For the next instalment, check out Alternate History #6, A Buddhist Colony in Ptolemy's Alexandria.
Why does anyone care about alternative history? Why does it matter? Of course it's fun to be an imaginary tourist, and see what Buddhist Africa would look like. But more importantly, we care because the world is a small enough place that coincidences have consequences, and world history is always local history somewhere. There is a quiet little town in the Greek countryside that used to be called Sparta; there is a field in Shropshire where a boy named Charles developed his love of nature by collecting beetles; and furthermore reading biographies, it's most rewarding to find out everyone who came before us was just a mortal mammal. Can you be sure that there won't be people or events where you're sitting right now with macrohistorical echoes? If someone in the future came back to alter history, would a meteor hitting your town have more or less impact than one in the New Guinea Highlands, or downtown Seoul? There are places around the world that haven't yet mattered that much to everyone else. Japan is not one of them or I wouldn't have written a post about it.
So we care because coincidences have consequences - but to care, those consequences have to effect a world that we recognize - unlike much of the last post, where the description of the change's consequences are abbreviated for this very reason. And that's a second problem in alternative history, that if the change is far enough back, it would necessarily create a planet so bizarre it might as well be made from whole cloth. (Hence the framing of the Homo erectus nation in this post as isolated on Australia - sorry Aussies.) If I were to pick a novel where this problem was best demonstrated it would be Lion's Blood (and its sequel Zulu Heart) by Stephen Barnes, where the the change began with Socrates, twenty-five centuries ago. And still we get Christianity and Islam! (The same people with the same names would still be getting born a thousand years after the change? What, fate doesn't apply to historical events but somehow still applies to which sperm and eggs meet each other?) Having never asked Stephen Barnes, I can't say the following for sure, but I wager he would say that yes he knows things would have been a lot more different than that, but then people would be less invested in the stories.
Alexander the Great's conquest is another favorite place to change history. In S.M. Stirling's Conquistador, Alexandros o Megas survives his fever in Babylon and lives to a ripe old age, becoming a god-king and binding together east and west Eurasia "before their time"; apparently this religio-political cult retards progress so that when people from our timeline enter "modern-day" California in the other timeline, it's still populated solely by Native Americans. Expanding on Alexandrian divergences, I've always wanted a story where a time traveler with a poor grasp of history travels to early 3rd century B.C. China, not noticing anything amiss - until he is granted an audience with the emperor and finds himself before an old white man with thinning blonde hair - because Alexander rallies his troops at the Indus and then passes through Bengal and Burma to strike at the heart of China - right in the middle of the Warring States period, just like Pizarro wandered into Peru at exactly the right time in Inca history, after a protracted civil war. I wager Alexander would have taken one look at Chinese culture and "gone native" far more than he ever did in Egypt or Babylon.
You'll notice a pattern in the last two versions of "What if things had gone differently in relations between Europeans and the rest of the world?" The most common way this question is put in alterntive histories is what-ifs about the Mongol invasions of Eurasia. The Mongols were just the last of what were many pulses out of the central Eurasian steppes, which are called either migrations or invasions depending on whether your ancestors were already settled in when then next one came. Those migrations began earlier with several waves of Indo-Europeans (Celts, then the centum-speaking Mediterranean settlers, and then the Germans, and then the Slavs), followed by waves of Altaic-speakers (Huns, the Turks and Mongols; the first Altaics beat the last Indo-Europeans into Europe.) As time went on the nomads had to become successively better organized to defeat the agriculturalists they encountered, and the Mongols were the last hurrah. The economics (and technology, and population numbers)) of non-nomadism finally favored the cities by the Middle Ages. Hence Poles and Chinese don't have to worry about waking up tomorrow with Kazakh armies ravaging their cities.
