Multiple Modernities and the Case of Japan

Seminar Paper, 2004

12 Pages, Grade: A (1,0)


Table of Contents


Multiple Modernities

Ikegami’s analysis and the Meiji Restoration

Critique of Ikegami and implications for a further analysis

Multiple Modernities Revisited



“1. Deliberative councils shall be widely established and all matters decided by public discussion.
2. All classes, high and low, shall unite in vigorously carrying out the administration of affairs of state.
4. Evil customs of the past shall be broken off and everything based upon the just laws of nature.
3. The common people, no less than the civil and military officials, shall each be allowed to puse his own calling so that there may be no discontent.
5. Knowledge shall be sought throughout the world so as to strengthen the foundations of imperial rule”[1].

These progressive pledges constituted the programmatic Charter Oath, issued by the Meiji emperor in April1868[2] and marking the official beginning of the Meiji restoration.

Only fifteen years after the arrival of Commodore Matthew C. Perry’s “Black Ships”[3] and the forced opening to the world in 1853, Japan embarked on a rapid and successful modernizing process.

By 1894, the Japanese modernization was already seen as a role model for other nations; the Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-sen wrote in that year: “The first step in China’s revolution was the Meiji Restoration; the Chinese revolution is the second step in the Meiji revolution”[4].

Instead of suffering the “fate of semi-colonialism”[5], Japan was able to start an own diplomacy of imperialism[6]. In 1902, Great Britain allied with Japan, and in 1905, Japan inflicted Russia a heavy defeat. Following her victory, “Japan enjoyed international approval and even acclaim”[7].

In academic analysis of the Japanese modernization, “it was noted not only that Japan became the sole non-Western country to become fully and relatively successfully industrialized and modernized, but also that it appeared to organize its life in ways radically different from the West”[8]. These specific combinations of similarities and differences to the West, the “Enigma of Japan”[9] are probably the main reasons for the persisting and long-lived scholarly interest in the case of Japan.

In this paper, I will try to link S.N. Eisenstadt’s concept of ‘multiple modernities’ to the case of Japanese modernity that started with the Meiji restoration. First, I will refer to essays by Eisenstadt[10] and Björn Wittrock[11]. Then, I will reconstruct Eiko Ikegami’s[12] interpretation of the Meiji restoration, followed by a critique of this interpretation and its implications for a further analysis. I will conclude with some complementary remarks on the concept of ‘multiple modernities’.

Multiple Modernities

Both the classical sociological analyses of Marx, Durkheim, and - to some extent - of Weber, and the “classical” theories of modernization prevalent in the 1950s, which assumed a convergence of industrial societies, supposed that the cultural program developed in Europe would expand and prevail in all modern societies. Out of this view of universal expansion and convergence, the ‘Western cultural program of modernity’ was expected to become the dominant model throughout the world[13].

However, the actual developments proved these assumptions to be inconsistent with reality. The modernizing processes in the different societies did not follow an evolutionary ‘one-way street’ towards homogenic hegemony of the Western model; instead, the Western model served as the main (but usually ambivalent) reference point for the development of “distinctly modern dynamics and modes of interpretation”[14].

As a result, a multiplicity of patterns – or, in Eisenstadt’s terms ‘multiple modernities’ – evolved. Certainly, these patterns were distinctively modern, but they were strongly influenced by the respective cultures, traditions and historical experiences. On the other hand, even explicitly anti-Western, or even antimodern movements, like nationalist or traditionalist ones, were part of modernity in their own right[15].

Although the Western model continues to be the basic reference point, it is an important implication of the term “multiple modernities”, as Eisenstadt stresses, that “modernity” and “Westernization” are not identical[16].

Furthermore, as Eisenstadt puts it, “[t]he idea of multiple modernities presumes that the best way to understand the contemporary world - indeed to explain the history of modernity – is to see it as a story of continual constitution and reconstitution of a multiplicity of cultural programs”[17].

