Episode 23 – Dr. Marnie Anderson (Smith College)

Originally published on April 6, 2018

[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. Marnie Anderson, Associate Professor of History and Director of East Asian Studies at Smith College. Dr. Anderson’s most recent publication is “Critiquing Concubinage: Sumiya Koume and Changing Gender Roles in Modern Japan,” published in volume 37 of Japanese Studies in 2017. Dr. Anderson, thank you for talking to me today.

Marnie Anderson: Thanks for having me.

TG: In your research, you’ve really highlighted the political agency of women’s groups in Japan, especially those groups who, despite not having voting rights are still able to assert what you’ve called “literacy agency.” So, what’s happening in the Meiji period that makes it this moment that sparks the beginning of feminism in Japan?

MA: Right, so it’s a really interesting question. I don’t use the term “feminism” in my work even though that rubric does get applied to my research in part because (if you’ll permit me to go off for a little bit here) the term “feminism” isn’t coined until after the turn of the 20th century. And it’s very much focused on the suffrage, but in the Meiji period, in the 1880s, where my research, my first book project was set, women didn’t have the vote anywhere at the national level. It wasn’t until New Zealand gave women the suffrage in 1893 that that was even a thing.

So I find that this sort of Meiji activism around women’s rights is not so much centered on suffrage, and I took a lot of inspiration from the U.S historian Nancy Cott who talked about this moment as a “womanist” movement rather than a “feminist” movement in my research. As to why women start forming organizations and talking about raising women’s status during this period, there are really several reasons. But one is as the nation-state forms in Japan, the question of the status of women becomes of concern not just to women, but also to male elites because at the time, the status of women is taken as a barometer of a country’s level of civilization. And so, men really start the conversation in the early Meiji period, and eventually, women join in, especially in the late ‘70s and early 1880s. And then this really culminates, I think, in 1890 when the first Diet meets and women initially aren’t even allowed to sit (laughter) in on the Diet proceedings, although they do manage to protest and manage to get the right to at least observe the Diet. Of course, women don’t get political rights during this moment, but neither do most Japanese men either. The universal manhood suffrage doesn’t come until 1925, and that’s also the first time that you really get a women’s suffrage movement in Japan, during the 1920s, so I think that story’s a little later than the setting for my first book.

TG: You mentioned that what’s happening in the Meiji period is being defined by male intellectuals, and I’ve always thought it was somewhat ironic that we think of people like Fukuzawa Yukichi or Mori Arinori who are seen as these champions of progressivism in Japan, and you would assume that they’re “womenists” in their own right or maybe for gender inequality in their own right. But then there [are] these kind[s] of internal inconsistencies, where Fukuzawa doesn’t even allow his own daughters to (laughter) get educated.

MA: Right, right. And I think part of it is just the standards have changed a lot. You know, what counts as “progressive” today is quite different from what counts as “progressive” at that time, and I argue in my book, and it’s been a while since I’ve looked through the particulars, but even Ueki Emori who’s generally seen as a champion of women’s rights is not as consistent as he might appear to be when you dig deeper. I compare him to John Stuart Mill on this, that in fact, these men, while they talk about women’s rights, what they really mean most of the time is rights for a very few select women who have certain qualifications.

But the other argument that I was making in my book A Place in Public is that with the rise of the nation-state, women become a category as never before, and that in the previous period, status (or mibun) was even more important than gender in defining one’s social position. And as a result of this, once we hit the Meiji period, much of the discussion about rights for women early on is about rights not for all women, but rights for female household heads. That is, in these 10% of households headed by women, they should have the right to vote, and that’s really the setting for the anecdote that many textbooks relate about Kusunose Kita in the 1870s refusing to pay taxes if she couldn’t vote. She was a household head, and it’s on that basis that she’s making her claim rather than as a woman, she should have equality.

TG: Speaking of textbook narratives, there’s always this conflation of the Meiji period position of women as ryōsai kenbo (“Good Wife, Wise Mother”), but you’ve also talked about how that really doesn’t come until much later.

MA: Right (laughter). I think that that term has become synonymous with Meiji women in people’s minds, which is unfortunate because of course, as an official state policy for middle class women’s education, it matters especially after 1899. But somehow, I think that’s read back to the whole of the Meiji period. And it turns out, [as] Sekiguchi Sumiko has pointed out, that we all think that this term ryōsai kenbo comes in the Meiroku Zasshi, that Nakamura Masanao uses it, but in fact, that term does not appear once (laughter) in the Meiroku essay. So, Sekiguchi and other work has talked about various formulations of that slogan circulating in the late Tokugawa period, but it doesn’t become a hegemonic ideology until, you know, the turn of the 20th century. So really, for Meiji women in the ‘70s and ‘80s, this is really a period before ryōsai kenbo.

