What did it mean to be modern in early twentieth century East Asia?

What did it mean to be modern in early twentieth century East Asia?
By Libin Farah

The early 20th century was a time of change in east Asia with countries beginning to undergo a process of modernisation. The term modernisation can be used to mean a complex process of social change which is brought about mainly by political and economic developments towards nation building (Berger and Xiao 1999). Modernity here can be measured against the western standard set by Europe and America in terms of political structure, economic industrialisation and social advancements.

Firstly, this essay will discuss the nature of development in China, Japan and Korea and highlight the degree of change that emerged in the new century. Secondly, while the region underwent development this essay will argue that each countries experienced development in a unique way and that modernity is determined by the social, political and economic climates of each nation which are different for China, Japan and Korea.

The Meiji restoration 1868 in Japan can be understood to be the beginning of modernity as it was a deliberate attempt to move away from tradition methods of ruling and shifting towards western styles of governance. Modernity in Japan during this period was brought about through the realisation that they were unable to compete with the West in the global sphere.

In order to achieve equal status or surpass the Great Powers in the international sphere, Japan had to remodel its domestic systems to suit the international system and thus western norms (Hunter, 1989).

Existing systems were revised and Japanese elites actively pursued western knowledge in politics and economics known as the Iwakura mission. One of the aims of the Iwakura mission was for the Japanese diplomats to judge for themselves the achievements of Western societies with a view to adopting those parts of value to Japan (Nish, 1998).

Hence, Japan underwent a domestic transformation of their political system from a feudal system run by warlords in provinces to a centralised government. Feudal decentralization was seen as ‘shameful’ when compared to the West and unable to withstand external pressures therefore a series of government reforms were introduced to disassemble the system and unite the nation (Crowley 1970).

A constitution was declared in 1889 making Japan the first non-Western country to inaugurate a constitutional government (Jansen, 2000). The legal system was entirely changed, adopting  a new criminal and civil code modelled after those of France and Germany (The Meiji Restoration And Modernization, Columbia University).

Moreover, the emperor was expected to take advice from a council of men that had overthrown the previous regime, thus planting the seed for the establishment of a democratic government which was cemented with the creation of a bicameral legislative body know as Diet (The Meiji Restoration And Modernization, Columbia University).

Additionally, the breakdown of the feudal system had social consequences as it lead to the rearrangement of classes within society. The new arrangement comprised of two new classes rather than four, an important step in reducing the inequality between the lower classes and the nobility (Gubbins 2013).

Provincial barriers that were created under feudalism were broken down which opened up new channels of commercial activity and encouraged individual freedom and economic development for the merchant and artisan class, thus reducing the power of the Samurai elites (Gubbins 2013).

To further economic growth the government funded mass industrialization to shift the agrarian based economy towards industry and mass production. Factories were introduced to provide experience and jobs and an expanded educational system provided training (McMichael, 2012). The government supported private business that evolved into industrial combines known as zaibatsu as well as investing heavily in public work projects in transport and architecture (McMichael, 2012).

Japan’s efforts to modernize the urban transport were centred on adopting the western technology of road building and railway building (Morichi and Acharya, 2013). The Meiji period saw the evolution of transport in Japan’s urban areas. There was a gradual shift from transport by water and foot due to the development of urban transport systems.

By the late 19th Century there were 50,000 rickshaws; Human drawn carriages were replaced by horses which was quickly followed by electric trams first introduced in Kyoto (1895) and then in Tokyo (1905) (Jansen and Rozman, 2014).

The process of modernization in Japan was incentivized by their political and economic deficiency when compared to the West. Therefore, it could be argued that the Japanese imitated the West in order to be of similar status.

Yet, it should be noted that while the Japanese did adopt many Western styles they were able to maintain their own identity. For example, the study of yoga, Western style art, was implemented into the education system for the ‘purpose of transplanting the techniques of the modern Western art to original Japanese art as an aid to Japanese artists and to supplement what is lacking in Japanese art’ (Weisenfeld, 2010).

In this light, the pursuit of Western knowledge was not to copy or imitate but to enhance artistic expression. The same argument when applied to the political and economic structures bears little weight as it very evident that the Japanese aspired to surpass the West by mimicking them in this regard and therefore based domestic institutions on Western models.

