For the first time in 600 years Japan was threatened by foreign aggression. One among many differences between the 19th century American threat and the 13th-century Mongol invasions is this: 13th-century Japan was fiercely militarist, 19th-century Japan was impotently militarist.

What to do? There were two schools of thought. One favored resuscitating the indomitable “Japanese spirit” (yamatodamashii) that had put the Mongol invaders to flight. The other, seeing that as hopeless, proposed Plan B: bunmei kaika — “civilization.”

Meaning what? Different things to different people. A thousand years earlier, Japan had been “civilized” by China. Chinese literature, Chinese government, Chinese religion, art, morals, dress, architecture, were absorbed wholesale, indiscriminately. Backward, backwater Japan became a sort of apprentice China. A critical sense, maturing over time, sifted, reshaped, “Japanized” the whole vast inheritance into what the world knows and admires today as “Japanese culture.”

In the 17th century, unified and at peace after hundreds of years of feudal anarchy, Japan withdrew altogether from the outside world. The 250 years of seclusion that followed spawned art, literature, theater, music and scholarship that are strikingly weird, or strikingly beautiful, or both, depending on the tastes of the beholder — striking, in any case — but by 1853, when U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry’s “black ships” steamed into Edo Bay to demand Japan open itself to commerce (or else), the state was clearly rotting. Fifteen years later, the shogunate fell and the “Meiji Restoration” began, with “civilization” as the leading motif and yamatodamashii — so it seemed — forgotten.

Japan had been bullied and humiliated. The treaties forced on it, first by the U.S. and then by others, placed whole sections of Japanese criminal and commercial law under foreign jurisdiction. This was not colonization but imprisonment. How could Japan get free? By proving itself “civilized.” The West was “civilized.” That’s why it had triumphed. Japan must civilize itself — first to get the shackling treaties repealed, then to beat the West at its own game, fighting off its threats and perhaps, in due course, threatening others.

In 1868, the first year of his reign, the Emperor Meiji issued a Charter Oath declaring, “Evil customs of the past shall be broken off and everything based on the just laws of Nature.”

“Evil customs of the past” meant, essentially, the past — Japanese culture in all its manifestations, serious and trivial: governing principles, moral principles, art, literature, diet, dress, hairstyle. The samurai topknot was out, likewise the kimono and the sword. Writers and thinkers echoed and seconded the Emperor, none more indefatigably than the West’s most eloquent Japanese admirer, Yukichi Fukuzawa (1835-1901). “Bunmei kaika” was his coinage. In 1869, he wrote of Europe: “It is not the center of civilization in name only, but in fact. The people are thoroughly educated, practiced in virtue, and versed in knowledge. … Schools have been built everywhere in city and countryside alike. … The people are secure in their livelihoods; business prospers; they have sufficient armaments for defense.”

What fools the Japanese had been, spurning for all those centuries the path of progress and rationalism! So much lost time to make up for! Where would the energy come from? From beef, first of all, regardless of the ancient Buddhist injunction against meat-eating. “Guys who don’t eat beef are uncivilized dolts,” sneered the journalist Kanagaki Rubun (1829-94).

Historian George Sansom speaks of a “foreign fever that then raged in Japan.” Hiroshi Watanabe, another historian, describes “a craze for ‘civilization.'” He cites the titles of typical best-sellers of 1873 and ’74: “Textbook of Civilization”; “Primer of Civilization”; “A New Theory of Civilization” — the latter featuring chapters with titles like “The Reason for Cutting Your Hair”; “The Reason for Always Wearing a Hat”; “The Reason for Always Wearing Shoes,” and so on. Sansom mentions a popular children’s ditty of 1878 called “The Civilization Ball Song” — “designed,” he explains, “to impress on young minds the advantages of Western culture.” Children “were to count the bounces of the ball by reciting the names of ten objects deemed to be the most worthy of adoption — gas lamps, steam engines, horse carriages, cameras, telegrams, lightning conductors, newspapers, schools, letter post and steamboats.”

Sexual mores were a problem. Japan had licensed prostitution and mixed bathing. “Spring pictures” — ribald erotica — were sold and enjoyed openly. Farmers and laborers worked naked in the summer heat except for a loincloth. Was this “civilized”? “Don’t be laughed at by foreigners!” admonished a newspaper headline of the day. The old customs didn’t vanish overnight, but an emergent guilt complex about them gradually became discernible.

One foreigner who laughed all the same, or at least smiled, was the British traveler Isabella Bird, who wrote of Tokyo in 1878: “So the old and the new in this great city contrast with and jostle each other. … Carriages and houses in English style, with carpets, chairs and tables, are becoming increasingly numerous, and the bad taste that regulates the purchase of foreign furnishings is as marked as the good taste which everywhere presides over the adornment of the houses in the purely Japanese style.”

How far Japan had come, in so little time! Fukuzawa, the ardent Westernizer, was of low-ranking but proud samurai stock. His father had been horrified to hear his sons were being taught arithmetic in school. Numbers were “the tools of shopkeepers” — not warriors. And yet 30 years later, Fukuzawa was writing, “A man who can recite the Chronicles but does not know the price of food, a man who has penetrated deeply into the classics and history but cannot carry out a simple business transaction — such people as these are nothing but rice-consuming dictionaries, of no use to their country.”

A backlash there had to be, and a backlash there was. Its key figure is Saigo Takamori (1828-77), one of the Restoration’s leaders before a wrenching change of heart. “Civilization,” he wrote, “is the upholding of justice; it has nothing to do with outward grandeur.” The West was grand enough but hardly just, he felt — no role model for Japan. The revolt he led in 1877 against the new order was crushed, and Saigo died like a samurai, cutting his belly open on the field of battle.

Michael Hoffman blogs at www.michael-hoffman-18kh.squarespace.com.

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