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The Modernizers: Overseas Students, Foreign Employees, and Meiji Japan Review

Ryan Thomas is deeply interested in literature and adores finding a good book of almost any theme to experience the beauty of a good story.


In 1853, the famous "black ships" of Commodore Perry, a US naval commander, arrived off the coast of Japan. Japan had been a nation in seclusion for 250 years, having blocked off most, although not all, of its contact with the outside world. Among Perry's demands was an effective end to this seclusion. Japan caved, and the next few decades saw its opening to the outside world and a westernization/modernization of the country.

As this happened, the Japanese government hired foreign advisers from nations like the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Germany, to help educate, reform, and develop their country. Japanese students were sent overseas to study in these countries and to learn the ways of the "civilized" world. This effect is presented and studied in The Modernizers: Overseas Students, Foreign Employees, and Meiji Japan. It's a compilation of a variety of essays which have been edited by Ardath W. Burks into a single volume.

Kaga Province, the descendent of the Kaga Domain, location in Japan.

Kaga Province, the descendent of the Kaga Domain, location in Japan.

Part 1

Chapter 1, the Introduction, by Ardath W. Burks, lays out a basic history of students travelling overseas from Japan to study, and foreigners coming to Japan as hired advisors. It also provides an overview of the book's contributors and the scenario which had led to its production. The remainder provides a brief journey of the chapters and their subjects.

Chapter 2, "Tokugawa Japan: Post-Feudal Society and Change" is written by the editor as well. Its principal objective is discussing what was the Tokugawa shogunate, through various views on the government. Some have been intractable views of it as a feudalistic regime, both externally from the West, and internally in Japan by the 1920s. This group also sometimes sees the feudal nature of the regime as living on and being responsible for Japanese militarism. Others have taken a more positive view, seeing it as laying the seeds for later Meiji developments, and disputing the view of Japan being a backwards nation. Most of the remainder of the chapter devotes itself to particular institutions of the Tokugawa era, and the degree of its connections to the outside world. This is the critical element for the rest of the book, and this chapter places the development of Japan into a firmly Japanese context, declaring that the response to modernization and the West can only be understood by looking at Japanese society itself.

A Japanese/Cyrillic script map of Japan

A Japanese/Cyrillic script map of Japan

Chapter 3, "Fukui, Domain of a Tokugawa Collateral Daimyo: Its Tradition and Transition" by Kanai Madoka, concerns the development of the domain of Fukui, which was territorially equivalent to the province of Echizen. The chapter shows a historically interventionist and active leadership, since the 14th century. This chapter is not a short overview, but is quite long and detailed in its description of Fukui - perhaps excessively and needlessly so, but it does provide a complete chronological history of Fukui and various actions undertaken by its rulers, and lengthy descriptions of how the agricultural system was organized. This goes as far as actually describing the internal structure of the domain administration, as in the actual building structure where it was housed. The financial aspects of administration and the different leaders also receive their depictions. Military and educational reforms had begun even before the arrival of Commodore Perry in 1853. It also proved to be progressive and open towards trade with foreign nations.

Chapter 4, "The Beginning of Modernization in Japan", by Sakata Yoshio, concerns the reasons for why Japan modernized, and how it was so successful in doing so. It dealt with what it saw as the reasons behind a crisis, economic and security (Western encroachment) which had established itself in Japan by the 1800s, seeing it as the dictatorial rule of the Shogunate, and the solution being the restoration of the emperor. This includes presenting the historical development of this theory, presented first by Fujita Yukoku, and then how some of the ideas for strengthening the country were first presented in response to the Commodore Perry's arrival. Like as done later in China (although not mentioned in the book, which dismissed Chinese modernization efforts), this focused on the idea of Western science and Oriental morality, a doctrine espoused by Sakuma Shozan. Some Japanese samurai were increasingly drawn into contact with the West, and pushed for the opening of the country. The book presents the fall of the Shogunate and the rise of Meiji Japan briefly, seeing both as being ultimately vessels which could be used to push Japan to modernity. The key feature for both, was that the samurai with their focus on practical knowledge stood prepared to meet the challenge of modernizing the nation. By 1872, there were 370 Japanese who were studying abroad: a great change had gripped the country.