As well as political and economic structures, Japan also adopted Western colonial systems and demonstrated it with the annexation of Korea in 1910. Korea’s march to modernisation coincided with imperial aggression and colonialist exploitation (Myers and Zhen, 1984).

The historical discourse surrounding Japanese imperialism in Korea is often split into two branches. Some scholars argue that Japanese imperial rule, while horrific, was ultimately beneficial for Korea as it made the industrialise and put them on the path to meet the new world standard as Japan had.

Alternative views suggest that colonial modernity had negative long term implications for Korea and that modernization should be condemned for all the disastrous consequences it produced (Shin and Robinson, 2000). Thus, the term colonial modernity well depicts the complex reality that Korea faced during the colonial period.

The goal of Japanese colonial policy was to create a tightly welded, centrally controlled empire within the legal framework of Meiji Constitution (Myers and Zhen, 1984). Politically, the Japanese aimed to reproduce their systems in the colonies thus creating replicas of their bureaucracy and legal systems in Korea.

They implemented a school system centred on medical treatment, hygiene systems and employment education (Barlow, 2012). Heavy investments went into industrialization. Japan located various heavy industries – steel, chemicals, hydro-electric power – in its colonies (Myers and Zhen, 1984). They created an extensive network of railways, so that by 1945 Korea had the most developed rail system in Asia outside of Japan (Myers and Zhen, 1984).

The construction of the railway system was successful in bring spreading industrialization to regional areas (Lee, Ha and Sorensen, 2012). Urbanization was a natural by-product of rapid industrialization due to increased job opportunities. Coastal cities underwent a transformation due increase trade overseas aided by advances in maritime technology (Lee, Ha and Sorensen, 2012).

Also, coastal areas were centres for commercial activity because of trading firms as well as migrant hubs for Japanese settlers as they increased to 347,500 in 1920 (Lee, Ha and Sorensen, 2012).

In many respects, the advancements during colonialism was the beginning of Korea’s modern urban structure (Chung and Kirkby, 2001). However, these imposed institutions had negative effects in the long term. The colonial state assumed the responsibility to modernize the nation through the means of industrialization.

Despite Korea being a late industrialiser it was able to catch up, yet the rapid growth that it underwent due to pressure from the Japanese meant that Korea developed unnatural deformities (Lockwood, 2016).

These deformations are products of forced nurture and industrialization on a weak state with an expectation to reach the same level of economic and political development as Japan within short a period of time (Lockwood, 2016). An example of an unnatural development would be that Korea inherited repressive systems that were put in place by the Japanese such as heavy censorship on political publications and media outlets.

Film during the colonial period was an instrument used by the Japan to ideologically manipulate the masses by advocating Japanese ideals and to exact total submission of rule (Lee, 2008). This set the precedent for the state behaviour of North Korea post-independence as film was utilised as an instrument for socialization and political propaganda (Lee, 2008).

All artistic activities were controlled by the state and rather than using it as a medium to promote Japanese ideals or for entertainment, it became a platform to indoctrinate people with communist and socialist values (Lee, 2008).

Therefore, North Korean censorship and tight control on media can partly be explained due to their inheritance of a regressive rather than progressive system.

The nature of the economic relationship between Korea and Japan was so that Japanese needs were superior to the colonised state. Japan modernised Korean industry and agriculture for the benefit of the metropole. Japanese efforts to modernise agriculture resulted in an impressive increase of agricultural output however Korea acted as food suppliers to Japan as well as a market for Japanese manufactured goods (Myers and Zhen, 1984) (White, 2017).

The indigenous population hardly reaped the benefits of modernisation, rather they suffered greatly due to economic exploitation as domestic needs were subordinate to the imperialists and ruling elite. Economic exploitation disproportionately affected the rural population. Landlord disputes over land cultivation and tenancy were rife across Korea especially in the South Cholla Province (Lee, Ha and Sorensen, 2012).

In 1930, the landlords, mostly Japanese absentee landlords who comprised 3.5 percent of the total farm population, owned 60 percent of the arable land (White, 2017). Even in times of depressed rice prices landlords still received 40 – 50 percent of the harvest, while tenants barely had enough to cover their expenses let alone rice subsistence (Robinson, 2009).

