Episode 118 – Dr. Ryōsuke Maeda (Hokkaidō University)

Originally published on July 12, 2019.
[This transcript has been edited for clarity.]

Tristan Grunow: This is the Meiji at 150 Podcast. I’m Tristan Grunow. Today, I’m talking with Dr. Ryōsuke Maeda, Associate Professor of Japanese political and diplomatic history at Hokkaidō University, as well as Visiting Fellow in the Department of East Asian Studies at Princeton University. Dr. Maeda is the author of Zenkoku Seiji no Shidō: Teikoku Gikai Kaisetsugo no Meiji Kokka, or The Beginnings of National Politics in Modern Japan: The Meiji State Reform Under the Parliamentary System, published by the University of Tokyo Press in 2016. Dr. Maeda, thank you so much for talking with me today.

Ryosuke Maeda: Thank you for inviting me. I’m really impressed by your podcast project. Its very helpful for scholars like me to know what kind of argument emerged in Japan studies in the English-speaking world.

TG: Thank you so much. I wanted to talk with you particularly because you recently published this book, Zenkoku Seiji no Shidō — and congratulations for winning the Suntory Prize for Social Sciences and Humanities in 2017. But In this book, you ask a question that seems very simple on the surface, but is actually very complicated. And its this question: “when did Japan achieve ‘zenkoku seiji’?” — we might translate this as “nationalized politics.”  In other words, when can we say Japan was completely politically integrated? And as you argue in the book, it is not until after the opening of the Diet in 1890 that this is possible.  So can you describe what you mean by “zenkoku-ka seiji kūkan” or “nationalization of political space”?

RM: As you say, by presenting the unfamiliar concept of “national politics” (zenkoku seiji), I try to challenge the conventional understanding about when a nation-wide political space was born in modern Japan. With this concept Zenkoku Seiji, I would like to capture the formation of nation-state in Japan, from the point of view of central‐local or central – center-periphery relations in the late 19th century. In the case of Japan’s state building, issues of religion, ethnicity and class did not form the main “social cleavage” of political conflict as seen in Europe (and of course, it’s not mean that these three problems did not exist in the organization process). In my view, it is local society that was one of the greatest challenges for nation building in Japan. In other words, the most urgent political requirement for the formation of the nation-state in Japan was the de-feudalization of local society, which strongly reflected the legacy of Tokugawa feudal society even after the Meiji Restoration.

In the process of modernization called Meiji Restoration, various ideas of political space or polity were proposed for transforming the Japanese archipelago. In the first place, there were more than 300 domains in the Tokugawa period. In fact, at the end of the Edo period, Fukuzawa Yukichi, who actually supported the modernization led by the Tokugawa Shogunate, envisioned the federal system. And even after the abandonment of the federal system by haihan-chiken in 1871, Japan did not go straight toward a unitary state. These social legacies are not going away immediately and the image of federal order still defined the thoughts of many Meiji contemporaries. It is also important to consider this point that in 1878, local assemblies of each prefecture were established and accepted in local society under the leadership of local governors (chihōkan), which was prior to the national assembly. In fact, there was a potential possibility of Federalist moment by Ueki Emori, who was a leading intellectual in the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement (jiyū minken undō). This is why the centrifugal pressure that resists Meiji government centralization from the sub-national perspective, as seen in authorization local governors or federalist democrats like Ueki, persisted throughout the 19th century.

Therefore, the Imperial Diet established in 1890 was epoch-making as a forum for discussing national or nation-wide issues, rather than local ones, and for providing uniform answers nationwide. In other words, while we can see in 1878 there were about 40 “subnational political spaces” throughout the country, which were later maintained by the compromise between governors and the assembly members, the opening of the National Diet expanded Japanese political space to a national level. During the first decade of national politics, of course, there was a battle for political order between the unitary or centripetal idea of order and the federal or centrifugal idea that had existed up to that time. Finally, however, the latter disappeared by the turning point of the 20th-century, and the formation of a national state was completed by the emergence of a national ruling party like Seiyūkai instead of local governors, who had built a sub-national corporatist system with local assembly or parties before the opening of the Diet. It was in parallel with the end of de-feudalization both in name and reality.

My basic concern is how political space has been imagined, created and transformed in modern Japan. By highlighting the existence of such a multi-level political unit originating from the Tokugawa period and the conflicts and tensions between them, I thought I could draw a much more nuanced history of modernization. That is what I mean in the phrase of the political integration of the Japanese archipelago or nationalization of political space. So, although you kind of mentioned the achievement of political control over the entire archipelago, I don’t think this is necessarily related to the emergence of the “national politics.” In my argument, local regions are not only the object of integration into national politics, but also the subject of participation and composition of it.