Chapter 5, "Kaga, a Domain that changed slowly, by Yoshiko N, and Robert G. Flershem, deals with the domain of Kaga, castigated as being "stagnant", but which if it was poltiically removed from events which passed, still had important economic and educational roles. It had had a variety of traditional schools before Commodore Perry and interest in Western studies picked up markedly afterwards. This included a variety of new language schools, teaching French and English, although the role of Westerners remained more limited than in other Japanese cities. Western knowledge was also diffused, in addition to teachers, by a disproportionately large number of Kaga inhabitants who left the domain to pursue education, initially in Dutch studies such as medicine, and later abroad. Takamine Jokichi, a famous Japanese scientist-businessman in the US, was part of this outflux. Kaga's industrial, fiscal, military, health, political (particularly the samurai) urban, social, and ecomic development is also a topic portrayed, as are cultural and scholarly trends. It ends with a brief description of the contemporary forces affecting the principal city of Kanazawa.

Part 2

Part 2, "Japanese Students Overseas" commences with Chapter 6, "Japan's Outreach: The Ryugakusei, by Ardath W. Burks. This initially opens with the presentation of the difficulty of deciding whether changes in Meiji are due to internal or external development, then the conflict between expulsion and opening to the outside world which defined the late Shogunate, and then its policies for opening up to the outside world, such as foreign capital and loans, advisers, translation, and students going abroad. Students constitute the main part of the chapter, and this is what it focuses on. This included both mention of individuals who studied abroad under the Shogunate illicitly, and then the programs of students studying abroad. Such is mostly done from an administrative point, such as the cost involved to the Ministry of Education, the countries visited (with particular information on the United States and how the internal distribution changed), rules imposed, concerns, the distribution of official (and hence officially supported students) versus private individuals, and the subjects studied. It then proceeds to what the book sees as the effects on the students, claiming a more sharpened sense of nationalism. Much of the Japanese elite had some passing acquaintance with foreign countries as a result of overseas studies, but those who went to study abroad were often directed back to professional work, or in teaching, rather than leadership itself.

I do appreciate good statistics charts.

I do appreciate good statistics charts.

Chapter 7, "Overseas Studies by Japanese in the Early Meiji Period" by Ishizukui Minoru, concerns the nature of these studies. Studies under the Shogunate were often fragmented and failed to give the students a complete grasp of their subject, but they laid the groundwork for the realization that general studies of foreign knowledge were needed. As mentioned previously, it is claimed that Japanese identity was both bolstered and served as a driving force for Japanese students. Some of the problems with the initial programs were analyzed, and the stories of some students who attended to Rutgers university presented. Their influence back in Japan is discussed, as well as the comparative example of why the Japanese program of overseas studies succeeded while that of China didn't - the principal reason supposedly being that the Chinese students had no structures back at home into which they could fit to attempt to reform, meaning they were reduced to critique of the system, while their Japanese counterparts had a variety of institutions to work in.

French army officers in Japan

French army officers in Japan

Part 3

Chapter 8, "The West's Inreach: The Oyatoi Gaikokujin" by Adath W. Burks commences Part 3, Foreign Employees in Japan, and deals with Western individuals in Japan. Japan has had a long history of foreign advisors in her nation, ranging from the Chinese in the first millenia, to the centuries of "Dutch studies" of the Dutch, the only foreigners permitted contact with Japan, and then finally a great expansion of their role during the period of opening up. The principal ones in Japan during the waning days of the Shogunate were the French and the British, involved in a range of different modernization efforts. These were in effect, potential agents of imperialism, and might have become so if the course of Japanese history had flowed differently. There were a wide range of them, and often exactly who fell into the class of foreign advisors has been misrepresented, but they existed as a phenomenon in Japan for only a relatively brief period of time, before they had trained their successors, Japanese, placing Japan once more fully in control of the transmission of knowledge into its country. Around 2,050 of them existed in any given year in early Meiji, with different foreign nations being involved in different services - for example, the Americans were one of the smaller groups, but were intensively involved in Hokkaido and its colonization. The average length of stay was 5 years, but this could extend much further, the longest being 58 for the Kobe harbor master John Mahlman. Their motivatiosn were devicem including missionary work, idealism, scientific curiousity, and of course, personal financial gain. Some of them behaved badly, such as noted womanizer Erastus Peshine Smith with his young Japanese mistress, drink, and samurai swords, or A. G. Warfield who committed exceptional misconducts with firearms, and almost all missed home, but the Japanese proved surprisingly tolerant and events went better than might otherwise have been expected. Overall, they proved significant in importing military, scientific, and political knowledge into Japan, and the Japanese wise enough to keep control of this process.

