What Did It Mean to Be Modern in Early 20th Century East Asia?

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What did it mean to be modern in early twentieth century East Asia? In the early 20th century, East Asia went through a process of modernisation to cope with the challenges brought by the Western powers. This process of modernisation was characterised by numerous features, ranging from military, political, economic, industrial and technological reforms to changes in the legal, administration, diplomatic as well as education and women. There were long term socio-political and cultural impacts which shaped the modern East Asia in the early 20th century. While modernisation was in no way equivalent to Westernisation, many in the early 20th century saw the West as a model for modernisation. Modernisation in East Asia was thus more often than not taken as a process of learning from or even imitating the West. This essay will argue that Japan, Korea and China shared similar themes in the path towards modernity even though they developed in different ways. One of the most important steps towards modernisation for all 3 regions of East Asia was the reform (increasing levels of freedom) for women. In the early 20th century Japan, Korea and China underwent economic and industrial development taking the first steps towards modernisation. However, the significant difference lay in the fact that Korea underwent this process of industrial and economic modernisation under Japanese colonial rule therefore one may argue that the significance of their development was much greater. Japanese corporations took advantage of international technological and managerial innovations often called the “second industrial revolution”. Japan’s electrical technology became second to none. Electric street cars appeared in Tokyo in 1904, several years after they had appeared in Seoul. Of Japanese households, 85% had electricity in 1935, compared to 68% in the United States. Techniques of mass production required both standardised equipment and scientific management or Taylorism, an American theory of rational labour practice that Japan adapted to make the work force more efficient. A dual structure characterised Japan’s modern economy. Therefore, for Japan modernisation meant a rise in industrial advances and production thus a booming economy. Scholars’ views of Korea’s colonial period generally divide into two broad categories. The first takes a negative view of Japan but the second fits the colonial experience into major trends that lasted to the end of the 20th century. This included abolishing inherited social status as a barrier to advancement; liberating women from male domination; introducing modern mass media and popular culture; creating a modern economy through heavy investment in railroads, bridges and harbours; establishing a modern financial sector in the 1920s; and industrialising the peninsula in the 1930s. A small middle class of businessmen and shopkeepers arose and half million farmers were converted to factory workers and miners. In retrospect, the most important economic contribution was Japan’s use of state-led industrialisation involving planning and controls of all kinds in the process of late industrialisation to catch up to the advanced economies of western imperialists. Colonial economic policy aimed at expanding agricultural production by investment in reclamation, irrigation, chemical fertiliser and the introduction of new seeds to grow rice for export to Japan. Some people benefited more than others out of the economic boom in Korea from 1910-1925. This economic boom saw a rise in the price of rice. Korean landlords most of whom were Yangban (landed or unlanded aristocracy), fared far better than sharecroppers and Japan succeeded in winning tangban landlords compliance to colonial rule by granting them noble titles and guaranteeing their private property rights. As a result landlords took little part in the development of active nationalist resistance to Japanese rule. Taking this into consideration it is not...
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