Episode 41 – Dr. Anne Walthall (Irvine)

Originally published on July 11, 2018
[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. Anne Walthall, Professor of History at the University of California Irvine. Dr. Walthall’s most recent publication is Politics and Society in Japan’s Meiji Restoration: A Brief History with Documents, co-authored with M. William Steele, and published by Bedford in 2017. Dr. Walthall, thank you so much for talking with me today. It’s my pleasure to talk with you.

Anne Walthall: Well, thank you. I’ve been looking forward to this.

TG: In your career, you focused a lot on peasant protest movements, some of the violence of the early modern period, and especially leading up to the Meiji Restoration. So, could you tell us what’s going on during the Bakumatsu period at the end of the Tokugawa particularly from the perspective of the peasants in the countryside?

AW: Well, there are various different ways to look at the peasants in the countryside. Though, as you said, the way I started out was by looking at the social movements or mass movements that you find at that time. I mean there are a lot of different things going on that cause unrest and so I’ll talk about that, but I also would like to talk about people in the countryside who, perhaps, weren’t protesting or weren’t going around smashing up houses, but still had their own take on what was going on. But let me talk first about popular movements, and I’m using the term “popular movements” because that’s the term that Japanese historians use today. What they want to emphasize is that these are mass movements in that they involve not farmers of a particular class, but entire villages, and these villages would include old families that trace their lineage back to before the Tokugawa period, they would include middling farmers who have enough land to survive on as long as the harvest is okay, and then there would be various kinds of tenant farmers and day labourers whose livelihood, of course, is much more precarious.

But in these mass uprisings, the whole village is a participant in this, and in fact, if the village does not participate as a unit in these movements, then other villages may attack it for not being a full-fledged participant, so that’s one point I would like to make. The movements themselves are two sourced. They generally start off with trying to ask the ruling authorities for assistance (for aid), pointing out that we are the lord’s farmers and therefore, the lord should care about what happens to us. Some farmers will point out that they are the foundation of the realm, which is something that the shōgun had said back in the early 1700s, and if they’re the foundation of the realm and they disappear (you know, they starve to death), then the lord’s going to starve to death too, so there’s a certain amount of self-interest they’re appealing to as well. What they will do then is they will create a petition with this very deferential language, but also very assertive language saying: “We’re very sorry that we have to do this, but if you want us to survive, you better pay attention.” And they go marching off to the council with that petition and then along the way or after they’ve presented the petition, they will attack wealthy people (wealthy commoners) who they feel have acted unjustly.

These crowds have a very strong moral sense that people who are not helping them, who are hoarding grain for example, who are looking after their own interests and putting their own self-interest ahead of the interests of the community, are not good people, and they deserve to be punished. The punishment takes the form of (as you mentioned) uchi kowashi or smashing and breaking, where they will go to a storehouse or a store or a residence, and smash up as much as they can. They will break open storehouses, take out the food and goods that they find there and trash them. The idea is not to loot. These are not looters, and in fact, crowds will often attack people that they see looting because they want to emphasize that they’re taking the moral high ground, and so they will smash up the houses, they’ll take the rice, they’ll trample the rice in the mud, they’ll pour soy sauce on it if they find soy sauce (make a nice mud pie out of it), and then they move onto the next dwelling.

If the wealthy people realize that they’re in the crosshairs of this kind of riot, sometimes they will start by bringing out food and feeding the poor, and demonstrating that yes, they do care about the people by presenting food and also drink (well sometimes, drink can have the opposite effect). There were a number of these uprisings starting from the late 18th century forward that called upon the world renewal god (the yonaoshi god); the idea being that if the bad people have their property smashed up and they are forced to become good people by feeding the crowd, then that’s a sign that the world renewal god is appearing in this world. There are also specific instances of world renewal when after a really dreadful harvest in 1866, within the next year in 1867, the harvest was good, so people celebrated and said: “Look, a world renewal has brought a bountiful world, and we should celebrate that.”