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Chapter 9, "Foreign employees in the Development of Japan" by Robert S. Schwantes, devotes itself to foreign employees in their distribution in Japan and their effects. Different countries were involved in different programs, such as the navy and public works (railroads) for the British, medicine for the Germans, law for the French, and were distributed spatially in clusters as well. The overall cost was high and there were many disputes between the Japanese and the foreign advisers, but the results were in general useful.

William Elliot Griffis

William Elliot Griffis

Chapter 10, "The Griffis Thesis and Meiji Policy Towards Hired Foreigners", by Hazel J. Jones discusses two different theses on the interaction between foreign advisers and Japan and the Japanese. The first, the Griffis view, was that foreign instructors came at the call for help brought by the Japanese, and that they functioned as assistants rather than directors. The second, the Chamberlain thesis, was that the foreign advisers bear primary responsibility for development of Japan. This chapter takes a view that the Japanese situation was unique in careful control over the advisers, that they were completely paid for by Japan, and with the intent of ultimately phasing them out. Very extensive quantitative analysis is presented to show the extent of foreign advisers, by country and by area, and there is a presentation of the relationship of advisers to the Japanese - where those that, regardless of their competence level, were incapable of seeing themselves as servants or equals but instead tried to hold the view of themselves as masters and controllers, ran into intense difficulties working in Japan. Thus the contrast between the highly competent but unsuccessful lighthouse engineer Richard Henry Brunton, and the more generalist Guido F. Verbeck, helping intiially with medicine but also with translation, education, and as a general consultant, valued heavily by the Japanese for his character. Ultimately the chapter believes that the two theories both have merits, but seems to lean more towards the Griffis view for their effects: foreign advisors cannot take full credit for Japanese modernization.


Part 4

Chapter 11, "The Role of Education in Modernization" is the first chapter of Part 4, "Education and the Future Society" by Ardath W. Burks concerns the transformation of education under Meiji Japan. In some ways, eduation remained the same: its basic two goals, to form a tool for selecting the elite, and to provide for social conformity for the general population, did not shift. The Samurai had been the main educated class in Tokugawa Japan and continued initially to dominate the university classes. However, Meiji Japan also experimented with a wide range of different international education systems and models, drawn from the United States, France, and Germany, with varying results, ultimately in the end turning towards education designed to instill traditional Japanese values and morality, in a dual approach system of this being modeled "education", while material learning was "applied learning".

Chapter 12, "The Education Policy of Fukui and William Elliot Griffis" is a return to Fukui, and written this time by Motoyama Yukihiko, covering the reforms there. This included a shift to combined military-civil education, as part of an effort to both strengthen defense and resolve financial problems, and the promotion of "real" learning with Western education as a key part of this, with the establishment of medical and mathematical education covered. Financial and then general education reform receive examination, such as the courses of study in the new education model and its organization. Foreign instructors appeared, one of whom was William Elliot Griffis, who was given a luxurious reception for coming to distant Fukui, which he commented favorably on for its enthusiasm to improve even if he also noted it as something out of the 12th century. and was determined to teach with commesmurate vigor. The subjects htaught ranged dramatically including chemistry, physics, English, German, French, and his own evening school for natural science, social science, humaanistic studies, and the Bible, and were done with the help of his interpreter. He was not loath to express his opinion about Japan's need to develop like America, both to the Japanese and in his own writing, and when he ultimately left Fukui he had left behind an important learning tradition which would reverberate long thereafter, even after the reform of Japanese administration brought great changes to Fukui's educational infrastructure.