Which finally brings us to the alternative history in the title. Focusing on Alexander or the Mongols (or even the spread of the Plague as Kim Stanely Robinson did in the outstanding Years of Rice and Salt) assumes that the important contacts between East and West Eurasia was mediated over land - and beginning in the age of discovery, this was no longer the case. When European ships began pushing trade routes up coastal East Asia, Japan was in the process of civil wars that ended up unifying it under the Tokugawa shoguns at the beginning of the seventeeth century. Interestingly, the Western export of which Japanese rulers were wary was not guns or printed books, but Christianity. Having seen what was happening in the Philippines - that the Spanish used the conversion of locals to Catholicism to advance their political interests - local daimyos became increasingly hostile to Christians, beginning in earnest with a massacre in Nagasaki at the end of the sixteenth century. Without accurate records it is difficult to estimate today how many converts had been made and how many were killed in the persecutions that followed but many estimates run into the hundreds of thousands; Christianity was formally outlawed in 1632.
The first Shogun unified Japan in 1603, and a few years later the second sent a Spanish-style galleon to make the daunting voyage across the Pacific, to Mexico. (Yes, that already seems like alternative history! More on this here, in the list of links.) Mystifyingly to modern minds, the Japanese government chose not to continue its new naval activities. The second shogun, Hidetada, began limiting contact with the West but it was the third, Iemitsu, who not only formally outlawed Christianity, but closed Japan to the outside world. Again, to modern classical liberal minds this seems stupid and/or cruel, but from the standpoint of a rationally self-interested dictator, there are two things you don't want: contact with the outside world, and the opportunity for subjects to enrich themselves. Foreign trade necessarily meant both, and though he didn't realize it, Iemitsu's point was already proven by European history: in the late Middle Ages foreign trade after the Crusades ultimately brought an end to the Church's monopoly on power in the northern half of Europe. Economic growth is an unquestioned end in a democracy but seems positively dangerous to a tyrant who thinks only in terms of self-preservation, and in those days no one yet grasped the link between advancing economies and advancing military technology. One thing that is inescapably obvious about the Tokugawas is their extremely clear-thinking and unsentimental focus on preserving their power.
Bolstering Iemitsu's case from the standpoint of colonialism, Asia provides excellent arguments against colonization. What were the two countries in Asia that were not colonized? Japan and Thailand, both of which have been very successful relative to neighbors. Interestingly, Thailand had a similar dalliance with European influence in the seventeeth century, until a king threw them out of his court.
What if the Third Tokugawa Had Not Been So Suspicious?
What might have happened if the third Tokugawa had been less paranoid, and remained open to foreign influence? Catholic and Spanish influence would have continued unabated, and it's difficult to argue that Iemitsu's fears were not justified; Japan would likely have become a colony like the Philippines, although with a centralized government this would eventually have led to large war between colonizers and the central government. In actual history, the Japanese permitted the Dutch (the Dutch East India Company) limited contact from an island near Nagasaki, although if the Spanish had still been present in the same numbers it's unlikely such an arrangement would have continued. The Dutch even tried to militarily dislodge the Spanish elsewhere in the Pacific, from Manila, but failed; maybe they would have tried and succeeded in Japan?
Here's how we might read history if things went differently. Major events of macrohistorical importance? Because Japan remained isolated, I think we'd see the biggest impact in three areas: 1) those having to do with early-to-mid 20th century China, 2) most obviously, with World War II (there would only have been one real Axis power) and 3) with the development of technology in the twentieth century. Of course the Japonisme influence in art in the nineteenth century would not have happened, because Japanese civilization would not have had the good fortune to touch European civilization at a time when Europeans put any value on the exotic, non-Christian world.
1613 - the Pietish galleon San Buena Ventura returns from Mexico with Spanish priests to minister to the growing Japanese Christian population, and a military escort with several garrisons-worth of Spanish troops for "protection" of the Pietish military chief (the "chogan"); persecution of Pietish Catholics in Cuchu ceases.
