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12 February 2016
From Archipelago to Nation State
According to Guibernaut, a nation is defined as a human group conscious of forming a
community, sharing a culture, attached to a demarcated territory, having a common past and a
common project for the future, and claiming the right to rule itself. He defines a state as a
human community that successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force
within a given territory (Guibernaut 243). Assuming the above definitions to be true, one could
argue that Japan under the Tokugawa Shogunate qualified neither as a nation, nor a state, much
less the combination of concepts known as a nation state. However, this lack of qualifications, of
modernity, only highlights the fascinatingly rapid changes that took place in the latter 19th
century of Japan. The transition from what I will deem the Japanese archipelago to the
modernized nation state known as Japan is occurred almost miraculously rapidly, due equal parts
to social and political unrest on the archipelago, and to growing pressure from the outside world.
In regards to Japans status as a nation, if the above definition is the checklist of
requirements for nationhood, the archipelago underneath the Shogunate very nearly qualifies.
The archipelago had been at least partially a unified community since the 7th century, with a
unified culture to match. While the political aims around the 1850s were beginning to seriously
diverge, the Tokugawa Shogunate, beginning in 1580s, had stood for nearly 300 years which
certainly qualifies as a common project for the future (Gordon 13). Of course, the right to rule
itself is a given. The crucial difference was the demarcation of territory, a topic relatively
neglected by the archipelagos official until the arrival of Commodore Perry in 1854. Perry, in
the stead of the American government, wished for several ports along the archipelago to be
opened to United States for trade. However, the Shogunate insisted that two of the ports

requested, that of Lew Chew and Matsumae could not be spoken for, as their authority over these
principalities was mostly nominal (Perry 170). In other words, though they attempted to maintain
a defined border, the actual borders of the Shogunates authority were indefinite, and thus failed
the requirements for nationhood according to Guibernaut.
In regards to the archipelagos status as a state under the Shogunate, the argument could
be made that instead of a large state, the land was divided into many smaller states known as Han
or Clans (De Bary 12). These clans, not the Shogunate, were the direct controllers of physical
force in their respective territories. The clans, led by daimyo, were able to control their own
warrior factions (their own samurai) while pledging fealty to the Shogunate (Gordon 16).
However, as seen in the case of the further away territories referenced above, often the
Shogunate was unable to control the outer territories, due to difficulties in mustering and armies
across the archipelago. In addition, many samurai in during the mid to late Tokugawa period
worked as bureaucrats, weakening the fighting force that the Shogunate commanded in its earlier
days (Gordon 17). Thus, they only controlled the area closest to the capital, conveniently where
the Shogunates closest allies kept their territories. Thus, while the Shogunate had a tight hold
around the capital, they could not directly control the use of physical force throughout the
archipelago, and thus fail Guibernauts requirement for statehood.
However, with the Meiji Restoration, Japan underwent massive, rapid modernization.
After a bloody revolution (led by leaders of clans from the outer territories which the Shogunate
could not keep in check) new policies were put in place that allowed the archipelago to make the
jump into statehood. First and foremost, the creation of an Imperial army solved many issues that
threatened the fledgling empire, as the combined force of several domains were much stronger
than any single Han, and helped centralize the license on use of physical force (Gordon 63). In

addition, the former 280 domains (Han) were abolished and consolidated into 72 prefectures
(Gordon 63). According to the imperial rescript on the matter, this was done for the purpose of
abolishing the disease of government proceeding from multiple centers (De Bary 12). In other
words, this new form of government, without the daimyo, was implemented in order to better
centralize power, and unify the country under one government. And I use the word country here,
as through these policies, the archipelago has become, by Guibernauts distinction, both a nation
and a state.
However, so much more was accomplished during this time then simply installing a new
emperor and centralizing power. In the Charter Oath of 1868, the new government promises to
allow its citizens to pursue their own calling, partially doing away with the caste system of Shi
No Ko Sho (Warriors, peasants, artisans, and merchants), allowing common people to choose
their own profession with greater freedom (De Bary 8). In addition, the establishment of a
legislature gave the people more say in the running of their country than before (De Bary 9). And
finally, through various imperial rescripts and decrees, a code of morals and ethics was imposed,
encouraging citizens to aspire to ideals of loyalty, faithfulness, frugality, and a desire for
education (De Bary 705-707 and Lu 343).
All of these factors add up to creation of a specific, unified national identity. Not only
were the new leaders of Japan looking to institute new government, they were attempting to
introduce a new doctrine to their subjects, one which would instill a unified sense of pride and,
perhaps more importantly, a uniform system of indoctrination. By emphasizing education for all,
the new empire had a new vehicle to unify their people; by teaching a single curriculum of
Japanese history, emphasizing one language, practicing one culture. In doing so, the new nation
met Guibernaus qualification for a nation-state: both control over military and the fostering of a

national identity. And thus, Japan completed its evolution from disjointed archipelago to its
beginnings as a modern nation state.
973 Words.

Works Cited
De Bary, Keene & Tsunoda. Sources of the Japanese Tradition. Columbia University Press,
1958, 705-707.
De Bary, Wm Theodore, ed. Sources of Japanese Tradition, Vol 2, Second Edition, Abridged:
Part 2: 1868 to 2000. New York: Columbia, 2006.
Guibernau, Monserrat and Hutchinson, John, eds. Understanding Nationalism. Blackwell, 2001,
242-243.
Lu, David J, ed. Japan: A Documentary History. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1997, 343-344
Perry, The Japan Expedition 1852-54; The Personal Journal of Commodore Matthew C. Perry,
selections.