Ch. 13. Early Modern Transformation Beyond Europe

    Italy, Portugal, and Spain had participated in the early modern transformation of the 16th century, and they had even helped to set the stage for it in the 15th century. Then, they seem to have slept through the 17th and 18th centuries with very little forward progress. This kind of delay has been common in the modern transformation, especially the early stage. 1

    Latin America was conquered by Spanish and Portuguese adventurers who were among the most modern people of their time. The way their colonies developed, however, with a white ruling class, African slaves, a native population that was held in bondage, and a mixed race working class was not conducive to modern development. 2

    The French revolutionary armies under Napoleon brought the modern transformation to eastern Europe and re-awakened it in southern Europe and Latin America. The combined effect of the Enlightenment, the American Revolution, and the French Revolution also began to shake other cultures out of their traditional habits. 3

Modern Change Promoted by Aristocratic Governments

    European colonies and possessions had been spreading around the globe for some time. Native people were forced to deal with that, but they had not previously responded with modern transformations of their own. Until the 19th century, the non-European world retained its tribal and aristocrat-peasant societies, but that was starting to change. 4

    The modern transformation spread outward from western Europe in all directions through a process of diffusion. As the modern transformation began to penetrate Asia and Africa, change was often initiated from the top of the society. The Ottoman Turks could see for themselves that Europeans had become much stronger militarily, and they wanted to catch up. Napoleon’s adventures in Egypt served to emphasize the degree of disparity between Western and Eastern capabilities. The Ottomans reequipped their army with Western weapons, uniforms, and training. These were improvements, but not enough to stem the relative decline. 5

    The Ottomans began looking at social and economic reforms. Printing presses were established to disseminate modern knowledge and ideas. Schools, colleges, and universities were opened. Modern industry was supported. Even political reforms were tried. The first Ottoman Parliament, a consultative body, opened in 1882. All of this was progress, but it did not come close to putting the Turks on an equal footing with the Europeans. An independent administration under Muhammad Ali Pasha was trying similar reforms in Egypt with similar results. 6

    The Ottoman Empire was trying to become modern through reforms and activities promoted by the government. This was a common response around the world to a realization by traditional aristocratic states that something new, powerful, and important was happening in western Europe. Peter the Great had tried the same kind of reforms in Russia at the beginning of the 18th century. This form of change, instituted from the top, was a prominent part of many modern transformations in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa. 7

    In the 19th century, the top down approach to modern development was tried, to a greater or lesser extent, by aristocratic dynasties in the Ottoman Empire, Persia, and India. The problem was that the new schools, economic opportunities, and political reforms were mostly for the elite of the population. They usually did not penetrate down to the mass of the peasantry and the common people. The diffusion of modern society in this way was slow, vague, hesitant, and mostly for the well-off. 8

Real Change Starts From Below

    The top down approach can get things started, but the modern revolution is all about the common people. When the ordinary people, peasants and commoners, are set loose to compete with each other in a market environment that is when the modern transformation starts to gain momentum. Anything else is just a preliminary exercise. The real beginning of the modern transformation happens when a society starts using markets as the primary mechanism for the distribution of food. For as long as the majority of people are peasants or subsistence farmers, modern development will make little progress. 9

Modern Transformation in Japan

    After the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, a century and a half of civil war came to an end in Japan. The Tokugawa shogunate pacified Japan and made it a much more unified and centralized aristocratic state. Their intention was to rebuild and strengthen the aristocrat-peasant command-economy relationship. On paper, that is what they did, but there were large unintended consequences. 10

Economic Development

    With peace and strong government, there was a general increase in travel, trade, and prosperity. Population was growing, cities were expanding, and more land was brought into production as paddy fields. There was a long slow increase in market commerce. Transportation infrastructure and wholesale markets were being developed.  Previously there were different kinds of economic exchange that had to do with a person's rank and responsibilities. Now it was all becoming just a matter of money. The Shogunate (upper-level aristocrats), Daimyo (mid-level aristocrats), and Samurai (lower-level aristocrats) were all trying to acquire as much of the rice harvest as possible to sell to the expanding market towns and cities. The peasants were trying to produce enough so that they had some rice left over to sell for themselves. It was becoming a whole new world, dominated by money and market commerce. 11

    The development of the market economy in Tokugawa Japan started from a low level and happened slowly. No one had planned it. Everyone with any kind of power tried to prevent it, or at least control it. The growth of markets was disruptive. Peasants sometimes abandoned their land because rent and taxes owed to the aristocrats were too high. They could make more money in some other trade. There were recurring famines: partly because population was growing faster than food production, partly because of weather, and partly because of general economic dislocation. 12

