A critical gaze falls on Meiji sloganeering.


In 1853, American ships under the command of U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew Perry appeared in Uraga Bay off the coast of Japan. Their purpose was to deliver to the Japanese authorities a list of demands, couched in the form of a letter, from American President Millard Fillmore. Unbeknownst to Perry and his crew, the Americans’ demands—thinly veiled threats, really—for diplomacy and trade exacerbated an already untenable political situation within the government in the Japanese capital of Edo. Within fifteen years of the Americans’ arrival, the ruling Tokugawa house had collapsed and a new government, largely hostile to the Japanese past, and in particular to the Tokugawa “feudalism” seen as most representative of it, had been established in the newly renamed capital: Tokyo.

What followed was surely the most remarkable technological, political, and military transformation in world history. In danger of being colonized in the mid-nineteenth century, by 1905 Japan had defeated the Russian empire and by 1910 annexed both Taiwan and Korea, protecting both from Western colonial designs. The American challenge to Japan turned out to be the trigger for the Meiji Restoration, the broad-brush descriptor for Japan’s radical remaking in the image of its would-be conquerors. Tottering on the brink of civilizational collapse in 1853, by the late 1890s Japan was building her own battleships, and by the early 1930s was embarked upon an offensive to rid all of East and Southeast Asia, along with a goodly part of the Pacific Ocean, of Western forces entirely.

Synopses like the one above abound. Open virtually any Western-language textbook on Japanese history and you are sure to find one like it. But the real history of Meiji is not nearly as pat as précis such as these suggest. Japan was hardly united in its drive to modernize, for one thing. There was intense disagreement, and much blood spilled, over what “modernization” meant, whether Japan should have any part of it, and what Japan even was in the first place. Beset by one crisis after another, Japan after 1853 has scrambled to survive. Now, 150 years after the crowning of the new post-Edo political dispensation with the 1868 transfer of power to Mutsuhito, the Meiji Emperor, many in Japan are looking back and taking stock of just how perilous, and contested, the much-taunted Meiji triumph really was. In many ways, after fifteen decades Meiji history has only just begun to be written.

One of the most surprising elements of the Meiji past is that, contrary to almost all histories of the period in both Japanese and Western languages, it was not so much a contest between reformers and reactionaries—this trope largely trades in the prejudices and later propaganda of the Meiji victors themselves—as a full-blown civil war among rival groups reenacting ancient regional enmities. The Tokugawa government had achieved peace in 1600 by suppressing the near-constant warfare among rival factions and clans that had torn the country for centuries before. The rancorous feelings engendered by this fighting did not disappear during the ensuing 250 years of the Pax Tokugawa. Nor were they somehow magically sublimated into a schematic standoff between benighted feudalism and enlightened modernizers in the 1850s and 60s, as the Meiji conquerors would later have us believe. No, what many historians are now starting to see afresh is that Meiji was much more a reanimated blood-feud and score-settling than a high-minded disagreement over policies and principles. The Meiji Restoration is probably misnamed: the “Meiji Retribution” might be much closer to the truth.

Over the past year or so, a whole raft of books, magazines, articles, and television programs has been released in Japan, many of them openly questioning, or at least significantly complicating, the received Meiji narrative. These challenges cut broadly across the political divide. For example, Professor Sugita Satoshi’s late-2016 book Fukuzawa Yukichi and Imperialist Ideology(Fukuzawa Yukichi to teikokushugi ideorogī) revives an old subcurrent of Japanese leftist historiography that finds the intellectual roots of Japanese imperialism in Meiji mastermind Fukuzawa. (Lest there be any confusion, Sugita’s book helpfully lists “[Prime Minister] Abe Shinzō, the [ruling] Liberal Democratic Party’s constitutional reform proposals, and Nippon Kaigi” as “heirs to Fukuzawa Yukichi’s philosophy.” PM Abe, his party, and the pro-monarchy group Nippon Kaigi are the bugbears of the Japanese Left.)

If the Great Meiji Revisitation of 2018 has opened up inroads for critiquing the ruling class today, it has blasted sprawling boulevards for rethinking the ruling class of 1868. For instance, the prolific autodidact and independent scholar Suzuki Sōichi’s 2017 book The True Face of the Meiji Restoration (Meiji Ishin no shōtai) is in part a bold argument that the last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, was the “forerunner” (sakigake) of the Meiji success—bold indeed, considering that Yoshinobu has long been the sadsack foil to the story of the Meiji wizards’ dynamic reshaping of all of Japan.

Provocatively, Suzuki, in the same book, refers to Saigō Takamori as a “terrorist.” Terrorism is a matter of perspective, of course. What is beyond question is that Saigō, now a romantic legend in Japan, waged a guerrilla campaign of old-guard samurai against the newly constituted Imperial Army. When the inevitable defeat drew nigh, Saigō (some accounts say) committed seppuku, thus symbolically ending the old samurai martial ethos, at least as it was dressed in hakama and geta.

With the Meiji anniversary has come a mini Saigō boom in Japan. A major NHK drama depicts the early days of the great Edo holdout. The February 2018 issue of popular history magazine Rekishi Gunzou has a cover story asking “how Saigō Takamori chose to fight the government by force of arms.” Rekishi Kaido, another popular history magazine, devoted its entire February 2018 issue to Saigō, with a special feature on how the “beloved man” lived. The snazzy culture and history monthly Discover Japan set aside its February 2018 issue for Meiji’s leading men. In a group portrait on the cover, Saigō stands front and center, holding his famous dog, Tsun, on a leash, while another Meiji rebel, Sakamoto Ryōma, stands next to him. Commodore Perry, spark to the bakufu powder keg, holds aloof in the back row. Even Metro Walker, the free mass-market magazine available at subway stations throughout Tokyo, featured the bronze statue of Saigō and his dog on its winter edition cover. The Saigō statue near the Ueno train station is a Tokyo landmark. The Metro authorities are trying to drum up business by encouraging travel to Meiji-related sites around the capital. Tellingly, Saigō —who warred against the Meiji movement—is the pitchman.

With the interest in Saigō has come, inevitably, an interest in the Meiji losers more generally. Magazine covers discussing “losing martial men” (Tōkyōjin, February 2018) and “losers of the Meiji Restoration” (Rekishi Real, February 2018) flutter on shelves at bookstores across Japan. Perhaps most incisive was the September 2017 issue of the middlebrow news and history magazine Sapio. Emblazoned across the front cover in giant yellow and white type is “Meiji Restoration: 150 Years of Errors.” Inside, nearly two dozen pages argue for an acknowledgement of the deep prejudices against Meiji’s enemies that continue to this day. For example, Saigō Takamori, although revered in the popular imagination, is not enshrined at Yasukuni Jinja, the Shintō site memorializing Japan’s war dead. Yasukuni Jinja, author and Diet member Kamei Shizuka contests, is really a Chōshū-centric shrine, with the main figures from the old domain of Chōshū in southwestern Japan having pride of place. Saigō, who hailed from Satsuma, Chōshū’s bitter enemy, has been snubbed for fifteen decades.

Likewise, widely popular historian and manga artist Kobayashi Yoshinori contends that the Meiji Constitution, much vaunted by “so-called conservatives” in Japan, was forced down the throats of the Japanese and should not be the go-to replacement for the constitution currently in place (which was, of course, forced on the Japanese by the Americans). Kobayashi’s touché against Meiji realpolitik is a thickly laid indictment of the reigning order—on which more below.

And then there is the heartbreaking story of Ōyama Sutematsu. Sutematsu, sent to the United States by the fledgling Meiji government to learn English and act as a bridge between Japan and America, ended up graduating from Vassar College, eventually returning to her native country to marry General Ōyama Isao. General Ōyama, ironically, had been part of the Meiji artillery unit that bombarded Sutematsu’s family’s castle during the mopping-up campaigns as Meiji forces consolidated power. “Sutematsu” means “throw away the pine tree.” An odd name, but it refers to her heritage in Aizu-Wakamatsu, the two domains that were arguably most cruelly treated by the “modernizers” in the late 1860s. When Sutematsu was sent to the U.S. as a young girl, her mother renamed her as a token of the death of her old way of life. To this day, Aizu-Wakamatsu people retain the bitter memories of their hard defeat. These old grudges are bubbling to the surface as the Meiji veneer of miraculous invincibility cracks and fades.

There is sonority in a sesquicentennial, and retrospectives are to be expected whenever such a milestone is reached. But there is a subtext to the Meiji rethinking that Westerners, even those who can read Japanese, may perhaps overlook. The return to Meiji is, in many ways, a return to the Fifteen-Year War and its aftermath, and to Japan’s place in the neoliberal postwar world order. Meiji ended the top-heavy Tokugawa truce, which had imposed on Japan’s warring domains an uneasy peace, and inaugurated eighty years of dizzying tumult, culminating in Japan’s defiance of, and ultimate capitulation to, the United States’ Pacific juggernaut. The Pax Tokugawa, curated for eight decades by the Meiji imperialists who inherited it, was eventually exchanged for the Pax Americana which dominates Japanese political, security, and even many cultural stances to this day.

But times change. East Asia is quickly becoming too thorny a bramble for the American military to navigate. War with North Korea, or with China over Taiwan, could quickly draw in Russia and spark another global conflagration. There are still plenty of U.S. military bases in Asia, but the logic behind them has failed. As in Europe in the fifth century, the old empire is slowly dying and former client states are looking long and hard at what should be done next. The U.S. alliance has been the backbone of Japanese foreign policy since the end of World War II. How useful that alliance will prove to be if another shooting war breaks out in the neighborhood is now in serious question.

The historical azimuth in Japan is swinging away from justifications for the American security arrangements and back to a more objective, Asia-centered focus. Fukuzawa Yukichi, whom Japanese leftists blame for imperialist adventuring, famously counseled Japan to “quit Asia” (datsu A). Many Japanese now think it is time to rethink that view. In a recent extended essay in the special “Meiji Retrospective” issue of the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies Quarterly Reporteminence grise among Japanese historians Hirakawa Sukehiro asks, “What did the Meiji Restoration mean for the people in Asia?” (“Meiji Ishin wa Ajia shokoku no hito ni nani wo imi shitaka”). And as Japan sloughs off the postwar historical expediencies—Herbert Hoover’s Freedom Betrayed was translated into Japanese in 2015 to critical and popular acclaim, while scholars such as Ezaki Michio and Hata Ikuhiko have been steadily dismantling the FDR taboo—Japan no longer sees the need to index its own historiography to American modernization. By extension, Meiji need no longer be the story of “feudalism” giving up the ghost to the onslaught of “progress.” “Civilization and enlightenment” (bunmei kaika)—the watchword of the Meiji moment—is giving way to a history that tends to dissolve sloganeering like this under a hard, critical gaze. Old paradigms are ending. What was aggiornamento in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century has gone stale, and is being plowed under in the name of ressourcement.

Many blanch at this new Japanese historiographical subjective-objectivity. Won’t it lead to remilitarization and war? is the oft-heard lament. But these fears overlook the key difference: Japan is no longer trying to survive in a neocolonial, neo-Darwinian milieu, beset on all sides by Bolshevism and gunboats. The Meiji period, in other words, has finally ended. And now that the political expediencies of the past can be laid aside (with new threats taking their place, to be sure), sober historians can finally start to piece together, for the first time, what really happened a century and a half ago in this archipelago.  

Jason Morgan teaches at Reitaku University, Japan.