Episode 77 – Dr. James Huffman (Wittenberg)

Originally published on November 13, 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. James Huffman, Professor Emeritus in the Department of History at Wittenberg University. Dr. Huffman’s most recent publication is Down and Out in Late Meiji Japan, published by the University of Hawai’i Press in 2018. Dr. Huffman, thank you so much for talking with me today.

James Huffman: By all means, it’s a delight.

TG: Your earlier work was all about the press and the development of journalism in the Meiji period. Now, you’ve recently published this book Down and Out in Late Meiji Japan, which is looking at a different group, and in this case, the poor people living in the slums of Japan’s major cities in the 1880s and 1890s. Could you tell us how you made the transition into this new topic?

JH: Sure, I’d be happy to. I’ve always been interested, in many ways, more in the people in society more generally than in the elites (although I’ve written a great deal about the elites), and one of the things that, as I worked on the press, interested me in particular was the continual popularization of the press in the Meiji years. It went early on from being a totally elitist press with big circulations of five thousand, oriented completely towards politics to becoming, gradually, more and more of a medium for the people, and when I say “the people,” I mean what would have been called the heimin or the commoners.

By the 1890s, increasingly, the press had gone in a very different direction: not only including as subscribers, but in aiming at the masses, the minshu (which means “common people,” the heimin, the commoners). By the end of the Meiji years (the first part of the 20th century), you found the press playing a clear role in stimulating popular protests. Leading editors would say: “On such and such a date (often tomorrow), there’ll be a rally to oppose this or that in politics.” And there would be great turnouts. I mean, thousands and sometimes tens of thousands. I was interested in who those people were who turned out, and that was at least one of the things that led me to begin looking at the daily lives of common people for a number of reasons. One of which there was a great deal of publication in the 1890s and early 20th century about the very poor.

The hinmin (or means literally “poor people”) referred to those who were among the poorest of the poor and particularly those who lived in hinmin kutsu, which usually is translated as “slums”; the literal meaning is “caverns of poor people.” A lot of reporters were looking at them, and I suddenly realized, as I began looking at them: These are the people who are attending the political rallies, who are having a great deal of impact on the government. I set out to do a study of what their lives were like as a completely unstudied segment of the Japanese populace at that time; just simply: what was the nature of life and of daily life for the people who were totally poor and totally overlooked in terms of scholarship both in Japan and in the United States?

TG: That’s a great point about these people being overlooked. So often, the history of the Meiji period is this history of top-down institutions and the modernization that’s happening at the elite level.

JH: Very much so.

TG: So, can you tell us a bit more about what life was like for these people who were down and out in late Meiji Japan?

JH: Oh I’d be happy to. (Laughter) And the first thing I would say is that they were not totally overlooked: there’s one scholar at Dōshisha University, Nakagawa Kiyoshi who hasn’t looked specifically at their daily life (which was what I’ve tried to do), but who nonetheless has looked at the social structures that involved these people, though he’s one of the only ones.

There are two or three things that I’ve found in looking at them: one is the development and the growth of slums in particular was a phenomenon of the late 1880s to the early 20th century because primarily, one: industrialization and modernization in the cities was creating a raft of new jobs of all kinds, and at the same time, Japan had, in the countryside, gone through terrible economic problems. Village families couldn’t afford to support everyone, and so you have this pretty massive movement beginning in the mid-1880s into the cities. And so, a certain part of it is these are new people, new city-dwellers, who settle often near factories because that’s where the cheap housing was and because that’s near to where the work was, and you have slums grow up rapidly.

Their daily lives… One, they were poor, and what I’ve tried to do, quite consciously, is not talk about these people in my book as parts of systems (you can’t totally avoid that). I haven’t looked at it primarily in terms of theory, though again there’s certain theories who’ve influenced me, but primarily, trying to understand how they experienced life, and there are two or three things that one can say about that. One is they were incredibly hardworking despite middle class images of poor people being lazy and things of that sort. The average work month was perhaps 25 days, the average work day was usually about 12 hours. You know, there were six days a week. The work was grinding and difficult. Also, very much in keeping with what we often think about, life was hard in many ways; because of low wages, everyone had to work. The mother would usually work part time: part time being at home cooking, taking care of the tiny quarters in which they’ve lived, but also taking in work to supplement the family income. The father of course worked these long hours that I’ve talked about, but what’s particularly striking is the children almost all had to work also. Even if they were school age, they couldn’t go to school, and in the cities, the laws specifically made exceptions to the compulsory education for poor children because if the children didn’t work, there wasn’t food to put on the table, and you put everyone’s income together.

One family I’ve looked at… We don’t have names for them, but they’re a real family. There was a teenage son and an even younger daughter, and they both worked full time; she in a factory and he I think was in a printing firm. And of course, that meant the kids didn’t get an education that they needed in the modern era. That’s one of the real problems of life. Another is that because of poverty and because their nutrition was not very good, they were susceptible to illnesses, so when an epidemic struck (like cholera, TB), they were particularly vulnerable. What you then find is much higher death rates in the areas where they lived, among people who contracted illness, and it’s because of lack of medical care.

