Episode 43 – Dr. Tessa Morris-Suzuki (ANU)

Originally published on July 17, 2018
[This transcript has been edited for clarity.]

Tristan Grunow: This is the Meiji at 150 Podcast. I’m Tristan Grunow. My guest on this episode is Professor Tessa Morris-Suzuki, Professor of Japanese History in the School of Culture, History and Language at the Australian National University. Professor Morris-Suzuki is the author of many publications, including “Indigenous Knowledge in the Mapping of the Northern Frontier Regions” in Cartographic Japan: A History in Maps, published by the University of Chicago Press in 2016. Dr. Morris-Suzuki, thank you so much for talking with me today.

Tessa Morris-Suzuki: It’s a pleasure.

TG: You’ve published widely on the Meiji period, looking at Japan from a more regional perspective, and really decentering Japanese history. With that in mind, I was curious to hear your thoughts on how the Meiji period and the Meiji Restoration fit into Japanese history, and what is the importance of the Meiji Restoration?

TMS: Yes, thank you. So, I think that when we look at the history of the Meiji Restoration, very often it tends to be viewed from the centre as it were from the perspectives of what’s happening in Kyoto and Edo (or Tokyo) and so on. And I think that if we change our focus and look at what’s happening in the frontier areas around Japan, we can see some very interesting things about the Meiji Restoration that are not so visible when we’re viewing events from the centre. So, to me, one of the things that becomes visible when you look at the Meiji Restoration from the frontier areas is that the conventional narrative of the relationship between the Meiji Restoration, and Japan’s expansion (colonial expansion particularly) is not really correct. We tend, conventionally, to think of Japan going through this great transformation of the Meiji Restoration in response particularly to challenges from the outside world, but also from what’s happening within Japan.

Initially, you have a Meiji state which is centralizing, Westernizing, opening up to the world, industrializing, but not really an imperial state to begin with, and then once you get into maybe the 1880s, 1890s, then it really starts to become an imperial state. So, that’s the story that we tend to hear very often, but if we look at what’s happening at the time of the Meiji Restoration from the perspective of the frontiers, I think it looks quite different in various ways. First of all, we could see that actually, Japan is, in some ways, experiencing or practicing what we might call a sort of proto-colonialism even before the Meiji Restoration happens.

In the Ryūkyū Kingdom, you have the domain of Satsuma, which has exerted some control over the Ryūkyū Kingdom from way back, long before the Meiji Restoration. In Ezo, which will become Hokkaidō, you can see that Japanese merchants have been practicing a kind of mercantile colonialism, particularly along the coasts of Ezo, and that from the 1850s (from 1855, particularly), the Tokugawa bakufu, in response to the growing presence of Russians in the north, puts Ezo under direct shogunal control, and begins to exert more influence, particularly efforts to “Japanize” the Ainu in the north (fairly half-hearted efforts, but still having some influence).

So already, those things are happening before the Meiji Restoration and then when the Meiji Restoration happens, there is quite a dramatic change in the situations of those frontier areas, particularly Ezo and the Ryūkyū Kingdom, but also some other frontier areas that I’ll talk about in a moment.

From the perspective of Ezo, some very interesting things happen. First of all, of course, we have to remember that Ezo is the last stronghold of the opponents of the Meiji Restoration, so we have the supporters of the shogunate fleeing to Ezo and putting up a fight (named the Hakodate War sometimes, which actually goes on into 1869). They very interestingly and very briefly establish the Ezo Republic, which just lasts for a few months, but it’s a fascinating part of the story of the Meiji Restoration. I think another interesting thing that that story shows us, which again goes a little bit against the rather simpler narratives of the Meiji Restoration, is that the Restoration was not just a struggle between the Westernizing forces (pro-Meiji forces) and the conservative, more closed country shogunal forces because the people who fought against the Meiji Restoration, who carried out this last stand against the Meiji Restoration in the southern part of Ezo (and rather particularly around the city of Hakodate) were not anti-Westernization. They didn’t want to return to a closed country.

The leading figure in that struggle Enomoto Takeaki had actually studied in the Netherlands. He was an expert on Western technology, he had a French advisor who he worked very closely with. So, they were not anti-Westernizers, but they were anti-the power of Satsuma and Chōshū in the Meiji Restoration, and then of course, they were defeated. Very interestingly, Enomoto Takeaki, who led that last stand against the Meiji Restoration, is one of the few opponents of the Restoration who then makes his peace with the Restoration forces and becomes, actually, a leading figure in the Meiji Restoration, and goes onto negotiate a very important treaty (the Treaty of St. Petersburg in 1875 that I might come back to).

