Japan with its purely feudal organization of landed property and its developed petite culture gives a much purer picture of the European Middle Ages than all our history books.
Karl Marx. Capital
A subject peasantry; widespread use of the service tenement … instead of a salary …; the supremacy of a class of specialized warriors; ties of obedience and protection which bind man to man and … assume the distinctive form called vassalage; fragmentation of authority; and in the midst of all this, the survival of other forms of association, family and State … seem to be the fundamental features of European feudalism … [But] feudalism was not an event which happened once in the world. Like Europe – though with inevitable and deep-seated differences – Japan went through this phase.
Marc Bloch. Feudal Society
After centuries of relative isolation, Japan was forcibly opened to the modern world with Commodore Perry’s visits in 1853 and 1854.
Japan is an interesting case for those who think there are laws of human history – that history is more than just a collection of narratives – because of the similarities between European and Japanese social structure, in spite of wildly divergent high culture. Here are some theories (not necessarily incompatible) about the convergent social evolution of Europe and Japan.
Marxism. According to Marx, there is a limited number of “modes of production” – slavery, feudalism, capitalism, and so on – defined by how the ruling class squeezes a surplus out of the exploited. There are quasi-scholastic arguments among Marxists about how many modes there are, and what society belongs to what mode. Some Marxists define feudalism so broadly that it covers most complex societies before capitalism. Others however (and probably Marx himself) would apply a more limited definition that confines feudalism to Europe (maybe just Western Europe) and Japan. On this view, all feudal societies, even if they are not historically related, will show some generic similarities. Thus (so the story goes) it is no accident that Japan is the one non-Western society to make a relatively rapid and easy transition to capitalism. Even if you don’t buy the whole Marxist package, Perry Anderson’s two volumes, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism and Lineages of the Absolutist State (from which I got the Marx quote above) are well worth reading.
Cliodynamics. According to some theories, state formation takes place along “meta-ethnic frontiers,” where very different cultures and ways of life abut. In Eastern Europe and most of Asia, the mother of all meta-ethnic frontiers is the one dividing settled farmers from pastoral nomads. The vast majority of really huge empires in history have formed on one side or other of this frontier, or straddling it. In Western Europe and Japan, however, history played out differently. There was less pressure to corral everyone into one monster state, or to overcome the fragmentation of authority by consolidating Church and State, or Emperor and Shogun. (Although consultation and consent between king and vassal didn’t develop in Japan as it did in Medieval Europe.)
Anthropology of kinship. Across a band of territories running from the Middle East through India to China, states developed in conjunction with patrilineal descent groups. In northern Eurasia, and its western and eastern periphery, such groups were not as strongly developed. I wrote a paper once tracing the “deep history” of this and other macro-geographic contrasts in kinship systems. (I should caution that parts of the prehistory need updating.) The figure below shows the contrast between a strongly unilinear and patricentric Middle Old World culture area, and a strongly bilateral North Eurasian and Circumpolar culture area (i.e. without strong descent groups).
Feudal society in Western Europe and Japan depended on non-kin-based personal ties. This may have facilitated the later development of non-kin-based institutions like the public corporation and the nation-state. Certainly many Chinese were aware of the difference in social cohesion between their country and Japan. As Sun Yat Sen would remark, “The Chinese people have only family and clan solidarity; they do not have national spirit…they are just a heap of loose sand. But the Japanese are sticky rice.”