    The economic changes in Japan were just as chaotic and confusing as when European peasants were originally in the process of becoming market farmers. At the beginning of the 19th century, two different kinds of economy were fighting with each other and causing disruption. One was the traditional feudal aristocrat-peasant command economy, and the other was a modern market economy. If the more efficient market system was going to prevail, it would require an entirely new form of government and society. 13

Conflict and Political Controversy

    As the 19th century began, there was no indication that Japan was preparing for the fastest change ever from feudal aristocratic society to a modern constitutional democracy. The Tokugawa shoguns had tried to isolate Japan from foreign influence and disruption. There was too much chaos and confusion within the domestic society already. But the Japanese leaders knew about the European imperialists who were approaching their Islands. Russian fur traders and fishermen were appearing from the north. The British were making a move on China from the south, which led to the Opium War (1840-1842). The Japanese were stunned at how quickly and easily the mighty Chinese Empire was defeated and humiliated by a country from the other side of the world. 14

    Japan's samurai and daimyo military aristocracy had been watching the threat of European imperialism since the beginning of the century. Some of the daimyo had been importing and testing examples of western artillery and were surprised at the rapid progress being made. The Japanese aristocratic houses had spent a large amount of time and effort in petty conflict with each other over land, peasants, and rank. A large number of samurai were beginning to realize that this was getting them nowhere, except further behind the Europeans in military capability. 15

    In the mid 19th century, ship technology was advancing at a rapid pace. Steam engines were being fitted; hulls were changing from wood, to iron, to steel. The samurai watched as European fleets landed armies on the Chinese coast. The Japanese aristocrats debated among themselves what to do. The conservatives resisted change. The modernizers believed that Japan should engage with the foreigners and learn the secrets of their military strength. 16

The Arrival of the Americans

    In 1853, when a heavily armed navel squadron from the United States arrived in Tokyo Bay and demanded to negotiate a commercial treaty, the shogun's government was powerless to expel them. Many samurai and some daimyo had already begun to realize that isolation could no longer defend Japan from the modern world. They were ready to investigate the new kind of government, economy, and social mechanisms that gave these Westerners their strength. 17

    A most extraordinary series of events quickly followed. Treaties between Japan and the West were signed in 1858, which led to economic chaos, anarchy, and small-scale civil war. There was a lot of confusing rhetoric, but much of the discussion was done the old fashioned way, out on the battlefield. The modernizing daimyo and samurai won these small civil wars with their newly organized artillery and rifle regiments. The defeated shogun resigned in 1867. 18

    In 1868, the modernizing daimyo and samurai organized the Meiji Restoration and became the power behind the new nation-state government. The emperor was just sixteen years old, but that did not matter. He was a member of the ancient imperial dynasty, and a living symbol of the unity and eternity of the Japanese nation. That is why the ancient imperial dynasty was so important. The emperors did not make governmental decisions. The Japanese were still working out how the new nation-state government would be organized. 19

Political Revolution and Evolution

    The original modernizing daimyo and samurai from the 1850s and 60s had become the power behind the throne. They had organized the Meiji Restoration and still remained in control. In the 1870s, the aristocratic ranks of daimyo and samurai were officially abolished. Japanese leaders toured the West to understand what was happening, and what they were up against. A democratic constitution was adopted in 1889, although only a few percent of the population were eligible to vote. The first session of the newly elected Japanese Diet opened in 1890. Universal education was quickly adopted. 20

    In a single generation, the feudal-aristocratic government was disbanded and a new democratic government was established. At least that is the way it looked on paper. In reality it is not that easy. Traditional societies, including Japan's, were governed by the strongest, the military aristocracy. It is not possible to go from "rule by the strongest" to "rule by the people" in a single generation. 21
    Democracy in Japan started out as a weak appendage to royal government, just as it did in Europe. Military officers and descendants of aristocrats remained the real power in Tokyo until 1945. They had originally pushed for modernization in order to acquire the industrial capability they needed to defend Japan from the European imperialists. Then they used the new weapons for imperial conquest of their own. 22

Industrial Development

    The new nation-state government worked hard to promote modern industry. Steel mills, steam power, and battleships were at the top of a long list of requirements. Prior to the Meiji Restoration, there had been two different kinds of economy: the old feudal command system and the emerging market economy. After the Meiji Restoration, the aristocrat-peasant command economy was quickly ended. The capitalist market economy grew by leaps and bounds. 23

