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Japan as a "Littoral zone culture"

 
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JLBadgley
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PostPosted: Sun Feb 20, 2011 11:47 pm    Post subject: Japan as a "Littoral zone culture" Reply with quote
Okay, so I've been off studying a bit further inland from Japan lately, reading Christopher I. Beckwith's Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present (2009). In general, it is a very thought-provoking work, if overly ambitious (all of that in only 500 pages?), but some of the bits on Japan really get to me.

I realize this isn't his forte, but when he refers to Toyotomi Hideyoshi as the "shogun" of Japan, it tends to make me wonder if he has really studied anything about the country and the period. Thus, when he makes a statement like the following, it really makes me shake my head:

"There are some important reasons why Japan 'modernized' or 'Westernized' so quickly and became the lone Asian power among the otherwise exclusively European and American group of nations ruling most of the world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As an island country, Japan was a Littoral zone culture familiar with ships, the sea, an maritime trade. Compared to the peoples of the continental Asian empires founed by Central Eurasians, there was not as much of a conceptual or practical gap for the Japanese to bridge in order to catch up with the European maritime powers. Japan also had an unusually high literacy rate, partly due to the 'temple school' system. And finally the country had not in reality been completely close but had slowly assimilated some of the most important developments of European science via the 'Dutch learning,' translation of books acquire through the Dutch trading post in Nagasaki harbor." (Emphasis added).

Now, I'm willing to admit that the relatively high rate of literacy and selective access to "Dutch learning" was no doubt a key factor in keeping Japan informed on what was going on. However, I don't think I've ever seen anyone try to make the claim that Japan's maritime skills were on par, let alone exceeding, those of the rest of Asia. Granted, Japan was an island nation, but most of what I read of their attempts at crossing even the relatively short distance to Korea often seems to be far behind the abilities of the Chinese, Koreans, and Ryukyuan sailors. Furthermore, although for a period "wako" were greatly feared, that seems to be more for their ferociousness as warriors and not necessarily for their sailing abilities. Finally, while there were "red seal" ships going out and coming back, I had always been under the impression that most of the trade was through ships from other countries coming to Japan, and not the other way around--especially during the period when Japan was closed.

I'd say that the real reason Japan became a power was their ability to quickly (about 30 years) acquire the necessary skills from Britain, France, etc. I don't see their "island culture" coming into it except in that they were able to keep themselves insulated from outside (i.e. European) influences that weakened some of the continental powers; even when they were forced to open, they were still able to maintain some control over their own destiny, rather than just folding to external pressures.

Thoughts? Am I off-base and missing something in this equation?
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PostPosted: Mon Feb 21, 2011 2:19 am    Post subject: Reply with quote
I agree with you and your observations. I think Beckwith has it totally wrong about Japan. It seems that he is super imposing what made Britain as an island nation a power over the Japan, but the British "cod piece" doesn't fit the Japanese model so well.
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PostPosted: Mon Feb 21, 2011 2:43 am    Post subject: Reply with quote
Yep, he really 'missed the boat' big time with that analysis (for all the reasons that you've specified). Seems like most of the books I've read that were written by 'Chinese history scholars' that bring Japan into the mix tend to have only the most superficial knowledge of the country. Of course, I don't read too many books by Chinese history scholars because I'm too busy saving the world from their subject's counterfeiting and pirating operations Laughing.
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PostPosted: Mon Feb 21, 2011 6:02 am    Post subject: Reply with quote
Outside of piracy (and just how much Japan even engaged in is questionable), Japan was always way behind where an island nation should have been with maritime skills. Probably because Japan wasn't so much a unified country, but a collection of domains for so long, and outside trade also didn't seem that important to them, so they didn't have much reason to raise a maritime army.
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lordameth
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PostPosted: Mon Feb 21, 2011 9:15 am    Post subject: Reply with quote
I agree with what everyone else has said - Beckwith has definitely missed the boat (good pun there, Tatsu), making broad-ranging statements based on an assumption that Japan, as an island nation, was strong in its maritime trade abilities, without actually knowing that much about the country.

A few points, though.

Quote:
although for a period "wako" were greatly feared, that seems to be more for their ferociousness as warriors and not necessarily for their sailing abilities.


I do believe that the going theory today among scholars is that much wakô activity actually involved Chinese sailors and navigators, so the question of Japanese sailing abilities doesn't actually enter into it.

Quote:
Finally, while there were "red seal" ships going out and coming back, I had always been under the impression that most of the trade was through ships from other countries coming to Japan, and not the other way around--especially during the period when Japan was closed.


