Episode 58 – Dr. Andrew Gordon (Harvard)

Originally published on September 7, 2018

[This transcript has been edited for clarity.]

Tristan Grunow: This the Meiji at 150 Podcast. I’m Tristan Grunow. On this episode, I’m talking with Dr. Andrew Gordon, Lee and Juliet Folger Fund Professor of History at Harvard University. Dr. Gordon is the author, most recently, of “New and Enduring Dual Structures of Employment in Japan: The Rise of Non-Regular Labor, 1980s-2010s,” published in 2017 in volume 20 of Social Science Japan Journal. Dr. Gordon, thank you so much for talking with me today.

Andrew Gordon: It’s a pleasure.

TG: You’ve written widely on issues around labour and the state in modern Japan. Could you talk about how the Meiji Restoration has fit into this topic, and how you’ve approached the Meiji Restoration in your own research?

AG: Yes, that’s an important question and interesting one for me because, although I identify myself as a historian of modern Japan – which more or less means from the Meiji period onward – the first major research I did was a history of Japanese labour practices in modern industry, and the interaction of workers and managers. But as I got started on that project, I also read the brilliant and famous book by E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, and realized that for him, the history of the English working class begins in the pre-industrial era. And it really begins outside of large factories among people that you might call “artisans,” who then carried forward their ideas about freeborn Englishmen and the rights of an Englishman – and they were men that he focused on – into the factory.

So that made me me think: “Okay, what’s going on before the Meiji period that might be relevant to my story in artisan society?” And that’s where I ran up against this wall – firewall’s a little too strong of a word – but in the historical profession in Japan among researchers, there are people who do kinsei, which is early modern up through the 1850s, and there are people who do modern: kindai, and they don’t really like it when the one crosses the boundary of the other. And my mentor in Japan – a man named Nimura Kazuo, who did modern history of labour, and he was a wonderful teacher, and I translated his book on the Ashio copper mine riot in the early 20th century – his pet theory was that in a negative way, the character of Edo period artisans in society impacted the working class in Japan because the Edo period artisans were not organized with national networks. They were contained within domains, and compared to European histories, where the pre-industrial artisans did sojourns across borders – within the country, but you know moving all around England or the British Isles, as journeymen from place to place, developing a sense of identity with the trade that had a large network, and that was true in Germany, it was true in France – this type of pre-industrial artisan cultural heritage (one can say for Europe) really informed the emergence of trade unionism as a practice in modern industry. And in a way, that’s what Thompson argues in his book. So Nimura says: “Well, Japan’s Edo period artisans don’t fit that model: they didn’t cross domain borders. More or less, they were contained, and that has something to do with the fact that Japanese working class consciousness tends to be focused in a particular workplace, and not with a sense of brothers in a trade, or comrades in a trade, nationally. And that pointed the workers in Japan to organize on a company by company basis rather than more horizontally.” So this was his pet theory, and I said: “So Nimura-sensei – Professor Nimura – why aren’t you publishing on this?” And he said: “Well, I do modern, and the kinsei people aren’t going to like it, they’re not going to listen to it, and there’s no point.” And I was really taken aback. To me, that’s the kind of emblematic sign of this divide within Japan among historians who identify as kinsei, and those who identify as kindai – that is “early modern” and “modern.”

TG: I think many of my listeners will be most familiar with your textbook, A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present. Your story about E.P. Thompson, I guess, gives us a clear view of why you start that textbook in the Tokugawa despite that, as you were saying before, many would date modern Japan to 1868.

AG: That’s right. So, I was influenced partly by Thompson, then by Professor Nimura, and then also by my colleagues because perhaps for similar reasons, the Anglophone scholarship, which is what I’m most familiar with other than the Japanese scholarship, over the 19th century – especially the last twenty or thirty years – has tended to cut across 1868 quite, or the 1850s through 60s, quite significantly. And I’m thinking about works by David Howell or Dani Botsman or Kären Wigen, and others. And they’re of course taking cues from some Japanese historians. There are some who range across the divide, who talk about proto-industrialization, or an early modern social and economic history that carries forward into modern times.

TG: Since we’re talking about these historiographical emphases, your textbook, I understand, is coming up in a new edition. Over those editions, have there been certain topics or certain themes that get emphasized more than others?

