Episode 68 – Dr. Eiko Maruko Siniawer (Williams)

Originally published on October 12, 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. Eiko Maruko Siniawer, Professor of History at Williams College. Dr. Siniawer is the author of Ruffians, Yakuza, Nationalists: The Violent Politics of Modern Japan, 1860-1960, published by Cornell University Press in 2008 as well as Waste: Consuming Postwar Japan, published by Cornell University Press in 2018. Dr. Siniawer, thank you so much for talking with me today.

Eiko Maruko Siniawer: Oh thanks, Tristan. It’s my pleasure.

TG: Your research has explored the politics of the Meiji period and more recently, has gone into waste in the postwar period as well, but really looking at politics with an emphasis on political violence. And political history isn’t something that’s been explored too much in this podcast series so far. So, I was hoping we might be able to talk about some of the big developments in Meiji politics. When you look at Meiji political history, what are those big themes and big stories?

EMS: I think one way of getting at the big developments in Meiji political history might be to think about the big questions of Meiji politics, and the big questions that were asked at that time. I think if we look at the very beginning of the Meiji period in 1868, there were a lot of questions that were open. There were a lot of things that were very much undecided, so we often point to the emperor’s declaration of an imperial “restoration” in January of 1868 as a key moment in marking the start of the Meiji period, but there’s a civil war that continues on into June of 1869. So this new Meiji government is dealing with that for the next year and a half or so, and even when we talk about the Meiji government, it really was not well formed in early 1868.

There’s a modest government in Kyoto, there’s an outpost in Edo, and as the civil war develops, there are these command stations in the northeast, and the leaders of the Meiji Restoration also had bases of support in their home domains in the southwest. But there wasn’t an elaborate complicated structure that we would call “the Meiji government.” It did not emerge fully formed in 1868, so one of the questions was what was the Meiji polity going to look like? How was the realm going to be governed? How was the country going to be governed? Who would participate in politics? What would be the nature of that politics? And so, there were many questions that were open and undecided at this moment in 1868.

One of the stories of Meiji politics is the construction, the consolidation of the Meiji state, and this doesn’t start happening right away. In the earliest Meiji years, the government is just trying to get by and figure things out and pay its bills etc. But starting in the early 1870s or so, you really start to see the beginnings of the construction of the Meiji State. For example, in the early 1870s, if you look at 1871 when the domains were abolished and replaced with prefectures, if we look at 1872, when elementary education was made compulsory, there you also see the Meiji state extending its reach there; in 1873, when military conscription was instituted. So those were all examples of the Meiji state in its early years, really solidifying its base and its control, the disciplining of its subjects.

And then though, concurrent with the development of the Meiji state, you have resistance to the state. Some of this was initially (or at least one stream of this), you might say, largely reactionary. So for example, you can think of  the rebellions by former samurai in the 1870s as largely reactionary attempts by former samurai to regain the power and prestige that they had lost in the face of what to them were alarming reforms on the part of the Meiji government. There’s a feeling of economic insecurity, a loss of status, there’s xenophobia there as well, and what many former samurai were responding to was, for example, the conversion of their stipends (of what were samurai stipends) to bonds, prohibition against wearing swords in public, samurai schoolchildren had to cut off their top knots. These were all developments in the mid-1870s, and so you see a string of rebellions by former samurai (the Saga Rebellion, the Shinpūren Rebellion, Akizuki, Hagi and then most famously, the Satsuma Rebellion or what could be called the Southwestern War in 1877).

That was reactionary to the Meiji government’s reforms, but there was also, at the same time, a sense that claims could be made on the Meiji government, and that those claims could involve the expansion of political participation. So, not only that people had a voice, but some sense that their voice could change something about the course of Meiji politics. Most well-known would be the jiyūminken undō, or the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement or could sometimes also be called the Popular Rights Movement, which was a diverse and loosely associated series of efforts to challenge the solidification of the Meiji state’s power, or to challenge the concentration of power in a handful of Meiji political leaders.

And so you have, starting in the mid 1870s and through the 1880s, a concerted effort to shape the nature of politics and to push back against the Meiji government and the Meiji state. And so, it’s out of this tension between this centripetal force of state formation, and contestation (and in some cases, grassroots contestations) that really shapes the large developments of the Meiji period. It’s really that dynamic, I think, that leads to and influences, for example, the constitution that’s promulgated in 1889, the opening of the Diet or the parliament in 1890. So even in the early part of the Meiji period, you have this dynamic that has already led to, I would argue, the development of a civil society, the development of a sense of nation and national identity of subjecthood, to some extent of citizenship. You have also, then, the development of constitution, parliament, political parties.