Yet, my argument may also sound like overestimation of the social integration of the National Diet. At that time, it was a strictly limited election, and not only women but also many men except people of high repute in local society were excluded from direct political participation. However, indirect involvement in politics through election campaigns and the media was very common even in 1890s, and as Dr. Andrew Gordon notes, I think it is also important that the birth of Diet inspired the participation of new outside actors, such as workers, underprivileged farmers and women. Besides these, exceptions of national politics in the Japanese territory are Okinawa and Hokkaidō, which were initially denied the right to vote in national and local politics, but later achieved and were integrated to national politics in the early 20th century and before First World War.

Perhaps “national politics” is not the most useful concept in analyzing a unitary state like modern Japan, not like United States, Germany, Switzerland, or India. But by using this concept, I wanted to put the historical experience of Japanese modernization in a more general and global context of the contemporary “long 19th century,” when the formation of the nation and the movement of people around the world coincided. To do so, Japanese modernization can be comparable to the case of Germany and Italy after national unification, or the United States in the Reconstruction Era.

TG: That’s a really good point about the difference between political control over the entire archipelago, and national political engagement. So many narratives we have of the geopolitical consolidation of the early Meiji state often focus on the Hanseki Hōkan or Haihan Chiken programs — these would be the “returning of feudal registers” and “the abolishment of domains and establishment of prefectures” — and this all happened from 1869 to 1871.  But you argue that this “nationalization of political space” was not actually achieved until 1890. So, would you argue that these earlier efforts of political consolidation were incomplete or maybe even failed?

RM: It is a very natural question for you and the listeners to think that my arguments would include the implication that Haihan-chiken and hanseki hōkan were incomplete or failed. The answer to this question is the heart of my argument that 1890 was the first year of political consolidation. Of course, the impact of Haihan-chiken is crucial for the formation of a modern state. However, I think the significance of Haihan-chiken was in a power struggle at the political level in the short term. Based on their direct military power, the new central government eliminated the model of the federal system envisioned by the former feudal lords (daimyō) and would promote centralization. It is well known that this gamble was realized so smoothly because not a few domains were actually in poverty.

However, although the political influence of the former daimyos, the new rulers of Han after the Meiji Restoration was decisively diminished by this, the social influence of the former domains was not lost at all, actually. The institutional legacy of the Tokugawa era, which was collectively referred to as traditional local custom “old customs” (kyūkan), persisted at the prefectural level and below. And, so, the designers of modern local government had to work through trial and error until the end of the 1880s to overcome this heritage. Also, the new prefecture unit called “Fu-ken“, which were much bigger than domains in many cases, was different from today’s 43 prefectures system, and it was often consolidated and the boundary continued to change. It will be after 1878 that the prefecture became a real political space under the relationship between local governors and local assemblies.

What is most important, there was a time lag of several decades between the declaration of abolition of feudal domains in 1871 (haihan-chiken) and the achievement of it in reality. On this dynamism of institutional change in early Meiji local society, social or institutional history Matsuzawa Yusaku has conducted epoch-making research. In that respect, I think it is necessary to understand Haihan-chiken in two ways: short-term significance and long-term significance. The latter, that is social penetration of Haihan-chiken as a new institution for each actor, progressed slowly and incrementally throughout the late 19th century. Moreover, this time lag between the goal of de-feudalization and the reality of local society creates two different intellectual imaginations of how to design the political space in the modern Japanese archipelago.

It was that the dispute over the future of the upcoming new Japan which is based on the Confucian twin concepts of “gunken” (provincialism) and “hōken” (feudalism). While the latter (hōken) was considered to have affinity with the Tokugawa shogunate system, the former (gunken), which expressed the philosophy of centralization derived from the ancient Qin Dynasty of China, was regarded as the target of modernization of the new government. In fact, the policy of “gunken” seems to have completely won by the decision of Haihan-chiken. However, even after Haihan-chiken, “hōkenron” (feudal theory) was expressed in various dimensions such as parliamentary plan and a central bank plan. This story is very complicated because “gunken” was not always regarded as a symbol of welcomed modernity, and “feudalism” (hōken) as a symbol of pre-modernity which should be overcome. For example, Fukuzawa re-evaluated the spirit of “hōken” (feudalism) and “bunken” (decentralization) in a series of Samurai rebellions, as the origin of civil virtue. In other words, the “gunken” versus “hōken” debate included not only the confrontation of liberalism versus conservatism, but also the confrontation of the political space of a unitary state versus a federal state. Kono Yuri, who is an historian of Japanese political thought, has given an attractive review of the historical subtleties of political thought surrounding these two concepts.