AG: Yes. For each new edition, I’ve had a particular main agenda plus making various strategic interventions that seem to make sense based on things that happened recently. So, for instance, going from the second to the third edition, a big difference was that the disaster in 2011 had taken place; the earthquake, the tsunami, and the nuclear meltdown. And I realized that my treatment of earlier disasters was very impoverished, so it wasn’t just a matter of adding a few paragraphs about the March 11, 2011 disasters, but I had to back up and say: “Wait a minute. Fires, disasters, earthquakes, tsunami. That’s been part of Japanese history for a long time.” And so, I tried to weave that in in a way that it wouldn’t come out of the clear blue sky that there was this awful disaster in the early 2010s, and so for this edition, my main agenda – and it cuts across the Tokugawa into the modern period – is to bring the environment into human history, that is the so-called “natural” environment or the interface between natural environment and human activity. As you know, and it’s part of your own work as well, in the last 20 or 30 years more broadly in the historical profession, this type of environmental history has really seen an impressive growth in depth and breadth, and that’s also been the case for those of us, not necessarily me, but others who study the history of Japan (both modern and early modern). So, one of my agendas in revising the textbook: one of my goals has been to bring into focus and into the textbook this human-environment interface. And so, for instance, one of the topics that cuts across the Tokugawa period, and has been well studied going back to Conrad Totman in English and other scholars in Japan is the forest, and the history of reforestation and environmental management in the Tokugawa period, and how that does or does not carry forward into modern times.

TG: One of the things that I’ve always found so remarkable about the textbook is the very longue durée approach: all the way from the Tokugawa period up to almost to the present day. And so if we think in this very long-term perspective, could you talk about what position does the Meiji Restoration have in that much broader view of Japanese history?

AG: Yes, I think there’s a couple ways that I would highlight the importance of the Meiji Restoration history. One temporally, in the Japanese context, and one more spatially in the global context, which is to say – starting with the latter – there are a number of transformational moments or epics – globally – in which old regimes collapse, and new, modernizing systems come into place. The first ones that happened in the West weren’t talked about in those terms of modernizing. Of course, the French Revolution and the American Revolution are two famous examples, and I think that the Meiji Restoration was – I call it “revolution” in the textbook – I think it was a revolutionary transformation not at the moment, but in effect over several decades, both the political regime, the economic system, the social order, and also, sort of, self-understanding, so culturally. So, I try to situate in my teaching and in this text the Meiji Restoration as an epic of modern transformation that shares a lot with revolutions around the world, and yet no two transformations are identical, so there’s also distinctive elements, and then in terms of the flow of Japanese history, having said what I just said about it being a revolution, no revolution totally cuts off everything past and starts new. People think that’s what’s happening sometimes, especially the advocates of revolutions, but of course, people are always living within inherited ways of thinking and acting that don’t get totally reset, so I think the trick is to strike the balance in either writing the history or teaching the history of this period between what’s transformative and what’s carried forward and what’s transformed and yet done in the language of the past to give it legitimacy.

TG: You’ve taught widely at Harvard: on Japan, and Asia and the world. I understand you have another seminar on dark tourism. But then you’ve also done some public history projects such as the MIT Visualizing Cultures with Professor John Dower at MIT. Do you have a common approach to teaching Japanese history? Are there themes that are connecting all of these disparate classes?

AG: I think so, although just because I think so, doesn’t mean it appears that way, and actually is that way. I think one of my – I hope consistent – efforts is to, what you might say, de-exocitize or de-exceptionalize Japan. You know, the first time I went to Japan, I was a high school student, and I think I was looking — well I don’t think, I know — I was looking for an exotic experience. It was this random chance I had to go to Japan. I didn’t have any deep, prior knowledge of or experience with or desire to go to Japan, but through a various set of random chances – a teacher at my high school took a group of us to Japan – and I get there (this is the summer of 1969), and rather than exotic, I find surprisingly familiar. I find a host family living in the suburbs of Osaka (a homestay family). The dad gets up and gets on a train and goes to work in a law office every day, the mom’s a stay at home mom which was quite common in the United States in the 1960s, and my own family of origin was in the middle of a transition there: my mother had started to work full time for the first time after us kids got to be teenagers, and everything seemed much more familiar than I expected, and so I came away from that, I mean this is after the fact (logic) I didn’t think about it at the time in this way, but I, thinking back, I came away thinking that Japan is not some strange, exotic place, but a very modern place with a lot of very important shared experiences with other modern societies. And so, I think de-exoticizing Japan, and making it seem to be a variation on a theme of modern times and modern history is probably something, well I know it’s something that it’s something I want to approach consistently across the various projects you described, and you know, hopefully I have.

TG: And speaking of sharing experiences, you’re also very active in these public history efforts. I mentioned the MIT Visualizing Cultures project, but now also, you’re a head of the Japan Disaster Digital Archive. Can you talk about those efforts, and why you think it’s so important to engage the public, and present Japanese history to the public, and engage with these digital humanities?

