Episode 34 – Dr. Daniel Botsman (Yale)

Originally published on June 13, 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. Daniel Botsman, Professor and Director of Graduate Studies of History in the Department of History at Yale University. Dr. Botsman is the author of Punishment and Power in the Making of Modern Japan, published by Princeton University Press in 2013. Dr. Botsman, thank you very much for talking to me today.

Daniel Botsman: Oh it’s a great pleasure. Thank you.

TG: In your research, you’ve written a lot about first, punishment and power in the Tokugawa period going into the Meiji period, and now I understand you’re working also on issues around slavery and emancipation in especially the outcaste communities. So from your perspective, what is the importance of the Meiji Restoration, and the place of the Restoration and the Meiji period more broadly in Japanese history?

DB: Well, that’s a very big question, isn’t it? But it’s clearly a critical moment of rupture in many ways. A lot of things change, it is the moment when you get a modern nation-state being self-consciously created, and lots of things come along with that: prisons, obviously, but also schools, factories and perhaps most important of all, a modern military, and all the things that go with that including wars of aggression in other parts of Asia and a modern empire. In terms of big picture things, I think it’s clearly an important moment. Although it’s also true that on the other side of it, there are obviously big continuities from the Tokugawa period on into, really, the 20th century. So, it’s one of those questions where you can emphasize the change or you can emphasize continuity. I think, obviously, both were important, and when you’re thinking about something like the situation of former outcastes in the early Meiji period, for example, I think to understand what’s happening, you really need to pay attention to both the things that are changing, and the things that are at least partly products of earlier structures.

TG: One of the things I found most striking in your book was the discussion of this idea of rupture. Maybe it’s something that’s actually constructed to serve a purpose, and that purpose being emphasizing the reforms and changes that the Meiji state is able to implement.

DB: I think there’s an element of that, but I’d have to say that I’m not that enamoured with that kind of argument anymore because it seems to me a kind of cop-out to say it’s all a construct, it’s all ideologically produced because it’s clear that some very important things really do change. I mean, when you have people who are being conscripted into an army (whereas previously they weren’t), I feel like that’s a very real change in people’s everyday lives, when the way in which taxes are collected changes fundamentally, the fact that systems of land ownership change, the fact that you have schools and then you have compulsory schooling set up. I mean, you can talk about things like terakoya as precursors to modern institutions, but one of the things that I really did try to take on fairly squarely in the book about punishment was this idea that the only way you could think about the Edo period is in terms of the way that it prepared Japan for modernity. And that is the kind of thinking that feeds into this idea that “oh actually, not much changed with the Restoration; actually, things were similar in the past,” or it was a smooth transition.

It just doesn’t make sense to me to think about the many aspects of what happens across the 19th century in those terms. So to be a little more concrete, in the punishment book, I took on this idea that these institutions that are created in the late 18th century in Edo called the ninsoku yoseba (“stockade for labourers” is the standard English translation). Legal historians and historians of punishment in Japan have often talked about that as a kind of “proto-prison,” and they point to it as evidence that Japan in the Edo period was already moving in the direction of modernity, a kind of Western-style modernity. So, if Perry had never showed up, Japan would have ended up with something like a modern prison anyway, and that idea is also tied up with this very modern idea that freedom is really the centre of what modernity is about. So, the word that gets used in Japanese to talk about the modern prison is jiyū kei (“freedom punishment” literally, but it means “punishment by deprivation of liberty).

This idea that already in the Edo period, things were moving in that direction is still very entrenched in a lot of the scholarship on this, and I just think that that’s such a misleading way to think about it and that also ties into my questions about the way that the term “early modern Japan” has become such a commonplace one and one that people use without problematizing it. Because “early modern” implies that there’s a “late modern,” and so it implies that the Tokugawa is leading into the Meiji. To me, if you think about things in that way, what you end up covering up or minimizing is the impact of the imperialist West, and its various technologies and power.

And so, when you emphasize the continuities from the Tokugawa to Meiji too much, what you end up with is a kind of modernization school picture of the “natural” way that societies develop is the way that societies in Western Europe developed, and really, Britain. And the fact that Japan followed that same route was just a natural outcome, so there wasn’t really much conflict. There wasn’t really much disruption. It was just the natural course of things. And again, to me, that really then blinds you to thinking about all of the traumas that are associated with the onset of modernity, not just in Japan but all over the place. It also disconnects the history of Japan from a larger story of modernity globally, which really is one of disruption, dispossession and new forms of violence.

