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The 19th Century Civilization of East Asia: How its Strengths became Liabilities in the Face of Western Challenge Essay


One of the greatest mysteries of world history is Western European countries’ namely Spain, Portugal, England and France’s ability to dominate the richer, more powerful and more advanced East Asian countries during the 19th and early 20th century. The question remains on whatever happened that resulted into such occurrences.

This paper aims to present a detailed analysis of the East Asian civilization, citing Japan as the primary example, its conditions and fundamental strengths during the 19th and early beginnings of the 20th century. These advantages will be examined as to how they became liabilities and obstacles in East Asia’s responses to Western advancements and challenges.

Throughout history, the Asian continents were popularly known for its abundance in natural resources and military power. Foreigners from the west often travelled to the east especially to Asian countries to engage in the barter of goods and services. The primary reason for European nations in the previous centuries for colonizing Asian countries was that they wanted to gain access to raw materials such as food, spices and minerals to sustain the conditions of western cities and civilization.

During the 19th century the Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Holy Roman and Mughal kingdoms collapsed giving way to the growing influence of the British, German, American and Japanese empires. The new set of new empires spurred military conflicts, but at the same time advancements in science and technology and the widespread of the idea of exploration became prominent during the 19th century.

Europe flourished during this time with the British Empire becoming a superpower, controlling the massive amount of the world’s population and owning one-fifth of the total land area. The era of invention and discovery, the 19th century contributed to the significant developments in different fields of studies namely mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, electricity and metallurgy.

Through the improvements of education and its systems during the 19th century, technological advancements and science in general in the 20th century was produced. The Industrial Revolution begun in Europe later spreading to Asia when the Japanese saw the rapid growth in the west they also implemented modernization policies during the Meiji Restoration era so as not to be left behind. Population grew swiftly during the industrial revolution with innovations and discoveries in medicine.

The knowledge of the human anatomy, which paved way to practices in disease prevention contributed to the massive growth of Europe’s population. Technological advancements in land transportation changed the way people lived and obtained goods with the introduction of railroads which also lead urbanization movements globally.

The industrialization of the west saw the shift of power in world history with western culture and civilization becoming prominently known as superior to those in the east. Although East Asia was richer, more powerful and more advanced than Europe in the previous centuries namely during the 15th century, the course of power changed during the 19th century when the west industrialized.

Examining the western culture it is worth noting that with religious beliefs such as Catholicism and Protestantism and the growing popularity and practice of democracy and free trade in the political and economic realm gave way to revolutionary thinkers that spearhead the industrial revolution of European countries. Europe’s situation on being dependent of the east’s raw material led to creative and innovative thinking from noble people of different classes.

The abolition of slavery and the constant promotion of free will and free speech gave rise to radical ideas constituting of scientists, philosophers, physicians and novelist who gave the population of Europe technological advancements and inspiration for innovative thinking.

In contracts, East Asia, with its stable source of raw materials and strong military discipline became stubborn to new changes. Japan, for example, during the first half of the 19th century was in its Edo period where shoguns of the Tokugawa family ruled the country. During this era Japan closed its doors to the world by limiting its interactions with the west.

Foreigners are only permitted to visit the Japanese territory for commercial purposes only and were restricted to the Dejima port in Nagasaki. European merchants and travellers who land on Japanese shores were killed without trial. Also during this time the shogunate perceived Catholic Christianity as a destabilizing factor thus Catholicism was persecuted. Although during the early part of the Tokugawa era Japan flourished economically and politically it became stable with the nation unified.

The limited interaction of Japan to the world contributed to it being left behind in terms of technological advancement and sciences and eventually the shogunate rule fell apart with the occurrence of natural disasters, famine and uprisings against officials in the 19th century. Advisers of the shogunate era relied on traditional solutions in addressing problems of the country.

Solutions concluded were stricter restrictions of foreign trade, rangaku practice must be suppressed, literatures must be censored and luxury goods and services should be eliminated in the government and samurai classes. The Tokugawa shogunate’s policy in isolating Japan from the rest of the world was aimed to remove all colonial and religious influenced by western countries such as Spain and Portugal. They perceived western influence as a threat to the peace and stability of the archipelago.

The leaders of Japan were alert in this sense because of fear that their land will be under the control of westerners. The suppression of the rangaku, which served as Japanese knowledge of western scientific and technological revolution in machinery, military and medicine slowed down Japanese the modernization during the Meiji restoration period after the Tokugawa era.

Upon the collapse of the Tokugawa rule in 1867, the Japanese opted to modify its political and economic system with the country’s opening to foreign trade. The rangaku served in helping the country build a theoretical and technological scientific base for industrialization and modernization. The Meiji restoration occurred with Japanese knowledge of being behind from the rest of the world.

Upon the arrival of Matthew Perry in the bay of Edo the Japanese realized they were weak in the presence of westerners when they saw the American warships. Europe was more powerful than East Asia, namely Japan during the 19th and early 20th century despite the latter being richer, more powerful and more advance in the earlier centuries because Japan in its nationalistic approach to protect itself from foreign invasion and colonization closed its doors to the world.

It prohibited information and influences from the west in entering Japanese soil thus it lagged behind in terms of technology innovation and sciences. The Tokugawa era eradicated Christianity and prohibited Japanese nationals from travelling outside the country at the same time restricted foreign visits to Nagasaki for commercial purposes only. The Japanese closed-door policy from foreigners contributed to the challenges faced by East Asian countries towards western power in the 19th and early 20th century.

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"The 19th Century Civilization of East Asia: How its Strengths became Liabilities in the Face of Western Challenge." IvyPanda, 14 Feb. 2020, ivypanda.com/essays/the-19th-century-civilization-of-east-asia-how-its-strengths-became-liabilities-in-the-face-of-western-challenge-essay/.

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IvyPanda. "The 19th Century Civilization of East Asia: How its Strengths became Liabilities in the Face of Western Challenge." February 14, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-19th-century-civilization-of-east-asia-how-its-strengths-became-liabilities-in-the-face-of-western-challenge-essay/.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "The 19th Century Civilization of East Asia: How its Strengths became Liabilities in the Face of Western Challenge." February 14, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/the-19th-century-civilization-of-east-asia-how-its-strengths-became-liabilities-in-the-face-of-western-challenge-essay/.

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'The 19th Century Civilization of East Asia: How its Strengths became Liabilities in the Face of Western Challenge'. 14 February.

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