Frankly this was one of my favorite chapters despite a troublesome beginning, for although it might not have had the commendable statistics of previous chapters, it actually provided something of a feel for the lives of foreign teachers in Japan, something sorely lacking overall throughout.

David Murray had a rather magnificent mustache.

David Murray had a rather magnificent mustache.

Chapter 13, "Contributions of David Murray to the Modernization of School Administration in Japan" written by Kaneko Tadashi, concerns the influence of the American educator David Murray to the development of Japanese education. He worked hard to work on producing an education system which was suited to Japanese conditions. Japan was in te midst of an important revolution in how its educational system was structured, and Murray ironically fell onto the side which supported an education system more like that of Prussia in structure, if not in objective, than that of his own United States, which was supported by Japanese reformers. The result was that he played an important role in structuring the Japanese education system, after an initial changeover to the American system was reversed after negative results came back.

Chapter 14, "Changes in Educational Ideals and Objectives (From Selected Documents , Tokugawa Era to Meiji period", by Shiro Amioka covers the changes in ideas concerning education, which started as Confucian model under the Tokugawa Shogunate which above all else emphasized loyalty, stressed both literary and military education (for the elite samurai classes, who were the principal recipients of education after all), emphasized samurai self-worth and self-value and social prestige, while for women obedience was emphasized above all else, alongside social decorum, that peasants should be content with their honorable and dignified place in society, and the two other social classes of merchants and artisans were similarly instructed to follow Confucian precepts and to respect their lot in life. Education in the Meiji period by contrast, valorized knowledge above all else, and this knowledge was supposed to be new, useful, practical knowledge, rather than old literature which did not have relevance to the modern world. Women were not immune to this, and were to be educated more, in more practical arts, in the interest of making them into better wives and mothers. Education was supposed to be available for everyone, focusing on practical matters. However, this was quickly marked by a return to morale education, culminating with the "Imperial rescript on education" in 1890, which would mark a focus on traditional Confucian and Shinto values to form the basis of Japanese education until 1945, when afterwards education was instead turned to the promotion of new progressive and democratic values. In this, and in the continuing position of the emperor (sometimes a contentious topic), Japanese education shows change but importantly continuity throughout the years.

The Imperial Rescript on Education

The Imperial Rescript on Education

Part 5

Part 5 commences with Chapter 15, which is fittingly titled "The Legacy: Products and By-Products of Cultural Exchange", and is written again by the editor Ardath W. Burks. It covers some of the products of the Meiji restoration, such as its visible testament with architecture, the scientific legacy, the influence of Christianity, cultural transfusions, and how they were important for helping to display Japan to the rest of the world. Burks concludes that although their influence itself was not decisive for Japan's modernization, this was a very important side-effect.

Chapter 16, "Science Across the Pacific: American-Japanese Scientific and Cultural Contacts in the Late Nineteenth Century", by Watanabe Masao deals with the relationship of Japan to Western science and technology, sketching its history from 1543 to the Meiji Restoration through the process of Dutch Studies, material culture (such as scientific artifacts brought by Commodore Perry), and then the distribution of Western science teachers in Japan. It then proceeds to individual subjects such as math, physics, chemistry (this subject actually principally referring to the previously mentioned William Elliot Griffis' observations of Japan), seismography (contrary to the rest save for mathematics where Japan and Western knowledge were relatively even, an area where the Japanese held a lead and served as a center of, although with the introduction of Western methods), biology, evolution, anthropology, and naturalism. The end concludes with how a culture of science has developed in Japan, one which is markedly different than that in the West, with a different perspective on it by the Japanese, isolated from the humanistic traditions which were its partner in the West.

Chapter 17 returns to our common figure of Willian Elliot Griffis, in "Willian Elliot Griffis' Studies in Japanese History and their Significance", focusing on his role as a historian in exploring Japan. This starts with Griffis' perception of Japan, really more sociological, and how that had led him to an interest in Japanese history, which received a dismissive reception initially from other Europeans. Given his position as an outsider, he could study with freedom the institution of Mikado, ie. the imperial institution and the emperor, and published the first real Western histories of Japan and influenced Japanese history through a social history which focused on the Japanese people, as well as helping to turn the study of Japanese mythology into a historical resource.

