It appears to me that Japan modernised during the late 19th century to come to a level of advancement comparable to Western powers was, unlike Ottoman Empire

  • Japan had universal compulsory education
  • the level of penetration of technology in governance and commerce.
  • Japan's power projection in late 1800's and early 1900's.

It was able to throw its weight around in 1905 against Russia, and had become the third naval power in the world before 1930.

While the Ottoman Empire did not have widespread industrial development, and had undeveloped regions such as Arabian provinces.

It was when Ataturk came to power that modernisation of Turkey began, I'd say. But that was about half a century later than Japan.

Speculations Was it because Ottoman Empire was eclipsed by the West gradually, and earlier didn't see the importance of modernising; compared to Japan, which was raised from its sleep abruptly by Commodore Perry's visit? For arguably, the Ottoman empire had more resources at its command, and had a functioning bureaucracy, unlike Japan, which was feudalistic and had to undergo a process of centralisation. It was in continued contact with the West, and with the ideas and innovations. The defeats during Napoleon's expeditions should have been an alarm bell for them.

Was it because the threat to them wasn't existential, as they were extended protection and propping up by France and Britain? Unlike Japan, which had witnessed the Opium Wars and was more anxious.

A British quote from 1st Viscount Grey of Fallodon

Our habit was to keep our hands free, though we made ententes and friendships. It was true that we had an alliance with Japan, but it was limited to certain distant questions in the Far East.[a] The [Ottoman delegate] replied that Empire was the Japan of the Near East (alluding to Meiji Restoration period which spanned from 1868 to 1912), and that we already had the Cyprus Convention which was still in force.

What were the factors which made the ruling class of Japan care about overhauling the status quo, and which allowed them to succeed in this, where in comparision the Ottoman Empire seems to not have succeeded?

Or is it that they were in parity more or less, in

  • administration

  • industrialisation

  • education

  • military

    and Japan stood standing because it was far away and wasn't defeated in WW1?

  • 2
    What tells you it didn't modernize ?
    – Bregalad
    Nov 30, 2018 at 18:55
  • 2
    Your question seems to be based on the predicate that there was something common between pre-Meiji Japan and the Ottoman Empire. I don't see any common ground between them. It's as if you were asking why dolphins and hawks don't live the same life.
    – MasB
    Dec 1, 2018 at 0:35
  • @BernardMassé There is little in common between dolphins and hawks, but there is much in common between a car-driving dolphin and a car-driving hawk. So what's common is that neither of them drove cars before a point of time.
    – Rohit
    Dec 1, 2018 at 0:37
  • I am skeptical that we can answer this question without better definitions for "modernize". It is difficult to answer "why didn't x . . .?" in a way that allows selection of an authoritative answer. I'm not sure, but does the question change if we ask, "What factors permitted the OE to modernize, but were absent in Japan?" - we still have to define "modernize", but I think you've started that in the comments. (Please don't answer in comments; edit the question to clarify and flag the comment for deletion.)
    – MCW
    Dec 1, 2018 at 13:09
  • 2
    I modified the question to ask why Turkey did not modernize at the same time as Japan (rather than not at all). Fundamentally, the query is now a "multiple choice" question that can be answered as such.
    – Tom Au
    Mar 9, 2020 at 13:51

2 Answers 2


It is very hard to answer in depth such a broad question. Only general suggestions can be made I think.

The similarity between the two is limited: Japan was not a multi-ethnic, multi-religious empire extending on three continents.

The Japanese institutional unity, robustness and coherence was arguably greater, no matter the feudalistic aspects, which were present in the Ottoman empire anyway, and which partially remained typical for Japan no matter the modernisation.

Japan had followed an intentional and systematic isolationist policy during Tokugawa period between 1603 and 1868; that is, its isolationism was conscious, controlled, political, intentional (as well as geographical), rather than cultural and accidental; that was decided in a logic of competition with the West that included from the beginning the possibility of switching between the two options of isolation vs. integration; for the Ottoman the process was different.

When the evidence of Western technological superiority became obvious in the nineteenth century, Japan was thus able to reverse its course in contradiction with the previous stance, but based on reasons that were not alien to the previous course of action. The Ottoman had never been confronted with that logic, they never tried to avoid integration, they had been an expansionist Islamic empire with no national identity in the nineteenth century sense. The reform in its case meant more than choosing between two options, but represented an in-depth transformation that involved the confrontation with a crisis of identity.

I think the problem of crisis of identity stays as the greatest difference between the two, involving mainly the national/nationalistic aspect.