TG: So then it has more to do with mibun, their position in the household and maybe even class?

MA: Yes. I mean, I think all those things are playing a role. Status is formally abolished in the 1870s, but of course, it lives on, it doesn’t disappear overnight and then economic class just becoming more and more of a divider. So, I think all of these things are coming together, and of course, as is the case around the world, the first set of women to make claims tend to be educated women who are relatively privileged coming out of the new middle class and sometimes, they’re of shizoku background, so they’re not really even representing all women (laughter). They tend to be arguing for their own rights. This is the case of the women’s rights arguments around the world in the 19th century.

TG: You mentioned it’s not a suffragist movement. Then, how is it that these women are asserting a political voice during the Meiji period?

MA: I’m arguing for a wider definition of what counts as political, which of course is in line with a lot of scholarship over the last 30 years. Suffrage comes to matter a lot later, and it’s not that it’s not on people’s radars but again, women don’t have suffrage anywhere in the world at this time, and even the Meiji Constitution gives suffrage to something like 1.1% of the male population. So, it’s less about suffrage and more about an enhanced status for women. I think what women are doing [is] they’re asserting themselves in forms such as petitions, you have female speakers (most famously, Kishida Toshiko and Fukuda Hideko). And then after the path to politics and political engagement is pretty much barred emphatically by 1889 and 1890 in the form of these series of laws, then women find other ways to claim a place in public, mostly in this realm that the British historian Leonore Davidoff has called “the social,” so in social reform movements, movements that are ostensibly not political and in line with gender ideals for women. But in fact, if you look at them from a different angle, you can argue that they are indeed political, and that they are a space in public in fact. Of course, high politics becomes a masculine domain.

TG: You recently published this article “Critiquing Concubinage,” talking about Sumiya Koume and changing gender roles, and locating this in the early 1870s, before ryōsai kenbo becomes this hegemonic idea. So is this an example, then, of women who are participating in the construction of femininity in Japan in the early Meiji period? Or can we talk about, in the 1870s, are women participating in this construction?

MA: That’s a really good question. I mean, I think they are, and you can find it in forms like letters to the editor. Women’s groups really burst onto the scene in a major way in the 1880s and ‘90s, and I see it more explicitly there that they’re contributing to definitions of femininity. One thing that’s so hard about pinning things down (and this won’t come as a surprise to you I’m sure) is just how much things are in flux in the early Meiji period. So probably, one way to do it is to look at individual lives. Unfortunately, I don’t think Sumiya (who I did publish on recently) is that helpful in this regard just because she was not participating in the kinds of organizations that people’s rights activists were. She starts out life as a Geisha, and then becomes a concubine to this famous notable in Okayama. He invites Christian missionaries to Okayama in the 1870s, and decides it’s a good idea to send her to Kobe College, which she goes for a year, and then he calls her back because he misses her, and she ends up dumping him because she’s decided that concubinage is sinful. And he goes around telling people that Jesus stole his mistress.

TG: (Laughter)

MA: And then she goes on to assist with the Okayama orphanage, along with Ishii Jūji, and then be involved in a whole bunch of other reform networks in Okayama. So you know, in her life, she provides an example of one woman’s life before ryōsai kenbo took hold because in part, she was never even a wife. But I don’t think she’s representative [of] other Japanese women during this time.

TG: So then, how does the position of women in Japan change from the Tokugawa period into the Meiji period?

MA: Well Tristan, that’s a huge question. One of my teachers was Hitomi Tonomura who is a pre-modernist, and enforced upon me the importance of pre-1600 history, and he also had a special interest in women’s history, so I have a good dose of Tokugawa women’s history as well. In fact, I teach a course that traces Japanese women’s history from earliest times up through the Tokugawa period.

So what I teach my students, with the caveat I am not a specialist, is that Tokugawa women’s lives vary greatly by status. The image that we tend to have of Tokugawa women as suffering, cloistered women may apply to some of the higher level samurai women, but samurai were some 6% of the population. In cities, merchant women seem to have enjoyed a lot more I don’t want to use the word “freedom,” but mobility, and ran businesses. So, I think that women’s lives were characterized by great diversity, and there’s wonderful research out there done by Anne Walthall and others that touches on this diversity. What the Meiji period does is by forging a modern state, we end up with women being a political category in a way they never were before the Meiji Restoration. The Tokugawa government, to my knowledge, while gender differences were certainly on government officials’ minds, women were not a political category in the Tokugawa period.