1623 - the Dutch East India Company begins building forts along the bay near what the natives called Edo; this would later become New Rotterdam. The following year a small Spanish fleet attempts to enter the bay and is repulsed by the Dutch. Spanish appeals to the Pietish chief are ignored.
1630 - the Dutch found the New Hague on the site of old Zendij in the north. The Spanish found colonies on the west coast of Greater Piety; by this point there are Spanish towns throughout the two Minor Pieties (there is a campaign to restore the native names, Cuchu and Chicocu).
1644 - attempted rebellion by now-majority-Christian Nacasaqui chief against the central chief in New Rotterdam, with surrepetitious Spanish help. The revolt is crushed with Dutch help.
A traditional Pietish dancer. (Here's who it is really, and guess why I picked her.)
1670-1677 - the Spanish conquest of the Pieties (named after previous Spanish king Philip the Pious). With Spanish help boats and warriors from the Lesser Pieties revolt against the central chiefs, and in three years have taken most of the west coast of Greater Piety and the east coast up to the Chubu region. The native chief in Kyoto is killed and the military chief in New Rotterdam is exiled. Spain now administers all but the northeast quarter of the Pieties.
The Virgin of Sasebo. A native in the hills of Cuchu claimed to have found it on the paper wall of his hut after a flash of light at dawn on New Years Day.
1787 - Vladimir Tartarov maps Alexander Island, to the north of Great Piety, and returns two years later to build the fort that would become Alexandrograd. This was the first of three, the first two of which were destroyed by the Emitchee natives.
River mouth, Alexander Island. The island became very popular with British hunters and since the detente tourism from Americans has increased. (Really, Sakhalin.)
1799 - the brief Battle of Black Strait between a British survey ship and two Russian vessels. This was the ship that later brought George Granville to in Olivertown in British Columbia.
1879 - French-educated Jesuit priest Carlos Nacallama begins the "Cherry Blossom" revolt against Spanish colonial authorities. He is eventually captured and executed, but revolts continue in springtime for two decades.
Carlos Nacallama, ca. 1883. Really, philosopher Kitaro Nishida.
1867 - Alexander Island almost becomes American territory, along with Russian America (between the Yukon and the Bering Strait) in a purchase transaction between American Secretary of State Seward and the Russian Empire. Discussions called off; President Fremont decides territories would be undefendable from British.
1898 - The Spanish Pieties come into American possession along with the Philippines at the conclusion of the Spanish-American War. The underdeveloped northeast ("Free Piety") remains officially not part of the territory; the Dutch only retain official claim to New Rotterdam and New Hague.
1926 - The Soviet invasion of Korea begins the Russo-Korean War.
1938 - Taking advantage of the Chinese Civil War, Soviet forces invade China.
1939 - Germany invades Poland. The USSR declares war on Germany. The nominally neutral U.S. begins to sell weapons to Germany to distract the Soviets from their campaigns in the Orient.
1941 - U.S. takes Free Piety, pays Netherlands a nominal fee. This is condemned by non-German Europe but war is not declared.
1943 - The end of the German War in Europe means that Soviet forces can focus fully on East Asia. The British-Soviet alliance divides China into north and south, and quickly ends American ambitions elsewhere in Asia or the Pacific.
The Old Dutch Church in New Rotterdam.
1977 - Sustainable nuclear fission developed by Esteban Curosaqui, a Pietish physicist working in England.
1988 - After a decade of detente between the U.S. and the Commonwealth-Soviet Alliance, the U.S. grants official home-rule in the Pieties, but U.S. military bases remain in Santa Fausta and Nacasaqui despite protests. Still-developing Pietish economy based on agriculture and tourism; some Pietish scientists trained in the U.S.
1992 - First semiconductors developed.
2012 - economic outlook for Pietish economy considered positive. U.S., Korea and China are moving unskilled manufacturing to the Pieties, especially printing, textiles and heavy industry.
Thanks to Motoo for corrections and further insights.