Episode 52 – Dr. Frederick Dickinson (Penn)

Originally published on August 17, 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. Frederick Dickinson, Professor of Japanese History, and Co-Director of the Lauder Institute of Management and International Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Dickinson is the author, most recently, of World War I and the Triumph of a New Japan, 1919-1930, published by Cambridge University Press in 2013. Dr. Dickinson, thank you for talking with me today. 

Frederick Dickinson: Thanks for having me, Tristan. 

TG: You’ve written widely about Japan’s diplomatic history, looking especially at, say, World War I and then the years after World War I, and more recently looking, also, in this kind of global perspective and putting Japan into global developments. How is it that the Meiji Restoration impacts Japan’s place in the world? 

FD: Yes, that’s an interesting and legitimate question. I guess I would say that is not the question I would start out with, or that is not necessarily the question, I think, that leads us to the most important significance of the Meiji years. Again, I’m an early twentieth century scholar, but I am very interested, obviously, in Meiji for what it says about my era. More particularly, I’m interested in what it says in terms of the new project that I am working on, which is a global history of modern Japan. And the more I think a global history of modern Japan, the more I think that the interesting significance or the most profound significance of the nineteenth century years really has less to do with thinking about, say, Japan in the nineteenth century or Japan in the twentieth century. The best and widest and most profound way of thinking about Meiji and its impact is to think about what does Meiji mean for the nineteenth-century world, and that’s essentially how I’ve taught Meiji. And that’s how I’m trying to cover Meiji in my global history of modern Japan. It is, obviously, related, very much, to diplomatic issues, which are my principal area of expertise, but it’s not simply that. It’s political, it’s diplomatic, it’s cultural. 

TG: Can you elaborate on what Meiji tells us about the nineteenth-century world? 

FD: So, let’s back up a little bit. I mean, again, I’m not a Meiji scholar, but I have been invited to several Meiji commemorations (a couple in Japan, a couple in the United States), and I’ve been struck by the interesting contrast between, in general, what interests Japan scholars in Japan and what interests Japan scholars in the United States. My experience in Japan was very much this notion that what is important about Meiji…Well, the importance about Meiji is to tell about this quite important and interesting phenomenon of the first Asian state which became a modern industrial power and empire, essentially. So, this topic continues to interest Japanese scholars, particularly the people who are my contacts in Japan who basically do political and international history. 

For the American scholars, it’s interesting that we’ve taken the discussion of Meiji as a discussion of well, a mixed bag of Meiji. In other words, there’s a very interesting impulse and very strong one and, you know, legitimate one, I think, to not just talk about Meiji as accomplishment, but to talk about what is the dark side of that industrialization, what is the dark side of empire? And again, very legitimate. I would just simply say that on the Japan side, obviously, the danger just becomes an issue or story about triumphant Japan. On the American side, if you [aren’t] careful to put this in a comparative or global context, it can easily become a sort of Orientalizing project where Japan is certainly becoming a state like everyone, certainly becoming an empire like many other powers, but you get the impression that the Japanese have a particular problem or particular challenges in this enterprise for various reasons (maybe it’s because they’re a late developer or whatever). So, I’ve seen those two sides of the Meiji commemoration. 

My interest, as I said, is let’s take a look and try to think about this in a more global context and what does that involve? Again, there are many historians out there who do global history these days, and the number of definitions of what global history is is equal to the number of people actually imagin[ing] themselves as practitioners. But essentially, my take on global history is to do what I originally said to you, and that is it’s a matter of asking a basic question – of asking not: “What does Meiji mean for nineteenth-century Japan? What does it mean for twentieth century Japan?” but: “What does Meiji mean for the nineteenth-century world?” Okay, so that’s a very long preface to your question. What does that mean? So then, to answer that question: “What does Meiji mean for the nineteenth-century world?” Again, it’s a complicated story, obviously, but I guess in a nutshell, you can say that we can use Meiji as a very interesting exercise or interesting example to try to tell a story of how the usual narrative of world history in the modern era of being a history of the rise of the West is not exactly what we think it is. In other words, the most essential utility for me, in talking about Meiji Japan, is to get a sense of how modern world history is not, in fact, just a narrative of the rise of the West. 