TG: You mentioned teaching, so when you’re teaching the Meiji period in your classrooms, what are some of the themes you use to introduce this period?

MA: So yes, I’m happy to talk about it. Because I’m at a liberal arts college, I teach very widely (laughter). I teach all of Japanese history, and I teach all of modern East Asia since 1800. I don’t get to spend very much time on the Meiji period because I’m usually teaching a big survey, so I don’t think the themes that I introduce are particularly novel. You know, we talk about, of course, change and continuity, and then we tend to use, in my class, some of the slogans of the Meiji period like bunmei kaika (“civilization and enlightenment”) and then fukoku kyōhei, those sorts of slogans as shorthand for understanding some of the major changes.

I’m often rushing to get to the 1880s because I started out as someone deeply interested in the Jiyūminken Undō or Freedom and People’s Rights Movement, and I always like talking about that with students. So, I also talk about Japan in its quest to become a great power in its own right, how very early on in the Meiji period it starts trying to build up an empire, pushing a treaty on Chosŏn Korea that is very much the same sort of treaty as the United States put on it in the 1850s. So, imperialism is definitely another theme as well that I bring up. You’ve asked some folks about materials that they use in class, and Anne Walthall and Bill Steele’s new documentary reader on the Meiji Restoration is fabulous. The introduction is probably the most straightforward (laughter) explanation of the factors leading up to the Meiji Restoration and the years that followed. It’s concise, it’s under 30 pages (the introduction that is) and there’s wonderful documents, so I found that to be a great resource.

TG: In your classes, what other kind of materials do you use to introduce the Jiyūminken Undō to your students?

MA: I like using Bill Steele’s essay from The Human Tradition in Modern Japan. Once in a while, I will use something that I wrote a long time ago. I’ve thought always, that it will be useful to write up a summary that reflects some of the recent scholarship, but I have not gotten around to that yet, so if I don’t, hopefully someone else will.

One thing I’ve been using that doesn’t quite fit in with the Jiyūminken Undō, but I think is a great teaching resource is the translation of Tatsuichi [Horikiri’s] The Stories Clothes Tell, which is a wonderful collection of stories about items of clothing from ordinary people that an archivist saved up over time, and he writes the stories of these clothes. And that, I used last week, and it was really effective in the classroom, getting students to think about the historical record and bias in favour of elites as one that’s hard to overcome, but looking at clothes is one way to get at it.

One other thing that I’m thinking about that my students would surely tell me I must include is that my work on women activists, women’s rights activists in the Meiji period and beyond really only captures the experience of a certain group of women. And of course, when we think about the Meiji period, we have to think about the factory workers in the textile mills, we have to think about prostitutes both within Japan and abroad who are providing critical capital for Japan’s modernization. So, while my work focuses on relatively educated, relatively privileged women, there are all these other social groups who have important and different stories to tell, and I’m especially mindful of this after having students read Deguchi Nao’s biography, which really takes the position of a woman who was very much disadvantaged by the policies of the Meiji state and unquestionably suffered as a result of them. So, those are good things to remember – not necessarily “good” things, but important things to remember as well when we think about this topic of Meiji women.

TG: You mentioned the Jiyūminken Undō. I’ve been thinking about this a lot myself lately, and really just the Jiyūminken Undō as not necessarily the samurai involvement in it from the early 1870s and the actual petition in 1874, but more how it becomes a popular movement in the 1880s. And you get these village learning societies and the uprisings of villagers. Is there a connection, do you think, between the “ee ja nai ka yonaoshi movements of the 1860s to the Jiyūminken Undō of the 1880s to even as far as the 1910s [where] we get all of these riots in Tokyo? Is there something going on here, where this is a kind of collective reaction to the Meiji state? Or are these completely isolated events?

MA: Yes, it’s interesting you bring that up. I had students in my class on protests this semester read Emily Ooms’ book on Deguchi Nao, and she makes the argument that the Chichibu group in the ‘80s (at least 1880s) was drawing on the yonaoshi movement, and I see that that slogan yonaoshi was present at Chichibu. I tend to think of Jiyūminken Undō as maybe having some roots, some of the repertoire of protests [that] came from earlier periods, but that it’s very much a product of the modern period (laughter). And you know, initially, it begun by those samurai from Tosa and other places who are not part of the new government and seeking more power for themselves. And then these ideas trickled down, not just to male farmers, but also to women, which is where I began my story (my research) back in graduate school. So, while there may have been ties to this earlier movement, I haven’t really seen them in my own research. I also think it’s high time someone take on the Jiyūminken Undō again in English in light of all the scholarship that’s been coming out in Japanese over the last several decades, which really divides the Jiyūminken Undō into several different movements, you know, and Jiyūminken Undō’s sort of an umbrella term that makes it sound like they’re all one. But I think that the scholarship of people like Inada Masahiro and Makihara Norio, we need to read it for sure, but also revise our understanding of what happened in the 1880s in light of it.