You're right about the "maritime restrictions" period - after the 1630s, there were no Japanese trading vessels going overseas at all (though Satsuma and Tsushima may have sent ships to Ryukyu and Korea on official business). But, prior to that, during the brief period of the red seal ship trade (roughly 1590-1640), I think that Japanese ships went overseas just as much as foreign ships came to Japan.

Well, either that or Japanese merchants and samurai seeking to go overseas took a ride on ships belonging to a different people. There were plenty of Japanese active in trading in Southeast Asia at that time, not just waiting for SE Asians to come to them... though whether they had their own Japanese ships to go to SE Asia on or not I'm not 100% sure.

...

All that said, though, I think we need to keep in mind that while Japanese ships were not plying the seas to travel to the mainland during the Edo period, domestic maritime & riverine trade was still very active. Trade and travel between Western Japan (esp. Kyushu) and the Kansai region was, I get the impression, done more by boat through the Inland Sea than by road, on land. Boats transported goods from Fushimi and elsewhere down to Kyoto via rivers and canals, and the Sumidagawa in Edo was covered in boats and lined with storehouses. Riverbanks were majorly active places in the cities of Edo period Japan - many of the most major economic districts were organized along the riverbanks, moreso than along the roads. Or, to put it another way, notice that the Tokaido starts and ends at bridges (Nihonbashi in Edo and Sanjô-ôhashi in Kyoto).

It happens that I first read about the concept of littoral cultures in an article on Viet Nam, so that's what I look back to when I think about what defines a littoral culture. The majority of the country of Viet Nam is organized along the coast - it doesn't extend very deep into the mainland - and the vast majority of its population lives (in the early modern period) very close to the coasts. Regions are separated from one another by tall mountains, and so trade and travel works mainly east-west on the rivers, and north-south (between river valleys) by sea, along the coasts, not by land via mountain passes. In summary, early modern Viet Nam as I understand it is very much a "littoral culture." River boats, and seashore or riverbank focused economy and lifestyle; doesn't have to be particularly active or powerful on "the high seas", i.e. in traveling overseas, to be a "littoral culture". The question of whether a people is a "littoral culture" is not the same as being a "maritime power."

The Japanese may not have been a maritime power, or innately somehow well-prepared to become a maritime power, like the "Island-Nation Britain" theory goes, but I think the basic idea of Japan as a "littoral culture", i.e. one based around rivers and water transport moreso than around land transport, might not be too far off.
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PostPosted: Mon Feb 21, 2011 10:35 am    Post subject: Reply with quote
Tatsunoshi wrote:
Seems like most of the books I've read that were written by '[redact]Chinese history scholars'[/redcact][insert]NON-JAPAN HISTORY SCHOLARS[/insert] that bring Japan into the mix tend to have only the most superficial knowledge of the country.


Yes, I'm looking at you, Noel Perrin. Stick to Brit Lit, you poofter.

//side note: is it too much to ask for a strikethrough HTML code?
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PostPosted: Thu Feb 24, 2011 11:13 am    Post subject: Reply with quote
The period of Japan's history that I see the country having superior Naval/Maritime skills is years post Meiji Restoration... Previous to that period, as others have already stated, Japan does not appear to have superior skills to her peers.

Being an island nation helped (Post Meiji Restoration), but I do not feel it is the main reason for Japan's Imperial Navy success. Note when Military activities moved from sea to air globally, Japan was able to be fairly successful in that transition.

An island nation does/did serve as barrier for entry of other nations, so, that aspect did help with Japan's autonomy. It helped Japan import selectively without being mandated from others what was to be imported.

I think the main reason transcends a period of time, but is related to skills/behaviors of the people of that nation with a solid educational system as a foundation. Skills that if a nation collectively embraces such as "Commitment to Task" in business or military endeavors, it increases chances of success.
Luck plays a part in life, but... my belief that success for an individual, a business, or a nation, is due to the skills and effort put forth for the goal that they trying to achieve. Some of the teachings of Samurai ways post Meiji Restoration helped Japan as a nation with "Commitment to Task".
The other area which I feel helped Japan as a nation move so fast up the World Military/Economic food chain was the elimination of classes where one was destined to live in the same class as one’s predecessors. The system of meritocracy which duties and promotions are based on merit was embraced during this period as well. This change served to motivate all to that one could move up based on performance.

A more recent example of this in my mind that shows an entire nation with a singular goal is Isreal's Defense Force. A country founded in 1948 and in a relatively short period of time, had a very capable national defense program. Granted, having the USA as an ally helps. A nation with a strong "Commitment to Task" can make great progress in a relatively short period of time.
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PostPosted: Fri Feb 25, 2011 6:24 am    Post subject: Reply with quote
And fear of Russia threat.
Military spending at the time was 39% of the national budget.
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