So okay, that sounds fairly banal, but you know, it has various implications, and there are various ways of getting at the story of how modern world history is not the history of the rise of the West. Number one: you can start looking at what’s going on, not just in Japan, but in Asia in general from the early modern period onward, and first, temper our notion that the so-called “West” is, basically from the eighteenth or nineteenth century, having their way with the world. Now, obviously, I’m not the first one to say this, you know. Adam Clulow, recently, has this great book [The Company and the Shogun] in which he gives a very interesting glimpse of an early modern world, which is definitely not a Western world. It’s very much a world in which Japan and other players in Asia (including China) are able, essentially, to continue to set the rules, and this is particularly…You know, if you just think about it in the Japanese context, maybe it’s not so compelling, but if you think about it in the world context, it’s quite interesting if you keep in mind what’s going on, what defines “early modern” in world history. I mean, expansion is one of the important parts of the story, and we’re talking particularly first, the expansion of the Iberian empires into the Americas; you’re talking about, ultimately, the Dutch then and the British moving east; the British ultimately colonizing India; and by the latter nineteenth century, a whole range of powers colonizing Africa (the Scramble for Africa). If you think about basically Meiji in the context of, say, the Scramble for Africa or the colonization of India or, say, the earlier colonization of the Americas, it’s quite interesting to note that well, Asia is the one area…Well, East Asia in particular (obviously, Southeast Asia is different, and South Asia is different) is one area in which the so-called “rise of the West” is really not a rise of the West until much later on. 

And even in the Meiji period when clearly, you have China, you have Japan, ultimately Korea plugging into the so-called “unequal treaties” system, the notion that even when and after Perry arrives, the Japanese are able to have a very significant amount of agency and determine their fate in the way that you would…Well certainly, those living in the New World weren’t able to determine their fate, those living in the subcontinent in India weren’t able to determine their fate. You know, East Asia is quite an exception to the rule of the Age of Empire that is emerging from the early modern period. So, that’s one way of saying: “Well look, if you focus on Meiji and you that in the context of our usual story of the rise of the West, clearly, the West is not rising in the way that the general narrative tells you.” And so, that’s one thing. 

But I think even more important than just talking about Meiji and Japan as not essentially being rolled over like other colonized powers is a story of Japan actually defining or helping to define the contours of a nineteenth-century world – in other words, not simply this reactive process of not succumbing to formal empire. It is the very definite active process of helping to create what we know to be the nineteenth century. Okay, so what is that? 

I mean, there are many things, obviously, and I guess we can start with the international story, as I’m an international historian. You can make a very compelling case that Japan is very much, in the nineteenth century, helping to fashion a nineteenth-century world and helping to fashion one of the most important conventions of the time, and that is empire-building. You might guess that I’m talking about the Russo-Japanese War. I mean, scholars have talked about that, and the impact of a grand, white European empire being defeated by an Asian state in 1905 influencing and inspiring all manner of hope, particularly in Asia: Sun Yat-sen, Phan Boi Chau, you name it. 

That’s certainly important, but the story of Japan shaping the diplomatic and imperial contours of a nineteenth-century world really go much earlier than the Russo-Japanese War, and you know, you can start in many places, but one very interesting starting point would be 1876 (the Kanghwa Treaty) when it’s the Japanese, of course, who do the honours of bringing Korea into an unequal treaty system. It’s quite surprising given that the Western empires (until that time) are the ones who are the principal initiators of action, bringing opium war to China, bringing Perry to Japan whereas the Japanese, who bring the same kind of system to Korea…You know, sort of a dubious honour, given what ultimately happens in Korea. We’re not trying to applaud the Japanese for their forethought. I’m just simply saying that by virtue of essentially starting this treaty port system in Korea, the Japanese, number one, are vastly expanding the parameters of empire-building in Asia. Okay, it’s not a formal empire-building in Korea yet, but they’re expanding those parameters. 

Obviously, even more important than this Kanghwa Treaty is the next pivotal international event: the Sino-Japanese War. And I would argue, maybe, that the Sino-Japanese War is even more important than the Russo-Japanese War in terms of how it actually changes the game of empire-building globally. I mean mostly, it’s a story of Asia, but [due to] the very fact of the Japanese defeating the Chinese in 1895, you are then moving (and this is not a new story) the essential system of diplomatic protocol in Asia from a treaty-port system to much more larger-scale spheres of influence system, getting close to a vision of almost formal colonization. It’s not, obviously, but the Chinese themselves are seeing this sphere of influence system as eventually carving up China like a melon by virtue of the fact that all the powers are now jumping in to sign leases to great swathes of territory in various parts of China, and getting exclusive rights in those parts of China. Of course, that’s very different than the treaty port system, which is a more shared system of rights within smaller, confined spaces of ports. 