Those very interesting things are happening in the frontier, but then once that battle is over, and the Meiji forces take control of Ezo, then very quickly, you have this much greater, much more rapid incorporation of Ezo into Japan than you had during the Tokugawa bakufu. So again, when you look at these events from the perspective of the frontier, what you see is that the Japan we know today when we talk about Japanese history, the Meiji Restoration in Japan, Ezo was only “semi-Japan” at the time of the Meiji Restoration but very quickly becomes very firmly incorporated into Japan as a whole, and gets renamed Hokkaidō in 1869. That has enormous consequences, of course, for the Indigenous Ainu people of Hokkaidō, who then come under much more intensive Japanization policies, and policies, essentially, forced movement off their land. They were driven out of the more fertile areas where they had hunted and fished and grown small crops, and moved into less fertile areas to open up space for the Japanese settlers. So from an Ainu point of view, the Meiji Restoration is a huge event, and an event with some pretty unfortunate consequences.

TG: You mentioned the Ezo Republic, which really falls through the cracks in some of these textbook narratives of the Meiji period. We’re talking about this being sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) of the Meiji Restoration, and of course, this coming year is the 150th anniversary of Hokkaidō, and the incorporation of Ezo-chi into the Japanese empire. We can almost think of it as the sesquicentennial of the Ezo Republic as well.

TMS: Yes, we could, and it seems to be quite interesting that as far as I can tell, that hasn’t been commemorated very much in Hokkaidō. To some extent it has, but not nearly as much as the renaming of Hokkaidō, which for some slightly curious reason, they seem to be celebrating this year, although it’s actually next year (it actually became Hokkaidō in 1869).

The story about the relationship between Japan and its Asian neighbours, I think, is another really important and interesting one that sometimes gets a bit neglected in the story both of the Tokugawa shogunate and of the Meiji Restoration. But it’s very interesting to look at what happens to the relationship between Japan and Korea at the moment of the Meiji Restoration because of course, that brings in another of the frontier areas of Japan: the island of Tsushima, which of course, was the gateway to Korea throughout the Tokugawa bakufu.

When we talk about the sakoku policy in the Tokugawa era, people often point to the fact that there was trade through Dejima, through Nagasaki. Therefore, it wasn’t really a closed country. We don’t tend to think so much about the ongoing relationship that Japan had with Korea, and the fact that the domain of Tsushima had hundreds of people posted at the very southern tip of the Korean Peninsula in what was called the Japan House. And so, there was ongoing trade there.

When the Meiji Restoration happens, there is suddenly almost a crisis of how do we deal with this? Do we go on using Tsushima as our intermediaries to communicate and maintain trade with Korea and ultimately, in a sense, intermediaries who provide a link through to China as well? Or does the Meiji government take over control? Does the central government take over control? Interestingly, in the early stages, the Meiji government really tried to work, to some extent, through Tsushima. They were very reliant on the experience and the knowledge that the Tsushima domain had in relations with Korea. Tsushima was one of the few places where there were a lot of officials who actually spoke Korean, so they used that knowledge and they used the Japan House (which was controlled by Tsushima) for their early negotiations. But then quite quickly, they start to feel that this is a non-satisfactory way of going about business. They completely overturn the centuries long relationship that had existed between Japan and Korea via Tsushima, and imposed a new set of rules, which the Koreans were very unhappy with right from the start. So in a sense, by doing that, the Meiji state actually gets off to a very poor relationship with the Korean kingdom, and that colours everything that happens with the relationship between Japan and Korea from then on almost to the present day.

TG: On that note, and going back to what you were talking about before with proto-colonialism of Japan during the late Tokugawa period, one of these old debates is: is there a straight line between the Meiji Restoration of 1868 and Meiji period imperialism, particularly targeting Korea? What are your thoughts on this topic?

