This panel will look at foreign interaction with Japan in the mid- to late-nineteenth century from the cultural, intellectual and religious perspectives. It will move beyond clichés about Orientalism to look in detail at how Japan was perceived and appreciated as a society and civilization.
In the historiography on the West's 'opening' of Japan it is still possible to find accounts which stress that foreigners viewed the country largely through a patronizing, Orientalist prism. This approach is flawed because it simplifies the intellectual context within which perceptions were shaped and underestimates the complexity and variety of the responses to Japan. This panel seeks to correct this picture by arguing that for many educated observers in the West their understanding of Japan during this period was shaped by a genuine intellectual desire for knowledge and, in the light of the dominance of Romanticism in Europe, an appreciation of its civilizational achievements and its rich culture. One of the ways in which this intellectual curiosity manifested itself was in the work of the early Western Japanologists and their desire to form new learned societies and associations, such as the Asiatic Society of Japan in Tokyo and the Japan Society of London, that could act as forums for discussion of research and as bodies that could disseminate knowledge and interest more broadly. This foreign appreciation was important for Japan because it helped to inculcate a growing sense of respectability in Western circles that would in the long term bring dividends. One aspect of this was that as early as the 1870s a number of enthusiasts for Japan's people and culture within the foreign community in Japan, including many missionaries, came to support an early revision of the unequal treaties even at the cost of losing extraterritoriality. Japan's rise in status was thus not just a reflection of its expanding political power; it was also linked to its civilizational heritage.