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The Last Days of the Samurai & the Invention of Modern Japan, 1853-1912 - HIS00052C

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  • Department: History
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Oleg Benesch
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: C
  • Academic year of delivery: 2020-21
    • See module specification for other years: 2019-20

Module summary

From the early seventeenth century, Japan experienced more than two centuries of peace that saw the flowering of a diverse and vibrant society under the rule of the Tokugawa shoguns. The Tokugawa oversaw a peaceful age, but their government was organized along military lines, with the elite class of sword-carrying samurai at the top. Although knowledge of the outside world was highly valued in Tokugawa Japan, the country was largely closed to foreigners, and Japanese were banned from overseas travel. In the 1850s, the arrival of European and North American soldiers, traders and diplomats provoked a crisis that resulted in the collapse of the Tokugawa. This module examines the end of the samurai state and the birth of the new imperial government, which embarked on an unprecedented modernization process that ultimately led to Japan becoming the first non-Western global power of the twentieth century.

The tremendous rapidity with which Japan modernized has spawned many myths and misconceptions, with its success often attributed to supposed cultural factors such as the traditional social structure, a 'samurai spirit' or a strong sense of national unity. We will look at narratives of both winners and losers of the modernization process, and question theories concerning Japan’s uniqueness and unity. This unit will use important primary sources and secondary readings to help illustrate the variety of interpretations that can make up historical debates across periods and regions. This module does not assume any prior knowledge of East Asian history or language.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching cycle
A Spring Term 2020-21

Module aims

The aims of this module are:

  • To give an intensive introduction to an unfamiliar period and/or approach to the study of history;
  • To offer experience in the use of primary source materials;
  • To develop skills in analysing historiography; and
  • To develop core skills such as: bibliographical search techniques; source analysis; essay writing; giving presentations; and, undertaking independent research

Module learning outcomes

Students who complete this module successfully will:

  • Acquire an insight into an unfamiliar period and/or approach to history through intensive study of an aspect of the period and/or an approach to it;
  • Gain experience of analysing primary source materials;
  • Be able to evaluate an historical explanation;
  • Have further developed work undertaken in the Autumn Term lecture courses and skills portfolios, including historical analysis, note-taking, using primary sources, presenting to groups, and leading discussions in seminars;
  • Be able to construct a coherent historical argument in oral and written forms

Module content

Teaching will be in weekly 2-hour seminars taught over nine weeks, plus an overview and revision session in Week 2 of Summer Term. Each week students will do reading and preparation in order to be able to contribute to discussion. 

The provisional outline for the module is as follows:

Spring Term

1. Studying Japanese History

2. A Land of Samurai: Japan in the 1850s

3. The Fall of the Shogunate

4. 'Restoring' the Emperor

5. Turning to the West

6. Popular Protest and Social Change

7. Creating Japanese

8. Casting off China

9. A Nation of Supermen: Japan over Russia

Summer Term

2.         Overview and revision


Task Length % of module mark
Online Exam
Open Exam
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

Formative work:

During the Spring Term students will prepare a presentation in pairs or small groups. Tutors will determine the formative work for the course: all groups will present either on a primary source or on an assigned historiographical question. Formative work will be completed in one or more sessions at the tutor’s discretion.

Summative assessment:

An open exam in the Common Assessment Period, comprising one essay question chosen from five options.


Task Length % of module mark
Online Exam
Open Exam
N/A 100

Module feedback

The formative assessment is a group presentation and verbal feedback will be provided by the tutor in class followed by a written summary to each student within 10 working days. Students will have a 15 minute one-to-one tutorial to discuss the formative assessment and prepare for the summative assessment. For more information, see the Statement on Feedback.

For the summative assessment task, students will receive their provisional mark and written feedback within 20 working days of the submission deadline. The tutor will then be available during student hours for follow-up guidance if required. For more information, see the Statement on Assessment.

Indicative reading

For term time reading, please refer to the module VLE site. Should you wish to do any preliminary reading, you could look at the following:

Jansen, Marius B. The Making of Modern Japan. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Walthall, Anne. The Human Tradition in Modern Japan. United States: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers 2002.

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.

Coronavirus (COVID-19): changes to courses

The 2020/21 academic year will start in September. We aim to deliver as much face-to-face teaching as we can, supported by high quality online alternatives where we must.

Find details of the measures we're planning to protect our community.

Course changes for new students