Japanese have a much easier line of descent from antiquity for its elites. The persistence of the Japanese imperial family is a testament to the cultural prominence that the Yamato lineage has, with all of its ups and downs. In contrast, the arrival of waves of barbarians in other regions of the Eurasian rimlands produces a situation where taboos against taking official power eventually broke down. In the 5th century West Roman Empire, there was a taboo against barbarians or people of part-barbarian ancestry from becoming Emperor. Eventually, the barbarians got rid of the Emperor, and over the centuries became Emperors themselves. The same process is evident in the Islamic world, where the Arab Caliphs remained figureheads for Persian and Turkic potentates until they took over both de jure and de facto roles.

The Japanese have a different experience. At the beginning of their history, they were a cohesive culture expanding into the post-Jomon frontier. Though reinforced with an elite migration of Koreans and Chinese prior to the Fujiwara period, unlike polities across Eurasia the Japanese ruling class have been uniformly and continuously of the same ethnicity and identity as the populace which it ruled.** And, unlike the Vietnamese or Koreans, they have not been subjected to conquest and hegemony by China. They have long been of the Sinic sphere, not within the Sinic sphere.

Between Korea and Japan, there is a 200 km distance by water. In contrast, between England and France, there are about 30 km. This greater distance explains the relative isolation of Japan in comparison to England when it comes to continental affairs. Proto-historical expeditions in Korea, or Hideyoshi’s adventure, are exceptions, not the rule.  Official contacts between Japan and China often had gaps of centuries.

This is not to say that Japan was not influenced by the continent. Obviously, Buddhism, Chinese writing, and the wholesale transplantation of Tang culture during the Fujiwara period attest to the early influences, while later on even during the Tokugawa era there were influences from Western thought via the Dutch. Rather, the Japanese are a natural experiment of a people who have repeatedly engaged with the world on their own terms, and developed their own culture organically to such an extent that they put their ancient tribal animism, Shinto, as the state religion during their phase of modernization!

In answer to the question “why is Japan different?” I would say this is a peculiarity of geography, close enough to be influenced culturally, but distant enough to be politically isolated.

* I think the Dutch invasion under William of Orange really was an invasion. But its impact was mild due to broad local support.

** Contrast this with ethnically distinct ruling elites in the Near East, India, and China, as well as cosmopolitan ruling families in Europe. Even England was for several centuries ruled by a nobility which spoke French.

 

8 thoughts on “Japan as a natural cultural experiment

  1. Great Post! However, wish you covered more on the tentative conclusions that can be drawn from this natural experiment in history.

  2. Have you read Brett Walker’s Concise History of Japan? It puts a lot of emphasis on the Japanese absorption of the Ainu and Okinawans

  3. After a bit of Google research, I cannot find any government, burocrático, or religious position that is older than Emperor Of Japan, besides the early bishops including the Pope. Anyone with wider history knowledge around here has any more examples?

  4. Not to indulge in cliches, but Japn is a land of extremes in multiple ways, one of which is that in certain areas it is considerably more libertarian than Europe at least but also possibly the USA, while at the same time in other areas being more authoritarian. Urban planning is one area where it is much more liberal, due to policy being set at the national level where NIMBYs can’t get at it as easily. It also lacks European style consumer protection law and anti-monopoly/pro-competition law, or at least it’s much weaker. Income taxes are lower and the welfare system less generous than France or Germany

    A lot of that I think is actually just the result of late economic development though. The single most underrated fact about Japan IMO is that in 1960 its GDP per capita was equal to that of Mexico or the USSR and over a quarter of the workforce was still in agriculture. The USA passed that number in the 1920s and Britain in the 1800s. Cultural conservatism plus a fairly authoritarian but also very lean/small state make much more sense when you realize many Japanese people were peasant rice farmers not that long ago. For as prominently as the concept of the economy features in the Western popular imagination of Japan actual analysis of economics and economic history feature less than almost any other country I can think of. Modernization theory has gotten a massively unjust rap with the ascendency of postmodernism in the last 40 years, particularly the economic growth and development aspect. Japan was the country that modernization theory was formulated with in mind, remember

    Personally I think the most underrated comparison case for Japan is not Europe or China but the United States. Lots of deep and surprising parallels that are ignored mostly because of the strange and invisible Eurocentrism of the American educated public.

  5. Razib: In contrast, much of Western Europe and Southeast Asia were protected from these incursions due to distance, topography, and climate. The German barbarians who took over the reins of power in the post-Roman world were agro-pastoralists, not nomads. In mainland Southeast Asia, the Tai incursions was a migration of agriculturalist warrior elites. The modern states of Cambodia, Vietnam, and Burma withstood the assaults and maintained cultural continuity with their past. In Western Europe, Ireland can be thought of as an analogous case, though the Viking shocks, and later Anglo-Normand conquest, disrupted its continuity.

    Lieberman argues in Strange Parallels that these protected-zone societies are much more natural nation-states than elsewhere, in part because their organic identity from earlier cultural traditions persisted down to the modern era, as opposed to having been created anew through novel ideologies.

    I was thinking a little about this, and the deeper pre-history pre-1000BC. I wonder if it would be valid to describe China as a protected-zone civilization during its earliest phases, up until at least the Shang Dynasty.

    In contrast to the Western oikumene where the establishment of the pastoralists Indo-Europeans and movements of pastoralism with proto-Semitic speakers and other long distance migration trends, as well as multiple civilizational identities in close proximity tended to affect nascent isolated civilizations (e.g. in south eastern Europe).

    Hence maybe some of the characteristics of Japanese culture in its “organic identity” and able to “engage with the world on its own terms” also shared by early Chinese civilization, up until nomadic pastoralism really gets going in the Mongolian steppe, relatively late in the development of Chinese civilization (Indo-European migrations don’t seem to have extended to the Mongolian steppe with “limited gene flow” on the “Bronze Age Mongolian steppe” even by 1500 BCE)?

  6. John Jones: The USA passed that number” (of agricultural workforce) “in the 1920s and Britain in the 1800s.

    Prompted by this (though quite tangential), one of the interesting things I’ve learned from Pseudoerasmus’s tweets recently is that United Kingdom really gains about 40% share of secondary sector employment in about 1700AD!

    https://twitter.com/pseudoerasmus/status/1022834702414176256 – P’s tweet showing reconstructed share between 1350-1900; England+Wales on 40% of secondary sector by about 1700 AD, and including some comparison graphs for countries

    https://ourworldindata.org/growth-and-structural-transformation-are-emerging-economies-industrializing-too-quickly – Our World in Data with a graph since 1800, showing UK stays at this level until about 1970

    In the context of that stagnation of secondary sector employment, it really probably was a big shock for those whose families have known high levels of industrial+cottage industrial employment for over 250 years (8 generations), to have the drop after the 1970s and then further with the embrace of globalisation and imports of finished goods. For context, going by Our World In Data, Japan only at 30% between 1960-1993. Even though the fall is happening everywhere in response to the same forces, it is coming off a much shorter period of peak industrial employment everywhere else.

    Makes me rethink about why “Working Class consciousness” and conception of a distinct Working Class culture exists to a prominent degree in the United Kingdom while many other countries seem to have been more pragmatic and less romantic about the much briefer periods of peak secondary sector employment, and where secondary sector employment has always had a relatively smaller share of employment, and has always been high productivity and faced much foreign competition.

Comments are closed.