However, with Haihan-chiken, the pretext of a centralized government should have been established, but why did the ” as a concept of a federal order still maintain a certain vitality? I said that Haihan-chiken was a big political gamble for the government. In fact, the revolutionary government in the early Meiji period was still unstable, not only in terms of power but also domestic legitimacy. Sakuzo Yoshino, a renowned intellectual of Taisho Democracy and a native of Tohoku, pointed out in his discussion in 1927 that the new government led by Satsuma and Choshu was hated by many people at first, and that it had not taken root at all, such as “the spirit of loyalty to the Emperor.” However, in the 1890s when the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement calmed down and the First Sino-Japanese War broke out, everyone looked at the Imperial Family and began to have common feelings as the Japanese nation. In the process of such a rapid but complicated nation building, multiple ideas regarding the design of the political space in the Japanese archipelago have been launched.

TG: I agree. You’re making this very important distinction between local level politics and national level politics, or we could think of political structures versus political engagement, arguing that local politics proceeded ahead of national politics in the years prior to the opening of the Diet in 1890. Here I’m thinking particularly of Yamagata Aritomo’s reformulation of Local Administration in the late 1880s. I’ve always been struck by the work of Mikuriya Takashi, especially this book Meiji Kokka wo Tsukuru, where he’s talking about how, even looking at something like Tokyo urban planning during the 1880s, there still a lot of national politics going on. And he talks about this “spiral” vortex interlinking local political, national politics, elite/non-elite, central/local, and all levels in between.  Do you see a similar interlinking of political forces at different levels coming together in the Diet?

RM: Your question is very critical. I think that the interlinking of local and capital systems, which had been bridged by Yamagata Aritomo and the Ministry of Home Affairs by the end of the 1880s, is basically a subnational level story, one step below the national political space prepared by the birth of the Diet. In that sense, Mikuriya’s book can be regarded as a work that describes the dynamics of interlinking in a horizontal dimension. As I mentioned earlier, the prefectural assembly was established in Japan in 1878, and the political space at the local level preceded the political space at the national one, as you mentioned. In the early days of this local politics, the assembly members and the governor confronted each other fiercely at first, but before long, compromises on public work projects through pork barrel took root. In contrast, in politics in Tokyo, the pork barrel did not help ease tensions. Assembly members tried to act as a nation-wide model for national politics in anticipation of the upcoming Diet session. Yamagata tried to realize the desirable order of the Japanese archipelago by nurturing so-called “sound” local people of high repute who did not belong to political party for the former, and by emphasizing bureaucratic logic to contain the bold Europeanization plan of Inoue Kaoru for the latter. In other words, both by very defensive mentality. It can be said that it describes the political history of the 1880s, when the governance system was developed, as the creativity of spiral vortex was being suppressed by Yamagata.

One of the new perspectives I have added to Mikuriya’s work is the vertical, or a multilayered, interlinking between national and local politics. My viewpoint is the first perspective that has emerged from positioning the Diet as the cornerstone of nationalization of political space. I wanted to envision a dynamism in which the feudal elements of a society that was disbanding but still remained were integrated into a National Diet in conjunction with a new modern political association such as the prefectural assembly. This multilayered political space in prewar Japan should be observed not only at the subnational and national level, but also at the supra-national or transnational levels such as empires and the international institution such as League of Nations, and of course global level as intellectual historian Or Rosenboim’s recent work on 1940s intellectuals vividly described. I am currently researching the relationship between international finance and the construction/deconstruction of Japanese empire, and it is necessary for me to consider first how a national polity had been emerged in 19th-century Far East archipelago in order to consider the other polities that exist above and below in later age.

TG: That last point you made about how you’re bringing the empire into this research and into this conversation, I think, is a really key one.  We talked before about Mikuriya Takashi’s book, and that is one thing that he doesn’t really consider, is “how does the acquisition of empire play into all of this politics?” And so, this imperial expansion, for example, what impact does this have? The colonization of Hokkaido, Okinawa, the Ogasawaras, Karafuto — these are new areas that have to be politically consolidated, as well, don’t they?

RM: That is also a very important and big question. In my book, I can’t really incorporate the momentum of Japan’s imperialization into my argument, but the Hokkaido development was the theme of my junior thesis. And as you say, one of the differences from the existing research on the political history of the Meiji period is the interest in the empire polity. Previously I defined the period after the Sino-Japanese War of acquiring overseas territories as the stage of “Imperial Construction,” which is different from the stage of “National state building,” which is the subject of my book. But I also think that I have neglected the fact that the imperialism is inherent in the formation of the nation state itself.

