State formation in Korea and Japan

State formation in Korea and Japan occurred a thousand years before it did in Europe, and it occurred for reasons of emulation and learning, not bellicist competition. Korea and Japan emerged as states between the 4th and 8th centuries CE and existed for centuries thereafter with centralized bureaucratic control defined over territory and administrative capacity to tax their populations, field large militaries, and provide extensive public goods. They created these institutions not to wage war or suppress revolt – the longevity of dynasties in these countries is evidence of both the peacefulness of their region and their internal stability. Rather, Korea and Japan developed state institutions through emulation and learning from China. State formation in historical East Asia occurred under a hegemonic system in which war was relatively rare, not under a balance of power system with regular existential threats. Why? We focus here on diffusion through a combination of emulation and learning: domestic elites copied Chinese civilization for reasons of prestige and domestic legitimacy.

This is good, and it comes out of the most interesting journal in international relations today, but it doesn’t quite do it for me. I think China’s imperialism was far looser than contemporary scholars imagine, especially as China spread territorially outside of its cultural hearth. I think China’s imperial sovereigns were more akin to Emperors in the Holy Roman Empire than, say, Louis XIV. I do think that Japan and Korea mimicked China, which is exactly why both countries had relatively decentralized political systems up until the 19th and 20th centuries.

Contemporary scholarship has a soft spot for pre-modern (before 1500 AD) non-Western state systems, so you get stuff like this. Again, this is a great article, and you should read it right now, but I don’t buy it. I don’t think Japan and Korea were states that existed for centuries “with centralized bureaucratic control defined over territory and administrative capacity to tax their populations, field large militaries, and provide extensive public goods.” That’s too rich for my blood. There were cultural hearths and polities in Japan and Korea that tried to mimic China, but sovereignty was still far too fractal until the Europeans arrived with their formal imperialism. See this piece for an example of why I’m skeptical of the author’s claims.

2 thoughts on “State formation in Korea and Japan

  1. Fascinating. I just skimmed the first paper (the second one seems paywalled I ‘m afraid), a proper read is due I hope.

    I have “diagonally” approached the region, from the, let’s say, cultural perspective of modern Korean Martial Arts (KMA). The motif rhymes better with Brandon’s point, methinks.

    KMA come mostly from Japanese and Chinese systems (with the latter having also influenced the former). However, they were only formed as “national” fighting arts – with a definite militaristic edge and an alleged trace to the 3 Kingdoms period some 1500 years back – post WW II (shedding Japanese elements cuz Japanese Occupation of Korea 1910-1945) . Something similar went on with Japanese Martial Arts, with the nationalistic reshaping of the Samurai and their combat methods in early 20th century.

    The states under question propagated fighting arts (influenced, as in many other aspects, by Chinese systems) as vehicles of national tradition, pride and martial prowess as late as 1900 or even later.

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