The “Great Man” theory of history has largely been discredited. Propounded by Thomas Carlyle in the 1840s, it suggests that history is moved and swayed by the personalities of “great men” such as Alexander the Great and Napoleon. While there are clearly examples throughout history of men and women who were “great,” societal trends and technological advancements are now considered far more important drivers of history.

But personalities should never be removed from history completely. The right person in the right place at the right time can make a difference. The story of Japan’s “modernization” at the end of the Edo Period (1603-1868) and the beginning of the Meiji Era (1868-1912) is packed with many such characters.

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