The comparison between the two may be tempting now, that is between post-Atatürk Turkey and Japan; but Turkey is the result of the collapse of the Ottoman, and the violent invention of a national identity (in the context of a World War and even of a civil war that involved ethnic cleansing and extermination) that in Japan was taken for granted.

And there is also the religious and cultural aspect which is even more complicated if not impossible to explain, concerning mostly the capacity of Japan to adapt to the industrial era. That is suggested in other answer(s) already posted here, but the "essence" or cause of that capacity is very debatable. Religious aspects can be put forward, but it is very hard to be sure they are decisive. I would mention for the sake of contrast Emmanuel Todd's anthropological theory that correlates Japan's (as well as Germany's) industrial success (and authoritarianism) to a specific type of basic family structure.

But I am sure many other such factors can be brought here into play.

  • I would disagree about Japan not being multi-religous. It had, and has, two distinct religions (Shinto and Buddhism); it's just that there's not a lot of conflict between them, and a good deal of syncretism. OTOH Islam basically regards followers of other religions as second-class citizens at best, which leads to internal conflicts.
    – jamesqf
    Mar 9, 2020 at 18:59

I would challenge the initial assertion that Ottoman Empire couldn't modernize, or that its demise was caused by an inability to modernize. The empire was defeated in WWI and consequently partitioned. But the seed of that destruction was planted decades before. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ottoman_wars_in_Europe#Ottoman_decline_(1828%E2%80%931908) Just look at the number of wars it got itself into in its final 100 years!

But in 1914, the Ottoman Empire was still a formidable near peer rival to her European neighbors, albeit a bit disadvantaged. It pretty much held its ground on its own (with some German support) against the full might of the Entente for nearly a year at Gallipoli, and ultimately won! Had the German Empire won in the West, we would be talking about the Ottoman revival of the early 1900s.

Meji Restoration took place in the late 1800s (1860s+) and transformed Japan from a mostly agrarian feudal society into a modern one.

My assertion would be the Ottoman empire was not nearly as far behind the development curve in the 1800s as Japan was. It was just disadvantaged by distance between it and Europe, making the Ottoman easy picking.

But there seems to be a second component to the question: How did Japan carry out its transformation so quickly?

The answer is clearly cultural. Every East Asian Confucian based society was able to rapidly transform itself, when the conditions for transformation were finally met (the end of occupation, or extreme political oppression)

Japan in the second half of the 1800s, was the first to make the move. Followed by Hong Kong (post WWII in the late 40s), S. Korea (post Korean war in 1953) Singapore in post independence from Muslim Malaysia (1965), Taiwan (post one party rule) and China (post 1980s).

And every one of them now is either a peer or near peer society of the West, catching up on nearly 500 years of progress in around 50.

No other region or cultural groups have managed anything like it.

And as an outsider historian and observer, it seems the key isn't democracy as we in the West would like to think. Singapore is not democratic. China is definitely not democratic. Even Japan lives under one party rule, with the LDP being overwhelmingly dominant. The difference makers seem to be the dedication to education, the adherence to a civic code of conduct, the penchant for saving, and the lack of appetite for adventurous wars.

All these nations haven't been involved in any serious military conflicts for years. (Japan since 1945. S. Korea, since 1953. Singapore since its founding in 1965. Taiwan since 1949. China since 1979) allowing their people to focus on building and investing in the future.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – MCW
    Nov 30, 2018 at 18:08
  • On the democracy point, comes to mind Abdulhamid II. He was vary that a parliament would be a drag on his efforts to modernise quickly so he soon suspended the constitution and the parliament.
    – Rohit
    Dec 1, 2018 at 0:53
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    Fundamental flaw of Ottoman Empire was it multi-ethnic and multi-religious composition on one side, and Islamic roots on the other side . Essentially , lots of people in Ottoman Empire hated being in it, unlike Japanese population. Also, Ottoman Empire was already crumbling in 19th century , then Balkan Wars and finally in WW1.
    – rs.29
    Dec 2, 2018 at 12:17
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    There have been many multi-ethnic multi-religion empires in the world. The UK at height of its powers in the early 1900s was definitely a multi-ethnic, multi-religion empire. I would argue, most of the people in the British empire didn't enjoy being a part of it (as evident by their eventual departure over the next 50 years). The Austro-Hungarian empire was also multi-ethnic, mult-religion. Those weren't fatal flaws. The fatal flaw was losing war after war. See, history is written by the victor. But for some reason the victors don't want to admit that their greatness came from winning. Dec 3, 2018 at 15:12
  • and in the end the brits didn't let the colonies go. they got too weak from winning so many world wars that they could no longer keep them Dec 3, 2018 at 15:13

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