Episode 104 – Dr. M. William Steele (ICU)

Originally published on April 12, 2019

[This transcript has been edited for clarity.]

Tristan Grunow: This is the Meiji at 150 Podcast. I’m Tristan Grunow. On this episode, I’m talking with Dr. M. William Steele, Professor Emeritus at the International Christian University. Dr. Steele is the author of “Apocalypse Now: An Alternate View of the Bakumatsu Years” in the Meiji at 150 Digital Teaching Resource as well as Alternative Narratives in Modern Japanese History, published by RoutledgeCurzon in 2003. Dr. Steele, thank you so much for talking with me today.

M. William Steele: And thank you. Thank for you for allowing me to be part of the UBC Meiji 150 Project.

TG: Well, you wrote for us this great visual essay, which I thought was a great encapsulation of your research, which has particularly been looking at bottom-up movements. So often, the narratives we get about the Meiji Restoration in particular, but modern Japanese history more broadly, is this really top-down history of talking about things happening at the state level. But in your research, you focused on the ground level, and certainly, that bottom-up aspect. So, could you tell us more about your research? Why is it that you focused on this bottom-up aspect? And what do we learn differently about modern Japanese history when we look at these alternative narratives?

MWS: Thank you, yeah. In that essay that I prepared for the Meiji 150 Project – I called it “Apocalypse Now” – I tried to find out how people at that time (the so-called “Bakumatsu years” between 1853 and 1868) understood what was happening around them, and I’ve always been interested in different views, you know. Historians usually look back at the Bakumatsu years – now 150 years ago… we know what happened, and we know what happened afterwards, but how did people at that time think about it? Of course, those people didn’t know they were living in the Bakumatsu years. The word “Bakumatsu” didn’t exist, of course. And so, I think I began my interest in looking at the non-elites and looking at the people with no names as kind of a social history approach almost 50 years ago – actually, around Meiji 100, ‘68 when I started my graduate studies. I was working with Albert Craig who is a specialist on Chōshū. Those were, of course, the winners of the Meiji Restoration, and being somewhat contrary in personality, I said: “Well I’d like to study the losers.”

TG: (Laughter)

MWS: The people who lost out. And I worked on Katsu Kaishū who was in effect, the commander-in-chief of the Tokugawa military forces in 1868 and negotiated the surrender of Edo Castle to Saigō Takamori. He was a specialist in naval affairs, he’d sailed the first Japanese warship – the Kanrin Maru – across Yokohama to San Francisco in 1860. Anyways, a kind of interesting character through the 1860s, but then he was charged with the duty of somehow negotiating the surrender, and actually, negotiating the collapse of the Tokugawa regime. So, that was my PhD thesis, but ever since then, I’ve been concerned with the underside, social history, history of ordinary people, and instead of the winners, the losers; instead of the rich and the powerful, the weak and the poor and the impoverished; and instead of the people at the center, I’ve been concerned with people at the periphery. I’ve also been very interested in local history. Basically, my approach is that even losers make history. I’d say I’m interested not only in people from the bottom-up point of view, but that visual essay I did [is about] how people at that time experienced what we now call “history.”

People at that time didn’t know that their government was about to fall apart, and replaced by an imperial regime, but they did know that something was wrong and probably, somewhere around the time of 1853 [with] the coming of Commodore Perry and the foreign threat, things seemed to be getting worse and worse. From the commoners’ point of view or from the people at that time, there didn’t seem to be any neat narrative: no sense of an inevitable course of events, and in that essay, I used one print issued in the middle of 1868, which took the form of a chronology of the last 15 years.

It was broken up into something like 15 boxes. It’s almost like a board game, a sugoroku. There’s a box for 1853, which had a picture of Commodore Perry’s black ship, and then ‘54, ‘55 and so forth, all the way up to 1868, which had a picture of – each box had an illustration of a central event of that year – the Battle at Ueno Hill (they defeated the shōgitai in the fifth month of 1868).

