Reviewer’s Rejoinder to Author’s Response, Forthcoming

TO STAND WITH THE NATIONS OF THE WORLD: Japan’s Meiji Restoration in World History. By Mark Ravina. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2017. xiv, 312 pp. (Graphs, maps, B&W photos, illustrations.) US$29.95, cloth. ISBN 978-0-19-532771-7.

Frederick R. Dickinson’s rejoinder to Mark Ravina

Reviewer’s Rejoinder to Author

As a great fan of Mark Ravina’s work, I am sorry if I have mischaracterized anything in his very timely and thoughtful new study of the Meiji Restoration.  I am grateful, however, for the opportunity to publicly discuss the important issues raised by the volume.

As noted in my review, I wholeheartedly agree with Ravina’s explicit critique of the “conceptual hegemony of the Western international order” (212).  I also applaud Ravina’s formidable challenge of that hegemony in our understanding of the Meiji Restoration.  To Stand with the Nations of the World offers powerful proof both of the significant reformist energies of the Tokugawa era and of the long-term, robust Chinese roots of a host of Meiji reforms.   In so doing, Ravina strongly contests the artificial distinction between “traditional” Tokugawa and “Western” Meiji that continues to color our understanding of nineteenth-century Japan.

The principal thrust of my critique is that we have some ways to go to truly escape the conceptual hegemony of Western historiography.  It is one thing to declare Samuel Huntington “almost comically wrong” (212), but to see the Meiji Restoration as fundamentally “a clash of two radically different views of international politics” (55) is to echo Huntington’s basic essentialism.  Ravina replaces Huntington’s Western vs. non-Western civilization paradigm with the idea of a basic incompatibility between a “Westphalian” system of sovereign states and an “interstate system” of Northeast Asia (55). This also strongly echoes John King Fairbank’s classic formulation of a “Chinese World Order,” which, half a century ago, juxtaposed an early modern China defined by Confucius and ritual with “European tradition” devoted to equal sovereignty and trade (Fairbank, ed., The Chinese World Order, Harvard University Press, 1968, p. 4).

Needless to say, the best way to supersede Western conceptual hegemony is not to promote new visions of East-West incompatibility.  Nor do we move far from Hugh Borton’s classic notion of a Japanese “vacuum” inviting American, Russian, and British power (Borton, Japan’s Modern Century, Ronald Press, 1955, p. 8) in Ravina’s conclusion: “As in the 600s and 700s, statesmen were concerned with a military threat: how could Japan resist a powerful and expansionist empire? In the 1800s, however, that foreign threat was not Tang China but Western imperialism.  Nonetheless, the Japanese response again fused cultural borrowing with an emphasis on local distinctiveness” (207). Given Ravina’s earlier discussion of Japan’s rich history of reform, it is surprising to see mid-nineteenth-century change distilled here to a mere “response” to Western imperialism.  This directly counters the best recent work on Japanese diplomacy highlighting the complex and formidable agency of early modern Japanese policy-makers (Michael Auslin, Negotiating with Imperialism, Harvard University Press, 2004; Robert Hellyer, Defining Engagement, Harvard University Press, 2009; Adam Clulow, The Shogun and the Company, Columbia University Press, 2015).

Finally, I would insist that historians of the non-Western world work assiduously to avoid neologisms, which, whether intended or not, invariably raise questions about authenticity.  Does “radical nostalgia” (9) represent true change?  Is “cosmopolitan chauvinism” (10) actually cosmopolitan?  Rather than suggest Japanese history forever pales by comparison with Western models, we should accentuate developments in Japan to revise our Western-centric understanding of change in world history.

Frederick R. Dickinson

University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, USA