The remarkable speed and readiness with which Meiji-period Japan embraced a policy of Westernization is still most commonly explained as the result of the "unequal treaties" imposed upon Japan by the Western powers and a keen awareness of Western military strength among Japan's political leaders. To confront the West on equal terms, Japan embarked on a policy of Westernization that would achieve the goal of "expelling the barbarians" not by military means, but by transforming the country into a strong "modern" nation. This argument, however, tends to ignore the complex and diverse nature of the discourse on the West; a discourse that took shape in late Tokugawa and prepared the shift from a view of the West that denigrated Westerners as "rapacious barbarians" to one which embraced Western culture as the embodiment of "civilization."
In order to explain the fervor many Japanese intellectuals displayed in accepting the West as a "model-to-follow," we have to look at the rise of Western learning and the engagement with Western science in late-eighteenth century Japan. I will argue that the significance of Western learning lies mainly in its impact on intellectual developments of the late Tokugawa period, most notably, the discourses on national identity and Japan's position within a world defined in terms of a "barbarian/civilized" dichotomy.
The presentation will focus primarily on two aspects of Tokugawa thought. The first is the discourse on the "civilized" and the "barbarian" that emerged in opposition to the sinocentric Middle Kingdom view introduced by Neo-confucianism and took the form of a discourse on national identity. Faced with a worldview that defined China as the center of the civilized world and relegated Japan to its "barbarian" periphery, Japanese intellectuals throughout the Tokugawa period, most prominently scholars of nativism, were concerned with a re-definition of the "barbarian" and the "civilized" that would allow them to shift the "center of civilization" back into a realm of "Japanese" cultural tradition. The second is the Neo-confucian concept of science, which constituted the reference-frame for the approach of Tokugawa intellectuals to Western science. The Neo-confucian understanding of science equates insight into the laws of the natural world with moral excellence: Heaven and Earth, the natural world and human nature, are governed by the same principle (ri). Thus, knowledge of the natural world was not simply a matter of intellectual achievement: an adequate understanding of the laws of nature would necessarily lead to superior morals.
As I shall demonstrate, it was precisely the rise of Western learning, which ultimately forced Japanese intellectuals to tackle the question of whether the West could really be called "barbarian" or had to be acknowledged as "civilized." The complex and often ambivalent reactions to the West we encounter in late Tokugawa discourse – ranging from xenophobia to idealization of the West – are closely related to/are intertwined with this question.