So to me, that’s why not ignoring the rupture is really important. But to come back to the earlier point, I mean I think that there are definitely ways in which in the Meiji period, the Edo period gets represented and constructed, and that shifts over time in the Meiji period too. However, I wouldn’t want to go as far as to say that the idea that the Edo period is somehow different from the Meiji period is something that is just some kind of convenient ideological construction of the Meiji state for example.

TG: Talking about the deprivation of liberty in the prison systems, as you were saying, maybe wasn’t an antecedent for the Meiji prisons. But nonetheless, is this question of the deprivation of liberty the segue into your recent research on slavery and emancipation?

DB: Yes, in some ways, I think that’s probably true. So in terms of how the project on emancipation began, pretty much every year of my career since I started teaching, I’ve taught a class on the Meiji Restoration or on the 19th century transition. One of the things that I’ve been struck by is that one of the obvious gaps that exists in the English language literature is the Freedom and Popular Rights Movement. And I thought: Where else in the non-Western world do you get a major political opposition movement in the 19th century that is really drawing on these ideas which to many people even today, are uniquely Western (ideas about freedom and rights and so on)? So, I thought that was a real opportunity to do some serious work on the Freedom and Popular Rights Movement, and think about this idea of freedom and how it plays out in the early Meiji period, partly as a way of basically disabusing Eurocentric colleagues of this notion that these ideas can never take root outside of the West because they’re somehow alien to non-Western peoples.

But in the process of working on that, I did become more and more interested in this issue of emancipation, and I became fascinated by this one man named Ōe Taku. Ōe seemed like someone who was a little too good to be true and in the end, I think that’s pretty much what I concluded, that these stories that exist about him and his image are something that’s being constructed. It really was too good to be true, but he was from Tosa, from Kōichi, although he was from one of the most remote parts of Kōichi, from Sukumo, which was a kind of garrison town. He was born into a bushi family there, and Sukumo became a place where there were a lot of kinnō activists (loyalist activists) in the lead up to the Restoration, and it was a place, also, where there were accumulations of merchant capital, mainly to do with the Käempfer trade.

Some of the local merchants in Sukumo basically were helping to fund some of these young loyalist bushi types to travel around, going to all the places that shishi types didn’t go to in that period, including Nagasaki and so on. So, Ōe Taku was one of those groups of people from Sukumo, and so there’s kind of a Sukumo band, if you like, of these shishi types who go on to become prominent in various walks of life in the Meiji period. But Ōe first makes his mark in public life after the Restoration because he gets appointed to a low level position in Kobe, and while he’s there, he writes a petition to the central government saying: “We should really do something about the situation of the eta [the outcaste people].” And that petition that he submits comes to be remembered retrospectively as the thing that leads to the official emancipation of outcastes in 1871. It was not called an emancipation edict at the time, but the essential Haishirei, the order that abolishes the derogatory names for outcaste people (so again, these horrible terms “eta” and “hin”).

That’s his first mark on public life, and the next year, he is a slightly higher ranking position in Yokohama, and he effectively ends up being acting governor of Kanagawa. Just as he assumes that position, he gets involved in this case that I’ve written about in The American Historical Review, the Maria Luz Incident. It’s a fairly well known, famous incident where basically, a group of Chinese labourers (so-called “coolies”) who had been taken from south China to Peru to work in the Guano Islands are on a ship that gets caught in the middle of a storm in the middle of the Pacific, and it ends up limping its way back across the Pacific and calls at Yokohama. The captain requests permission to weigh anchor and make repairs, and soon afterwards, some of these Chinese men who had been held on board in the ship in conditions which are more or less identical to what you’d expect in a slave ship in the Middle Passage, start jumping off and swimming to whatever other ship they can find.

It just so happens that the next ship in the harbour is a British naval ship, and the officers on that British ship report what’s happening. Eventually, there’s an investigation and then a series of trials, and to make the long story short, Ōe Taku, this same man, serves as judge in this trial, and he famously finds that indeed, these men are being held in a form of slavery. He announces that Japan doesn’t tolerate slavery or the export of slaves at least.

As a result of that, these Chinese men are set free, and in fact, the Japanese government helps to repatriate them to China, and meanwhile the other twist, still, of this is that the British lawyer who is retained by the captain of the Peruvian ship, the Maria Luz, makes an argument in the court case saying that in fact, Japan does allow slavery because the contracts that are binding these Chinese labourers on board the ship are very similar to the contracts that are used to bind women in prostitution in Japan.

