(From Journal of Japanese Trade & Industry (JJTI))
Byline: Lars Vargo
Learning has always been one of the main characteristics of society in Japan. Knowledge about the legal and administrative systems of China's Tang dynasty came to form the foundation of the first Japanese state, and Buddhist priests hungry for enlightenment studied the various philosophical and religious schools of the Song Dynasty. After the Meiji Restoration of the late 19th century, learning was the key to building a society that was equal to the Western powers. Official delegations were sent to Europe and the United States to study how those societies were structured and the recommendations they brought home were all pointing in the same direction. "We have to learn in order to improve; we have to study in order to become strong."
Already during the Edo period (1603-1867), curiosity was something that characterized Japanese society, despite the common conception that Japan was closed to the outside world. When the Swedish botanist and physician Carl Peter Thunberg visited Edo (now Tokyo) in the 1770s, he was struck by the detailed questions he was asked in the field of Western medicine. Japan might have been secluded, but it did not base its seclusion on a policy of ignorance. The Tokugawa officials during the former half of the 19th century knew that knowledge of the outside world was necessary; they learned what had happened to Chinese society, they knew they had to adapt, but they were too slow and rigid in their responses, and most of all, political and ideological factors in society blocked them from gaining real knowledge in time.
Already when the Boxer Rebellion was crushed in Beijing in 1900, Japan was one of the powers that participated in the quelling, side by side with the Western powers. And its troops were more disciplined than the others. It was after the Russo-Japanese war in 1904-1905 that hubris started to grow in Japan and, in particular, it was ignorance about the true nature of Chinese society and miscalculations about Western reactions that gradually took …