Nicholas Weissman is a student at Georgetown University. This essay includes some of his ideas from his World History II class.
American and European imperialism was a double-edged sword in that it both ravaged and simultaneously accelerated foreign nations in various ways. Viewed from a lens of cultural relativism, imperialism shared new technology and capital with less developed areas of the world, but also stripped native peoples of a great deal of their culture in favor of Western social and economic norms. As Europe and America dominated the world economy, they had the power to influence less wealthy regions in their own self-interests. Both negative and positive consequences can still be observed today after the installment of Euroamerican systems in these different lands. In the Far East, as presented in Kokoro, and in Africa, as seen in Things Fall Apart, the arrival of European and American imperialists altered the native way of life for good. Natsume Soseki has somewhat of an appreciative view of Western influence, while still advocating for the appreciation of traditional Japanese culture before it is forgotten entirely. He sees stark issues with modernity, particularly its effects on human relationships. On the other hand, Chinua Achebe shares the African view that much of Western influence was exploitative in nature and drastically substituted African ways of life for that of Western civilization. The West valued Japan more as an ally and trading partner, whereas the same forces dominated Africa as a vulnerable continent of dispersed tribes.
Background on "Kokoro"
Kokoro unfolds during the Meiji Restoration in Japan, after the country made the conscious decision to unite under the emperor and advance Japan in the face of European and American hegemony. The emperor, with the help of oligarchs, replaced the shogunate. Rather than take an isolationist position, Japan opened its doors to trade with the Western world beginning with the Treaty of Peace and Amity of March 1854 and continuing with the Harris Treaty of July 1858. Japan granted the U.S. most-favored-nation status and the two nations exchanged diplomats and traded with low tariffs. The sentiment of Western admiration, as well as the resulting societal changes, are reflected in Kokoro as Soseki showcased the newer generation interacting with the old. Reform of education and gender roles were important, however the modern age has damaged the traditional way of life under Confucian ideals.
Background on "Things Fall Apart"
Things Fall Apart takes place in present-day Nigeria, focused on the Ibo village of Umuofia. Achebe intended to elaborate upon just one example of the unique African societies present before Western influence. The tribe possessed its own spirituality and government, predicated both on the significance of agriculture, mainly yam production, and the wisdom of elders. European imperialism turned much of this on its head as Christian missionaries moved in, installed a new government, and converted some of the native population. Without a centralized government and unified populace, African tribes such as these were easily divided and ruled by foreign powers. Achebe explored the idea of the white man’s burden in the novel, as well as white superiority, and how this led to mistreatment, enslavement, and exploitation all over the continent of Africa. Achebe, educated at a Western-style university and a professor at American universities, certainly appreciated European and American thought. However, he realized the unethical nature of the colonization of Africa and wished to advocate for the native culture and traditional ways of life.
The Role of Tradition
In terms of traditional values, both Soseki and Achebe felt that forced Western exposure eroded native customs and practices. Through Sensei, Soseki conveys general frustration with the current era. Sensei tells the young man, “You see, loneliness is the price we have to pay for being born in this modern age, so full of freedom, independence, and our own egoistical selves.” (39) During the transitional Meiji era, a common theme was straying from the Confucian ideals introduced during the Edo period as well as from the Shinto and Buddhist core of Japan. People turned from these selfless traditions to the more individualistic values of the West. Achebe has similar qualms with Western influence on African custom. Respecting ancestors was an integral part of the society, but many abandoned all African practices when they deserted the village for the Christian church. Achebe wrote that, “A man’s life from birth to death was a series of transition rites which brought him nearer and nearer to his ancestors” (122). Villagers forsook this unique idea of the afterlife and reverence for one’s family when they chose the white man’s church over their kin. Before Christianity, the people consulted the Oracle called Agbala for everything from the future to solving neighborly disputes (16) and this too was abandoned for a new court system that the Christians formed for their followers. (155) The Europeans felt that they were saving the Ibo people and united the Christian God and their god Chukwu as one, denouncing polytheism. (179) Some Christian missionaries may have meant well, but in the process of conversion, they turned family and clan members against one another. Soseki was more concerned with the shift toward individualism and resulting isolation, while outright conversion to Christianity upset Achebe.