But I was really intrigued that there wasn’t a neat narrative, and certainly, there was no narrative of imperial loyalism or of nationalism or foreign response and so forth. It really was a hodgepodge of events: some were political, some were economic, some were religious, and there was a lot of natural disasters. This is how common people remembered the history: that was the year of the flood, that was the year of the fire, that was the year of the great epidemic. And that led me also to, you know, use your Digital Resources at UBC. There was this marvellous collection of disaster prints in the Bakumatsu. And actually, I was working on this print before I discovered that naruhodo, this is great! I should use this, and I really used that and other of those digital resources. It’s just a great benefit to scholars and people interested in the period[s] before and after the Meiji Restoration.

TG: And you were talking about how you were interested in local history and particularly in peripheral history, and looking at some of these power struggles between the centre and the periphery. And one of the chapters in your book Alternate Narratives in Modern Japanese History that I’ve always found so instructive is this article and chapter “Edo in 1868,” looking at the commoner response to the Meiji Restoration, and one of the things I found so powerful in that chapter was that even at the centre, we see that these policies aren’t being received very well.

MWS: Yes that was also…what I was interested in there is, again, the whole story of one year between the first month of 1868 and the twelfth month, and how ordinary people in Edo understood what was happening, and that one year is usually the turning point in modern Japan, the end of the old regime, the beginning of a new regime. And it’s a triumphant story.

But when I looked at the experience of commoners of Edokko (the people of Edo), it’s a very different narrative, and it certainly challenges any notion of the heroic story of a bloodless surrender of Edo Castle or the renaming of the era names from Keiō to Meiji or the name from Edo to Tokyo, and the triumphant entry of the emperor into the new imperial capital. And what I did in that thing is that I used a lot of political cartoons issued at that time in 1868. That’s almost like social media at the time because who made them, who bought them, all of this is unknown, but they were just flooded with visual materials in the form of, really kind of cartoons that satirized and made fun of the events that were taking place around the time, sometimes with a little bit of humour, sometimes with a little bit of news (titillating news and so forth).

But they often helped me and other scholars understand this bottom-up view, so I used that as the main resource, and what I found there, for the commoners anyway, the Meiji Restoration or what happened in 1868 was by no means happy event. I remember this word that Queen Elizabeth used a few years ago annus horribilis: a horrible year that was filled with confusion and fire and war and death and bloodshed and impoverishment and insecurity, depression.

During that year, the population of Edo decreased by half. A lot of people fled the city. Of course, the rich, the merchants, and the daimyō left, but the city was just really very severely depopulated and impoverished (in many cases, falling apart). Perhaps for the Edo commoners, the central event was the 15th day of the 5th month, which actually turns out in the Western calendars to be July the 4th, 1868: the attack on the shōgitai. And yes, it gave the imperial government uncontested control over the city, but at the same time, it resulted in a big fire. In the north, the eastern sections of Edo burned, there were lots of lives lost and property destruction and so forth, and it was the result of a lot of [inaudible] bloody warfare in the centre of Edo.

The popular cartoon at the time was Oyama no Taishō, the “King of the Mountain,” and it showed a number of children playing a war game, which is called: “I’m going to be king of the mountain, and I’m up on top of the mountain, I win ” and everybody pushing other people who try to take your place down. This depicted a scene using children in which Satsuma and Chōshū – who were the leaders of the anti-bakufu action and who succeeded in leading on behalf of the young child emperor – are portrayed as children holding up the baby Emperor Meiji on top of the mountain and saying: “Hey, we are now king of the mountain.” But other boy soldiers continued to fight. Some were in retreat, and then you can look at the clothes, the symbols on the clothes, and you can tell who is who, and who’s doing what here. And particularly, some of the daimyō from the northeastern part of Japan like Aizu and Sendai and others in the northeastern part of Japan were still fighting hard.

For the viewers of that print, the Edokko, this scene seemed like a cute picture of boys having fun fighting or playing war games but actually, immediately recalled the roar of cannons and the barrage of rifle shots, the fire that engulfed the northeastern part of Tokyo, and it was really a reminder of what they had experienced as Edo [was] really in decline and in war and really, under siege. Sometimes, people look at these cartoons and say: “Oh, this is cute. This is evidence of some children’s games.” And they are kind of cute, but for people at that time, these were not intended for bringing it home to your child and look at it and have fun or whatever. They were really for adults. They were depicting children at war, but it was a sort of stand-in or a depiction of real war, of real blood and real death and real suffering and real violence that people were experiencing at that time.