TMS: Yes, I think there are certainly a lot of important continuities. In relation to Korea, perhaps there are not quite so many continuities, but in relation to both Ezo or Hokkaidō as it becomes, and the Ryūkyū Kingdom, those are really the places where Japan shifts from a kind of proto-mercantile colonialism to a state-run colonialism. That shift is starting to happen in the late Tokugawa period, and then happens very rapidly following the Meiji Restoration. That then becomes the basis for later colonialism, and it’s quite well known that many of the people who play a key role, for example, in colonial policy in Taiwan and Korea are people who had some experience of living in Hokkaidō, particularly people who trained at the Agricultural College in Sapporo and so on.

So, the Ryūkyū Kingdom part of the story is also a very important one of course because as we know, the Ryūkyū Kingdom was still officially an autonomous kingdom, although it paid tribute both to Satsuma and to China. It’s also always interesting to remember that Perry went to the Ryūkyū Kingdom, and imposed an agreement on them at the same time, or in fact before imposing an agreement on Japan proper. But then interestingly, because the Ryūkyū Kingdom is subordinate to Satsuma, and Satsuma is the very first domain to hand over its powers to the Meiji state, that then leaves the question of what’s going to happen to the Ryūkyū kingdom? So very quickly, that becomes (initially) Ryūkyū domain, and then fully incorporated into Japan as Okinawa Prefecture in 1879.

TG: You were mentioning some of the connections between Hokkaidō and the imperialist penetration of Korea. I was struck to read that in the Kanghwa Treaty negotiations, Kuroda Kiyotaka (who, of course, was the commissioner in charge of the Kaitakushi in Hokkaidō) is sent over as one of the negotiators along with several hundred marines all from Hokkaidō to negotiate what was seemingly a “peace treaty” with Korea.

TMS: Yes, it’s very telling isn’t it? And I’m sure it was no coincidence then that they knew exactly what they were doing, and Hokkaidō had been the place where Japan learned a lot about Western colonialism; it learned a lot particularly about the way in which the United States had expanded and imposed rule on its Native people. A lot of those ideas were taken up within the government of Hokkaidō, and were then applied to other colonies, or semi-colonies as Korea was initially but then, fully-fledged colonies later down the track.

I think there are a couple of other really interesting frontier areas to look at as well maybe not as significant as the ones that we’ve talked about so far. But Karafuto is very interesting because Karafuto (Sakhalin) was semi-part of Japan at the time of the Meiji Restoration in much the same way that Ezo was semi-part of Japan at that time. Japan had already signed the Treaty of Shimoda with Russia, which gave Russia and Japan joint control of Karafuto. So, that reminds us that there are a whole bunch of areas to the north of Japan which are in this very ambivalent position; that they’re semi-part of Japan and yet, in practical terms, parts of Ezo and large parts of Karafuto were really very little known to Japanese people (I mean, the many areas where no Japanese people have ever been). There were Indigenous peoples who were living very autonomous lives at the time of the Meiji Restoration, so that’s another interesting peripheral area that then complicates the story.

The other very small but really fascinating one, of course, is Ogasawara (or the Bōnin Islands), which were not officially part of Japan at the time of the Meiji Restoration, but became part of Japan very soon after. So, at the time of the Meiji Restoration, Ogasawara (then known as the Bōnin Islands) had a fascinating population of random migrants from Europe, America, Hawaii and other parts of the South Pacific (very small population) who had really been living a sort of autonomous, pretty anarchic life for several decades. Again posing this big question: once the Restoration happens, what do we do with these people? The islands were claimed both by Britain as well as by Japan, but because they were so far from anywhere and didn’t have much in the way of resources, both Britain and America were persuaded quite quickly to give up their claims. So, they did become a full part of Japan relatively soon right after the Meiji Restoration, but here again, you can see the Restoration leading to a new expansion of Japanese territory.

TG: I noticed that in the records of the official Perry expedition to Japan, they talk about going to the Bōnin Islands and encountering all of these residents who were known as shipwrecked sailors or people from all over including people from North America, Europe. But you mentioned that they get handed over to Japan very quickly. So what happens to those so-called “non-Japanese” inhabitants of the islands after they’re handed over to Japan?