By the late 1920s and early 1930s most of the Korean rural population hovered above subsistence (Shin, 2014). In 1930, 1,253,000 families were gathering grass and bark of trees for food (White, 2017).

Therefore, the function of modernisation was a Japanese establishment for the Japanese market. The benefits of colonial modernity were not felt immediately for Koreans and even after independence it still posed problems for the new regime. Korea experienced an economic and political renaissance yet the social and cultural austerity and destitution that many endured made the long term benefits of modernisation obscure.

Similarly, China experienced economic imperialism by the Western powers, particularly the British following the Opium Wars. The Chinese succumbed to British power in both wars making China a new sphere of influence for Western powers.

The Opium wars became a catalyst for change as it crippled the already weak Qing dynasty and left it vulnerable to internal strife and rebellions (Arcano and McClearn, 2000). The by-products of the Opium wars included legal and social change for women and economic industrialization.

Advancements for women were partly initiated because of international connectedness which brought Western ideas regarding the status of women. Oppressive cultural practices such as foot binding received negative international attention which made the Qing deeply embarrassed (Roces and Edwards, 2010).

Also as China forcibly opened its markets for foreign trade, Western-style leather shoes supported natural feet thus sealing the fate for foot binding as a practice (Roces and Edwards, 2010).

Additionally, education became more accessible to women first through missionary schools and then as part of the new government; by 1919 there were 134,000 girl’s schools with 4.5 million students (Ebrey and Walthall, 2006).

With modern education came contemporary ideas. Foreign contemporary philosophies such as socialism and anarchism were studied by early political activists, revolutionaries and feminists in Japan, most famously Qiu Jin (Roces and Edwards, 2010).

Women became more literate and thus more politically active as displayed by their contribution to the May Fourth Movement. The Movement is also known as the Chinese Enlightenment questioned Confucian dogma and revised the status of women.

The abolishment of traditional culture resulted in the creation of a ‘New Women’ identity and deconstructing traditional perspectives on women (Koetse, 2012). The ‘New Women’ represents a positive view of linear modernity and hopes for a strong future China (Stevens, 2003).
Modern attitudes towards women were also facilitated by economic industrialization.

Industrialization produced a new complementarity between men and women as women were no longer expected to stay at home but work in factories therefore changing gender roles is was an economic consequence that encouraged women into the workplace (Koetse, 2012).

China’s open market prompted foreign investment and by the end of the first decade of the 20th century China had an emerging bourgeoisie made up of merchants, bankers, industrialists and foreign firms (Ebrey and Walthall, 2006).

World War One was also an opportunity for Chinese business to sell their produce as the Western powers were busy in Europe for example Chinese textile mills increased form 22 in 1911 to 109 in 1921 (Ebrey and Walthall, 2006).

Hence, industrialization was a modern advancement from the previously agrarian economy, yet it was through warfare that China was exposed to Western ideas, and similar to Japan, it was required to catch up the Western standard of modernity.

In conclusion, modernity encompassed the entire region, the social, political and economic climates that facilitated modernity were different in China, Japan and Korea. The role of the West in modernizing East Asia cannot be emphasized enough as it was Western ideas that renovated Japan.

Western ideas of expansion partly explains the annexation of Korea and economic imperialism in China showcases how East Asia was accessible and interconnected in international relations. Therefore, Japan, Korea and China were transforming through cultural influences from abroad and new knowledge.

The term modernity is a loaded term when using it to describe developments in East Asia because for Korea and China modernity was experienced through imperialism. Japan imitated the West in order to beat the West and due to this practice Japan was able to develop rapidly. Modern social developments in China were unique as they were stimulated by the economic and political process created by conditions of war.

However, when trying to understand modernity in the Korea it is imperative to look at it from different levels of analysis: state level and macro level. Japan colonised a state, not a people therefore advancement during the colonial period in Korea can only be seen through state structures while simultaneously the state took systematic approaches to eradicate Korean culture and society along with economic exploitation (Myers and Zhen, 1984).

This creates a double-edged sword as colonialism is oppressive therefore modernity is not a synonym for progress. Yet without colonialism it is difficult to say if development would have occurred at the rate that they did. East Asia as a region underwent many transformations in the early 20th century but economic industrialisation, it could be argued, was the most important factor as it created lasting change and the climate which facilitated political and social developments.


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