Episode 60 – Dr. Louise Young (Wisconsin)

Originally published on September 15, 2018
[This transcript has been edited for clarity.]

Tristan Grunow: This is the Meiji at 150 Podcast. I’m Tristan Grunow. Today, I’m talking with Dr. Louise Young, Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Dr. Young is the author, most recently, of Beyond the Metropolis: Second Cities and Modern Life in Interwar Japan, published by the University of California Press in 2013. Dr. Young, thank you so much for talking with me today.

Louise Young: I’m delighted to be here.

TG: So much of our understanding of the Meiji Restoration and the Meiji period is really this top-down story of modernization, and it’s one that often centers on the capital city of Tokyo. You’ve written in particular in Beyond the Metropolis looking at a more provincial understanding of the Meiji period. So, could you talk about how this story of Meiji change when we’re not looking at it from this metrocentric perspective?

LY: That’s a great question, and I think that one of the things that happens when you try to tell the story of modernity from outside of the capital city of Tokyo, is that you get a story of many modernities. For every place that you focus in and zoom in on, you get a very different tale, and we tend to understand one of the grand narratives that we have or the mythologies that we have, if you will, about what modernity is. It’s that everything gets to look more and more the same, and we explain that by saying: “Well, either these processes of modernity are developed and invented in one place, and exported out to everywhere else…” (you have a centre, and everyone else becomes a periphery that follows, so that’s the diffusion narrative).

Or else we tell the story of modernity as all these local places that are different from one another, but they tend to follow the leader and start to look more and more alike. That’s the convergence narrative, and what I found when I went and looked at these local experiences of provincial cities and what the tale of modernization or modernity was for those places, what it showed was that there were just very very different local experiences.

There were some similarities, though. Every place, for example, was influenced or shaped by the process of educational modernization. Japan created a national school system and established elementary and higher educational structures everywhere. Every single place that I looked at and every town or village or city will have a local school system, but within that broader structure that is unifying and creating those processes of convergence, the shape that those schools take has a lot of differences.

One of the cities that I looked at was Okayama, which had been a castle town, and in castle towns, you had a real concentration of earlier institutions of higher education that the modern educational structure built up out of. And so, there was a way that those earlier structures became absorbed into and accelerated the process, and shaped and conditioned the educational modernization that took place at those sites.

But a place like Niigata, which was another city that I looked at, which was a port city and a trading city in the Tokugawa period, didn’t have those kinds of institutions. So, Niigata was designated as a capital city of the prefecture, and those institutions were created anew in that place. It had enormous implications for how people were educated, and for Niigata’s ability to churn out graduates that were of high competitive quality early on in the Meiji period.

TG: And often, when we think about these narratives of modernization, either coming from the centre, going to the periphery, there’s often this underlying assumption that there is a resistance element: resistance to power, antagonism to the centre. Is this too simplistic of a way of thinking? Or is there something much more complicated going on?

LY: That’s another really interesting question. Yes, you’re right. We tend to frame centre-periphery in terms of state-non-state, and state-imposing power and resistance to that power. I think that in the Japanese case, there was a very uneven geography of power, and different places had different kinds of political capital vis-à-vis the centre.

Some local places had access to the centre. They had social connections/social networks, they had political networks and so, in the early part of the Meiji period, they already had precocious ties to the centre. Other places developed those later on via the creation of political parties and pork-barrel politics. So, it was a complicated process. Again, you have to get inside each story, each local place to uncover and track the different forms of connection between those places and the centre, and what different incentives are underneath there to explain why there might be resistance or why there might be support.

But to get back to your earlier question, it’s not automatic that a local place or provincial city would set itself up as resisting the centre, that there would be a certain set of conditions that would produce that effect. Sometimes, there are conditions that produce the opposite effect (like an alliance).

TG: You were talking before about these two narratives of diffusion and convergence. In your book Beyond the Metropolis, you very usefully talk, instead, about circulation. Could you give us a few examples of what you had in mind in this circulation that develops Japanese modern life?

LY: Yes. When I think about circulation, I think we often think about circulation between the West and Asia, or Europe and Japan. Without thinking about it too precisely, we’re just imagining that philosophical ideas or institutional models of government or banking or forms of factory organization come from England to Japan, or from America to Japan. But in fact, those ideas are often transported by individuals that come from very specific places and go to very specific places.

For example, an idea about educational outreach or agricultural outreach often came from a land grant university in the United States that was someplace like the University of Wisconsin (where I’m at), and went via a Japanese student that was studying with a particular teacher, and then they went back to Tokyo, but from there the ideas spread out again, usually via someone who is carrying it around in their own head and moved to another place. And so, the point about circulation is that ideas and models, as they move around, are highly mediated. So, we don’t just get something that comes from a place called Europe and goes to a place called Japan, but it comes from a place that’s maybe Manchester in England in a particular factory, and comes to a particular factory in Osaka, and then moves out from there. It doesn’t just diffuse, but it circulates from place to place, and at each point, it’s transformed.

