SOAS University of London

Department of History, School of History, Religions & Philosophies

Japanese Modernity I

Module Code:
Year of study:
Taught in:
Term 1

The course is intended to provide an introduction to both the classic and recent historiography on modern Japan, and thereby a basis for further research. Japanese Modernity I will cover topics in Japanese history from the Tokugawa period to the early 20th century, addressing the question of the relationship between early modernity and the radical transformation to industry and empire in the late 19th century; Japanese Modernity II will address the tumultuous events of the 20th century.

Much of the early English-language work in the field took Japan to be the exception that proved the rule of modernization as an exclusively Western achievement. It therefore sought to explain the reasons for Japanese success (in terms of nation-state formation and industrialization) or failure (the drift to militarism and war) by isolating the archipelago from its East Asian context, comparing it to an often implicit Anglo-American norm, and seeking in the Japanese past either analogues for or the absence of those factors thought necessary for any country to succeed. More recent work has started from the premises that modernity is a global phenomenon, rather than a Western invention; that it is structured by transnational dynamics of capitalism and imperialism, rather than a unilinear process of national development; and that the Japanese experience of these can only be understood in its local and regional context. In this light, Japan is a compelling case-study of both the broader logic and process of modernization and the tensions to which it gives rise.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

  • An understanding of the main debates in the historiography of modern Japan; identify the leading positions within these, together with their theoretical underpinnings; and relate the Japanese case to both the global experience of modernization and modernity.
  • A command of the state of the field on a particular topic and an ability to to design a research project on that basis.
  • An ability to present their work effectively in both oral and written form


This is an 11 week course and the number of hours you will spend in a lecture is 2 hours.

Method of assessment

Essay of 3,000 words worth 80% of the final mark, Reaction paper/book review of 1,000 words worth 20% of the final mark


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules