Parallels between British and Japanese history

May 2012
999
UK
Two island nations at opposite ends of the world. Has this affected their history or culture? If so, we should find parallels between them, distinct from the larger, continental culture of the neighbouring mainland.

Unfortunately I'm no expert on Japanese history. From the little I know, it seems it was under the political domination of China at about the same time Britain was under the poltical rule of the Roman Empire. Later, it experienced various invasions which influenced its culture and religion, and then experienced a long period of gradual consolidation of a unified state. The largest ethnic group there has formed the dominant culture, but it is by no means the only ethnic group there, and there has been warfare between them in the past. It is intensely conservative but also, paradoxically, very good at adopting and inventing new ideas. It really, really doesn't like surrendering in a fight. It has had something of a checkered history with its closest neighbour, including very long periods of occupying it.
 

Mangekyou

Ad Honorem
Jan 2010
7,968
UK
The only parallel that comes to mind is the Naval aspects. Japan modelling its imperial navy on a British model. Other than that, they were opposites in almost every respect afaik. Japan was insular, whereas Britain was the opposite.
 

Clodius

Ad Honorem
Jun 2011
2,701
They both seem very hierarchical and status-conscious societies, which is an interesting parallel.
 

Naomasa298

Forum Staff
Apr 2010
36,316
T'Republic of Yorkshire
This is a subject on which I'm in a reasonable position to comment on.

Speaking firstly of the histories of pre-modern Japan and Britain, although there are some parallels, there are more differences than not. I'll address the specific points in Maia's OP first.

Although there had been recorded contact between Japan and China as early as the 3rd century AD, Japan's main period of contact came between the 6th and 9th centuries, when scholars were sent to the Sui and Tang dynasties to study and learn the Chinese methods of administration, education and government. That was when Chinese culture began to heavily influence Japanese.

The only real invasion that the pre-modern Japanese state suffered were the two failed Mongol invasions in the 13th century, which changed their methods of warfare.

Japan is ethnically largely homogenous, except for the aboriginal Ainu people in Hokkaido (which was only incorporated into Japan proper in the 19th century). The modern inhabitants of Japan migrated there during the Yayoi period, between 300BC to 300AD. There were conflicts between the native Emishi people in the northern part of the country, and the Emishi were not fully conquered until the 10th-11th centuries. The Emishi were gradually assimilated into the mainstream Japanese ethnic group, which I suppose parallels the Norman-Saxon assimilation to some degree.

In the pre-modern era, Japanese involvement in Korea has been limited to two periods, once during the 7th century, when Japanese armies assisted the allied Paekche state, and the Imjin war at the end of the 16th century, when Toyotomi Hideyoshi invaded the peninsula on his way to China. Japanese presence on the continent lasted six years - this contrasts to Britain's and England's constant involvement on the European continent.
 

Naomasa298

Forum Staff
Apr 2010
36,316
T'Republic of Yorkshire
Unlike Britain, Japan was never a naval power in the pre-modern era. Japanese pirates caused severe disruption along the Chinese coastline but the Japanese weren't ocean-going sailors - their ships had shallow drafts, and the crossing to the continent was precarious.

Until the foundation of Kyoto at the end of the 8th century, Japan also had no real urban centre, unlike the Roman settlements in Britain. The growth of cities, and particularly castle towns, would not come until much later in Japan's history.

Japanese society has always been very authoritarian, concentrating power in the hands of a few clans or individuals, but paradoxically, the range of their power has been limited by the difficulty of Japanese terrain. The two centres of power have historically been around the Kyoto and Tokyo areas (the Kinai and Kanto regions). The provincial clans were significantly independant from central authority. This wouldn't really change until the Edo period.

Pre-Edo society wasn't dissimilar in its development to other similar societies, although it had a distinction between the aristocratic class and the warrior class, which I think is unique to Japanese history. The warrior class eventually supplanted the aristocracy as the ruling class, and the Emperor became little more than a cipher. Pre-Edo, it was still possible for peasants to rise in the world, although it wasn't easy, but the social classes became codified by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Warriors were not permitted to farm and peasants could not go soldiering.

There's no analogy to this in British history. There are some parallels to the two countries, but the differences are more marked than not.

I'll comment on modern Japanese society later, and believe me, it's culture shock for people who aren't used to it.
 

Naomasa298

Forum Staff
Apr 2010
36,316
T'Republic of Yorkshire
On to modern Japanese society. One thing that you can say about modern Japanese society is that everything just works. The trains, for example, arrive on average within 6 seconds of their scheduled time. If you want a drink or cigarettes in the middle of the night, you can wander down to the nearest vending machine, and you'd feel absolutely safe in doing so.

Shop staff and public servants, including the police, are unfailingly polite. I saw police shepherding crowds during the very busy New Year period, and they were bowing, being comparatively submissive, addressing people using the respectful form of address (Japanese has several different modes of address depending on how polite you want to be) - and smiling. None of that aggressive alpha-male behaviour that you witness from police here where they demand respect from you.

