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Dr. Alex Castaldo

Why Is My Car Japanese and Not Egyptian?

This is the question I was asking myself last night in a car speeding up I95 in
heavy rain.  I was coming back from New York after seeing Sondheim's Pacific
Overtures show, to which I had been invited by a generous samurai.

In 1798 French warships under the command of General Napoleon Bonaparte
appeared on the Cairo shoreline. The Muslims considered themselves a superior
civilization and had nothing but contempt for the barbarians.But in a short
time the whole of Egypt was occupied by French troops. A surprising and
unwelcome turn of events.


I was standing on the beach
Near the cliffs
At Oshama.
And looked out to sea ...

And there came,
Breaking through the mist,
Roaring through the sea,
Four black dragons,
Spitting fire.

The arrival of Perry's black ships in Japan, in 1853, was another example of
initial contact between two societies at different level of technological
development, with ominous implications for the less advanced.  But the
subsequent course of events in Egypt and Japan could not have been more

In 1801 the French withdrew from Egypt after being defeated by the British.
Bernard Lewis: "The arrival of the French revealed that even a small
expeditionary force from a Western power could conquer and occupy one of the
heartlands of the Middle East with ease.  Their departure demonstrated that only
another Western power could get them out.  It was a portentous double lesson".

But what to do about it was not an easy question.  Lewis: "The decline of the
Ottomans was not due so much to internal change as to their inability to keep
pace with the rapid advance of the West in science and technology, in the arts
of both war and peace, and in government and commerce.  The [Ottoman] leaders
were well aware of this problem, and had some good ideas for its solution, but
they could not overcome the immense institutional and ideological barriers to
the acceptance of new ways and new ideas."

In Japan responses varied.  Some advocated doing nothing, but others had more
intelligent ideas.  In his autobiography Yukichi Fukuzawa (1835-1901) describes
how he and other young people taught themselves Dutch (and later English) and
began reading and translating foreign books to acquire what they called Dutch
(that is Western) knowledge. Not satisfied with just reading books, they would
repeat the experiments themselves or try to match the feat described.  For
example, the fact that American ships had come to Japan had to be matched by
sending as soon as possible a Japanese ship to the U.S. And all this while
preserving Japanese traditions.  It took a lot of effort by a lot of people, but
ultimately the successful Japanese society of today emerged.

As for the Egyptians, they continued to be exploited by the British and others
throughout the 19th and 20th century.  There was and is much resentment about

The historian Arnold J Toynbee said that societies evolve through cycles of
challenge and response. When a society responds well to an outside challenge it
grows, when it fails to respond to a challenge it enters a period of decline.
That is obvious. But the thing that really interested him is that it impossible
to predict the response, which is by definition a matter of improvisation. In
history the challenges are always the same ("invasion by technologically more
advanced aliens", etc.), but the responses can be quite different and depend in
subtle ways on the flexibility, adaptability and level of intelligence of the
society as a whole. That is what makes it interesting. A few details different
and I would be driving an Egyptian car.

The show Pacific Overtures, now playing on West 54th Street, was enjoyable, even
though the quality of the singing was not quite as good as the recordings and
the sword fighting scenes do not quite measure up to the current Hollywood
standard. The music, with a strong rhythm and percussion, is very good.