AG: Right, well there are two separate, although related, things because of course, wanting to engage publicly isn’t something that is only important in the digital era, but you know, I think that for most of us who teach in these very privileged and wonderful universities, we want also to convey something of our subject and our passion for our subject more widely. You know, maybe it’s a somewhat idealized image of the modern citizens generally – somebody who’s interested and engaged with understanding the past as well as the present, and of course you can do that through teaching students who then leave college and move on in society and become citizens and adults, but also I think it’s valuable to engage people outside the university, so a part of that I do by teaching some of my courses online simultaneously as in the classroom through streaming the lectures, and running separate courses through the Harvard Continuing Education program or, as you say, the MIT project. But this was true even before I could teach online: I would teach sometimes in the evenings to the adult population in the Boston area through the division of Continuing Education, but now that digital technologies allow us to so much more easily reach outside the university, I think it’s important and valuable to try to make that effort. But then, the other that’s not entirely the same issue but related issue or related possibility of the digital era is that so much of the information that’s being generated right now about the present is born digital, and this is more thinking about what it will be like to write the history of now in the future, and I think what it will be like is that so much of the record of now is born digital, and not necessarily printed out on paper and collected in a library in the form of a book or a journal.

That means that we have to be attentive to preserving all this digital output, basically the raw material of contemporary life in a form that people in the future can access so that they can do the history of our time. And this general idea came home to me and some of my colleagues really powerfully in 2011 after the disaster in Japan when we realized that there was this flood of information in the form of digital images, of Youtube videos or videos that are posted up onto Youtube or websites with blogs and government websites, and it’s very ephemeral. The stuff gets taken down, whether it’s from Youtube or a website changes: some of the disappear, some of them, you know, the home page changes regularly, and so, if you go back to that same place a month later, and certainly a year or two or five or ten years later, the record won’t be there. It’s different from a magazine or a book, which is printed and stays in that form, and then somebody can buy it and put it in a library. So, for the sake of the ability in the future to write the history of now, we have to come up with new ways to preserve the record of now, and that in a general way is what is behind this Japan Disaster Archive, and then in particular of course, it was such a horrendous and profound tragedy with so many dimensions from the nuclear disaster to the tsunami devastation along the coast that that seemed particularly important to preserve, both as a record and as a memory.

TG: And, speaking of preservation: another effort in digitization is digitizing old materials, and making sure that they’re available for posterity and they don’t disappear even for these library materials or archival materials, and making those available more widely. And so, there’s digitization projects by the National Diet Library, and a lot of other libraries and institutions are making their materials available online. Do you have any thoughts on how this is changing the stuff of history and the writing of history of Japan?

AG: Yes, I think generally, for the better in that as the record of the past, even the born analog or the not born digital, but the born in print record of the past gets digitized, it’s fundamentally a leveling or a democratizing trend because it allows people all around the world to access a lot of these materials. And, looking at disasters in particular, the Kantō Earthquake of 1923, more recently the Hanshin Awaji Earthquake that hit the Kobe region in 1995, that’s already sort of the digital era, but not like the present. So, that has been a digitization project as well as the 1923 earthquake, and then going back in the past, the big fires in Edo in the 17th century. All of these histories are originally recorded on paper, and now being digitized, and so we actually renamed our project from “The March 11th Disaster Archive” to “The Japan Disasters (in the plural) Archive” a couple of years ago or a year and a half ago, on the notion that we want to start giving access through this project also to those past records that are not born digital, but now they’re digitized, so I think the potential for getting lots of people engaged in doing history, and giving people access to the documentary sources even if they’re not at a university with a giant library full of these sources, I think that is great, and it’s important to try to promote that.

TG: I’m really curious about this class that focuses on dark tourism that you were teaching at Harvard. Could you talk a bit about that class or what were these sites of dark tourism? What was the, kind of, thought process behind this course?

AG: Yes, so it started out with a personal interest of mine. In 2015, I was on a sabbatical and living in Japan on the year of, another important anniversary, the 70th anniversary of 1945 (it’s the end of World War II). And there was a lot of controversy, as you know, about how the Japanese government in general, the prime minister in particular, was going to mark that anniversary. What would he say? Would he carry forward the apologetic stance of his predecessors at the 60th and 50th anniversaries, who fairly straightforwardly, especially in 1995, acknowledged a Japanese state, and in some sense, broader national responsibility for the tragedies of and the traumas of colonial rule, and imperialism and war. The question was: would Abe move away from that given many of his earlier statements about “no need to apologize anymore.” So, I was very engaged in paying attention to and speaking out on that issue, and then simultaneously, sort of on the side, this other controversy – a minor controversy – comes out when the Japanese government applies to UNESCO to have the locations of its Industrial Revolution in heavy industry, which do begin to be created in the 1850s (so around the time of 1868) – iron works for instance in various places in Japan – the government wants those to be recognized as world heritage sites by UNESCO. And they make an application to UNESCO saying they want the Meiji period of these sites to be recognized. This leads the Korean government in particular and some others say: “Wait a minute. These places were sites of forced labour during World War II. This is a horrendous experience, not a positive experience. You can’t just celebrate it. If you want us to affirm your petition for recognition, you have to extend what you’re talking about up through World War II, and you have to talk about forced labour as well as achievements in technology.” And UNESCO runs on a unanimity principle: they don’t like to recognize a world heritage site unless the member countries are unanimous, so the threat of even one or two “no” votes was basically a threat to sink the application, and the Japanese government says: “No, no. I don’t want to do this, and we’re only talking about the Meiji period. What happened after is irrelevant.” Eventually, the more sensible view that you can’t really put history in a box, as one scholar said, but you have to think about it holistically won out, and also the Korean government won Japan’s support for one of its own applications to UNESCO.

