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Unit 1.5 – Japanese History

Difficulty: Easy/Medium

Time: 6 minutes


The following passages have been adapted from A History of Japan, 1582-1941 – Internal and External Worlds, by L.M.Cullen.

 Passage 1

Japan in the sixteenth-century was an archipelago of which the main component was a large island (Honshu) separated from three middle-sized islands (Kyushu, Shikoku and Ezo) by narrow straits. It was already in physical and human terms a remarkably isolated country. To the west it faced two inward-looking countries, one the great landmass of China, the other the Korean peninsula whose proximity to Japan made it the vehicle of contact with China. To the east lay the enormous north Pacific ocean, little explored until the late eighteenth century. Cultural influences (Confucian philosophy and Japan’s writing system, both Chinese in origin, and the Buddhist religion itself) had all been transmitted through Korea more than a thousand years previously, by a small elite body of monks, scholars and noblemen, some of them returning Japanese. Later contact was fitful, and at the end of the sixteenth century, there was little trade and even less cultural movement between Korea and Japan. However, unsettled international conditions would give Korea, in the seminal decade of the 1590s and again after 1868 in the troubled times of renewed western encroachments in Asia, an importance transcending existing isolation. Isolation to the east and west was reinforced by an absence of contacts to the north, accounted for by climatic conditions, and to the south, created by economic circumstances.

1.         According to Passage 1, which of the following contributed the most heavily to the physical isolation of Japan?

  • A         Having to use Korea as the vehicle of contact for the Asian continent
  • B         Economic circumstances and a lack of contacts in Russia
  • C         Political instability due to ‘western encroachments in Asia’
  • D         The location and separation of the islands of Japan


 Passage 2

The period from 1789 to 1853 was marked at the beginning and towards the end by prolonged external crises. While its outset followed the severe Tenmei economic crisis of the 1780s, the period, 1830s apart, was free from economic difficulties. After the late 1780s the economy entered a period of great prosperity and low prices. Even the number of ikki, that doubtful measure of discontent, fell, and was remarkably low in most years. Low prices of rice, while reducing the purchasing power of samurai, were a positive boon to townsmen. The consequence was that the Edo population, though modestly enough, grew again (while, significantly, the population of Osaka, whose fortunes were linked to rice prices and daimyo finances, did not). There was a boom in consumer expenditure, and the city’s social activity and artistic role expanded in an unprecedented fashion.

Intellectual life strengthened. Schools flourished and increased in number: they were larger, the students more numerous, the teaching more structured and less dependent on the personality of one individual. The scale and appeal of the Hita academy of Hirose Tanso is an example of this. Japanese thought was not, of course, being even remotely westernised, but Japanese awareness of western civilisation was no longer confined to a limited group, and to specialised interests in mathematics and medicine.


2.         In Passage 2, ‘the number of ikki’ is presented as:

  • A         A metric
  • B         A benchmark
  • C         A Japanese word
  • D         An arbitrary association between prosperity and happiness


3.         In Passage 2, use of the word ‘significantly’ (line 9) suggests that:

  • A         The fortunes of the people of Osaka were strongly linked to rice prices
  • B         Osaka was populated heavily by samurai
  • C         Osaka’s population usually grew each year
  • D         Many townsmen relocated from Osaka to Edo


4.         Taken together, Passages I and II:

  • A         Present contradictory descriptions of the same nation
  • B         Display evidence of cultural and economic development
  • C         Display evidence of ongoing economic instability
  • D         Suggest a development in the Japanese writing system
  • Answers:

    The question refers to the ‘physical’ isolation of Japan. Economic and political circumstances did not effect the physical layout of the country, so the answer must be D.

    “Even the number of ikki, that doubtful measure of discontent”. ikki is presented in this case as a metric, a means of quantifying discontent in Japan.

    “The consequence was that the Edo population, though modestly enough, grew again (while, significantly, the population of Osaka, whose fortunes were linked to rice prices and daimyo finances, did not).”
    The question to ask yourself is ‘why is it significant that Osaka’s population did not grow that year?’
    A high density of samurai, the linkage of fortunes to rice prices, and a possible movement of townsmen from Osaka to Edo all help to explain the lack of increase in population, but they do not explain why it would be significant. It is significant, however, when a city whose population increases every year suddenly stops increasing during an economic boom – when all the other major cities in the country see an increase in population.

    Q4: D
    A is incorrect because both passages are describing different time periods. Passage II describes a period later than Passage I. C is incorrect because “There was a boom in consumer expenditure, and the city’s social activity and artistic role expanded in an unprecedented fashion.” suggests economic boom, not instability.
    This also suggests that B is correct – which we can confirm through comparison with the bleak image of Japan presented in Passage 1. Although there is reference to the Japanese writing system in Passage 1, there is no evidence that it was developed in Passage 2 – therefore D is also incorrect.

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