That process of circulation, I think, is really interesting to look at because things don’t just flow freely one way or the other. That flow is conditioned. It’s controlled. So, how does one idea get from Osaka to Okayama or to Niigata? Well, it turns out there are channels that allow it to move. Say if we’re talking about the organization of a factory or how you install machinery to make mechanized textile (those kinds of things), there’s reasons that those textile factories are set up first in the Kansai area, and go to other places later. It’s because the circulation is set to flow along certain kinds of quarters or channels, and that has to do with connections between people, social networks, the kinds of differentials that you see in unevenness, and the differentials that you see in between places and uneven access to resources. When I was looking at the four cities that I examined in my book Beyond the Metropolis, I thought a lot about why people moved from one place to another, how ideas went from one place to another, and which ways they went and why. So, that’s how I think about circulation.

TG: Along the same lines, when we think about this circulation, it really highlights how this idea of Japanese urban modernity is co-constitutive, with all of these places coming together. If we expand beyond the national borders of Japan and look at how the empire is also playing a role in the development of Japanese modernity, you can also talk about another kind of co-constitutive development.

LY: Right. So, colonial cities, which I didn’t get to in that book, are really interesting to think about in terms of their relationship with domestic cities. In particular, when you think about them in comparison and in terms of the structures such as the centre periphery structures, the forms of circulation, the relationships between different institutions, banking institutions, financial institutions, railroads and communications, higher education, communications in the press, mass culture and the culture industries, there’s a national and an imperial empire-wide marketplace that connects a lot of these different institutions and gives them access to each other. So for example, the chambers of commerce. I love looking at the chambers of commerce. They had just really terrific materials that you can look at because Japanese chambers of commerce published all this stuff on the areas that were within their bailiwick. And the way chambers of commerce operated in colonial cities and the way they operated in domestic cities were really very similar because of the similarities in the business cultures that these entrepreneurs took with them into cities like Dalian and Shinkyō (the capital of Manchukuo).

The first book that I did was on the empire, and I brought with me in that study an assumption that a lot of the attitudes that Japanese elites in a place in China had towards the Chinese were inflicted with a kind of colonialist racism, xenophobia. But then I started looking at attitudes of urban elites in Japanese cities, and this went in a social hierarchy that put the metropolis (the biggest cities of Tokyo and Osaka) at the top, and then ranked places as lower and lower on a hierarchy of perceived civilization. I realized that there was a very similar attitude that bore a lot of family resemblances to colonial racism. That was the kind of attitude that urban elites had towards people that lived in the countryside, and the bigger the city that you lived in, you had this derogatory attitude towards smaller cities, and people that lived in the small cities had a superior attitude towards people who lived in small towns.

It made me realize that what I had taken initially to be a form of racism that said: “Japanese colonizers viewed colonized people as backward and Other,” city people viewed country people as backward and Other in various similar kinds of ways, and even using similar metaphors and narratives and these myths that lined up with one another. When I worked earlier on empire, I had been really taken with the ideas of people like Hannah Arendt and a Caribbean Négritude poet named Aimé Césaire. Aimé Césaire had written this wonderful short essay called “Discourse on Colonialism,” and he argues basically that (and Hannah Arendt makes something of the same argument) that the origins of Nazism and its murderous rage towards Jewish people originated in the colonies, where you had European people go out and learn how to become brutalized by their treatment of colonial peoples. Eventually, their culture and their ethics became so brutalized that it all came home to roost, and you saw that in fascism and Nazism.

I found that idea really productive in thinking about what happened in Japan in the 1930s and the rise of Japanese fascism, and that this kind of murderous violence and the Othering just spreads and it eventually turns inward. But what gave me pause and made me start to rethink that as being too simple was that after doing the research for Beyond the Metropolis, I realized how much these kinds of attitudes were already prevalent and very pervasive in Japan and weren’t the product of colonialism. It was very much a home grown kind of thing.

TG: In any event, it’s still a great example of how events that are happening overseas are being brought back, and this culture of empire overseas is influencing popular culture at home. And the way I use this in class, in fact, is I talk about this as creating this culture of popular fascism. I mean, the tales of beautiful stories (the bidan) about the soldiers and the kind of popularity that you get in the wake of the Manchurian Incident does create this popular attitude where any critique of the military is seen as “un-Japanese,” and as treasonous in a way. Do you see the same thing? Is there an asceticization of politics here in the growth of a popular fascism in Japan in the 1930s?

LY: Yes. I think this whole question of fascism is so interesting. We’ve had in our field this big debate about fascism. When I was in graduate school in the ‘80s, it was still this sort of tail end of that. So as graduate students, we were required to read all these essays on whether Japan was fascist or not. People got down to saying: “Well, Japan was so different than Germany and Italy that you can’t really call it fascist.” At a certain point, it became very uninteresting (for me anyway) and un-generative as a historical argument. So, at that point, I thought: Well I’m not really going to think about this in terms of fascism. I largely avoided using that word in my first book for that reason. I just didn’t want to get drawn into some fascism debate.