TG: And that’s a really great point about how the Meiji state doesn’t come into being as this kind of pre-formed thing. I remember reading, I think, the diary of Kidō Takayoshi, where he’s talking about how many of the decisions made by the government are really just him and a few other guys just sitting around and it happens eventually (laughter). There isn’t a place, right? There is no government building yet, there really isn’t this preformed Meiji government. That really is a nice reminder that this narrative of the Meiji state as being this monolithic being where everybody’s on the same page isn’t really all that true. In fact, we get this narrative of the Meiji success story, where maybe because of this emphasis on modernization, we see everything as just everyone being on the same page, working toward the same goal. But you know, there has been work that points out and like you said, we should remember that the Meiji state wasn’t all that monolithic. Instead, there was a lot of competition and conflict between all of these people.

EMS: Yes. You seem to be suggesting also that there’s conflict not just between those outside the government and the government, but also between those we would see as the governing elite as well. I think the other thing to think about, in addition to the fact that the Meiji government is not birthed fully formed is that we tend to have an image of the gentlemanly elite of Meiji, and that’s usually gendered precisely in that way. We think about the thinkers of the Meiji period, the political leaders of the era. I think that is somewhat problematic in the sense that this “gentlemanly” elite also had their hands dirty in the practice of politics, and a practice of politics that was quite violent and messy and conflictual.

One example of a severe and serious conflict within the Meiji governing elite was the debate of what’s called the Seikanron debate of 1873, which really split the Meiji government apart. I mean, here was a situation where you had basically two groups of Meiji leaders who had very different views on how to handle a particular issue and how to proceed. So, I think if we were going to look for the roots of this Seikanron schism (if we want to call it that) in 1873, we’d have to go back to the Iwakura Mission of 1871.

The Iwakura Mission in itself was quite remarkable. I mean, the idea that many of the leaders of the Restoration, and the leaders then of the Meiji government would take off and leave behind this young government that they had just formed and that they would leave for months to go to the U.S, Britain, France, Germany, other countries in Europe, ostensibly to talk about revision of the unequal treaties from the 1870s, but also to learn about schools and factories etc. That in itself was remarkable, and what it created, I think, was a kind of difference, a divergence between the group that went on the Iwakura Mission, and the group of Meiji leaders that stayed in Japan as the caretaker government, as it was called.

The group that went on the Iwakura Mission, I think, learned the importance of elective adaptation/adoption of Western models, but that that should be gradual and careful and deliberate, and managed by a strong state. The caretaker government, in comparison, was quite, you could call it, more impetuous in a way. A lot of the revolutionary reforms that we associate with the early 1870s was the work of the caretaker government, for example. When it comes to the question of the Seikanron, which was what to do with proposal (that the caretaker government had already accepted) to dispatch Saigō Takamori (one of the leaders of the Restoration) to Korea to solicit the Korean recognition of the Meiji government. And so, the question was whether to proceed with this or not, and those of the caretaker government were very supportive of this idea.

Those of more pragmatic inclination (those who had been part of the Iwakura delegation) were opposed. They were opposed not because they were nervous about the prospect of or not supportive of the prospect of some kind of military confrontation with Korea. That was not the problem. It was more about timing, and Japan’s military preparedness, the financial expenses, what it would mean in terms of sacrifice of other priorities. So, you have a really profound disagreement about what to do here. And it’s the more pragmatic side that ends up winning this debate if you will, and that leads to Saigō Takamori resigning from his governmental post and not just Saigō, but many others as well. So here, you have a very clear example of a very, very deep conflict and disagreement within the early Meiji government that in fact really splits it in a profound way.

TG: That’s a great point about the caretaker government as well because as you mentioned, a lot of these revolutionary reforms of the Meiji period, all this rapid modernization and Westernization (if we want to call it that) that occurs during the Meiji period is actually installed by the caretaker government. I mean, many of these reforms date to 1872, 1873 while the Iwakura Mission is away.

EMS: Yes.

TG: And it’s remarkable that the caretaker government isn’t more of a big topic. We often talk about the Iwakura Mission as this example of Japan going out and in some ways seeing the future, and just talking about: “Oh, let’s bring back all of these things to jumpstart Japanese modernization.” But it’s really the caretaker government back home that is implementing all of these radical reforms.

EMS: Yes, and there was an agreement before the Iwakura delegation left on its mission that no major decisions would be made… (Laughter)

TG: (Laughter) Right, right.