On the other hand, all this comes at a price.

The social pressure to conform in Japanese society is enormous. People are expected to act in certain ways, and if they don't, they can be ostracised. There are stories of people being driven out of their homes because they didn't recycle properly. The pressure on women is even greater - it's unthinkable, for example, for female teachers to dye their hair.

A phrase I read, and it's very true, is that Japanese society is one where individuality is strictly rationed. While subcultures do exist, each of these is careful creation of the media industries. Goths, for example, particularly girls, follow certain looks that are perpetuated in the media. The otaku, or geek, culture is entirely a product of anime and manga. Teenie singers, or "idols" are produced and manufactured in the dozens. They all look the same and sound the same.

The Japanese don't like people they can't pigeonhole. If they can't put you into a neat category, you might be treated as a novelty for a while, but you'll eventually make them feel uncomfortable.

The Japanese keep their feelings suppressed. You will only very rarely see overt displays of aggression, for example. There is the concept of your public face and your private face, which is particularly prevalent in urban society. In the countryside, people tend to be a little more open.
 

Naomasa298

Forum Staff
Apr 2010
36,316
T'Republic of Yorkshire
Religion - most Japanese people participate in religious festivals and at least pay lip service to the two main religions, Shinto and Buddhism. The majority of people aren't seriously religious, but will visit temples and shrines, make offerings etc. as part of tradition. I noticed a lot of young people at temples while I was there, although the fact that it was close to New Year probably had something to do with it.

It can be difficult for people to distinguish between Shinto (which is the native religion) and Buddhism (which is a foreign import) but Japanese people take part in both traditions.

Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples are EVERYWHERE. In one area of Tokyo, I think I counted something like 20 shrines and temples within 10 minutes walk of the train station. Nara National Park has at least 7-8 within its boundaries.

You get religious fanatics in Japan too. The Aum Shinrikyo cult hit the headlines a few years ago for carrying out a sarin gas attack on Tokyo's underground. And Christianity is a minority religion - I was wandering down the street to a temple, and heard the words "eien no innochi" being shouted on a loudspeaker. That phrase means "eternal life" and it didn't take me long to figure out what that was all about. They were exactly the same as the street preachers you get around here.

The Japanese can also be superstitious. New buildings undergo a Shinto dedication ceremony, and people avoid the number 4 (because it is pronounced the same way as the word death) and 9 (because it sounds like the word for agony or suffering). They also don't seem to be fond of the number 13, which I imagine is an imported tradition from the American occupation. All Nippon Airways apparently doesn't have seats numbered 4,9 or 13.

Japan is a very, very insular society. There are some activities where foreigners would not be welcome. Certain vices are reserved exclusively for the Japanese, so I am told at least.
 
May 2012
999
UK
On to modern Japanese society. One thing that you can say about modern Japanese society is that everything just works. The trains, for example, arrive on average within 6 seconds of their scheduled time. If you want a drink or cigarettes in the middle of the night, you can wander down to the nearest vending machine, and you'd feel absolutely safe in doing so.

Shop staff and public servants, including the police, are unfailingly polite. I saw police shepherding crowds during the very busy New Year period, and they were bowing, being comparatively submissive, addressing people using the respectful form of address (Japanese has several different modes of address depending on how polite you want to be) - and smiling. None of that aggressive alpha-male behaviour that you witness from police here where they demand respect from you.

On the other hand, all this comes at a price.

The social pressure to conform in Japanese society is enormous. People are expected to act in certain ways, and if they don't, they can be ostracised. There are stories of people being driven out of their homes because they didn't recycle properly. The pressure on women is even greater - it's unthinkable, for example, for female teachers to dye their hair.

A phrase I read, and it's very true, is that Japanese society is one where individuality is strictly rationed. While subcultures do exist, each of these is careful creation of the media industries. Goths, for example, particularly girls, follow certain looks that are perpetuated in the media. The otaku, or geek, culture is entirely a product of anime and manga. Teenie singers, or "idols" are produced and manufactured in the dozens. They all look the same and sound the same.

The Japanese don't like people they can't pigeonhole. If they can't put you into a neat category, you might be treated as a novelty for a while, but you'll eventually make them feel uncomfortable.

The Japanese keep their feelings suppressed. You will only very rarely see overt displays of aggression, for example. There is the concept of your public face and your private face, which is particularly prevalent in urban society. In the countryside, people tend to be a little more open.
That bit about not showing your feelings. The English are often accused of this too. Not sure how fair that is, though.
 

Naomasa298

Forum Staff
Apr 2010
36,316
T'Republic of Yorkshire
That bit about not showing your feelings. The English are often accused of this too. Not sure how fair that is, though.
Not to the extent that you get there, I think. I've met many a miserable shop assistant here, which would be unusual in Japan. Mind you, that could have a lot to do with the fact that I live in Yorkshire.