But that being said, more recently, I think we’ve come back to the idea of fascism, and historians are looking at it not in terms of some rigid political structure, but in terms of the idea that you can use the term a little bit more loosely, that you can talk about fascist ideology, you can talk about a fascist movement. You can also talk about fascism as part of a global moment when there was this rise of global fascism that was a response to a widely perceived crisis in capitalism such that there were fascist movements everywhere in the industrialized world, and lots of places outside the industrialized world too. One of the interesting things about the new work on fascism is looking at fascist movements in places like Thailand and Brazil and not in the advanced, industrialized societies.

So back to Japanese fascism, yes, I think it’s really interesting to think about the ways that the economic crisis of the late 1920s and early 1930s became the backdrop to a radical turn to the empire and the sense that Manchuria was a kind of lifeline and how radicalism in the empire fostered radicalism at home; how military conspiracies in the empire fostered military conspiracies at home; how a war fever and a thirst, a hunger for some kind of success or deflection or distraction on the part of loss of people created this eager marketplace for these heroic narratives of the war, especially when there wasn’t a lot of suffering to go along with it at that point in the early 1930s; and the role of cultural producers, whether they were movie companies or people making plays or people selling books or people selling magazines. When you have this commercialized mass media, it really picks up on and zeros in on what we call today the “shiny objects.” Those kinds of military campaigning become the “shiny objects,” so all of that comes together to stir up things like war fever and militarism, the kind of fever for the ascetizization of violence; the belief in military heroes, and how that lines up with a turn to trusting a military-led state that was really characteristic of what I think of as Japanese fascism in the 1930s.

TG: You were mentioning that this was a debate that was really heated in the 1980s. When you think about this being the 150th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration, the question of are we making too much out of that date aside, these anniversary moments are opportune times for us as scholars to reflect on how we view that history over, say, these last 150 years. We see a number of these historiographical debates that pop up every once in a while. When we look at it from that perspective, how do you think the coverage of the Meiji Restoration has changed over the years?

LY: Oh that is a terrific question. So, in the same way that the fascism debate was really powerful in the 1980s, I think that the Meiji Restoration had its foundational moment in constructing an idea of Meiji in the ‘60s and ‘70s. A big concern among a lot of the early scholars of Japan (when you look back at what they’re writing about) was the Meiji Restoration. Dissertation after dissertation of that first generation of what we called then “Japanologists” showed that their interest was the Meiji Restoration, and their stakes in the Meiji Restoration were really about Japan’s path to modernity, and thinking about how they were coming out of World War II. They were also thinking about Japan as a model for democracy and democratic modernization, and a model for third world development. All this research on the Meiji Restoration, I think, was evaluating its success and failures, but looking at it as a big political project, and focusing in on the leadership, and the grand dynamics that went into that political revolution, and the sets of transforming reforms that came out of it.

That was the first wave of research on the Meiji Restoration and then in the ‘80s and ‘90s, things really shifted to get down into the weeds, and looked at how everyday people experienced Meiji. What were the impacts on the ground? There was a lot on resistance, a lot on people left out of the Restoration, a lot on the underside of Meiji and the Meiji Restoration, and who suffered from it. So, Meiji got reformed under that whole social history turn, and then it got changed under the cultural turn. We started thinking a lot more about Meiji as ideology and symbolism, and the broader cultures of power and knowledge that it came to obtain in that period and structure the everyday lives of people. Again, getting away from this top-down perspective, but another approach to thinking about middle-level and grassroots-level experiences of Meiji via culture. 

After that, it seemed like there was another shift, where we started thinking about Meiji not as a rupture, but rather looking more at the continuities and thinking about what people called in other histories “the long 19th century.” So people, I think, started talking more about bakumatsu Meiji and a long transition into capitalism; and the long transition into incorporating Japan in a global structure, world structure; a long transition into the breakdown of the status system; a long transition into the breakdown of that centralized feudalism that characterized the Tokugawa order.

So, I think, then, that there was this turn towards thinking about Meiji as the endpoint of the Tokugawa rather than the beginning, as much as just the launching, of Japanese modernity. I don’t know where we are now. I think it’s really interesting to come back to Meiji at this point, and I think the way we look at it is really inflected by our contemporary moment, and the ways that Japan’s position in the world and in Asia has changed so much over the past 15 years.

I’m thinking about the rise of China and Japan’s retreat, and the fact that suddenly, Japan and China have, in some ways, switched places. When I started graduate school, China was this clunky, aging Communist fossil, and Japan was this economic dynamo. Now (laughter), China is this economic dynamo, and Japan is this sporadic economy and an anti-model for economic growthism. I think that really shapes how we look back at the history of the past 200 years, and it’s going to shape how we look at Meiji as well.

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: 

Louise Young, interview with Tristan Grunow, The Meiji at 150 Podcast, podcast audio, September 15, 2018. https://meijiat150.podbean.com/e/episode-60-dr-louise-young-wisconsin/.

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