EMS: …while the delegation was away and in fact, that really was not the case at all, and so basically, you have a group of guys back in Japan who are spearheading all kinds of reforms and discussions about compulsory education, about military conscription etc. So yes, it is quite remarkable.

TG: And even things that we might say are incredibly superficial: putting Japan on the Gregorian calendar, adopting clock time, all these things. And in some cases, things that, when the ambassadors came back, they weren’t all that impressed with, right? I mean, there was the famous example of Iwakura Tomomi who’s talking about how he sees this all as superficial and doesn’t think that Japan should be moving ahead too quickly. You do wonder if these things would have been adopted had the Iwakura Mission members still been in Japan.

EMS: Yes. The criticism of reforms as superficial or certainly as too rushed or radical is made by members of the mission upon their return. We tend now to think of changes like different notions of time and the Gregorian calendar as quite significant in terms of thinking about the ways that that disciplines people’s daily lives. But at the time, this was criticized as being: well, is this what the country should be focusing on? And thinking about it in this moment in time.

TG: And you were talking before about the Popular Rights Movement as an example of one type of resistance. Again, we as historians now, when we look back, we’ll often times see this as the evidence of a grassroots push for democracy in Japan. Is that what you’re reading into the Popular Rights Movement? Or in some cases, are the samurai who leave the government as a result of the Seikanron debates just trying to get back in the government? Or is there something to this idea that people in the countryside really were desiring more involvement in the government?

EMS: I think that the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement is quite complicated, and is neither just an elite movement nor a grassroots movement or the kind of strategic movements by elites. As you mentioned, out of the Seikanron debate, you had the split not just between the caretaker government and those who are on the Iwakura Mission, but those who left the Meiji government after the Seikanron issue was decided.

Also in some ways, it went on to have very different political futures and different commitments because you have, among those who left the government, someone like Saigō Takamori who led the Satsuma Rebellion, the Southwestern War of 1877. But you also had, of those who left the Meiji government, those who spearheaded the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement. So, people like Itagaki Taisuke and Gotō Shōjirō who are really leaders of what I would think about as the kind of initial and elite phase in the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement form a political party called the Aikoku Kōtō or the Patriotic Public Party, which submits a proposal for establishing a popularly elected assembly. That’s in 1874. So, that strand of the Popular Rights Movement definitely has elite origins.

You think about, also, intellectual circles that were thinking about ideas of liberalism, democracy, etc. But then you also have another phase of the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement that really develops later in the 1870s that is truly grassroots. That consists of farmers, merchants and schoolteachers who debated about issues of representative government and democracy and liberalism, and who wrote their own constitutions, their own visions for what they thought a constitution should look like. That’s very much grassroots.

And then you have another phase of the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement that sometimes gets separated out from it, and I think mistakenly so. In the early 1880s, you have a series of what are usually called “the violent incidents” or the gekka jiken of the Popular Rights Movement, where you have farmers mixing with local people’s rights groups with sometimes radical wings of the Liberal Party (or the Jiyūtō) to protest both financial issues (like financial indebtedness), but also to agitate for and make the case for popular rights. So, there is a mix of classes there is a mix of interests and motivations, and so there’s a complicated, diverse, loosely associated set of efforts that we now think of under this umbrella of the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement. They’re all, I think, united by this desire to challenge and to forestall the concentration of power in the hands of a handful of Meiji leaders.

TG: And that’s another great point about the violence that comes along with the Freedom and Popular Rights Movement in the 1880s. In 1884, you have the big Chichibu Riot, and it does get downplayed in the historiography. Maybe we don’t want to remember that democracy brings a lot of violence sometimes.

EMS: Yes, that’s right, and I think there were activists who were part of the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement who were called sōshi, or what what we might think of as “political Ruffians” especially in the 1880s. You could think of them as Ruffians, you could think of them as activists. They would do things like storm political gatherings. Political meetings and speech meetings had become a common practice at this time, and sōshi would go and disrupt them, they would threaten and intimidate political opponents, they would also then protect political allies against the Ruffians associated with political foes. And these were, if you kind of think about the prototypical sōshi, or political Ruffian/activist at this time, people who were known for a kind of rough demeanor and long hair and loud voices and dirty and torn clothes etc. So, they were very much part of that kind of activism and violence of the Freeman and People’s Rights Movement.