The European Role in Urbanization
Urbanization was paramount in the transition to a more Western society. Soseki appeared to have more appreciation for urbanization than Achebe, however he discussed the negative effects of the divide between rural and urban groups of the country. The narrator in Kokoro attended college and university, and experienced a certain degree of alienation from his family as a result. He said, “Sensei, I thought, was more cultured and admirable than my father, with his unashamed delight. In the final analysis, what I felt was displeasure at the reek of country boorishness in my father’s innocence.” He viewed the rural parts of Japan where he was from as less sophisticated than Tokyo where he was educated and experienced Western culture. Agriculture was very crucial to Igbo society and even associated with masculine ideals -- Achebe wrote, “Yam stood for manliness” (33). Thus, urbanization required a dramatic shift in the economy and stricter education. Mr. Brown began to school the natives and easily secured them jobs as court messengers or court clerks. Later on they could become teachers and even then move into other villages and build churches (181-82). While the Ibo people appreciate that the white men brought money to Umuofia with a trading post (178), Christian education completed wiped out any reverence of the prior tradition.
Shifting Gender Dynamics
Gender roles and marriage customs were altered in both Japan and Nigeria after contact with the West. In Kokoro, there were many references made to the concept of modern women. Meiji initiated compulsory education for both sexes beginning in the 1880s, changing social dynamics to more closely mirror those of Europe and the U.S. “Sensei’s wife was not so modern a woman as to take pride and pleasure in being able to display her mental prowess” (44). Relating to the idea of the urban and rural divide, the narrator also said, “My mother seemed to attach about as much importance to my graduation as she would have done to my marriage” (96). She still held more traditional views of marriage and certainly wished for her son to find a wife, but also appreciated that he was getting an education. In addition, the narrator feels as though Sensei’s wife acted modern in most senses, yet she still spoke without using “modern words” (45). Prior to Western contact, the Ibo people practiced complex marriage rites with cowries as an important gift. The tribal society was patriarchal and Okonkwo displayed his misogynistic views by frequently using “woman” as an insult. Before killing himself, Okonkwo observed that the tribe began to crumble and “he mourned for the warlike men of Umuofia, who had so unaccountably become soft like women” (183). Achebe appeared critical of the patriarchal norms, especially when he brought to light the incident in which Okonkwo killed his own slave boy to show that he was not weak.
The Individual Native Perspective
The sentiments of the people of each society brought to light by each author are important in understanding the effects of imperialism on the individual. When discussing his friend K, Sensei wrote, “In those days, such phrases as ‘the age of awakening’ and ‘the new life’ had not yet come into fashion. But you must not think that K’s inability to discard his old ways and begin his life anew was due to his lack of modern concepts” (230). This emphasized the nature of growing up during the Meiji period when society was changing drastically and one grew up with both concepts of the old and new. This sentiment led Sensei to feel as though he belonged to a different era than the narrator, and along with the trauma of causing his friend’s suicide, led him to follow Emperor Meiji to the grave. He went so far as to call his generation “anachronisms,” (258) essentially with no place in modern Japan. Before Mr. Brown’s church was burned down, a telling statement from Okeke read, “We say he is foolish because he does not know our ways, and perhaps he says we are foolish because we do not know his” (191). Here, Achebe presented an enlightened view of the colonization of Africa. Although white people were wrong to exploit Africa, much of the conflict resulted from misunderstandings. When a white man first arrived in the village of Abame on a bike, they saw him as alien and killed him. In retaliation, a group of white men returned with guns and killed almost everyone in the village (138-139).
Concluding Thoughts on Soseki and Achebe
After the Age of Exploration, European and later American domination of the globe left less developed nations in a precarious position. The economic advantages that Western societies possessed allowed for them to exploit the less industrial or militant societies that they encountered both in Africa and the Far East. To Achebe, the arrival of the white men meant that “the very soul of the tribe wept for a great evil that was coming -- its own death” (187). For Soseki, the effects of imperialism were more ambiguous. He mourned the loss of certain traditional Japanese values while appreciated the advancements made after Japan chose to westernize after the Meiji Restoration. The situation in Africa was outright conversion that tore clans apart, while the Japanese transition was slower and had more of an effect on the rural and urban divide, as well as trading the ills of traditional society for the new ills of an individualistic society. Both authors mourned the loss of customs and highlighted the issues with urbanization, with Achebe conveying more pain over the loss of agricultural significance. Japan and Africa together appeared to welcome a shift from patriarchal societies to more egalitarian views on the role of women. Overall, Soseki wrote through a more nostalgic lens about Japanese society before the Meiji era whereas Achebe had more of a direct reason to be pained over the forceful colonization of Africa.
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Penguin Books, 2017. Text.
Soseki, Natsume. Kokoro. Mineola: Dover Publications, 2006. E-book.