But essentially, by virtue of defeating the Chinese, the energy of empire-making in Asia completely changes, that character changes. And I would also say that victory over China really puts East Asia on a global map in a way that it was never there before. You know, before the nineteenth century, essentially, empire-building was focused on the Americas (particularly the Spanish, a little bit of the Portuguese). From the early 1880s, empire-building, globally, from the Congress of Berlin, focused on a scramble for Africa. With the moment that the Japanese defeat the Chinese, you have a brand new area of opportunity that among others, the grandson of U.S. president John Quincy Adams, the historian Brook Adams, basically proclaimed in 1895 that Eastern Asia is the prize for which all the energetic nations are grasping, that indicating the degree to which, again, the intention of empire-builders, globally, is all of a sudden moving east. And this doesn’t mean that everyone’s giving up their Africa empire or their empires in the New World, but it does mean that all this excitement is building up because of something that the Japanese did. Again whether it was good the Japanese did it or not is another story. It’s simply the fact that by virtue of Japanese initiative, you’re completely changing this attention of the world in terms of empire-building, and we’re going from Africa to East Asia. Again, we’re not talking about colonies necessarily, but the energy and excitement is there, and it’s not a coincidence that the Spanish-American War happened soon afterwards and that the United States becomes, for the first time, an empire. And that first-time empire-building enterprise happens to be happening in the Pacific, and that’s because the attention of the world has been focused on the Pacific and Asia (East Asia in particular since 1894/1895). 

So, it’s that kind of thing that I’m talking about. It’s a little bit different than simply saying: “Okay well, so Japan rises as a modern state and empire, great,” or “Japan is a modern state and empire, and has all the dark aspects of that state and empire, and baggage along with it,” which, again, is similar to everyone…It’s a story of, actually, Japan making an impact in the world in a way that had the Japanese not done it, the nature of empire-building would be very different. So, if you want to play an alternative history game, I mean it’s very interesting in many of these sort[s] of scenarios: What if the Sino-Japanese War didn’t happen? What if the Japanese didn’t defeat the Chinese? Would there have been an American Empire in the Pacific? I don’t know. Probably, given Manifest Destiny, the Americans moving across the continent and thinking about the Pacific anyway, but it happened in a very different way. That’s what I mean by global history. It’s thinking about what’s happening in Meiji Japan, in nineteenth-century Japan in a way that really changes our idea of the processes of modern development globally in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. 

TG: You were talking about how this global perspective can change our research. So, if we were to talk about teaching now, how is it that you’re bringing in this global perspective into your class? How does it change the view of history for the students? And then what are some of the resources and some of the materials that you’re introducing to the students to bring to life this time period and this perspective? 

FD: So, it’s kind of tricky, I guess, because one of the reasons why I’ve become so interested in the global aspect is because in lieu of my modern Japan course, I’ve been teaching world history for the last couple of years. You know, I’m still teaching modern Japanese history, but it does raise a question: Okay, you’re going to try to do a global perspective on modern Japan. That’s my ambition. You want to do it in a modern Japanese history course. These kids are obviously coming to learn about Japan: what do I need to know about Japan? How do you, on the one hand, guarantee that they get the meat that they want on Japan specifically, in addition to introducing them to this subversive enterprise of saying: “Look, it’s not enough to think about Japan. You should be interested in Japan because you’re interested in the nineteenth-century world or you’re interested in the twentieth-century world.” 

That’s the great challenge, and I would say in terms of resources, the particular challenge is you really can’t rely on what is out there in terms of edited volumes of documentary…You know, for history courses obviously, it makes sense to give a little smattering of analytic history, narrative history, but also documentary readings. In my early years teaching, I depended, in large part, upon some of the documentary collections (you know, de Bary or whatever) to give them contemporary voices. I won’t give any specific sort of recommendation. I’ll just say, you know, the more we can avoid such documentary collections, the better because those documents that are presented are presented and chosen within what I would call the older national perspective, which does not at all give you a sense of the global implications. 

So essentially, the kind of sources I use in a modern Japanese history course now are just those sources that I have found myself for my own research that happened to give a nice illustration of this kind of global impact that the Japanese are having. And to give you an example, say, talking about the 1920s – which is my main area of expertise – you can give the usual Yoshino Sakuzō discussion of democracy or minpon shugi and/or Minobe talking about the constitution and the emperor for which he is ultimately prosecuted. That just, unfortunately, hews a little bit too closely with the original narrative. So instead of doing that, I would offer something like Nitobe Inazō. Of course, we’ve known, for a long time, Nitobe as a great spokesperson for internationalism in Japan, especially through the 1920s, but I have a great piece from him. He is hosting, I think, the 1929 meeting of the Institute of Pacific Affairs. You know, the Japanese are very members of this new internationalist organization after the First World War, and they’re delighted and besides themselves (in 1929) that they can actually host this meeting in Kyoto, and it’s very interesting to read the opening declaration of Nitobe Inazō presiding over this meeting, talking about the significance for Japan, which is really, very much a global significance. 