The whole idea of world renewal has a number of ambiguous characteristics, but it’s usually seen as bringing a better world, at least for the moment, to help the poor. I should also mention that the biggest uprising (the biggest of these mass movements) occurs in the shōgun’s territory in 1867. This is in the hinterland to the capital of Edo, and in that case, you have riots that go on for over a week, and this had an impact on the shogunate because it’s embarrassing to have something like this erupting in your own backyard, especially when other domains are not dealing with such unrest, so it has the effect of making the shōgun’s government look less legitimate than perhaps it had in the past. But people would say: “Yeah, but they had no idea what the shōgun was doing in terms of confronting his enemies down around Kyoto.” And that’s true, but the press was very bad. The shōgun’s reputation suffered as a result of that movement, but I’ve studied peasant uprisings for many years and in fact, I just wrote another essay about them recently, and what I find more interesting is the whole issue about what can we say about commoner participation in the events leading up to the Restoration and how does that compare with what the ruling class (the daimyō and the shōgun and the samurai) were doing in the events leading up to the Restoration? To a certain extent, many historians (especially the historians who first started dealing with the Restoration) really focused on a small group of men in the powerful domains – the southwestern domains – of Chōshū, Satsuma, Tosa, Hizen (to a lesser extent) who end up leading their domains against the shogunate, or they would look at the men in the shogunate itself (the Tokugawa shōguns, the vassal daimyō, who were supposed to support the shōgun, but didn’t always, the shōgun’s relatives especially the relatives in Mito who had their own ideas about what the shogunate should do, which wasn’t necessarily helpful), but there’s a lot that’s been translated about what these men were writing, and what these men thought should be done.

This is seen as one portion of the ruling class replacing another portion of the ruling class and in fact, there was an article once, which called the Restoration as basically an aristocratic coup d’état. However, I think it’s worth pointing out that yes, the men who were making these political decisions are really only a very small portion of the ruling class if we talk about the four domains but in fact, there were 280 domains. Sometimes, people say more like 300 domains, and most of these domains didn’t know what to do.

I’ve studied a lot about the domains in northern Japan, and they’re dithering: Are we going to support the shōgun who’s been our lord for 250 years and has done a really good job for us? Are we going to support the imperial court? What will that mean for us? This is evident especially for the daimyō who got their legitimacy from the shōgun. It was really tricky to figure out well, which side are we going to fall on? And most of them did nothing. In fact, I always say that 90% of the daimyō and their retainers tried to wait it out to see which side was going to win, and waiting out, some of them were just able to sit there and say: “Oh well, yeah we support you. We support you” without actually committing themselves, and it was only the domains in the north that actually had to put skin in the game and say: “Okay, we’re going to fight on behalf of the emperor” or “we’re going to fight for the shōgun.”

So, if you compare the large number of the men in the ruling class who did nothing, the fact that the commoners were not out there waving their swords around, I think it’s much more similar to what the daimyō themselves were doing. And in fact, the commoners were doing a lot. They were trying to get as much information as they could, they were buying information in some cases from men who had the power to make decisions, they were trying to influence these men and in some cases, they were the financial backers of these men (and they controlled their way around in that way), they helped men when they were on the run. There was a civil war in Mito in 1864, and when the men on the losing side went racing across central Japan, across the mountains of Nagano Prefecture, trying to reach Kyoto, there were men along the way who helped them, who fed them, who buried their dead, who exchanged poems with them, and so commoners were not simply passive bystanders in all of this. They took as active a role as they could given the politics of the time.

TG: And you wrote this book Weak Body of a Useless Woman as an example of exactly one of those people. Could you tell us a bit more about these peasants who aren’t necessarily the ones carrying out the violent actions such as uchi kowashi or the yonaoshi movements (the ones who are just in the countryside)? What’s the impact of the Restoration on them, and what agency do they have leading up to the Restoration?