For the people in Edo and in the immediate environs of Edo, this year was one of suffering, destruction, dislocation, impoverishment. That was their experience, and then we’ve kind of forgotten that. Yes, the Meiji Restoration was a supremely important event in Japanese history, and it starts the beginning of a unified nation-state, etc. etc., but it wasn’t a happy time by any means for the common people.

TG: Speaking of these satirical political cartoons, one that I use in my own class quite a lot when I’m talking about this topic is one depicting the battle of Toba-Fushimi as a battle of farts. (Laughter)

MWS: Yes, I use that myself too. That particular one actually, the pro-imperial side has the biggest bag of fart, which they can use. It’s their secret weapon. Actually, they did have superior military power and the joke, of course, is that farting power is heryoku and military power is heiryoku, so there’s a nice joke there. And the other side (the Tokugawa side) are trying really hard, but they just don’t have the stuff. (Laughter)

TG: And we can look at these prints as evidence of Edo’s disinclination towards the new Meiji government coming in, and I mean, there’s also a number of jokes circulating at the time about how these country bumpkin samurai come in from the West, and you know they talk about Meiji, but all we read is “osamarumei”, (we will not be governed by anybody). But the Meiji government does come in, and they’re able to somewhat pacify the populace, aren’t they, by basically hosting a giant drinking party?

MWS: Oh yes. At the end of the year. I don’t know whose idea that was. It certainly worked at least for people who had gone through this year, and looking for some sense of hope, some sense of: maybe the year’s going to end well and we’re going to have a better future for the next year. The government held a three day festival, basically, where osake was given out to the entire city of Edo. The various ward leaders from sections of the city (now called Tokyo) had to come to the Imperial Palace, which was pretty much in ruins actually still, but they had to come to where the emperor was and receive the sake, bow down to their emperor and then take it back to their respective districts in the city. And there was [a] three days holiday. Yes, I think it actually did work. It almost created a sort of new covenant between the residents of now Tokyo and the new government of the emperor, but it wasn’t total.

The people of Edo would want better conditions, better times and they didn’t come immediately. We kind of think that well, after the Meiji Restoration ends, Tokyo blossoms and so forth, but actually, the Edo population didn’t really recover to its strength that it was before 1868 until the 1880s. And the city of Edo for many years afterwards is in still a lot of empty lands. They’re all former daimyō lands, and former lands are just left either to fallow or turned into mulberry fields . The city didn’t immediately restore a lot of the greatness, and also, Edo people were still a little bit hesitant: Who are these people? They are the, as you said, country bumpkins.

One of those cartoons talks about these guests here (the nagashiri) they’ve stayed too long. We’ve got to sweep them out. So, there was still a lot of resistance, and certainly, even the name “Edo” persisted well into the 1870s. Our name, our city isn’t “Tokyo.” We’re still “Edo.” So, they persisted that, and there’s that wonderful book by Ogi Shinzō Tōkei jidai. Instead of Tōkyō jidai, it’s Tokei jidai. It’s sort of an intermediate time, an era of intermediacy, in which there’s still a lot of Edo left, a lot of pro-Edo sentiments left well into the 1880s and so forth. So, I think it’s not a sudden kind of a conversion as we might sometimes be led to believe by the textbooks.

TG: Is it too quick to assume, then, that the people of Edo would have preferred to stay under the Tokugawa rule? Or was it just necessarily antipathy towards any sort of power? I mean, was this really anti-Meiji/pro-Tokugawa or is that too simple?

MWS: I think it’s a bit too simple. I think that anybody who could provide them with the peace and stability and the order on which they basically could continue their lives and continue to carry out their work without a hindrance and so forth was what they really wanted. And if the emperor can provide that, then good. Though there is again, as you know, a lot of residual sympathy toward the Tokugawa family. I looked at and edited, actually, Clara’s diary, a diary of an American young girl who was in Japan from 1875 for ten years and eventually marries, and she was 15 years at that time. She kept a very interesting diary.