    Unlike most emerging nation states, Japan was well prepared economically and socially for the modern transformation. The daimyo and samurai may have been conflicted about ending feudal society, but the peasants and townspeople were absolutely in favor. They were already familiar with modern commercial methods. When local aristocratic interference was removed, the capitalist market economy flourished. 24

    The government encouraged heavy industry with laws, funding, and tariffs. Farmers were taxed to help provide the necessary revenue. Light industry roared ahead on its own. A fairly standard oligarchic society and economy quickly developed. Trading and manufacturing companies like Mitsui and Mitsubishi had good political connections, which helped them to grow into zaibatsu and dominate the economy. The industrial working class turned to socialism to agitate for their political and economic rights. Universal male suffrage became law in 1925. Nationalism was the most important political force. Socialism was a distant second. For the most part, the military remained in overall control of the government.  25

Military Conflict

    In most modern transformations, questions about national identity are a major source of violence. This was not an issue in Japan, where nearly everyone was ethnically and linguistically Japanese. Their biggest problem was that as a small island nation with few resources, they thought it was necessary to conquer a large empire in order to be successful in the modern world. We now know that this was not correct. In the 1970s, Japan became the world's second largest economy without the need to conquer anything. 26

    Japan would complete the modern transformation in record time, just over a century, but it was a very violent period. World War II was a devastating experience for the Japanese nation, but it completely destroyed and discredited the military leaders who had been running the government since time immemorial. This made it possible for Japan to complete the modern transformation and arrive at democratic-market society.  27

Modern Transformation Begins at Home

    Conventional history says that Western style government and economy was first brought to Japan by Commodore Perry in 1853, and then forced upon Japan by the United States after World War II. According to my view of history, Western society is just another name for modern society, and modern society develops on its own timetable according to its own universal rules and patterns. 28

    The increase of market commerce starting in early Tokugawa Japan was primarily a homegrown evolutionary process. Japan began developing a more modern economy in the 1600s. Two centuries later, when Commodore Perry arrived, there had not yet been any modern political reforms. After the American squadron appeared, the modern transformation went into high gear and political change happened faster than anywhere else. The Americans were the trigger, not the cause. Japan took a very standard path through the modern transformation, which is propelled by causes of its own. 29

Diffusion of Modern Society Through Imperialism

   The western Europeans were the first to begin the modern transformation and the first to develop modern weaponry. As was normal for the time, they used this capability to conquer or control pretty much everyone else. By the end of World War I, almost the entire planet was ruled by imperialists. 30

    The Europeans claimed that they were bringing the benefits of modern civilization to the heathen world. That was an exaggeration. Non-European societies suffered major population losses as a result of being conquered. There were often epidemics from introduced diseases and famines caused by the disruption of the traditional economies. 31

    After seizing the accumulated wealth of the conquered populations, the imperialists often went on to develop plantations and mines that were capable of producing a steady stream of income. Native workers were trained in production techniques and administrative skills to keep the commodities flowing. This kind of colonial development was seldom self-sustainable. Less than one percent of the population was educated enough to manage the production, transportation, and marketing requirements of modern commerce. When the colonies became independent after World War II, this group was too small to establish stable nation-state governments and maintain the legal and physical infrastructure that is necessary for productive enterprise. 32

Independence and the Modern Transformation

    During and after the struggle for independence in the 20th century, there was usually a large amount of anarchy and chaos. Local warlords fought over possession of any productive enterprise. The mines, plantations, and other left-over assets of the colonial economy were seldom capable of sustaining themselves and becoming the foundation of modern development. For the most part, modern industry was going to have to emerge all over again from the beginning. 33

    The best place to observe the real beginning of the modern transformation is in the villages. If the peasants pay their land tax in kind and do not use hard cash, it is traditional society. When the peasants start selling their production for cash and have money to spend, the modern transformation has begun. In a tribal village, if food is mostly exchanged by sharing or barter, it is still traditional society. When households need a cash income because food is now bought and sold, the tribal population has begun the modern transformation. 34

    Most non-European aristocrat-peasant societies began this village-level change to a market economy in the 19th century. For many tribal societies, the change to a cash economy did not happen until the 20th century. After World War II, a majority of the one hundred newly independent nations would have to start the modern transformation mostly from the beginning. 35

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