He’s basically saying: “The fact that we’re all gathered now in Kyoto, really very much shows that we are already now living in a Pacific Age,” “Pacific” in the sense of the Pacific Ocean, but also “Pacific” in the sense of peace after the Great World War, and the fact that we’re in Kyoto is very important because Kyoto is formally Heian (basically, “peaceful capital,” meaning peace). And he’s making a big deal about the fact not only that Japan is really the place to be after the First World War because not only is it a major Pacific power and it exemplifies the movement of activity to the Pacific area, but it is also indicative of Japan as very much a part of a new global peace culture. Obviously, that peace culture is going, in the 1930s, [in] a different place, but here, [what] Nitobe articulated, in that sense, is counterintuitive to the usual narrative, and it allows us to think about what does everyone else think. In fact, you can’t just give observations from the Japan side. You have to give concrete indication too about the degree to which – in Britain, France, Germany, U.S., Russia, wherever – those who are observing Japan are, in fact, seeing Japan as a major world player. So, it’s basically that kind of combination I like to use when I’m teaching my modern Japanese course. 

TG: You talked before about how you were thinking about what the Meiji Restoration can tell us about the nineteenth century. Do you have any thoughts on what the Meiji Restoration can tell us about now? Or to put that [in] another way, are there certain “lessons” of the Meiji Restoration that are useful for thinking about today? 

FD: Well, I don’t want to be a contrarian, but the most important thing to me is to use it to think about the nineteenth-century world and to the extent that we start thinking about that, then okay, let’s start thinking about the twentieth or twenty-first-century world in the context of our new understanding of the nineteenth-century world. So, if one of our major lessons of the nineteenth-century world is that it’s not really a story of the rise of the West, it’s really a global conversation of creating a modern empire, creating a state, new migration policies, new legal policies, new international organizations in the twentieth century. If we think of it in a global sense, then certainly, I guess the most basic lesson for Meiji for today would be that look, we never really were in a purely Western-created modernity. Japan was right there. It wasn’t even a latecomer. It was implementing a constitution at the time, which okay, it comes after the French constitution, the American constitution, but it’s being pushed through in the latter nineteenth century at a time in which constitutional politics are still very much a global debate, and at a time in which, in particular, there’s a significant global debate on whether or not classical liberalism is viable. 

You know, the old way of looking at nineteenth-century Japan is: “Look this is a deadly illiberal state, and it was because of the illiberal state that we’re going ultimately into the Pacific War.” Well okay, maybe, maybe not. Let’s just keep in mind, though, the latter nineteenth century world is very much a world talking about the excesses of classical liberalism. And these are British intellectuals, German intellectuals, French intellectuals. It’s Karl Marx, it’s having this international discussion. Japan’s constitution is very much a part of that discussion, and Japan’s model is a new challenge to that classical liberal model. 

So, what does that tell us about the twenty-first century? Well, if we should just keep in mind that the world as we know it has always been a very complex one in terms of a discussion (a global discussion certainly, at least, from the nineteenth century onward), then we don’t have to get into this terrible, ahistorical notion that okay, we were in a liberal age, and now, we’re in an illiberal age, or we were in an illiberal age, and now, we’re in a liberal…No, I mean it is an ongoing conversation, and it’s not just a conversation among the great Western states. Japan has very much been a part of that conversation from at least the latter nineteenth century onward, and I guess the other lesson to that is well, then we as Americans should listen to what our Asian neighbours are saying because they’re saying things and doing things that are very important modifications of what we think is our reality. 

I guess the best example of that is just to think of China right now. You know, China of course in the twenty-first century seems a little bit more obviously a state which is having a global impact, but the whole One Belt One Road concept is something that is a new entry into the discussions since the end of the Cold War of what is a post-Cold War world going to be? So, the lesson of Meiji Japan I guess in that sense is okay, let’s listen. Let’s not just condemn the Chinese for their Euraisan idea of One Belt One Road. Let’s think of what this means to us and what it can mean to us and what kind of opportunities it can raise for us because nineteenth-century Japan raised some very interesting questions in terms of diplomacy, politics, culture’s another thing that we didn’t even discuss. I would say, essentially, that the Japanese are creating what the French call the belle époque in the nineteenth century. They are very much at the heart of, if one can describe a belle époque aesthetic, it’s very much influenced…you know, it’s the impressionist, it’s the post-impressionist, it’s the Viennese secessionists. They are all very much inspired by Japanese ukiyo-e prints, and you know, we should just think about that when we think about our twenty-first century world and as we are in the process of what we should think a post-Cold War/post twenty-first century world should look like. 

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: 

Frederick Dickinson, interview with Tristan Grunow, The Meiji at 150 Podcast, podcast audio, August 17, 2018. https://meijiat150.podbean.com/e/episode-53-dr-frederick-dickinson-penn/

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