TG: Speaking of these Ruffians, of course your first book was about the ruffians and yakuza and some of the violence of politics in the Meiji period. But more recently, you’ve published this book on trash and garbage and waste in postwar Japan. So, could you talk about how you made that transition? And is there some kind of connective tissue or connecting themes between this violence of the politics and postwar trash?

EMS: The most concrete question that I get asked about the connection is about the yakuza involved in the waste management industry. In particular, I was dealing with hazardous waste. While that is a thread of continuity, at least in terms of my own intellectual history in the history of these projects, there is not so much of a connection. I think the intellectual thread is just my personal fascination with phenomenon (or phenomena) that seem at first not so visible, underground, unsavoury in some way. But if you start to look at them, are ubiquitous so I think with the first book with the political violence and Ruffian types and their involvement in politics, there’s a way in which yakuza and other Ruffian-like figures are sometimes thought of and talked about as an underworld, as being underground somehow, and have not been as we’ve been talking about, not so prominent in the historiography. We don’t, when we think of Meiji politics, think of brawls in the streets, and guys with sticks hitting each other and fist fights on the Diet floor. What we think of are the moments like the promulgation of the Constitution, this dignified ceremony in 1890s etc.

So, there’s something, perhaps to the historian even, that is somehow unsavoury about it, but the more that you dig into it, the more that you see it acting in politics in this case. And then also, that comes back and challenges the notion of it having been invisible at the time, that actually, there’s a kind of realization of how very visible violence and use of physical force was in politics (in Meiji politics).

I think that’s similar with the waste project. I started the waste project looking a little bit more literally at garbage and trash. I had originally thought that I was going to do a history of of garbage from the Meiji period through to the present day. There’s a story of garbage being dangerous in the hygienic sense, but also wanting to push garbage out of sight; questions about where are you putting garbage dumps, where should incinerators be situated inside etc. So, there too, there was something unsavoury about garbage. But then if you think about garbage and day-to-day life, and especially as I expanded my conception of garbage to be not just as physical waste but to think about waste writ large, know what was considered waste in Japan and what was considered wasteful and how did those conceptions change over time, then you start to realize that these decisions about waste not just the physical presence of waste, but decisions that we make about waste and wastefulness, what we consider to be waste and wastefulness are very much bound up in many of the decisions that we make about day-to-day life.

TG: And looking at the history of Tokyo in particular, of course in the 1970s, there was a huge environmental crisis in the city (the amounts of pollution). And for the most part, the Japanese government did a very good job of cleaning up some of this waste, but it comes back in curious ways. Just recently in the news of course, the Tsukiji Market was shut down, and it’s moving to this place in Toyosu, but then there was a bit of a controversy about that because that’s an old gas plant, and so there’s actually contaminants within the soil underneath the new Tsukiji Market.  

EMS: Yes.

TG: So with the waste, you can put it somewhere else but it never really goes away.

EMS: That’s right, and if you think about how much of Tokyo was also built on landfill, you think about some of the parks or recreation areas in the Koto ward, for example, are built upon layers and layers of of trash that have been thrown away in the 1960s-1970s. So, it is something that does not disappear and becomes part of the physical landscape, the public health landscape. The book is centrally about questions in the postwar period, from the mid-1940s to the present day, of what’s been considered to be waste and wasteful, and how that has shifted and why. One of the things that I’m trying to do with the book is to highlight the idea of the concept of waste. The book is not so much about a “thing” waste, although it does deal with garbage and resources etc., but about the conception of waste and how that’s shifted. What I’m trying to do in the book is to think about developments in the postwar period. Economic growth, mass consumption, changing notions of affluence through the lens of this concept of waste.

And so, that’s that’s one of the things that I’m trying to do in the book. Another thing that I’m trying to do in the book is to think about the post-war period as a period. I think as historians, we’ve started to move further and further forward in time, so that we are now moving into the 1970s, and there are some historians who have been working on the Lost Decades of the 1990s-2000s a little bit. But there’s a way in which it, especially the latter half of the postwar period, has really been the domain of anthropologists and sociologists and political scientists. What I’d like to propose, and I would propose in the book is that it’s now time to think about what is now a very long period, from 1945 to the present, and to think about whether there are themes, developments that make sense to think of this period as a cohesive period.

