The arrival in 1853 of Commodore Perry's 'Black Ships', symbolising Western technological and military might, plunged Japan's feudal Shogunate into crisis. But over the next 50 years, this resource-poor island nation modernised with breathtaking speed and in 1905, to the astonishment of the world, it beat the mighty Russian empire both on land and at sea.
By contrast, Germany after defeat in World War I, gave way to self-pity and blamed enemies of the state, both at home and abroad for "betraying" Kaiser and country. Within 15 years, Adolf Hitler, whose cries of betrayal were among the most strident (read "Mein Kampf" if you can bear it), was in power and not many years after that Germany plunged into another war it could not win.
Why some nations manage such existential turning points, while others fail to, is the subject of a new book, "Upheaval", by Jared Diamond, the anthropologist and Geography Professor best known for writing "Guns, Germs and Steel". At this week's Nikkei Management Forum in Tokyo, Prof Diamond shared his conclusions and suggested they could equally apply to companies -- and indeed to individuals facing a personal crisis.
The first step is to acknowledge the crisis, which the Meiji Restoration's political and bureaucratic leaders did, even though many of them came from samurai families with a stake in the old system. Japan quickly recognised how far it had fallen behind Europe and the US in many respects and accepted the need for change -- something that took 19th century China much longer.
But it is important not to change everything and to phase change carefully, otherwise chaos will result. Even a nation in crisis has many successful features. Japan retained most of its culture and cultural identity, including its 'kanji' writing system and, of course, the emperor. But where it did make changes, it borrowed happily and widely from abroad - adopting models that were already demonstrably successful elsewhere. So, generalising somewhat, the new Japanese navy was modelled on Britain's; the army was based on Germany's; the education system was recast in first an American mode, then a French; and the legal system modelled on those of Germany and France.
The architects of the new Japan were patient. They experimented and honestly admitted failures. The courts, for example, were reformed several times in the first few decades. And Japan remained initially modest in its geopolitical ambitions. It started by incorporating the northern island of Hokkaido, then annexed the southern Okinawa islands and only after consolidating did it challenge Russia and finally China.
This framework is not perfect. Many Japanese feel that the Meiji era led straight to the aggressive militarist expansion of the 1930s and there is some truth to that, though Prof Diamond would probably argue that this was a later generation of leaders, driven by a very different philosophy.
His basic arguments, however, make a lot of sense. Openly acknowledging the problem, taking responsibility quickly, thinking about what to change and what to keep and then looking around for solutions that already exist. All of these steps make intuitive sense. And they can indeed be applied to companies too: think of Kodak failing to accept the end of camera film or Boeing's equivocation over the software problems at its 737 Max jet.
Companies, just like countries, are run by humans after all and we hate to admit something is our fault -- especially in the middle of a full-blown crisis. The ability to do so is a sign of true leadership. But even Prof Diamond has yet to discover a fool-proof recipe to spot it.