SOAS University of London

Japan & Korea Section, Department of East Asian Languages & Culture

Japanese Modernity from Edo to Meiji

Module Code:
Module Not Running 2020/2021
FHEQ Level:
Year of study:
Taught in:
Term 1

This module offers students an introduction to the English language historiography on early modern and modern Japan from the rise of the Tokugawa State circa 1600 to end of the Meiji era in 1912. Students will read and discuss topics in Japanese history that address the relationship between the early modern state, society and economy all the way to the social and economic changes that informed the late-nineteenth century transformation of Japan into a modern industrial empire.

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 scholarship has started from the premise 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

On successful completion of this module a student will be able to:

  1. demonstrate understanding of the main debates in the historiography of early modern and modern Japan
  2. identify the theoretical underpinnings to historical scholarship and relate the Japanese case to the global experience of modernization and modernity
  3. demonstrate command of the state of the field on a particular topic alongside the ability to design a research project on that basis
  4. present their work effectively in both oral and written form


Total of 10 weeks teaching with 2 hours classroom contact per week consisting of a 1 hour lecture and a 1 hour seminar.


Scope and syllabus

Week 1 - Introductions (Japan as an Historical Subject)

Week 2 - The Tokugawa Polity (State-Building and Political Economy in Early Modern Japan)

Week 3 - The Bakuhan Economy (Proto-Industrial Origins of Japanese Capitalism)

Week 4 - Tokugawa Society (Territoriality and Collective Identity in Tokugawa Japan)

Week 5 - Throwing Off Asia (Civilization and Enlightenment)

Week 6 - Reading Week

Week 7 - The Modern Nation-State (Meiji Political Institutions)

Week 8 - Industrialization: Textile Work (Sericulture and the Origins of Industrialization)

Week 9 - Industrialization: Iron, Bricks and Silk (Iron Machines and Brick Buildings)

Week 10 - Origins of War and Empire (Japanese Society at War)

Week 11 - Informal and Formal Empire (Outcasts of Empire)

Method of assessment

An essay of 2,000 words to be submitted on day 1, week 7, in the term of teaching (40%); an essay of 3,000 words to be submitted on day 1, week 1, in the term following teaching 3 (60%).

Suggested reading

Core Reading

  • Beasley, W. G. Japanese Imperialism 1894-1945. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.
  • Howell, David L. Geographies of Identity in Nineteenth-Century Japan. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, 2005.
  • Jansen, Marius B. The Making of Modern Japan. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000.
  • Miller, Ian Jared, Julia Adeney Thomas, and Brett L. Walker. Japan at nature's edge: the environmental context of a global power. 2013.
  • Ravina, Mark. Land and Lordship in Early Modern Japan. Stanford, Calif: Standford University Press, 1999.
  • Ravina, Mark. To Stand with the Nations of the World: Japan's Meiji Restoration in World History. 2017.
  • Smith, Thomas C. The Agrarian Origins of Modern Japan. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1984.
  • Vlastos, Stephen. Peasant Protests and Uprisings in Tokugawa Japan. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1994.
  • Wigen, Kàˆren, Fumiko Sugimoto, and Cary Karacas. Cartographic Japan: A History in Maps. 2016.     


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