When arguing the expansion of modern Japan’s empire, it is necessary to consider it by classifying it into two aspects: one is to aim at the maintenance and expansion of special rights and interests in accordance with the rules of imperialism, which became apparent after the Russo-Japanese War. And the other is to incorporate peripheral territories accompanying the state-building mainly in the 1870s. The colonization of Hokkaido, the annexation of the Ryukyu Kingdom, the border settlement over the Ogasawara Islands and Karafuto, and the unfinished plan of dispatching troops to Korea and Taiwan, which was linked with the Karafuto problem, all belong to the latter group.

I believe that violent territorial expansion in the course of revolution, civil war, and nation building is a somewhat universal phenomenon like that of CCP or Indonesia. But when the age of civil war ended, such spatial expansion of territory was not a destabilizing factor for domestic political integration. When the first phase of imperialization ended and expansion into the continent began in earnest in the 20th century, there were large numbers of Japanese immigrants who were less likely to be a political threat to the political unity of their own countries, such as Algerian immigrants after the Second World War. Before the war, Japan adopted a “territorial principle” regarding the political participation of its colonial residents, not only Koreans and Taiwanese or others, but also Japanese, were not allowed to have the right to vote in national elections. I understand that because of this territorial principle, the framework of national politics based on the postwar current residents of the Japanese archipelago took root, at least inter-subjectively, without being challenged seriously even in the age of imperialization. Of course, as Mitani Taichiro or Chalmers Johnson suggested, Manchukuo model, which was re-imported to Japan in the 1930s, had a great role in the formation of the wartime regime. But even this moment did not change the system of political participation, as seen in the theory of Imperial Federalism of Ishiwara Kanji.
The issues of Okinawa and Hokkaido is a little more sensitive on this point. As I mentioned earlier, even after the Meiji Constitution took effect, the right to vote in national and local politics was restricted for a while. Apart from modern nationalism, the notion of “Japan” was well established and spread among the residents of Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu during the Tokugawa era, but clearly it did not include the residents of Okinawa and the Indigenous people of Hokkaido, Karafuto, Chishima, apparently. Of course, the situation is different between Hokkaido, where Japanese immigrants violently overwhelmed Ainu culture, and Okinawa, where local culture remains. However, after both of them were integrated into national politics, at least in the level of political process, objections, such as those raised by the base issue in Okinawa today, might not have been retained in the prewar period. In the Meiji period, the possibility of “one country, two systems” was aimed at in Hokkaido once, but finally integration to one system was prioritized.

However, in fact, Meiji Japan did not have uniform sovereignty over every corner of the territory. Due to the so-called unequal treaties, ports with different systems existed in various places as “outland.” As Iokibe Kaoru’s recently translated book into English shows, the Meiji state had an imperfect territorial sovereignty that had to share or be restricted. The fact that by the turning point of the 20th-century, national politics had been established as homogeneous, means of losing the imagination for the different polities that exist in their country. Japan’s choice for rapid modernization and centralization had to bear such an irony that probably continues to this day.

TG: So, one of the questions that I asked a lot of the guests on the podcast was this question of 1868. This is Meiji 150, so we’ve been talking about the sesquicentennial of the Restoration and looking back on what is the meaning of this date. And the question that kept coming up was: “is this a moment of rupture or is a moment of continuity?” And this led to questions like maybe we can talk about a “long Restoration.” On the podcast, Michael Wert was saying maybe we should push the Restoration back to 1877 at the end of the Satsuma Rebellion. Lionel Babicz on another episode was saying its not until 1889 with the promulgation of the Constitution and a number of other things that happened on February 11th, that that’s really the end of the Restoration. You were talking a lot about the establishment of the Diet in 1890 as being the crowning moment of political consolidation. So would you say the Restoration isn’t really finished until 1890?

RM: I quite agree with the problem of overvaluing the year 1868 and with the need to regard the Meiji Restoration as a long-term process. In evaluating the continuity and discontinuity of the history around 1868, although it is quite difficult for us modern historians, I believe that it is still important to take into account the accumulation of research on the Tokugawa period in the realm of history of political thought and social history.

