February 01, 2006

Japan then and now


A fascinating article by Michael Hoffman in the Japan Times, recounting the history of Japan during the first millennium. Change "wives" to "mistresses" and the following quote would be indistinguishable from what you would find in a contemporary travel guide:

They are a long-lived race, and persons who have reached 100 are very common. All men of high rank have four or five wives. . . . The women are faithful and not jealous. There is no robbery or theft, and litigation is infrequent. . . . Taxes are collected. There are markets in each province . . . .

Similarly presaging a master-student relationship that would be duplicated a thousand years later with the west, Hoffman observes that in 4th century Japan (substitute in "1868 to 1941" and "Europe and America" or "1945 to present" and "the United States"):

There are no cities to speak of, no roads or bridges worthy of the name, no writing. Then came the fifth and sixth centuries, and our astonishment redoubles, for they are all that stand between barbarian Japan and the splendors of the Nara Period (710-794). How did it leap so far, so fast? The answer, in three words, is: China and Korea. More accurately, perhaps: China via Korea.

Concludes Hoffman (substitute again "the United States" and "westernized Japan of the 19th and 20th centuries"):

No nation ever set out with more eager, if patronizing, generosity than Tang China to teach the arts of civilization to its less-favored neighbors. And no acolyte nation was ever so avid a pupil as the newly sinicized Japan of the eighth and early ninth centuries.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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