AW: Well, that’s an interesting question. These families are often called rural entrepreneurs or gōnō. They were families that had often times monopolized or tried to monopolize political power in their villages as village headmen or as advisors to the village headmen. They were usually landlords, so they had a lot of agricultural land that they could farm out. To a certain extent, they farmed themselves, and to a certain extent, they had tenant farmers, though they were also heavily involved in cottage industries and marketing, so in the area around Osaka, they would be the middlemen between the cotton growers and the merchants in Osaka who would be buying the cotton.

In the Ina Valley, starting fairly late (actually after the opening of the ports in 1859), silk production takes off, and they are the ones who are encouraging the farmers around them to raise silkworms and then spin silk thread, and then they act as middlemen in the marketing of silk thread in Yokohama and places like that. So that in the time leading up to the Restoration, they’re very much involved in commercial activities, and the development of a commercial economy. Some of them make it through the Restoration and continue along those lines. Others discover that they really don’t have enough capital to invest in expensive machinery that would improve silk spinning, for example the filliatures were being bought from Europe at that time. And so, they end up staying in their village and sometimes going broke.

There are a number of men (who Bill Steele has studied and I have studied) who get involved in one crazy idea after another and sometimes, they succeed, and sometimes they don’t. Now, these are the men, of course, who are often times politically aware of what’s going on. When the government first announces prefectural assemblies in the 1870s, they are the ones who are running for office. In fact, they are the only ones who can run for office because there were restrictions on who can vote; you had to have a certain amount of property in order to vote and run for office. So, they can vote, they can run for office, and then in 1889, when the first Diet is established, they’re able to run for those offices as well and become Diet members. And in some cases, they are very active in promoting “civilization and enlightenment” in their villages, starting village schools for example, by trying to bring in the latest inventions that they’ve seen in the cities to the countryside.

By the late 19th century, they’re starting to send their children to be educated in Tokyo rather than simply in the village schools. So, many of them are very progressive. Some of them are not and think that all these introductions to Western things is just a bunch of foolishness and that Japan should really stick to being “Japan,” and no aping the West, but those are really in the minority, I think. I mean Taseko is definitely in the minority because she does not like the West, she does not seeing Western ships, she doesn’t like seeing Western saddles, she doesn’t think much of Western style food or clothing or anything along those lines, but it’s also easy to see her and people like her as representative of these very conservative country bumpkins. I think to a certain extent, they were very conservative, but they weren’t necessarily the majority of people in the countryside.

TG: So then we can think of a lot of this modernization during the Meiji period as being the product as much of a grassroots movement as it is something that’s imposed top-down from the government?

AW: Yes, absolutely. There was a famous Japanese historian named Yasumaru Yoshio who, in a book on Japan’s modernization and popular thought, argued that if you’re going to understand the Meiji Restoration and understand Japan’s ability to modernize in the late 19th century, you have to look at where the people were, especially where the farmers were. He argues that they develop something he called “conventional morality,” which emphasized diligence and fortitude and trust, and he said those virtues are really what makes it possible for Japan to industrialize. You can’t look at just the top of society and say that is creating Japan’s economic gains. You have to look at the bottom because actually, that’s where most of the people are.

TG: And you mentioned before this narrative that the Meiji Restoration was really an aristocratic revolution; something that’s happening within a very small percentage of aristocratic samurai in Japan, and at the same time, there’s this narrative of the uchi kowashi and the yonaoshi riots as being one half of this naiyū gaikan formulation right? The internal troubles and foreign threats that topple the Tokugawa regime, and with that in mind, what are your thoughts on this textbook narrative that the Meiji Restoration is something that is essentially a political revolution imposed from the top down? What would be the bottom-up aspect of the Restoration itself?

