Translation played a major role in the modernization of Japan during the late 1800s. It aided them in modernizing politically, culturally and ideologically. Words such as liberty, society, and right and concepts including liberalism and international law were first introduced during this time period and helped shape the reformation of the government during the Meiji period.
Translation of western texts began long before the Meiji era began in 1867. The Dutch have been trading with the Japanese for a century or so on the island of Deshima. There, books about pharmacology, surgery, and navigation were allowed to be translated into Japanese. In 1720, one of the Tokugawa shoguns allowed the importation of Dutch books which helped increase a western influence on Japan. It was not until the final years of the Tokugawa shogunate, after Perry came to Japan in 1854, that they realized the importance of observing and learning western cultures and ideologies. The leaders ordered their scholars to study European and American concepts of “international law, diplomatic protocol, and the professional work of interpreting” (Howland 9). Subsequent to these studies and the Meiji period beginning in 1867, western ideas began to infiltrate the government. One example can be seen in the Meiji Six Society which included many philosophers, scholars, and politicians who all studied in schools of western learning. They debated many issues including the need for public assembly, the freedom of the press, and the equality of women which helped lay the “groundwork for public discussions of social and political questions” (Howland 13). Liberalism was one of the main goals of the Meiji era leaders and was inspired by western ideologies. Although there are many different interpretations of liberalism ideals, the Japanese use the one of how a belief in social or political change can lead to progress. In Japan, they were transitioning from a feudal society to one with an oligarchic system and they interpreted liberalism as leadership should be by an educated elite and those elite should guide the rest of the inferior society. Although they did not fully believe in an equal society and acted arrogant toward the lower classes, liberalism in Japan “still insisted on promoting enlightened civilization” (Howland 23). Even though liberty and liberalism come from western concepts, this is exemplary of how the Japanese interpreted their idea of the concept in their own way. As Howland states, citizens close to the oligarchy “defined liberty as pertaining not to public speech, assembly, or the press but to the internal domain of thought and religious belief” (Howland 23). As one can see, there was a conceptual difference brought by translation of the concept and definition of liberty and liberalism. Japan decided to restrict the English version of liberty due to the fact it may disrupt social stability during the late 1800s. During the transition from Tokugawa to Meiji, Japan could not adopt the western definition of liberty and the ideas associated with it, so they had invent a vocabulary and used it to “interpret the new social and political relations under construction” (Howland 4). Translation also played a cultural role in modernizing Japan and can be seen in the translation of the word “love”. The Japanese did not have literal translations to describe all the ways that English speakers utilize the word “love”. In