And so in terms of one of the outcomes of that argument being made, Ōe is able to, with the help of his Western legal advisors, come up with an argument that gets around that objection, or that argument that’s being made by the lawyer for the defence, for the captain of the ship. But one of the things that results from all that also is that the Japanese government – which had already been thinking about reforming the legal structures surrounding prostitution – is given further encouragement to really act, so that soon after the Maria Luz trial, there’s an emancipation edict for prostitutes issued. Unlike the earlier Emancipation Edict for Outcastes (as it comes to be known), the edict concerning prostitution and prostitutes actually does use the language of freedom and rights, and in the deliberations within the government in the lead up to its issuance, it’s very clear that people like Inoue Kaoru who are pushing for this change are quite conscious of things like Abraham Lincoln’s liberation of slaves in the middle of the Civil War in the U.S.

So, there’s a sense, in other words, in which these developments that are playing out in Japan are very much tied to these global shifts. But Ōe Taku (this man in the middle of it all) seems very interesting because he seems to be responsible, in some ways, for the emancipation of the outcastes, then he’s responsible for the emancipation of these Chinese labourers who had been held against their will, and then he’s also tied up with this emancipation of prostitutes. He seems like this great hero for progressive liberal causes in Japan in the early 1870s, so I became very interested in him, but as I mentioned a minute ago, in fact, his story turns out to be much more complex than I had initially thought. There’s basically this image of him as this great liberal hero, and it’s something that I think gets constructed in the 20th century when the Japanese government has become quite worried about the possibility that buraku people will become radicalized and turn to socialist politics. Particularly in the wake of the Russian Revolution, and they have this idea that the Communist Revolution was spearheaded by Jews. You know, this common association between Jews and Bolsheviks, and who are the “Jews” of Japan? Well, the burakumin are the “Jews” of Japan. And so, there’s this fear that if this minority group and its concerns are not somehow addressed, that it’s going to lead to revolutionary troubles for the Japanese government.

Of course, it’s also around the time of the rice riots, and there’s a lot of talk at the time of the rice riots that the Burakumin were the people who were responsible for that, although that is probably a fabrication. But in any case, this idea that emerges that the Burakumin are a problem that needs to be addressed or else there’s going to be revolution leads to this new effort in the early 20th century to make it clear that from the outset, the Meiji government was trying to help the former outcastes, whereas in reality when you go back and look at what was motivating Ōe in 1870 to submit this petition, it seems very clear that it has very little to do with human rights or humanitarian concern about the situation of outcaste people. It really has a lot more to do with the effort to modernize industry and particularly, the need to think about more efficient ways to exploit animal life because of the sudden emphasis that comes to be placed on things like beef and leather as important for a modern militarizing state.

TG: I have three follow-up questions. The first one has to do with Ōe Taku, and maybe not so much about his role in all of this, but him as representative of a link, perhaps, between the bakumatsu shishi activities, and then the Jiyūminken Undō in the 1870s. Is there a relationship between the yonaoshi and the uchi kowashi riots of the 1850s, and the peasants’ side of the People’s Rights Movement, especially after 1878 going into the 1880s? And perhaps even casting forward into the 1910s when we have another surge in rice riots, carried out mainly by peasant farmers?

DB: I don’t know that the Jiyūminken Undō fits in very well in relation to the history of popular uprisings because I think the Jiyūminken Undō is so complex in terms of which groups of people are involved at which points in time. It seems to me that it’s a lot more than just a popular uprising, which I think is one of the things that makes it distinct because there actually is this new set of ideas that’s framing things. So, I’m not sure that I would want to make too many direct connections, but I do think that on the other hand, you can make the case. I’ve often thought that you can kind of think about the long 19th century in Japan as being framed by the uchi kowashi of the Tenmei period, which I think is a quite important moment in the late Tenmei, when Edo is basically out of control for a period of days because people are rioting.

And if you go from that to, say, the Hibiya Riots after the Russo-Japanese War, I don’t think that the Hibiya Riots are the same as the uchi kowashi in 1789, but I think that you could definitely write a history of the 19th century in terms of different kinds of popular uprisings. And I certainly think that a big part of the story of the Meiji Restoration is one of this growing sense of instability domestically, and this sense that society is not under control and not stable. I think one of the ways you can think about the Westernization efforts, whether it’s prisons or police or schools or military, is that it is a solution or part of a perceived solution to this problem of how you manage this unruly society. In that regard of course, the Japanese story is not that unusual, and you can see similar things playing out in a lot of different societies.