They, of course, were also vulnerable when problems like, when Tokyo of course was given to fires, and they lived in the most densely populated areas of all. They tended to live in one room apartments made of very flimsy wood that was susceptible to fires. They lived in (particularly in Tokyo) along the riverside in what was known as Shitamachi (or the “low city): areas that were near the Sumida River and canals so that when there were floods, their areas would be particularly flooded, so you have this whole range of different problems that made life tough in every way.

At the same time, and one of the major things that I hope I have to contribute in this book, is that they lived life as fully and as richly as anyone else. I have a section that I say: “Poor people had fun.” They were as engaged in the festivals of the nearby temples as the middle class were, they attended fireworks like everyone else. They also, I found, were extremely ambitious: Nakagawa (the scholar at Dōshisha whom I’ve mentioned earlier) has looked at ambition, and he’s found a clear mobility upward; very slow, glacial almost at times, but over one or two or three generations, a clear upward mobility, so that in some ways you have slums with people moving through as generations passed because they were ambitious.

You have lots and lots of stories of individual success cases as well as stories of dysfunctional people like you have in all classes, but ambition was a very important part. And then the thing I started with, which has been fascinating to me, is they were politically in tune with what was going on: they read newspapers. In the 1890s, the journalist Kuroiwa Shūroku began a little paper. It was called Red Journalism (Yorozu Chōhō was the name of it), and it was called Red Journalism because he published on red paper to try to get attention. He wrote that his goal was to publish newspapers that could be read by everyone and that were cheap. The mainstream papers laughed at him, but by the early 20th century, they were often emulating him, and by the early 1900s, his paper had a circulation of 100,000, which made it, I think, the biggest paper in Tokyo at that time (there were some bigger papers in Osaka). At least a third of his readers were hinmin (the poor people I’ve been talking about). We said something about literacy and also something about the fact that despite the difficulties or sometimes because of the difficulties of life, they were attuned to what was going on in the broader world. Thus, they took part in these demonstrations, and when there were, particularly for example, the Hibiya Riots of 1905 (which were riots at Tokyo’s People’s Park, as Hibiya was called), they started with demonstrations against the government for what the Japanese people regarded as soft or inadequate negotiation of the end of the Russo-Japanese War.

They turned violent, and there were considerable numbers of deaths, buildings burned etc., and among the people arrested, a significant number were rickshaw pullers (one of the groups that I’ve looked at quite a lot). Probably half of those arrested were quite clearly from the poor populations. I should say their demonstrations had a lot of influence; they brought down cabinets, they resulted in streetcar fare increases being put off (they’re usually not permanently put off). They had a great deal of impact, so I find a really interesting combination of balance in their life: on the one hand, there’s no question that life was extremely difficult. There was nothing noble about poverty, but on the other hand, I find people who themselves were most impressive in their persistence. As one journalist said: “In the school of poverty, you had to learn the lessons or you died; the lessons of how to survive.” Matsubaru was his name. He said: “We have much to learn from them for that very reason.”

TG: Can you situate us a bit? You mentioned that people in Tokyo are living along the Sumida River. I imagine there were also areas of Osaka.

JH: Yes.

TG: But then also, in the 1880s, you mentioned this impoverishment of the countryside. I imagine this has something to do with Matsukata deflation.

JH: Very much.

TG: Could you talk about some of those things that are bringing people to the slums, and then map out the slums a bit for us as well?

JH: Right. It’s clearly the Matsukata deflation, which hit the countryside even more than it hit the cities, and it created tremendous economic problems. You know, there was massive starvation, great loss of land throughout rural Japan, and farm families again and again made decisions that they couldn’t feed everyone, and so second sons, third sons (it was almost always sons) would be sent off to the city, and in Osaka, they tended to be in the southern part of the city (as in Tokyo) in areas that were near waterways and near factories. There had been a great deal of poverty in Tokyo prior to this, but it was pretty much dispersed throughout the city.

Now, more and more, they came in and settled in certain concentrations, so that you had three or four areas –  all of them pretty much in the northeastern part of the city – that were major concentrations. They were called hinmin kutsu (貧民窟) as I said “caverns of the poor,” and one other interesting thing that’s related (it’s a bit of a tangent) is that another option that families had was to send their kids abroad, and I’ve done a fair amount of work on the fact that other groups of impoverished farmers went to Hawaii, Brazil (I’ve not studied South America, but I have studied the immigration to Hawaii), and by the early 20th century, you had something like 80,000 Japanese working on the sugar plantations initially, and then on other kinds of plantations and other kind of work in Hawaii.

They had a very different kind of poverty. In fact, one of the things that interests me…I ended up spending a fair amount of time looking at differences between poverty among emigrants to Hawaii and poverty in the cities, and found that there was fairly equally shared economic hardship. Poverty felt tremendously different, depending on where you were and what the structures were like. In Hawaii, it was initially a situation of great instability and a good deal of crime, of prostitution, of gambling, and then plantation owners (who had initially only encouraged men to come because they thought they were better workers) began bringing women, and two or three things dramatically changed the situation in Hawaii. One was the creation of stable families, another was the arrival of particularly Buddhist missionaries who set up churches that became social centres for Japanese in the plantations, and another was the establishment of schools.