In her records, a lot of gossip at that time, and she heard all of the people. They really loved the Tokugawa. At the time of the Satsuma Rebellion, they said, “I hear a lot of gossip,” people would say that they’re secretly hoping that Saigō will win.

And also at that time, 1877 was the funeral of Kazunomiya, and she was one of the women of the castle, originally the half-sister of the Emperor Kōmei, so she’s the aunt of the emperor. But she was actually married to the Tokugawa family and served, also, as a mediating force between the old government and the new government in 1868, still one of the visual personalities of the Edo period. She died in 1877, and there was this massive funeral, and a lot of sympathy. Of course, she died young, and Clara also writes about that funeral and about the great popular sympathy towards her and to the former Tokugawa family.

TG: When talking about these bottom-up movements, and especially in the Bakumatsu period, one of the things that comes up a lot is the “ee ja nai ka” hysterical dancing in the streets as a portent of something to come, and I’m thinking of say for example, George Wilson’s work, questioning whether or not there was an amount of agency from these bottom-up movements. What do you think about this? Did the commoners play a role in the Restoration? And is this antipathy towards Restoration that we see in the prints, for example, evidence of that?

MWS: You know, some rich merchants gave money to the Tokugawa side, but they also gave money to the (laughter)…they’re hedging their bets [inaudible]. And when you go down to the common people, I think they really did get caught up in that “ee ja nai ka” movement, but as we look back at that essay I wrote on the Bakumatsu years, there’s just a series of terrible events: one after another of fires and epidemics, then there’s on top of that, the barbarians, and then there’s the civil war then there’s rising prices. It’s a sort of what’s next? What can it possibly be? Isn’t there any hope at all in this world? And I don’t think “ee ja nai ka” is so much more of a “let’s tear the government down and make a new one.” It’s just that sort of expression of: “Can we take anything more? It’s so terrible.” But I don’t really see the commoners playing a sort of agency or clearly defined role. I think, instead, it reflects these almost apocalyptic or millenarian hopes that there will be salvation sometime. But on the other hand, probably realizing: Oh maybe we’re really at a dead end. This is the end.

TG: So you mentioned that one of the things you wanted to research was the losers of the Restoration, so you’re looking at Katsu Kaishū and some people of the local areas, how they were reacting to these things that were happening. And then at the same time, there are those who criticized the new Bunmei Kaika movement and some of the Westernization introduced by the Meiji government. I understand you’ve been working on that as well. So, could you give us a few examples of people who, even if they weren’t necessarily critical of the government, were critical of Westernization?

MWS: Yes, and that’s good because as I say, I was interested in Katsu Kaishū a commander at the top. I’ve been interested in the losers, and I say I was almost responding to my thesis advisor who was looking at the winners at that time. I also wanted to take on the Kaika movement (civilization, Westernization), and I’ve been focusing a lot on anti-Westernization and anti-modernity or anti-Western things and ideas in the early Meiji period because again, the story that is all of a sudden that after the Meiji Restoration, Japan industrialized and militarized, and Westernized and people were eating beef and wearing Western clothes and it’s just too quick. It happened, but only in small sections, and yet, there was also a great deal of resistance to those things from the outside.

I have a great deal of respect for Fukuzawa Yukichi. He’s the Westernizer of Japan, he’s written all sorts of books including one called Encouragement of Learning that is encouragement Western learning: Gakumon no Susume. He’s a heroic modernizer, but I’ve also discovered that there were many people at the same time in the early 1870s or through the 1870s who rejected his worldview, and who argued against the introduction of Western things.

