Neither West nor Rest. Changing Concepts of Civilization in Japan, 1860-1940

When Fukuzawa Yukichi published Seiyō Jijō [Things Western] in the mid-1860s, he not only coined the term “West,” he simultaneously linked it firmly with the concept of civilization and race. For him, the adoption of Western civilization was the only way to preserve Japan’s independence. Thus, in the early years of the civilization and enlightenment movement (bunmei kaika) it seemed clear in which direction Japan should turn. But this age of clear direction and simple dichotomies was over all too soon. By 1900, Japan found itself in a complicated and ambiguous position, torn between the West and the Rest – or as Okakura Tenshin famously lamented in The Ideals of the East: “But today the great mass of Western thought perplexes us. The mirror of Yamato is clouded.” Thus, intellectuals increasingly distanced themselves from Western civilization by turning to the concept of (Japanese) culture. Hereinafter, pan-Asianists in particular tried to move in the direction of a non-Western, alternative modernity, a process that had huge implications all over East Asia. In this sense, the age of dichotomies was not yet over. Thus, this paper will discuss the changing Japanese concepts of Western civilization from a longue durée perspective.

Daniel Hedinger (Munich)