MIT Visualizing Cultures

Throwing Off Asia – Lesson 04

Japan at the International Table

The West as Threat or Opportunity?

Note: this lesson addresses content from the Throwing Off Asia I Essay, as does lesson three. Teachers should select one lesson or the other.

Faced with the incursion of Western powers into Asia, both Japan and China faced many choices in how to respond. The Chinese government, already weak, decentralized, and committed to Confucian ideologies that resisted change, had difficulty responding effectively to strong Western challenges to its autonomy or to the necessity to modernize. Japan, a much smaller country that had already undergone many transitions that might be considered precursors to modernization, was in a different position than China for many reasons. In this activity, students first analyze the famous statement by Sugita Teiichi that Japan faced a critical choice—to become a guest at the international table, or the meat served up at that table—and decipher its symbolism and references. They then work in small groups to consider whether Japanese policies in the late-19th and early-20th century—the Meiji period—can best be described as the response to a threat or a challenge presented by the West.

National History Standards (Word doc)

At the conclusion of this lesson, students will be better able to:
1. Analyze the challenges posed by Western incursions into Asia.
2. Analyze primary sources in order to discuss how Japan responded to Western challenges.
3. Apply primary text analysis by taking a position on a situation and using historical data to defend that position.

Time Required
Two class periods and homework

Materials and preparation
Students should have already studied the beginnings of Western imperialism and Western inroads into China in the late 1800s.
Individual and group access to the Internet and PowerPoint.

1. Focus students’ attention on the Sugita Teiichi statement, referenced in the Throwing Off Asia I Essay. Speaking of the challenge posed by the West and modernization, Sugita stated that Japan’s choice in the late 1800s came down to being either a “guest at the table” or “meat” on the table.
Spend some time analyzing Sugita’s famous statement. What is the meaning of Sugita’s reference to a meal or feast? Ask students what was happening at the end of the 19th century globally. Questions to guide discussion include the following:
   • What international project had European nations and the United States embarked upon in the late 1800s? In other words, what were Western nations feasting upon?

   • Why does the feast analogy work? In effect, what were Western nations doing to other areas of the world? (Students should be aware that Western nations were carving up foreign nations for their own national benefit.)

   • What had been Western policies in China in the late 1800s? 

   • What was the choice facing Japan at this time? (Students should recognize that Japanese leaders knew the country had to modernize and claim a seat among the imperialist nations of the world or be carved up and claimed by those same nations.)
2. If necessary, review what had happened in China a short time earlier when that country was confronted with a similar choice. Had China been able to respond positively? Had its responses worked? If time allows, provide review of China’s response to the West.
3. Explain to students that, in the two choices facing Japan—that is, doing what was necessary to claim a seat at the table or being carved up by the West—the West presented Japan with a serious threat but also a pivotal opportunity. In this activity, students will consider whether Japan responded to the West as a threat or an opportunity.
Explain that students will consider evidence presented in Throwing Off Asia to formulate their own opinion of how Japan responded to the choice that Sugita outlined. Students will work with secondary sources (the narratives presented in the Throwing Off Asia Essays) and primary sources (the woodblock prints that chronicled life in Japan in the mid-Meiji period).
Have students form their own work groups or assign students to groups. The task for each group is to read the Throwing Off Asia I Essay, paying special attention to the woodblock prints that were created to reflect what was happening in Japan during the Meiji period. 
Based on the text and the accompanying woodblock prints that document some aspects of the Japanese modernization efforts, each group is to decide whether they think Japan responded to the West as if it were a threat or an opportunity. Another way to clarify this question for students is to ask them to consider whether Japan responded defensively or aggressively to the Western challenge. To answer these questions, students will need to consider the following questions, which teachers should post on the board or an overhead:
   • What specific policies did the Japanese government put in place in response to the Western challenge?

   • How effective do these policies appear to have been?

   • How did Japanese people respond?

   • Based on the text and the accompanying primary source woodblock prints that document the period, was Japan on its way to becoming meat or a guest at the table?
4. To synthesize their learning from the previous activities in this lesson, groups will create a PowerPoint presentation on their views on this issue. Assign each group the task of creating a presentation using their own text as as well as images from Throwing Off Asia I. Have groups share presentations with the class.

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