One of them was a man named Sada Kaiseki. Again, we don’t know his name. We know Fukuzawa. He’s a very famous person, but these other people have almost been erased from history. Sada Kaiseki was particularly concerned about the introduction of Western things, and particularly, he took his aim at Western lamps. He said that the gas lamps and kerosene lamps, which were sort of a symbol of the new enlightened age, were going to lead to national collapse. He wrote an essay called “Ranpu Bōkokuron” (“Lamps will Destroy the Country”). The idea was fairly economic almost. He says: “Well you know, we have our own lamps. The fuel is either rapeseed oil or fuschia oil. We produce the fuel, it produces a light. This is our light. Our lamps. Why do we need kerosene lamps? We have to import the fuel, and not only that. Those lamps are so bright that they’re going to turn our whole country into people are wearing spectacles and glasses. We’ll have a lot of eye disease,” and so forth. But Sada Kaiseki was also a critic of the Bricktown that you wrote about in your visual essay. He said that Japan has its own Bunmei Kaika, and doesn’t need the Bunmei Kaika from the West, and he published a parody ranking of fools, and this took the form of a Sumo Banzuke, sort of a poster, and it’d rank who are the highest ranking, who are the strongest, who are the weakest and so forth, and he published this parody ranking of fools. And the greatest fools were those who discarded things Japanese at great expense, and imported Western things. You know, why would people need Western pen and paper? We’ve got our own fude, our own brushes, and we have some of the best paper in the world. Why would we drink that stuff that looks like horse piss? And we have our own sake, which is the best in the world and so forth.

You know, I mentioned this to you before: there was a man of maegashira rank who was the fool who tore down his wooden house and erected one made of brick. Then there’s another critic, again another person who’s often forgotten from the textbooks: this is a man named Mantei Ōga, and he was opposed to Western ideas (you know, freedom or equality, things like that). New sorts of ideas that are coming in from the West are very much part of the Westernization process –  especially Fukuzawa [Yukichi], and he actually took direct aim at Fukuzawa, and published a parody of Fukuzawa’s Gakumon no Susume (Encouragement of Learning). Mantei Oga’s book was called Gakumon Suzume (The Sparrows Before the Gates of Learning), and his sparrows took aim at the central message of Fukuzawa’s book, and that was inequality. You know, heaven does not create any person above or below, all people are born equal. Well, Mantei and his sparrows took exception: heaven DOES in fact create some people above and some people below, say: “Look around you. Where is there any evidence of equality?” And he was making a very common sense argument at that time, and a lot of people agreed.

I’ve been looking at anti-modernity, anti-Western, and see the 1870s as an in-between time, a sort of hybridity. Yes, the early Meiji years did see Westernization, but not at any rapid pace. There was a lot of contest between the old and the new: a lot of friction, a lot of competition, we get the sense that people started eating beef, you know, right away. But in fact, beef-eater was more myth than reality, and it wasn’t really until the early 20th century that any substantial amount of meat entered into the diet of ordinary Japanese.

TG: It really does remind me, speaking of these satirical prints, again, there’s a print from the 1880s called the Kaika Injun. In the smoke of the locomotive, there’s all the competition between the new imported items and the old items.

MWS: Yes, I like that print very much. It shows you that sense of contest, and sometimes, you know, the old things are on top. There’s the Western umbrella against the old Japanese wagasa, and the shoes versus the zori, and so, there are struggles that [are] going on in there. And I like that image of a period of contest or struggle and friction between the old and new, and the victory isn’t complete and maybe it’s still even today not complete (laughter). You know, the Meiji Restoration is an important turning point, but if there’s any sort of argument between continuity or rapid change, I’m on the continuity side. It’s a turning point, but I see a lot of continuity. I saw a lot of hybridity joining together, a lot of grafting together of old and the new, but I’m rather suspicious of these views that have this sudden success story of Meiji.

TG: The Meiji at 150 Podcast is hosted by Tristan Grunow at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. This podcast would not be possible without the cooperation of the UBC Centre for Japanese Research and the technical assistance of the UBC Faculty of Arts ISIT. Find out more about the Meiji at 150 Project, including the Meiji at 150 Lecture Series, Digital Teaching Resource and Workshop Series by visiting our website: meijiat150.arts.ubc.ca. Thank you for listening.


*Citation for this episode:

M. William Steele, interview with Tristan Grunow, The Meiji at 150 Podcast, podcast audio, April 12, 2019. https://meijiat150.podbean.com/e/episode-104-dr-m-william-steele-icu/.

The Meiji at 150 Podcast is hosted, produced, and edited by Tristan Grunow, with editorial assistance from Joshua Linkous. Transcripts by Kelly Chan.