TG: You mentioned that you’ve been teaching a Meiji Restoration class every year at Yale. So, I’m curious to hear about how you structure this class and then what are some of the narratives you introduce in that class.

DB: I don’t think there’s anything particularly innovative or original the way I do it. I mean I guess in terms of overarching themes, to me, the central theme is this question of imperialism in the modern world because you can think of the Meiji Restoration as a reaction to Western imperialism, but then, of course,  what you get is the birth of an imperial state. So, I think that raises interesting questions about whether you can in fact have a successful modern state without it being an empire. How does race fit into this? Because Japan is the one non-white empire in the late 19th century, so what does that mean? And then these issues about how the Edo period past fit with all of that.

Most of the weeks are organized around primary sources, and I try to really encourage the students to focus mainly on primary sources in weekly discussions. I guess one other thing that I tried, since coming to Yale, was to make central to my class making links to Yale because it’s been shocking to me how deep the connections have been. So with the Iwakura Mission, everybody knows about Tsuda Umeko being sent overseas at that point, but not as many people know about Yamakawa Sutematsu who was one of the older girls who went with her, and even fewer know about Nagai Shige. Nagai Shige and Yamakawa Sutematsu are the two other girls who get sent with the Iwakura Mission to come to the U.S, and Yamakawa Sutematsu comes to New Haven with Nagai Shige, so being able to introduce those things to the students, and why does Yamakawa Sutematsu come to New Haven? Because her brother Yamakawa Kenjirō is studying at Yale, and Yamakawa Kenjirō was of course the guy who studies physics at Yale, and he goes back to become the first Japanese professor of physics at the University of Tokyo. Then he becomes president of Teidai, and then president of Kyōdai and president of Kyūdai. And then towards the end of his career, he also starts writing these histories of the Bōshin Sensō from the perspective of Aizu because he’s from Aizu. He was in the Byakkotai, and basically, his writings, as Hiraku Shimoda and others have shown, are really critical of this whole mythology of the Byakkotai. So even at that level, the first Japanese graduate of Yale College was the guy who invents the myth of the Byakkotai, and puts Aizu back on the map as being a noble loser in the struggles of the Restoration period.

TG: On the topic of Yale connections to the Meiji period, I know out at Yale, you’re partnering with a couple of other institutions to do a Meiji at 150 commemoration series. Can you talk about what are some of the thoughts behind this, or some of the ways that you’re structuring this commemoration and the politics of commemoration in general?

DB: Yes, thanks. So basically, my colleague Rob Hellyer at Wake Forest a few years ago said: “Oh you know, the 150th anniversary’s coming up, and we should do some things.” And I was like: “Yes sure, Rob. That’s a good idea.” Basically, I don’t think that I would have really thought to do much about this if it hadn’t been for Rob’s initial suggestion. But once I started to think about it and talk about it, especially, with colleagues in Japan, I really started to realize that completely separate from this issue of what the Meiji Restoration was about, the issue of what it means to commemorate the anniversary of the Meiji Restoration is a deeply political question.

In particular, one of the first people to put me onto this was a really brilliant scholar named Yokoyama Yuriko who said: “Well, have you read about what happened in 1968?” And I said: “No, what happened in 1968?” And she said: “Well basically, every historian in Japan joined a mass protest against the idea of commemorating the centenary of the Meiji Restoration.”

When you go back and read the materials, it’s really quite remarkable, and basically, one of the things that the historians in Japan at the time in ‘68 show pretty clearly is that the real precedent for having a celebration or commemoration of this kind or a mass event of this kind was nothing from the Meiji period. But actually, it was from the period of high fascism in Japan in 1940 when the mass celebrations of the 2600th anniversary of the mythical founding of Japan by Emperor Jimmu were held. You might think: Oh well, that sounds a little far-fetched. But really, when you start looking at the evidence, it’s quite remarkable, and even down to things like the person who’s put charge in organizing the 1960s celebrations is a man named Inuma Kazumi, and Inuma Kazumi was the guy who was in charge of organizing the celebrations in 1940. So, the argument that is made by the historians in Japan in 1968 about why this is such a bad idea is that basically, they see this as an attempt to obliterate this sense that 1945 was a break, and that there was a kind of new and better Japanese society being created as a result of postwar reforms, and instead emphasize this sense that well, Japan was great in the Meiji period, and Japan is great now. They saw this, and the arguments they made at the time were, I think, really quite powerful, that what the celebration of this centenary of the Meiji Restoration was about was the push to revise the postwar constitution, remilitarize and promote a kind of softer version of wartime ultra-nationalism.