So, the two sides worked out a compromise, where the Japanese government acknowledged that there was forced labour, and that that’s part of the story. But what struck me as so odd was how the history of the Meiji period itself was very rarely contested by the critics. They said: “Oh yeah, Meiji was great, technology, achievements in technology, new forms of management. Yes, we should acknowledge that, but yes, some bad stuff happened during the war.” And I had studied this, going back to the start of our conversation, this history in the shipyards and the mines, and the iron and steel works of the Meiji period, and it had some pretty gruesome dimensions of actually of forced labour, convict labour in the Japanese case. And people weren’t talking about that, and I thought: This is funny. This debate is very sterile. I want to look more deeply into what are these sites, and how are they commemorated, and is there more interesting ways of writing this history than the UNESCO application conveyed.

And I decided to do that in the form of a seminar with graduate students, and so, I said: “Choose your own location, and look into it.” And there was a small group – there are actually only three in the end who did projects – and one of them looked at the Abashiri prison up in Hokkaidō in the far north, and the construction of a road there through prison labour in the Meiji period, and discovered, to me, really interestingly, I mean it’s known in Abashiri, so it wasn’t a discovery in the sense that nobody in Japan knew about it, but for him personally, it was a discovery, that there’s a fairly robust and multidimensional historical experience in Japan that has a dark side of this prison, and the construction of the road. And there’s a prison museum that tells that story in a really rich way. So, all of the treatment of the past in Japan is not, sort of in a celebratory way mode was one conclusion, and this phenomenon of marking places where important things happened that included bad things, and people visiting them is what’s called dark tourism. And it’s popular around the world: people visit battle sites. I mean, people have been visiting Waterloo, which is a site of death and destruction in you know, Napoleon’s war with the British, ever since the Battle of Waterloo, so dark tourism in a way is not a brand new thing, but as a mass phenomenon, it’s something of recent decades I think. So, I’m interested in looking at these locations in Japan that have complex histories, war memorials are another type. Another student wrote a paper on the commemoration of emigration to Manchuria from Nagano Prefecture, and the different way that that experience is commemorated at a site in north China by the Chinese, and a site in Japan from which these emigrants departed in Nagano. And that too is interesting because there’s complexity on both sides.

TG: Keeping in mind this is the 150th anniversary, if we were to conclude by taking a step back and asking: “Are we making too much out of this date? Are we making too much out of the fact that this is the 150th anniversary?,” is 1868 really that meaningful of an event for Japan?

AG: If you mean 1868 literally, that is the stuff that happened in that year, we’re making way too much of it because that really was a coup d’état substituting one group of samurai for another at the apex of the government. But if you think about it more broadly as an emblematic and important moment in a longer string of changes that are under way significantly in the late 1850s and 60s and in some ways, even before that, and then continue for the next couple of decades, if you think about 1868 in that slightly broader way with a plus minus of 20 years or something like that, so it’s a 40 year stretch that profoundly transforms Japan, and in that sense, there’s rupture or transformation. I mean, “rupture” I’m not crazy about; it’s not as if everything gets changed, but a new way of thinking about who we are as people in Japan, and how we relate to the world does set in, and new social systems replace old ones. Sure, hierarchy continues, so it’s not as if there’s a grand levelling, but the nature of hierarchy – what defines people on top who have legitimacy to boss others around – that does change, and that’s important. The character of economic activity changes profoundly, the access to knowledge, to science changes, so you know, I think that if we think about 1868 in that slightly broader sense, it’s both meaningful and I’d see the sort of shifts or transformations outweighing the continuities.

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: 

Andrew Gordon, interview with Tristan Grunow, The Meiji at 150 Podcast, podcast audio, September 7, 2018. https://meijiat150.podbean.com/e/episode-58-dr-andrew-gordon-harvard/.

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