One of the things that I would suggest is that one characteristic of the postwar period is that there’s a fundamental tension between the desires and the allures of economic growth and financial affluence and the convenience and the comforts of a middle-class life, and also a profound discomfort with the cost and the consequences of that very affluence. I tried to trace this over the postwar period, and there are various ways in which understandings of waste shift. I’m looking at waste not just of things, but also of resources and of time and so in the mid-1940s, just after the war in the immediate post-war years, there’s not much concern about waste as you might imagine. Because people are recovering from the war, there’s widespread starvation and poverty. There’s not, in a sense, the luxury to think about waste. You have to use everything that you have. You’re living in a time of scarcity so you weren’t plagued by questions about waste and wastefulness.

So, a lot of the writing in the mid-late 1940s, and even into the early 1950s is about, for example, how do you not waste food, how do you use every part of a daikon radish or an eggplant, how do you create substitute fluids for goods that you can’t get. And so really, it’s about living in a time of scarcity and poverty and no waste because of the exigencies of the circumstances. Then, later in the 1950s and into the 1960s is when there starts to be the opportunity to think about what consumption is okay, and what consumption is wasteful and not okay. Is it okay to buy the washing machine or the television set? The ideas of waste become more flexible at the same time that you have continued concern with efficiency on the factory line, efficiency in the white-collar workplace, so not wasting in the context of work. But when it comes to consumption, there are more difficult questions about what is acceptable to consume and spend money on and then eventually discard in a time of rising incomes.

I think in the early 1970s are another pivot point where there’s a combination of two shocks: one is what’s called the Tokyo War on Garbage in 1971. The governor of Tokyo in that year declared war against the garbage which at its heart, was about the need for incinerators in Tokyo and debates about where they would be placed, but also expanded into broader questions about the cost and the consequences of high-speed economic growth, about the toll that had taken on the environment, about the culture of disposability that had created, and about the sheer amount of stuff that was now being discarded. Stuff also included more plastics, which were a problem in terms of incineration and so on (so, the outputs of this culture of disposability).

The second shock was the oil crisis of 1973, which was really a wake-up call in terms of realizing that what had helped fuel high speed economic growth (the resources) were, in fact, finite. And so, there is, in the 1970s, greater attention to waste of various kinds: waste of electricity, waste in terms of the need to recycle garbage because there are still resources and embedded in the garbage that were being thrown away, and so on. At the same time, though, even if there was more attention to waste and wastefulness in the 1970s, there was a strong sense that this attention to waste (this waste consciousness) was not to look like the waste consciousness of the wartime years ,that it was not supposed to mean going without, it was not supposed to resemble a life of poverty. But that waste consciousness, the purpose of waste consciousness, was to defend middle class lifestyles. And so, there was a phrase that was coined in the in the early 1970s a kind of bright stinginess (an akarui kechi), which is a stinginess that is supposed to be attentive to issues of frugality and not wasting. But it’s not supposed to mean going without; you were supposed to still be able to enjoy your bright middle-class life. That’s the 1970s.

The 1980s is a decade of, as we think of it, mass consumption, of affluence, of excess but at the same time it was in the 1980s that there started to be expressions of: Is this all that affluence is about? Has affluence delivered the kinds of lifestyles? Has it delivered the satisfaction and the happiness and the sense of fulfillment that was promised? There are increasingly voices that are saying this is not real affluence, this is not true affluence.

So that starts to be voiced in the 1980s, and then that idea really flourishes in the 1990s and the 2000s in the context of economic downturn. A real question of what does real affluence look like? Especially in the 2000s, there is much more emphasis on the idea of, we might call it “affluence of the heart” (kokoro no yutakasa), some kind of spiritual, psychological affluence that does assume a certain level of financial wealth, but it’s not just about that, that is supposed to transcend financial wealth. And so, you start to see, for example, an advice literature about saving money, advice given not to save money just for the sake of shrimping or to get by, but also how do you enjoy these kinds of ways of saving money? There are more and more statements in the literature about saving money that suggest that the purpose of saving money is not just about the money itself, but it’s about thinking about your own life and the beauties that there might be, in fact, in a more simple life that is not replete with things and financial wealth. You also see even in the literature intended mainly for business people and businessmen in particular about saving time and efficiency some of the most prominent advice writers in this genre of literature saying: “I’ve been extolling the virtues of efficiency now for decades and I realized that it’s reached the point where efficiency itself has become the goal without thinking about the ends. What really is supposed to be the end goal or being more efficient in the workplace?”,  and increasingly urging people to think about what it is that brings meaning to their day-to-day life.

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: 

Eiko Maruko Siniawer, interview with Tristan Grunow, The Meiji at 150 Podcast, podcast audio, October 12, 2018. https://meijiat150.podbean.com/e/episode-68-dr-eiko-maruko-siniawer-williams/.

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