Fields and Periodization (yes, again)

Jeff Vanke, now blogging at The Historical Society’s THS Blog, was looking for some guidance on how to properly divide up the history of the world into fields of study. He laid out a very ambitious world-wide agenda, including Japan and China fields, and asked for feedback. His original Japan fields were:

  • Ancient and Medieval
  • Tokugawa
  • Meiji and 20c

I said (and this is just the Japan stuff; you can read the whole thing at THS Blog, or just the China stuff at Frog:C).

In Japanese historiography, the roots of the “Tokugawa settlement” and early modern society have been pushed back into the Sengoku (Warring States), sometimes as far back as 15th century, and very little Meiji scholarship — outside of political science — doesn’t acknowledge the fundamental continuities across the 19th century. If I had to put dates on a three-field split for Japan, I’d probably use 1550 (high Sengoku, before the unification begins) and 1890 (the Meiji Constitution). (if you want to do a modern/premodern thing, a lot of “Modern” textbooks start in 1800, so you could use that, but I prefer 1700.)

Jeff’s reply was

I actually considered 1853, and was ignorant of 1890’s significance. For the transition to Japanese modernity, I favor 1853 over 1890. Is that reasonable? If I make only one break between 1550 and the present, how would you rank 1800 vs. 1853 vs. 1890? (1700 is only 33% of the way from 1550 to the present. And the fields should correspondent in part to plausible sequenced undergrad courses.)

Good questions, I said, and

A lot of Japanese histories and courses do break at 1853 still, though the old Toynbeesque stimulus-response model which informed it is pretty much defunct. There’s a lot to be said for that, though, since the period of relative isolation is certainly qualitatively different from the globally engaged era. My main complaint about that is the teleology: it makes modernity seem too inevitable, natural. I think the early Meiji — which is a period of experimentation, struggle and drama — makes more sense if you observe the Tokugawa-Meiji transition from the Tokugawa side rather than as the whiggish prelude to Imperialism, etc. (To be completely clear, I’m not accusing you of whiggishness, teleological thinking, etc.; it’s the historiography shaped by these break-points, much of which is still, unfortunately, embedded into the master narratives of Japanese history.)

Constitutionalism changes things. Not right away, always, but there are also good economic and social/cultural reasons to see the late Meiji as much more a part of the 20th century than the 19th. It makes international comparison more interesting, tends to reduce the Japanese exceptionalism in the narrative.

1800 (or 1700) is a good transition point really only if you’re doing a 2-part sequence; if you have the freedom to do three parts, either of the later breaks make more sense. My three-part sequence is heavily influenced by the UC-Berkeley department’s division, which I replicated for a time (I’ve given it up because I don’t have a large enough student population to fill my Japan/China courses if I subdivide them too much) and by my own training which took the 19th century as a unit more often than not.

Jeff has taken my advice on the 1550 break point, but decided that he didn’t want to span the Restoration divide, so he’s going to use 1853, which I think is fine. Perhaps the periodization question just isn’t as fluid in other areas, but I’m hoping that some more people join the discussion soon! It’s nice to see a Europeanist taking World History as seriously as this, especially someone at THS — as much as I love Historically Speaking, it’s got a pretty strong Western center and not much World (outside of some of the more theoretical stuff).

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for this report from the battlefront — I too have learn a lot from THS and their journal but felt frustrated at their recalcitrance over World History. A shame, really, because they are in a position to be level headed and helpful.

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