Publication: Japanese “Western Learning” From Tokugawa to Meiji

I’ve been working on a couple different historical articles to be published lately, so this will a short “stand-in” post for my weekly reflections.

On Friday, my article “Against a Rupture Narrative: Japanese ‘Western Learning’ from Tokugawa to Meiji” was published in the Columbia Journal of Asia. I encourage you to read it here!

Here’s the abstract:

Throughout the 19th century, Japanese elite society simultaneously expanded its interest in affairs beyond its borders while reaffirming its distrust of foreigners and foreignness (jōi). This paper examines the variety of ways in which Japan engaged with the outside in the tumultuous 19th century.

Scholarship on 19th century Japan so often treats the Tokugawa period and the Meiji period as absolutely separate entities, between which occurred a complete shift in thought and ideology. Even scholars who argue that Sakoku was a myth still tend to leave the Meiji period well enough alone; likewise, Meiji scholars often fail to address the similarities in thought between the two periods. In terms of the ideological and scholarly currents about Japanese relationships with the exterior, the late Tokugawa period and the Meiji period were actually quite similar.

I intend to create a discourse on Japanese external relations that synthesizes a number of temporally narrow scholarly works in order to show not a rupture but a continuity in Japanese national thought throughout the 19th century— in the transition from the Tokugawa to Meiji eras, views on the outside world did not change nearly as much as most scholars have presumed. (END OF ABSTRACT)

I originally wrote this paper as an undergrad in 2016, for a class on early modern Japanese science, philosophy, and “western learning” (rangaku, literally “Dutch learning” because the Dutch were the only Europeans allowed in Japan for 250 years). I ended up discussing a lot of the same themes and writers (Aizawa Seishisai primarily) in my BA thesis, which I completed in 2017.

I think this is one of the better, higher-effort papers I wrote as an undergrad, and I thought it would be fun to bring it out again and work it into an article! The time period covered, the 19th century, is a bit out of my main interest range now that I’m more focused on the early 20th century — but I enjoyed going back and remembering where I started. And I always find interesting the dynamic of Japan building up its arsenal and administration with Euro-American technology and ideas specifically to resist Euro-American imperialism. Thanks for reading.

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