The concept of ‘multiple modernities’ can therefore also be applied to the Western model of modernity itself. Björn Wittrock shows in his essay on “European Origins and Modernity as a Global Condition” that in the formulation of the Western “cultural and political program of modernity”[18] in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries[19], there already existed a multiplicity and multiformity of modernities.

From its beginning in Europe on, modernity “has been characterized by a high degree of variability in institutional forms and conceptual constructions”[20]. So, “there was never one single homogenous conception of modernity”[21]. But, in accordance with Eisenstadt, Wittrock points out that European modernity

“provided reference points that have become globally relevant and that have served as structuring principles behind institutional projects on a worldwide scale. Thus, we may look upon modernity as an age when certain structuring principles have come to define common global condition”[22].

This global condition does not entail that the members of any cultural community have to “relinquish their ontological and cosmological assumptions, much less their traditional institutions”[23].

However, the “continuous interpretation, reinterpretation, and transformation of those commitments and institutional structures” has to take into account the global condition of modernity[24]. This phenomenon has been an inherent part of modernity in the European context and is now a characteristic feature on “a global scale”[25].

Wittrock describes this as “processes of diffusion and adaptation”, i.e. “different cultural entities have to adapt to and refer to a set of globally diffused ideas and practices”[26].


[1] Jansen, Marius B.: The Making of Modern Japan, Cambridge, Mass. & London 2000, p. 338.

[2] Jansen, Japan, p. 337.

[3] Jansen, Japan, p. 277.

[4] Takeda, Kiyoko: The Unfinished Meiji Revolution in Intellectual History, in: Nagai, Michio & Urritia, Miguel (eds.): Meiji Ishin: Restoration and Revolution, Tokyo 1985, p. 159-172, here: p. 169.

[5] Lü, Wan-he: Western Learning and the Meiji Ishin, in: Nagai, Michio & Urritia, Miguel (eds.): Meiji Ishin: Restoration and Revolution, Tokyo 1985, p. 153-158, here: p. 153.

[6] Jansen, Japan, p. 436.

[7] Jansen, Japan, p. 439-439.

[8] Eisenstadt, S.N.: Japanese Civilization, Chicago & London 1996, p. 3.

[9] Eisenstadt, Civilization, p. 1.

[10] Eisenstadt, S.N.: Multiple Modernities, in: Eisenstadt, S.N. (ed.): Multiple Modernities, New Brunswick & London 2002, p. 1-29.

[11] Wittrock, Björn: Modernity: One, None, or Many? European Origins and Modernity as a Global Condition, in: in: Eisenstadt, S.N. (ed.): Multiple Modernities, New Brunswick & London 2002.

[12] Ikegami, Eiko: The Taming of the Samurai. Honorific Individualism and the Making of Modern Japan, Paperback Edition, Fifth Printing, Cambridge, Mass. & London 2003.

[13] Eisenstadt, Modernities, op.cit., p. 1.

[14] Eisenstadt, Modernities, op.cit., p. 2.

[15] As Eisenstadt points out, this is also true of comtemporary fundementalists; Eisenstadt, Modernities, op.cit., p. 2.

[16] Eisenstadt, Modernities, op.cit, p.2-3.

[17] Eisenstadt, Modernities, op.cit., p. 2.

[18] Eisenstadt, Modernities, op.cit., p. 3.

[19] Wittrock, European, op.cit., p. 57.

[20] Wittrock, European, op.cit., p. 55.

[21] Wittrock, European, op.cit., p. 58.

[22] Wittrock, European, op.cit., p. 55.

[23] Wittrock, European, op.cit., p. 55.

[24] Wittrock, European, op.cit., p. 55.

[25] Wittrock, European, op.cit. p. 55.

[26] Wittrock, European, op.cit., p.54.

Excerpt out of 12 pages


Multiple Modernities and the Case of Japan
The New School  (Historical Studíes)
Sciciological Foundations II: Sociology and History
A (1,0)
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ISBN (eBook)
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464 KB
Multiple, Modernities, Case, Japan, Sciciological, Foundations, Sociology, History
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Helmut Strauss (Author), 2004, Multiple Modernities and the Case of Japan, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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