AW: Well, I think that the bottom-up is harder to define, but it has a lot more to do with the development of commerce and the determination of Japanese commoners to make a buck wherever they can. There’s a new book by Simon Partner called A Merchant’s Tale, which argues that you can say that the Meiji Restoration was simply a political change at the top, but the kinds of transformations that were taking place in society between 1859 and say, 1880 owe a lot more to transformations in commercial relations and especially the impact of foreign trade and how Japanese merchants are dealing with that in Yokohama, and, to a lesser extent, the other port cities (Kobe for example and things like that). There is also an argument that these political changes at the top didn’t have that much to do with people’s lives, except for the institution of compulsory primary education and conscription. That people continued to dress very much the way they had and perform the same rituals that they had, but other people are saying: “No. In fact, you’ve got a lot more engagement with the outside world than there was before 1853,” for example.

It’s really 1853 when many of the rural entrepreneurs get involved in debating politics and what should happen. And they had proposals that they were sending to their daimyō on what kind of reforms are necessary. They had ideas on what kinds of government Japan can come up with. People didn’t always listen to them, but they had these ideas, but the guys at the top didn’t listen to each other either.

TG: And many of these proposals that you’re talking about are included in this fantastic new book that you’ve published…

AW: Exactly.

TG: …with Bill Steele Politics and Society in Japan’s Meiji Restoration: A Brief History with Documents. Can you tell us about the process of producing this book and then the narrative written for the book? And then also, what was the thought process behind some of these documents that you selected to include in this volume?

AW: Well, I’ll take the last question first. Our desire in making this selection was to show as much as possible the enormous variety of ideas and comments that people had on events and proposals of the time, and we also wanted to de-centre the idea that the only thing important is what was going on among the small group of men at the top. So we wanted to show that even among the so-called small group of men, there were differences of opinion over what should happen.

We included a letter by Sakamoto Ryōma, for example, where he talks about how he sees the future of Japan as well as letters by other men such as Katsu Kaishū and his ideas. We also wanted to take a different look at the some of these well-known men themselves, so for example in the case of Fukuzawa Yukichi, we took a document that shows – Fukuzawa Yukichi is often see as this great enlightenment thinker who was so determined to bring Western ideas to Japan – he is telling the shōgun: “You should make yourself king.” It’s a very different take on Fukuzawa as well as on what sort of advice the shōgun was getting in 1867 and 1868. And so, that was one of things we were trying to do.

We also wanted to make sure that what the ordinary people were thinking appeared in this volume, and so we have a number of satirical poems and satirical drawings where we talk about the way that commoners commented on the events of the time and what these comments show about how aware they were of what was going on. You know, they don’t just have their nose to the grindstone, and they’re not just ignoring what the people on top are saying. They’re saying: “You guys, you’re bankrupt. You’re morally bankrupt, you’re politically bankrupt, and we don’t think much of the shōgun, we don’t think much of these new rulers either. We’re very suspicious that any of this is going to make a clear difference for us.”

We also wanted to make sure that we got as many different groups represented as possible, so we included some of the men who lose, like Maki Izumi, who had some fairly crazy ideas about what should happen in Japan and has this great dream where the emperor is going to come riding on a horse and leads the army against the shōgun, so we tried to make it as varied as possible, and in dealing with the Bōshin War, there are people who say that the Bōshin War was really a no-show, that it wasn’t violent enough. There has been a long time argument in Japanese historiography that said that the Meiji Restoration took place with so little violence that it can’t really be called a revolution because revolutions have to be violent and that it was largely bloodless, that the people at the top were so afraid of what the foreigners might do that they, you know, refused to fight each other. They all caved as soon as the idea of bloodshed appeared. Maybe it’s because they haven’t fought for so long, and they really didn’t know how to use those swords anyways.

And what we wanted to emphasize is that in fact, the Meiji Restoration, the Meiji period, was born in blood, that it was really very violent, and we do that partly by looking at the Bushu Outburst of 1867 where you’ve got people running riot in the shōgun’s hinterland. We also do it by looking at what happened in Aizu at the end of the Bōshin War, and how men and women fought there, and what that meant for notions of honour and loyalty; what does it mean to be loyal to your domain and what does it mean when women try to claim that? What does it mean for masculinity when women try to claim that as well?

