Dr. Kaoru Iokibe presents ‘Basic Elements of the Modern Japanese History’

Dr. Kaoru Iokibe is a professor at the University of Tokyo Graduate Schools for Law and Politics. His research focuses on the political and diplomatic history of modern Japan.

Photo courtesy of Yijiang Zhong from the Institute of Advanced Studies on Asia.

Iokibe presented “Distance, Time, Crossroads, and Expansion: Basic Elements of the Modern Japanese History” at the UAA bookstore on Nov. 8.

He believes to understand the evolution of modern Japanese history you must understand three fundamental factors: distance, time and crossroads.

The first fundamental factor is distance. Because of Japan’s distance from the pressing European and American powers in the 20th century, Iokibe identifies a pattern of behavior that he calls “upstream to origin.” With this pattern is the sentiment that because Japan is far from these pressing patterns, they have time to prepare for any threat that may be advancing towards them.

“Instead of preparing the military directly, the [Japanese government] decided that economy comes first,” Iokibe said.

The people of Japan recognized the importance of each factor: economy, military, society, etc. and presented one factor to focus on in order to improve the others. This is what Iokibe describes as the “upstream to origin.”

The second fundamental factor is time. During the Iwakura mission, representatives from Japan traveled to the United States to learn about modernity and the advancing Western world. They landed in San Francisco, experiencing their first encounter with a modern society.

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As they traveled by train, they saw large cities shrink smaller and smaller into rural communities. They then grow larger and larger as they neared Chicago. This experience showed the Japanese representatives that progress was achievable but it would take time.

“A horizontal journey by train was a vertical journey of society,” Iokibe said.

The third factor is crossroads. In the middle of the 1850s world exhibitions were held and presented the Japanese with cultures and customs from a variety of Western countries.

“In Japanese leaders’ understanding, there’s a universal criteria for Western civilization, but to survive in this criteria they have to be unique,” Iokibe said.

The Japanese people were at an impasse. They saw the need to modernize to keep pace with the West, however they realized they could retain their tradition and history at the same time. This goal of progress created an obsession contributing to a sense of uneasiness. This eventually led to the rise of conservative ideas clashing with progressive ones.

Iokibe was asked if he felt like Japan’s traditions and culture was somewhat lost as the country progressed or if it had evolved.

“Japan is like a container, a vase. It can accept ideas from outside but still retains its shape, its core. Japan will always be Japan,” Iokibe said.