Japan and Britain look roughly similar

Wednesday, June 5th, 2019

Meiji-Era Japan is perhaps the modern world’s outstanding example of selective national change, and of using other nations as models. In Upheaval Jared Diamond gives some background, including a bit of geography:

Japan was the first modern non-European country to match European societies and overseas neo-European societies (the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) in standard of living, industrialization, and technology.


Japan and Britain look roughly similar in area, and both lie near the Eurasian continent, so one would expect similar histories of involvement with the continent.


While Japan and Britain look at a glance similar in area and isolation, Japan is actually five times farther from the continent (110 versus 22 miles), and 50% larger in area and much more fertile.


When the first Portuguese adventurers reaching Japan in 1542 shot ducks with their primitive guns, Japanese observers were so impressed that they avidly developed their own firearms, with the result that by 1600 Japan had more and better guns than any other country in the world.


The first Christian missionaries arrived in 1549, and by 1600 Japan had 300,000 Christians.


Visits by foreigners to Japan were banned except for Chinese traders confined to one area of the port city of Nagasaki, and Dutch traders confined to Deshima Island in Nagasaki harbor. (Because those Dutch were Protestants, they were considered non-Christian by Japan.)


The reason why, among Western powers, the U.S. was the one that became motivated to act first against Japan was the U.S.’s conquest of California from Mexico in 1848, accompanied by the discovery there of gold, which caused an explosion of American ship traffic to the Pacific coast. Sailings of American whaling and trading ships around the Pacific also increased. Inevitably, some of those American ships got wrecked, some of those wrecks occurred in ocean waters near Japan, and some of their sailors ended up in Japan, where they were killed or arrested according to Tokugawa Japan’s isolationist policy. But the U.S. wanted those sailors instead to receive protection and help, and it wanted American ships to be able to buy coal in Japan.


  1. Kirk says:

    One of the stunning things about the Japanese experience with firearms, when you go to look at it, is that the Japanese actually developed drill before the Europeans did.

    That seems like one of those irrelevant “inside baseball” deals, important only to military geeks, but… It’s not. It’s tremendously impressive, because without drill, you don’t have effective use of large maneuver elements with firearms. And, the Japanese got there first, before William of Orange really got the first bits off the ground in Europe.

    There was a huge and largely unknown factor in the early professionalization of the militaries in Europe, centered around the revitalization of discipline and drill. It was literally a lost art, and it took people going back and reinventing a lot of what the Romans had been doing before they really got past the stage of heavily armed mobs with a bunch of warrior-caste dudes out in front.

    Fascinating period of history, and a guy like Miles Standish, a professional soldier with training and experience from the wars in the Netherlands, could write their own tickets anywhere they went in Europe. Indeed, the world… The Pilgrims hired Standish specifically to train them and lead them with the modern drill techniques he’d become proficient in. Those techniques were probably more significant than anything else, in fighting the local Indian tribes. Anyone could fire an arquebus, but to make use of volley fire and all the rest? That took training, discipline, and practice: Drill, in short.

  2. Ezra says:

    Steam ships of the period too could not make the Pacific crossing from the west coast of North America without having to refuel at least once. An island called Iwo Jima first thought to be the ideal spot for a coaling station where ships could replenish supplies and fuel.

  3. E.E. says:

    No they don’t. Besides why Japan and not Indonesia or Malaysia?

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