This is relevant, I think, to thinking about 150th celebrations because when you start looking at what the Abe government has suggested about why it’s important to celebrate Meiji 150, they say many of these same things about the need to celebrate Japan’s greatness. They focus on the strength of the nation and so on, revive pride in the greatness of the achievements in the Meiji period. Of course, the things that are always omitted (and I don’t think this is unique to Japan) in these kinds of nationalistic efforts is any discussion of the negative sides of the past, which of course, in the case of the Meiji period really does mean the invasion of neighbouring countries and the creation of this colonial empire.

So, there’s definitely a kind of willful blindness to the negative aspects of the Meiji period, and I think it’s no coincidence that the prime minister who orchestrated the 1968 celebrations was Satō Eisaku, who is, of course, the grand-uncle of Prime Minister Abe. Abe himself has said that he really wants to make sure that he stays in power to the end of 2018 as prime minister because that will ensure that there’s a Chōshū man (or a Yamaguchi kenjin) in the prime ministership at the 150th celebration, as it was the case at the centenary in 1968. It was also the case at the 50th celebration when Terauchi Masatake (the so-called “butcher of Korea”) was also prime minister. So there’s a lot of really disturbing things about the effort to promote Meiji 150 as a moment of uncritical celebration.

TG: And maybe the key is that uncritical celebration. We could talk about over-fetishizing certain dates, but then dates are also useful moments to pause and remind ourselves of these larger historical trends that you’re talking about.

DB: Yes, that’s true of course, and I think another thing to note about it though is that in the official statements about it, both in 1968 and in 2018, there’s actually very little interest in talking about the events of the Meiji Restoration itself. So, the focus of this uncritical celebration is this very amorphous idea of “Meiji,” and really, again, what Meiji means, and what they want it to mean when they’re orchestrating this effort to celebrate its national greatness.

It’s this idea that generally, in the Meiji period, Japan achieved something really great and important. And this is, of course, the kind of thing that I think Prime Minister Abe wants people in Japan to aspire to now, a kind of national greatness again. Again, maybe there’s nothing wrong with wanting people to aspire to something great, but to do that by appealing to a period which in fact we know was deeply problematic in lots of different ways without addressing those problems just seems like a very wrongheaded way of going about things. I would really encourage people to go and look at the website of the Abe cabinet, and look at some of the silly videos and things that they have for promoting the Meiji 150 moment because one thing that’s really abundantly clear in all of it is that there’s no interest in history at all. It’s really just an image of Japanese achievement.

TG: Yes, pushing the industrialization narrative pretty hard and the successes of Meiji while downplaying some of the complex issues and the more problematic aspects.

DB: Yes, well there was a reference in Abe’s speech to one of the “great” things in the Meiji period, which was that status distinctions were abolished and all Japanese became free or something. And again, when you look at the reality of what happened (laughter), it was a much messier and less attractive story than that would suggest.

I think even with industrialization, it’s very interesting to me that there’s a lot of emphasis on these sites of industrial development, but there’s nothing, as far as I’m aware and I’d be happy to be proven wrong, that addresses things like what the conditions of the workers were in these places. I mean, there are monuments, again, to national achievement and becoming an industrial power, but there’s no reflection at all on the costs of that.

TG: These are the UNESCO sites you’re talking about?

DB: Yes.

TG: It turns out there was a very vociferous opposition to that by the South Korean government.

DB: Yes.

TG: Because they didn’t mention the fact that there were forced migrant labourers.

DB: Exactly. I mean, I think it really is the case that it’s shocking that the forced labour issue was not addressed, but it’s also true that the conditions that ordinary Japanese workers were working in were also pretty atrocious. And the importance of prison labour in a lot of the industrialization efforts where people were literally worked to death because from the point of view of the government at the time, there was one less prisoner to feed if people died, and they’d just get another prisoner in. So again, things are complex, and I don’t want to over-simplify things by pushing them too far in the other direction. But it just seems like, especially for people whose calling is to to study history, we have an obligation to hold politicians and bureaucrats accountable for the way they use history, and to make them recognize some of the complexities in all of this. The shying away from that or the deliberate avoidance of it, I think, is really disappointing.

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:

Daniel Botsman, interview with Tristan Grunow, The Meiji at 150 Podcast, podcast audio, June 13, 2018. https://meijiat150.podbean.com/e/episode-34-dr-daniel-botsman-yale-university/.

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