TG: I always point out to my students when introducing the Jiyūminken Undō that Itagaki Taisuke releases this great petition of course talking about legislative assemblies and popular elections, and it sounds a lot like democracy. But then in his speeches, he’s saying: “Well, we don’t want to let the peasants vote” or anything like this.

MA: Right, right, and to cycle back to earlier, we see this phenomenon throughout the world, right? Even the women suffragists in the United States were not interested in giving the suffrage to everybody. It was just more like women such as themselves, and I think we find this pattern throughout the world, that these claims are really much more limited than they might seem.

TG: You know, this being the Meiji at 150 Podcast and the sesquicentennial of the Meiji Restoration, we can talk about [whether] 1868 [is] a meaningful date, and with the caveat that maybe as historians, we fetishize dates too much, but one thing that’s nice about anniversaries is they’re a moment to reflect on things. So, looking back on the Meiji period and the growth of these women’s movements, and then keeping in mind [that] today in Japan, there’s a similar emphasis on women’s activities, [are] there lessons that we can draw from the Meiji period for today?

MA: It’s really hard to draw direct lines between the past and the present, [though] I really am persuaded that the Meiji period radically changes the way that women, as a group, are conceived: women become a political category, and yet, that doesn’t happen overnight. I think what the Meiji Restoration does is it takes away the variety of practices that existed throughout the early modern period and homogenizes them, and that in the process, the limited rights that some women enjoyed are done away with. So, if there’s a takeaway about the Meiji Restoration, it’s that yes, there are new opportunities for women, and there are also new constraints.

For example, there’s an essay on how the rates of women going to school actually declined in Yamanashi Prefecture after the Meiji Restoration. So, I think I’m trying to challenge any idea that may still be remaining that Meiji somehow brings about unqualified liberation for women. As far as taking away limited rights, Sekiguchi Sumiko has this argument that in some ways, the Restoration is directed against women, and that the oligarchs are very intent on removing powerful female officials who existed at court as well as in the Tokugawa bakufu.

In fact, the term joken (which is now translated as “women’s rights”) at that point meant “women’s power,” and some of the men who went on to become the oligarchs were very interested in getting rid of that power. Yokoyama Yuriko has talked about, in her studies of Edo commoners, that some women had property rights in the Edo period, and that this was possible because the limited property rights that women enjoyed so long as they used male mediators were done away with after the Restoration. So the Restoration takes diverse practices and gets rid of them, and makes things uniform in a way they’d never been before. To get back to your question about voting rights, people have voting rights throughout the early Meiji period. It’s just not at the national level and so, at the local level, they’re voting. They’re even voting in some places in the late Tokugawa period. And when women do vote (and in some cases, they do) it is because they are household heads. That’s possible because these ideas of corporate identity persist after the Restoration for a time, but increasingly, in a messy process, the vote becomes centered on the individual male household head who is wealthy. So then, the vote at the national level is given only to a few men, but there were voting people throughout Japan who didn’t have the vote at the national level in the first few decades of the Meiji period.

TG: So perhaps, we can think of 1868 as a breakpoint, but maybe not a break for the better?

MA: Right, and probably I think the real breaking point from the perspective of things like this is in the early 1870s (laughter) with the advent of the jinshin koseki (the new household registration law), which happens at roughly the same time as status is formally abolished. So, a lot of these processes really start to unfold in the early 1870s.

TG: So then, is 1868 a meaningful date?

MA: Sure. (Laughter)

TG: (Laughter) I know. It’s one of those questions that…I mean I guess in your own thinking about the Meiji Restoration and the Meiji period as a whole, in this age-old question of rupture or continuity…

MA: Yes, I mean for historians, it’s always both, right? (Laughter) For my classes, 1868 is absolutely a change: the fall of the old order, the start of a new one even if we don’t quite know where we’re going yet in the early Meiji period. But as one textbook puts it, the actual events are more like a coup d’état, and it’s the changes that follow that are truly revolutionary. So, I see these debates about rights for household heads and the unravelling of the status system. These are all part of the revolutionary changes that happen later.

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:

Marnie Anderson, interview with Tristan Grunow, The Meiji at 150 Podcast, podcast audio, April 6, 2018. https://meijiat150.podbean.com/e/episode-23-dr-marnie-anderson-smith-college/.

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