Chapter 18, "Conclusion", for the last time by the editor Ardath W. Burks, covers a wide range of the topics discussed in the book, such as the problems and perils of cultural exchanges as well as their extent and their influence, the role and pitfalls of America's relationsip to Japan (America is seen principally as an educator, in an exchange which has been perhaps one-sided and unequal), the structures which facilitated Meiji modernization, and a final ending note that the foreigners in Japan played a role, albeit one which was not a dominant one, in a transformation of Japan which was conducted in principally a Japanese conduct, which will be one of the most unique and influential things about the Meiji restoration.

An annex with various documents, a selected bibliography, and an index finish up the book.


This book was not what I expected, which was more contemporary social history type work concerning the lives, opinions, experiences, of Japanese students overseas, and foreign workers in Japan. At the same time, just because a work isn't what one expects it to be, it can have positive attributes nevertheless. This book does have some things which it excels at, but it also has a host of problems which undermine it.

To start with, the book's covering of what it is dealing with is brief and inadequate. The section of the "introduction" is actually little of the kind for the book itself, devoting itself much more to historical aspects and the project. This leaves "About the Book and Editor", declaring that the focus of dealing with the process of modernization in Japan, and there within the introduction of foreign employees and sending students overseas. It does not feel to me that the book had a truly clear and defined idea of what it aimed to do, and many of the chapters aren't clearly focused upon the subject throughout much of their work. This might be the way in which Japanese writers prefer to approach the topic, as different languages have different writing conventions, but if so it is one which drags. Furthermore there is no real way of telling what the subject of the book was, which is really education and internal reform in Japan, before reading it: Japanese students overseas are actually a very small part of it, and even the work of the modernizers is limited before the focus on the actual modernization process and upon their secondary effects on Japan.

The historical introduction section in my opinion is the weakest section of the book. Historical introductions are useful, in helping one to situate oneself and be aware of the contex into which a book places itself. But this book goes far beyond what is necessary for an introduction. Chapter 3, upon Fukui, discusses at length the various feuds and dynastic developments which occurred in Fukui, since the 14th century! These have next to no relevance for "Overseas Students, Foreign Employees, and Meiji Japan" as proclaimed on the cover. Almost the entire chapter is useless in regards to the principal object of discussion of the book, even the most possibly relevant section about its economic woes and its decision to adopt a progressive government. Later on, there is a return to Fukui in chapter 12, and the focus on William Elliot Griffis does place a spotlight on the domain, but frankly regardless much of the chapter was still irrelevant. I have nothing against the information, but it should have been included in a different book. The same thing re-occurs constantly throughout: there is a lack of focus upon the subject and many of the chapters delve into additional material which is only distantly related.

But this asides however, there are certainly great strengths. For example, there really is a brilliant amount of quantitative information available upon foreign personnel in Japan, ranging from their pay, to their numbers, to the countries they came from, to the time they were employed, to the years they were employed, to the subjects they were employed in. While the lack of much social history may be a disappointment to me, there are flashes of this with William Elliot Griffis. The education reform is covered in great depth, and the Meiji restoration is positioned well in the midst of other development states. As a picture of a state-driven program, a statistical history, and for information on the secondary work of (some) foreign employees in Japan, this is a treasure trove of information.

This excessive breadth of the material which the book tries to cover furthermore, does mean that the book is actually quite good for topics other than just the principal one of overseas students and foreign employees. If one has an interest in governance and official organization, as well as economic actions undertaken by a Domain during the Japanese medieval period, Chapter 3 is an excellent source. So too, Chapter 5 relates Kaga's own individual developments for industrialization and defense (as well as having a much better section on education and foreigners), which can be interesting to those interested in the Domains and their own actions. But it also means that the book can be wearying to read, that it is excessively lengthy, and that it doesn't contain as much upon the subject of the actual overseas students and the foreign advisers in Japan as one would wish. For those interested in a quantitative display of these individuals, and for Japanese education policy, the book is quite in depth: for anything else, it is scattered, with occasional flashes of insight joined together by endless chaff.

© 2018 Ryan Thomas

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