TMS: Yes, that’s a fascinating story too. In terms of questions of nationality and citizenship, of course, Japan didn’t have nationality laws at the time of the Meiji Restoration. In fact, it didn’t have a nationality law until the 1890s, so what do you do with these very non-Japanese people? Well, what they did in the end was just to enrol them in koseki (Japanese koseki) once they had the koseki family registers, and to Japanize their names. So, we have all these people with names like Webb, the English surname “Webb” being turned into Uebu (“upper part” in Japanese). Savory (Nathaniel Savory) was a key figure in the Bōnins’ population, and the last name gets turned into Seborī, and you still get those names in Ogasawara today. So, there are still descendants of the early settlers, now very much intermingled with the Japanese population who started to migrate into the Bōnin Islands in the 1880s and 1890s.

TG: And you mentioned as well, with the Meiji Restoration and maybe a little bit before but especially after 1868, there’s this new kind of expansionary impulse, and the Japanese officials in particular turning their gaze outwards. What is it? I mean, we’ve challenged that idea of the “closed” country of the Tokugawa period and identified all of these connections Japan has through the Ryūkyū Islands or through Tsushima as we were talking about before. But for a good 250 years, there does seem to be at least an inward focus that changes very suddenly after 1868 to an outward focus, and an outward expansion, as you were saying. So, what’s behind that sudden shift?

TMS: That’s a really interesting question. Recently, I’ve been looking a lot at maps – Japanese maps – from the middle of the 19th century, and they’re fascinating. They tell us, I think, quite a bit about what was going on in Japanese society at that time. What you find if you look at mid-19th century Japanese maps is they’re very varied, so some of them are extremely inaccurate, and you get depictions even of Ezo which they just really depict the island as a sort of vague blob somewhere to the north. And you get other ones that are highly accurate because in fact, the shogunate had commissioned quite careful surveys of the coastline of Ezo.

But you also get changing cartographical practices that I think indicate a changing mindset in Japan, so some of those maps from shortly after Perry arrival show an almost obsessive interest in borders and frontiers and flags and who owns what. There was one map I was looking at recently from not at all long after the arrival of Perry in which not only are there efforts to draw country borders, but all the islands around the world (but particularly around Japan), are marked with little stripes of different colours to try to identify this island belongs to Japan, this island belongs to Russia, this island belongs to to China. And I think that what’s happening there is that fairly suddenly, Japanese people are becoming conscious of the fact that sovereignty (ownership) over bits of territory is really important in terms of global power relationships, and it becomes very important to know who owns what, and then of course, it becomes important to expand the area that’s under Japanese sovereignty where you could put the little marks and say: “This is Japan.”

TG: And so is that a response, then, to Western imperialism or is it more complicated that?

TMS: I think it is a response to Western imperialism, not only in the sense that it’s a growing awareness of the power that empires have, but it’s also just a different way of looking at the world. So, we’re moving away from that China-centered version of the world, or the vision of the world that Japan had inherited from China, where you see your own capital as the centre and then the nation doesn’t really have sharply defined borders – it just extends outwards. The power of the shogun or the emperor becomes weaker and weaker as you go out towards the periphery, and then it just merges out into a terra incognita somewhere out there.

So that, I think, was very much the mindset of most people in Japan until the late Tokugawa period, but then, the coming up against this very different vision of the world which is most clearly set out against Western maps, where there are clear dividing lines between different countries and a very clear sense of each country having sovereignty over a clearly defined bit of territory. So, Japan is trying to deal with that new way of looking at the world, and trying to understand what it means for Japan itself in terms of its place in the world and its power in relation to the other great powers that they’re encountering.

When you look at mid-19th century Japanese maps, the other thing that I found fascinating about them is how many of them from about the late 1850s and into the ‘60s and ‘70s have flags all around, and this is obviously something that was borrowed from Western models. You do find some Western maps that have flags of the countries of the world, but so many of the Japanese maps from that period seem to have this arrangement around them, and it’s partly a design feature. I think they just thought they looked really pretty, but it does also seem to be part of this desperate urge to identify; the sudden realization that there are all those countries out there. Where are they all and who are they all? So, you get flags not only of individual countries, but also, I think, they are mostly the flags that Japanese people are seeing on ships, so they include flags of trading companies and flags of navies as well as national flags. But this fascination with national flags again is, I think, part of that desperate urge to understand a changing way, a different way of looking at the world.

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: 

Tessa Morris-Suzuki, interview with Tristan Grunow, The Meiji at 150 Podcast, podcast audio, July 17, 2018. https://meijiat150.podbean.com/e/episode-43-prof-tessa-morris-suzuki-anu/.

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