The United States of America considers itself the world’s democratic social prototype. At least most Americans seem to buy into that national self-image.

Just as they believe Adam was intelligently designed in God’s image, they appear convinced that the “free” world must be a virtual rubber stamp of the U.S. of A.

But actually, in the non-Western world, it is Japan that more accurately provides the mold shaping the future of societies; and that mold was fashioned a century and a half ago.

Consider the life and times of Kunitake Kume, who was born in what is now Saga Prefecture in 1839. Japanese society then was mired in feudal practices that controlled relationships in the family, in the workplace and in every facet of social intercourse outside those spheres. By the time of the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Kume, then nearly 30, was taking an active part in the wholesale restructuring of Japanese society.

Kume traveled overseas in the capacity of secretary and record-keeper of the Iwakura Mission, covering 12 countries in 21 months of travel between 1871 and 1873. In 1878, he published his monumental five-volume “Bei-O Kairan Jikki (Account of Travels in America and Europe).” Then, in 1888, he became a professor of history at what is now the University of Tokyo.

In 1892, Kume published a frontal attack on state Shinto, titled “Shinto wa Saiten no Kozoku (Shinto is an Outdated Heaven-Worshipping Practice).” As a result of this, he was compelled to resign his academic position, but he found another teaching job at what is now Waseda University. Kume died in his nineties, in 1931.

There is a reason for my bringing up Kunitake Kume.

Consider the lifespan of this historian who lived in four eras of Japanese history: Tokugawa, Meiji, Taisho and Showa. Was there any other span of time in a single life in which such astounding social and economic progress was made?

The empires of the West developed over centuries, with slavery providing cheap labor and the utter exploitation of the resources of the non-Western world at their disposal. Gross technological superiority in weaponry allowed — and to some extent still allows — the Western powers to maintain their access to the resources necessary to stay “on top.”

But “on top,” of course, presupposes that others are kept down. (This is essentially the current U.S. model controlling its diplomacy.)

In the middle of the 19th century, Japan emerged from more than two centuries of national isolation that had imposed not only geographical and social isolation from the outside world, but also scientific and technological isolation.

Kume and his compatriots had unstinting admiration for the achievements of the West, and naturally wished to emulate them. But Kume himself was no wholesale modernizer. He wrote in his journals of his respect for the museums that he saw. “A country develops,” he asserted, “through the accumulation of customs; it polishes the beauty of the past.” In other words, don’t throw the baby out just to refresh the bathwater; celebrate the beauty of the past as you stride into the future.

Kume was one of Japan’s first ardent proponents of trade — advocating what may seem to have been the logical step for Japan in the last decades of the 19th century, to institute a vigorous trade with the West. But many Japanese warned, not without justification, of the dangers of conducting trade on a playing field so sloped as to make it an uphill battle to even approach the goal post.

“There are businesses (in the West),” Kume wrote, “that are indispensable to trade and taken for granted in centers of commerce, such as docks, marketplaces, banks and such facilities of exchange, and chambers of commerce. These simply do not exist in the Orient.”

So, Kume is one of the granddaddies of the trading nation, realizing as he did that a solid infrastructure of supporting institutions of commerce and finance was necessary to level out that playing field.

This late 19th-century model of development, coupled with the formation of a unified state under a single symbolic leader — in Japan’s case the long-marginalized Emperor — allowed the country to sprint through a century and a half of development in a matter of a few decades. In addition, the Japanese managed to preserve many of their native traditions and social practices, while adopting what they considered the best aspects of the Western lifestyle.

It is no wonder that thousands of young Chinese flocked to Japan in the early years of the 20th century to learn how on earth the Japanese were able to establish themselves on an equal footing with the imperialist West and yet still maintain salient features of their traditional culture.

Is this not the goal of people in China, India and Russia today as well?

There are aspects of the Western European and American experiences that are applicable to the development of democracy and growth in those countries. But the model of fast-tracked equality that most closely resembles their ideals, and their social structures, is that of early modern Japan.

There is, though, a risky pitfall on this road as well.

If Japan can be a template, it can also be a hanmen kyoshi, or a “teacher presenting a negative example.”

It certainly looks as if today’s China and, to a similar extent, Russia, are emulating Japan — but in this case the Japan of the early Showa Era (1926-1989). Manage and control rapid industrialization at all costs, stifle dissent at home, create what is effectively a single-party dictatorship where the privileges and perks of power flow into the hands of those loyal to it, and bolster the prestige of the military in the eyes of the citizenry.

The current leaders of China and Russia would do well to study the consequences to Japan of this kind of development between 1926 and 1945. Striving to beat the West at its own game is part of the one-upmanship of world diplomacy. But the Japanese now know how that game, despite its initial positive energies, can morph into the horrible nightmares of war. Kunitake Kume did not live to see the worst of it. In 1930, the year before he died, he wrote: “My life has been lived in the most interesting period of history since the beginning of time.”

And, by the way, the Kume Museum of Art in Meguro, Tokyo, is showing an exhibit until Sept. 24 that is dedicated to his writing and his son’s art. That son, Keiichiro, was born in 1866 and went to France in 1886 to study painting. On his return he became a famous artist and a professor at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. He died in 1934, so thankfully he, too, did not live to see the Japanese state slide back down that slippery slope into ignorance and darkness.

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