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Imperial Japan, 1890-1950 - Semester 1 - HIS00147H

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  • Department: History
  • Module co-ordinator: Prof. Oleg Benesch
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: H
  • Academic year of delivery: 2024-25
    • See module specification for other years: 2023-24

Module summary

One of the most enduring tropes about Japan is that it is a homogenous society characterised by a unique blend of ancient traditions and hypermodernity. Geisha and castles are juxtaposed with robots and bullet trains in journalistic accounts, tourism materials, and popular culture. By focusing on supposedly unique elements of Japanese culture, this portrayal often obscures the fact that modern Japan developed through an extensive engagement with the rest of the world. Understandings and uses of the past played an important role in this process. Between 1895 and 1945, Japan built a diverse, multi-ethnic empire that rivalled and threatened those of the Western powers. The fifty years of imperial expansion into Asia that dramatically changed the societies of Japan and the countries it occupied, and have had a lasting global impact.

This module examines the development of Japanese society from the late nineteenth century to the Second World War through a range of primary and secondary materials. We will consider especially how the past was used to construct new identities, and how ideas of gender, race, and nation were contested and disseminated within Japan, in spheres including culture, religion, politics, sport, and the military. We will explore these developments in light of Japan’s relationship with the wider world. As was the case with other imperial powers, even as Japan was constructing its empire, the empire was simultaneously constructing Japan.

Related modules

Students taking this module must also take the second part in Semester 2.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Semester 1 2024-25

Module aims

The aims of this module are:

  • To introduce students to in depth study of a specific historical topic using primary and secondary material;
  • To enable students to explore the topic through discussion and writing; and
  • To enable students to evaluate and analyse primary sources.

Module learning outcomes

Students who complete this module successfully will:

  • Grasp key themes, issues and debates relevant to the topic being studied;
  • Have acquired knowledge and understanding about that topic;
  • Be able to comment on and analyse original sources;
  • Be able to relate the primary and secondary material to one another; and
  • Have acquired skills and confidence in close reading and discussion of texts and debates.

Module content

Students will attend a 1-hour briefing in week 1 and a 3-hour seminar in weeks 2-4, 6-8 and 10-11 of semester 1. Weeks 5 & 9 are Reading and Writing Weeks (RAW). Students prepare for and participate in eight three-hour seminars in all.

Seminar topics are subject to variation, but are likely to include the following:

  1. Japan in 1890
  2. Japan's Departure from Asia
  3. Becoming Samurai
  4. Religion and the Empire
  5. Rural Life and Emigration
  6. Constructing Colonies
  7. Japan and the Great War
  8. Internationalism and Intervention

Indicative assessment

Task Length % of module mark
Text Commentaries and Essay
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

For formative assessment, students will be given the opportunity to produce text commentaries in seminar, including a written commentary.

For the summative assessment students build a portfolio of two parts, to be submitted together:
a) Two text commentaries of 500-750 words; and
b) One 1,500-word essay which reflects on the significance of the chosen texts in light of scholarship and sources from across the module.
The commentaries comprise 50% and the essay 50% of the overall mark for this module. Summative assessments will be due in the assessment period.

Indicative reassessment

Task Length % of module mark
Text Commentaries and Essay
N/A 100

Module feedback

Formative work will be live marked in seminar and supplemented by the tutor giving oral feedback to the whole group. All students are encouraged, if they wish, to discuss the feedback on their formative work during their tutor’s student hours. For more information, see the Statement on Feedback.

For summative assessment tasks, students will receive their provisional mark and written feedback within 25 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 of Assessment.

Indicative reading

For semester time reading, please refer to the module VLE site. Before the course starts, we encourage you to look at the following items of preliminary reading:

  • Andrew Gordon, A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).
  • Anne Walthall, The Human Tradition in Modern Japan (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002).
  • Oleg Benesch, Inventing the Way of the Samurai: Nationalism, Internationalism, and Bushido in Modern Japan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University constantly explores 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. In some instances it may be appropriate for the University to notify and consult with affected students about module changes in accordance with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.