TG: So, do you position this book as providing almost a counternarrative for students to the usual textbook narrative or what is it that you want students to get out of this textbook when they come across it in class?

AW: Well, I’m hoping that they’ll understand that even a process that seems as brief and as neat and tidy as the Meiji Restoration in fact, was very complicated, and that there were a lot of different voices that participated in the events leading up to 1868 and in the events thereafter. So, we want to make it messy.  

TG: (Laughter) Yes, and it’s not such a simple success story. It’s not a clean story,…

AW: No.

TG: …and that’s what often gets suggested by these narratives of the quick, painless aristocratic revolution of the Meiji period.

AW: Yes, and of course, the problem with that “quick, painless” narrative is that it then bleeds into all these great successes of the 19th century. And look, during World War I, Japan manages to industrialize, and it’s moving to its second phase of industrialization, and in the interwar period, you’ve got democracy coming along, and you’ve got universal male suffrage by 1924 I think it is, and isn’t everything looking just great and Japan is becoming this modern capitalist democracy? And then all of a sudden… boom you’re hitting 1931. And so, if you see the Meiji Restoration as this tidy little bundle leading upward from one success to another, it makes it very difficult to explain what happened to Japan in the modern period (in the 20th century, I should say).

TG: So with that in mind, when we look back at (this being the sesquicentennial –the 150th anniversary – of the Meiji Restoration) this now, what should we point out? What should we look for, and how does that change our perceptions for maybe even Japan today?

AW: Well, I think, again, it’s important to decentre the Restoration by looking at what’s going on in the provinces. You know, many Japanese in the Tokugawa period generated tons and tons and tons of documents, and a remarkable number of those still remain. So, you can go beyond what the four great domains were doing to look at what was going on in the northeast, to look at what was going on along the Japan Sea, to see what people were doing around Osaka and Shikoku outside of Tosa, and study how the Restoration occurred in their locality.

There have been some wonderful studies on transformations in religious practices, for example. There’s one called The Landscape of the Gods that looks at what happens to a major pilgrimage site (the site of Konpira) in the years after the Restoration when the new government decides it’s going to separate Buddhism and Shintō, and the kind of impact this has on a pilgrimage site, which up until that time had been both Buddhist and Shintō. There was a symbiotic relationship where you would go to a structure, and you really couldn’t tell if you were worshipping a Buddhist deity or worshipping a Shintō god, and after the Restoration, the government said: “No, this has got to stop. We’ve got to separate all of this out.” So, you end up with the shrine up at the top and the temple someplace else, and of course there’s a lot of fighting among the various priests over whose mountain is this anyway, and if we’re going to give up our structure over here, what do we get in return?

There’s a movement by the Buddhist temples to try to say: “But listen, we’ve been at the centre of Japanese religious life for over over a thousand years. You can’t just get rid of us. Think of all those family graves that are buried in our graveyards. Think of all the memorial services that we’ve performed. Look at the imperial household. You can’t talk about rituals in the imperial household without bringing in Buddhism. And also, we’re good people and we promote morality and without us teaching Japanese people to be good, loyal subjects, they’ll end up becoming Christians. You certainly don’t want that.”

So, there are lots of different ways you can study this period besides just looking at these politics at the top, and I think it’s more fun to see what’s happening in the daily lives of people, and in terms of what they’re supposed to believe and how they’re supposed to act.

TG: Is there any last words that you’d like to say about the Meiji period?

AW: Yes. The Meiji Restoration is a real milestone in Japanese history, but I hope I’ve given you the idea that there’s still a certain amount of debate over what exactly it means, and I hope that kind of debate will continue because that’s what keeps history fresh and interesting.

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: 

Anne Walthall, interview with Tristan Grunow, The Meiji at 150 Podcast, podcast audio, July 11, 2018. https://meijiat150.podbean.com/e/episode-41-dr-anne-walthall-irvine/.

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