Let me start with the starting point of Meiji Restoration. In the Japanese academic community of political history to which I belong, attention has been focused on the current of ” open discussion or public opinion in a deliberative assembly (kōgi yoron or kōron) from around the time of the arrival of Perry to the Meiji Restoration. It is an argument that focuses on the fact that the Tokugawa government asked each feudal lord[daimyo] how to deal with the opening of the country, which created a place for national discussion that was different from the previous Tokugawa autocracy, and promoted the political participation of lower-ranking samurai beyond the framework of the class system. There are many excellent studies, but I am a little skeptical about understanding this phenomenon of increased political participation directly in the formation of a modern parliamentary system in Japan. The Tokugawa bureaucracy also has a custom of the collegiate system in which all the members discuss, and the parliamentary system assumed in the political participation of the willing daimyo and the local government council in the early Meiji period is based on the idea of the feudal or class system council in which the influential people of the region gather, which is different from the Diet based on the principle of the representative system.

Rather, in recent years, it has been pointed out that “kōgi yoron” has some kind of affinity with the use of violence as seen in Sonnō Joi terrorism, and I am attracted to that argument. Just as Sakamoto Ryoma described his contemporary Bakumatsu period as the resurgence of “the age of civil wars (senkoku no yō), the violence that had been frozen under Tokugawa military power erupted in the crisis of opening the country to the world. It is also pointed out that there was not only a bright change of eliminating class constraints but also a dark resentment of lower-ranking samurais who tried to talk down people in higher positions rudely, and that it cast the refined communication manner in Tokugawa political society into oblivion.

And when we look at these aspects of the confusion and chaos of the Meiji Restoration, the view that Satsuma Rebellion was the end point of the Meiji Restoration is quite persuasive as Michael Wert noted. If we regard the monopolization of violence as a characteristic of a modern state, it is hard to say that the central government in the early Meiji period monopolized political violence over the entire archipelago, rather there were ubiquitous military power in local society. In the first place, the military force of famous domains such as Satsuma or Tosa was huge, and the mobilization of new conscription national army through regional garrison (chindai) system was not easy, and there were even ex-legionaries in Hokkaido Kaitakushi who were like mostly private soldiers of Kuroda Kiyotaka. Even if we look beyond the warrior class, as David Howell’s excellent work shows, farmers armed themselves in the turmoil of the Tokugawa shogunate control of political violence. And so, the unit of violence spread across the country. However, after the Satsuma Rebellion in which not only the conscription army but also actually unofficial military such as police or Tondenhei fought on the government side, local areas were no longer a unit of military challenge to the central government, partly because transportation networks such as telegraph and shipping were developed.

Still, the Meiji Restoration did have its second phase, that is, its settlement phase. In this respect, it is interesting to see how Okubo Toshimichi described the 3 decades gradual process of the Meiji Restoration. According to him, the first decade were a period of “civil wars and disorder” (heiba sōjō). However, according to Okubo, it was not until 1878, after the Satsuma Rebellion, that “the true meaning of the Restoration” was carried through, that a modern political system and framework of capitalism would be created. Unfortunately, Okubo himself met an unnatural death just after he said these words, but in the second stage of the Meiji Restoration which Okubo called as the age of Construction after heiba sōjō, communication tool was promoted nationwide through railways, finance, and media. In particular, I think there are still many points to consider regarding the role of the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement in expanding and integrating the political space in the Japanese archipelago. People who attended the movement traveled long distances to hold national conferences first at Osaka then moved to Tokyo, which consolidated the Japanese political center into the capital city. Moreover, the upcoming Constitution drafts were made in various places, and national party organizations were formed just before the establishment of the Diet. They also studied the history of success and failure of nation-building in the age of imperialism and tried to arouse the political apathy in local society which had been removed under the prefectural compromise between assemblies and governors to a considerable degree, but for the opposition party like Jiyuto or Kaishinto this subnational political consensus didn’t enough to build a nationwide political connection.

In this way, “long Meiji Restoration” had come to an end and the opening of the Diet provided a chance to resolve the nation-wide political issues in 1890s which can been seen as the third and last stage of the Restoration, although Okubo himself said that he could not predict what kind of era it would be. In other word, Meiji Restoration was a complex process of institutionalizing a revolution beyond just single incident of ōsei fukkō, the restoration of imperial Rule in 1868. It can be envisioned as a search for “post-class system order” in the domestic society and so-called “the standard of Civilizaton” in the international community, By introducing this viewpoint of “long Meiji Restoration”, we will be able to interpret the history of Japan’s modernization in the second half of the 19th-century from a more dynamic and global perspective of nation building.

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:

Ryōsuke Maeda, interview with Tristan Grunow, The Meiji at 150 Podcast, podcast audio, July 12, 2019. https://meijiat150.podbean.com/e/episode-118-dr-ryosuke-maeda-hokkaido/.

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