Shifting Perceptions: Japan and the World in the Late 19th Century

Shifting Perceptions: Japan and the World in the Late 19th Century

Background Information.

In the mid-1800s Japan managed to remove the constraints of the Tokugawa era, which was a feudal society, and modernize their country, modeling it on European parliamentary monarchies.  Appropriating the mantle of modernity, the Japanese began to see themselves as the leaders of Asia and attempted to carve buffer zones around the country to appease a perceived threat from Russia and China.  The newly drafted Japanese military vanquished China in 1895 in the first Sino-Japanese War, shocking the world, which simultaneously championed Japan’s slow colonization of Korea.  Japan, as the small upstart nation on the edge of the Pacific, was now a world force to be reckoned with—one that defeated the mighty Qing empire, now seen as the “sick old man of Asia,” whose fall was nearly complete at the turn of the century.

Japan asserted itself as dominant power in Asia.  Asian diplomacy, formerly centered on China and the idea of tribute, ceased and Japan began to claim colonial lands and to insist on western style diplomacy, international egalitarianism, and the new idea of legal rights.  And yet, right after losing, tens of thousands of Chinese flocked to Japan in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  Why?  What did China want to “learn” from Japan and what did Japan offer to Asian countries?  Why would so many newly modernizing countries be impressed with the miracle of the Meiji restoration?

Learning Goals.

  1. Students will be able to analyze and explain late 19th Century Japanese perceptions of China and “Western” perceptions of Japan.
  2. Students will be able to provide an explanation, even if incomplete, of reasons for Japanese imperialism.
  3. Students will be able to utilize graphic evidence, such as a map and pictures, as historical sources.



Common Core Standards
College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading

  • Standard 3.  Analyze how and why individuals, events, and ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.
  • Standard 9.  Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.  

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening

  • Standard 1.  Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
  • Standard 2.  Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
McRel Standards
World History


  1. McRel Standard 36Understands patterns of global change in the era of Western military and economic dominance from 1800 to 1914.
  2. McRel Standard 37Understand major global trends from 1750 to 1914.

Key Concept.  

Essential Question.  

Primary Source.  

Thought Questions.

  1. 1895 sees a boom in Chinese traveling to Japan to study and this continues through the 19-teens.  What were these students trying to learn and why?



Focus Activity Ideas.  

Main Lesson Activity Ideas.

  1. Map Reading:
    As early as the 1870s, some in Japan already labeled Korea as “the dagger pointed at the heart of Japan.” Use this map activity to analyze the reasoning behind that statement. Show students this map of East Asia. As an introduction to a discussion or written activity of Geo-Politics in East Asia, ask students to figure out distances from Tokyo to Pyongyang, to Moscow, and to Beijing. How long did it take to travel by boat between these various places? How about by plane now?
  2. Comparing Travelogues:
    Assign the students several pages of Yosano Akiko’s travelogue to Manchuria and China. (Yosano, Akiko. Joshua Fogel (Translator). Travels in Manchuria and Mongolia: A Feminist Poet from Japan Encounters Prewar China. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.) Yosano Akiko is often termed an anti-war activist but in this travelogue she demonstrates what Japan is creating and how it is trying to assist Asia.

    Assign a chapter in Isabella Bird’s 1880 travelogue Unbeaten tracks in Japan: an account of travels in the interior including visits to the aborigines of Yezo and the shrine of Nikko to discuss how a westerner viewed changing Japan.
    1. Ask students to list what they believe are some differences between China and Japan at that time. List them on the board.
    2. When did China become a nation? Japan?
    3. What is the population of both?
    4. What do they eat as national foods?
    5. Discuss the general outlines of both countries. How does Bird’s view of Japan’s accomplishments in Asia conflict or coincide with Yosano’s?
  3. Image-Based Activity
    View these prints produced by Japanese to illustrate the Sino-Japanese War. Use these images to spur a discussion or written activity aimed to have the students use the visuals to analyze history.

    Discussion Questions:
    1. What kind of clothing are the Japanese soldiers wearing in these colored flyers?
    2. How are the Chinese portrayed?
    3. Are there subtle or not so subtle visual cues concerning which nation is modern?
    4. What are some visual cues?
    5. How do students think these posters and leaflets were used?
    6. Was this practice unique to Japan?
  4. Graphic Analysis:
    Analyzing the graphic layout of the images, have students comment on (or write about) the use of color, cartoon images and possible connections to current anime and manga. (This activity can also work well in a lesson considering the historical antecedents of modern popular culture.)

Summative Activity Ideas.

Have the students write a one paragraph explanation, from the perspective of an ordinary citizen, explaining why the Sino-Japanese war was important to fight, and why Japan won.