When Black Ships Bring the Future

What Meiji Japan can teach us about meeting an unexpected tomorrow

Part II of the Tomorrow in Progress series. Read the first post, a conversation between planetary futurist Alex Steffen and IDEO’s Tim Brown, here.

If you want to see ahead, it’s often helpful to begin by looking back.

In 1853, four huge black ships, two of them pouring forth steam from thunderous engines, sailed into Tokyo Bay. Japanese leaders were stunned. Commanded by Commodore Matthew C. Perry, the ships had been sent to open up trade with a nation that had been closed to outsiders for 200 years. Though officials of the Japanese Shogunate were aware of broad trends in Western technology, they had never seen the like of these hulking vessels, and were disinclined to change their time-honored policies.

Americans fired Paixhans guns at the Japanese, inadvertently ushering in a new era of industrialization.

The Americans, however, were prepared to be persuasive. They’d brought along one of the most powerful weapons of that time — Paixhans guns, capable of firing explosive shells at high velocities — to help make their point. They promptly did so, using the guns to blow to pieces a number of wooden buildings along the shore before cordially delivering a letter from President Millard Fillmore, inviting the Japanese to negotiate a trade agreement, then sailing away.

By the time they returned the next year, the Shogunate had a treaty allowing the establishment of diplomatic relations, ready to be signed. Japan was closed no longer — it had entered a future few of its people could have imagined just a decade before.

Even now, we can only with difficulty imagine the impact on Japanese society of this collision with the raw industrial power of steamships and cannon. William Gibson describes Perry’s arrival as something very like what the landing of aliens would be like to us today: “Imagine the Roswell Incident as a trade mission.” He may not be far off. Certainly there was a profound discontinuity within Japanese society. To understand how great this rupture was, it’s helpful to remember what traditional Japan was like in 1853, which is to say, not all that different from how it was for centuries before.

Nara was the capital of Japan from 710 to 794. It is home to the world’s largest wooden building.

I had the pleasure of living in Japan in the early 1990s. My girlfriend and I had an apartment in Nara, the ancient capital, and I had the extraordinary experience of both living in a completely modern city (it was there I first used the Internet) and living within an hour of small hillside towns where traditional seasonal flows — planting rice paddies, gathering wild mushrooms and roots in the forest, holding festivals to mark important turning points in the year — were still maintained. I met people who were trying to preserve and update traditional arts and crafts. I got a firsthand glimpse of the flows and structures of traditional rural Japanese life.

That life was an artful evolution of human systems constrained by extreme resource limits. Japan is a small, largely mountainous set of islands that were densely populated even then. As Azby Brown describes in his wonderful book Just Enough, traditional Japanese people made use of every resource they could, while aware of the need to limit their taking so that renewable resources could continue to replenish themselves. Here in the Western U.S., it took us just a few decades to clear-cut most of the ancient forests in which native peoples had lived, and we’re still looking for a model of sustainable stewardship. In Japan, despite (or perhaps due to) much greater pressure for survival, there are woods that have been managed for more than a millennium.

Likewise, ways of life were passed down, with elder generations making provisions for those who would come after. Japan was no utopia, being regulated and repressive in ways that are inconceivable today — not to mention bouts of terrible violence — but it was stable and whole in a way that’s equally hard to fathom now. It was, for hundreds of years, a world of calm and stillness from today’s vantage point.

Yoshida Shoin grew up in that world, but the Arrival of the West shattered the stillness. Just 23-years-old and visiting Tokyo for his studies when Perry arrived, Shoin experienced an immediate dislocation from the world of his youth. He realized everything was different now, and threw himself into grasping the difference between the world outside, and the Japanese way of life he saw as the normal order of things. Put another way, Shoin immediately understood that he was facing a reality gap, and choose to leap over to the other side. He voraciously consumed the limited information available about Western science, technology, governance, war, and trade. He even tried to stowaway onboard one of Perry’s ships in order to see America first hand.

Yoshida Shoin rowing toward Commodore Matthew Perry’s Black Ships.

Shoin was jailed for that act of defiance, then released into house arrest in his home province, and allowed to teach in a little school, Shoka Sonjuku — the School in the Pines. It was a one-room schoolhouse, in an out-of-the-way area of a rural province, and he taught there for only five years. (Shoin’s teaching career was cut short by a poorly-planned attempted assassination of a Shogunate official, in protest of treaties being made with the West. He was caught and executed.) Still, many historians believe that his teaching created an important, perhaps even seminal moment in modern Japanese history. Many hold the view that Shoin had a major impact on the period of modernization known as the Meiji Restoration, in which Japan hurtled itself into the Industrial Age within a few short decades. He taught only a few dozen students in all, but of that group, one became a four-term Prime Minister, another founded Japan’s first modern military forces, and more than a dozen others became high-ranking officials and military officers in the new regime.

Shoin’s indirect impact through the spread of his ideas was profound — he formed the thinking of the men who transformed Japan, hurling it into modernity and saving it from being made a colonial possession of a Western power. It was one of the most remarkable willful engagements with the future in human history.

How was this done? Imagination. Shoin was a ruthlessly practical thinker. He realized that the arrival of a more powerful nation on Japan’s shores was likely to result in its colonization and exploitation. He also realized that one of the primary barriers to action was not just a lack of information — though the nation’s intellectuals, engineers, and scientists had woken to find themselves centuries behind the work being done elsewhere — but an inability to imagine what Japan might be like if it possessed modern capacities.

We can’t build what we can’t imagine. Shoin, in those brief five years, did the remarkable: He made his network of pupils and contacts understand the forces pressing in on their society, the changes Modernity implied to the systems of traditional Japanese life and what Japan might be like if it embraced these changes itself.

In turn, his students sought out information on new technologies, military innovations and industrial designs, mapped the domestic political landscape, wrote reports, circulated letters, speculated on changes and reforms, investigated, and reconceived. They undertook a vast systems-thinking exercise, and then imagined their world as it would be when the systems they’d grown up with were transformed. They understood they could not predict the future, much less dictate its shape, but they could cultivate the capacity to respond to the demands the unforeseen future would make on them.

This is what “living into the future” means.

While on the surface, our situation might have little in common with an outsider Japanese samurai who ran a tiny school in the Age of Steam, some of our problems are very much the same. Like Shoin, our understanding of the world has been challenged by exposure to planetary realities like global warming and hectic rates of change (Moore’s Law predicts the doubling of computer processor speed every eighteen months). We grasp, as he did, that the consequences for failing to prepare for the world as it truly is will be catastrophic, yet we don’t know entirely how to meet that challenge. But where Meiji-era Japanese had the Western imperialist powers pounding at their gate — and could send envoys to other countries, hire their talent, and learn how to live in the modern era of steam engines, factories, consumerism and battleships — the reality gap we face offers no easy models for how to take action. The future we face is not a far-away country, it is something that does not yet exist.

How, then, can we learn from the future? How can we confront the gap between the world as we’ve understood it and the world as it is actually coming to be? The answer can be found in our powers of imagination and empathy: imagination, to anticipate the possible shape of things to come; empathy, to understand how it would feel to be living in that world, and intuit the needs, concerns, and desires we might have.

We may not be able to visit the future, but we can inhabit its possibilities.

Next up: Inhabitation, the second half of this essay.

The author has chosen not to show responses on this story. You can still respond by clicking the response bubble.