And poverty for large numbers of Hawaiian families lasted much more briefly: there was faster mobility, and I think part of it is because of the stable structures that were created that partially had to do with the plantations, but also had to do with institutions within the communities. Back in Japan, rural poverty, I found, felt very different from poverty in the cities. Farmers were just as poor (sometimes even poorer than they were in the cities), but several things modified the field a bit. One was nature: villages tend to be in areas that are mountainous and filled with rivers. I discovered some people who would write almost lyrically about rural farm life. You never found anyone who wrote lyrically about urban slum life, and part of it was the natural setting. Part of it was the fact the natural setting meant that even in times of drought, you still probably were going to be able to find some food on the mountainside. As one friend said to me: “If you need to eat bark, it’s good to live near trees that have bark.” There were mountains, of course, with vegetables and so forth, and the village setting also tended to be much more communal.

By the end of Meiji, slums were often developing a sense of community, but in the first 15 years or so, there was not much community in slums in the cities, whereas in the villages of course, there was generation on generation of community; something that could be really hard if you had an individualistic strap bent because it meant following rules, it meant you knew and everyone knew what boys could do and what girls could do, what men could do and what others could do. But nonetheless, when there were economic problems, people helped each other. Even people who broke the rules were nonetheless considered a part of a village family, so there are a number of things in village poverty that I wouldn’t say made it better (I might go as far as to say that), but certainly made it feel different. Even less a sense of poverty because of the way in which it was shared in rural areas, whereas in the city, you couldn’t help being very much aware of the people who were much more affluent than you because you lived close to them and you worked for them.

TG: And when we look at the urban history of Tokyo, the 1880s is the first time that there’s really a city-wide urban planning movement. First with Governor Matsuda in 1880, then Governor Yoshikawa takes it up in mid-80s…

JH: Sure.

TG: But what’s remarkable in this 1880 plan that Matsuda puts out… He says one of the problems facing the city is what he called “hinpu zakkyo (貧富雑居), basically the mixing of the rich and the poor in the central business district, and so this whole 1880 plan is basically a slum clearance plan…

JH: Very interesting.

TG: …to move these poor people out and move the factories out, centralize all of the government buildings and other kinds of facilities as a way to separate the rich and the poor. And so I’m wondering, what was the government reaction to this influx of the down and out? In this case, it obviously seems to be somewhat antagonistic. Were there other charity programs set up, or were people pretty much left to their own devices?

JH: There was very little charity, and you’re right. I mean there was a great deal of concern about getting the slum areas, making them, at the least, invisible; getting them away from the areas that were more affluent, the areas that foreigners saw more. Though interestingly, the major poverty wards were Honjō and Asakusa and Fukagawa and Shitaya, and they were in areas that were also touristy areas with Sensōji temple and the Sumida River, but they were away from the central business district and the areas of greater affluence.

When it came to assistance, there were social reformers who cared about assistance, but there was a smaller number, and the government efforts and assistance were almost absent. I can’t remember it exactly talking here, but in a given year, the total number of people who received any kind of government assistance would be something like 200 (very small). There were several individual efforts at schools for poor people, and if there was a major disaster, of course, there would be some kind of major outpouring of charity from the emperor and from rich industrialists, but they were minor.

On the whole, there simply was no social net, and that’s another one of the really serious problems that they had to deal with.

TG: I know the press has played a central role in your research.

JH: Sure.

TG: Reporters in particular, and I believe you were a reporter at one point as well, but…

JH: Good, that’s true.

TG: (Laughter) So, you’ve mentioned these reporters like Kuroiwa Shūroku, Matsubara. You’ve also written about Tanaka Shōzō, who was a very socially activist reporter.

JH: One of my favourite Japanese. (Laughter)

TG: Could you say that these are muckraking journalists? Is there a Japanese Jacob Riis, or were there people who were advocating on behalf of these people in the slums in Japan?

JH: That’s an interesting question. I would say that there’s less advocacy than there is just plain reporting. Now, Tanaka Shōzō, of course, was an activist through and through, but people often ask (in fact, I have no question that comes up as often as this one): “How do you learn about the poor people?” That’s an issue because they don’t write about themselves very much, and there are two or three sources, one of which is government records and surveys in particular. For things like crime, the government records are really useful. And then there were also people who were poorer who became literary figures and wrote about their poverty, but the main source is journalists.

There was a period (1890s and early 1900s) when the Shakai Mondai (the “Social Problem”) absolutely preoccupied a lot of journalists, and the result was several journalists who gave major swathes of their career to studying the Shakai Mondai. The Shakai Mondai for them was primarily the slums. That’s one major thing they thought of when they talked about it, and so what you have is a great deal of writing about them by investigating journalists. The one who is maybe most known who I’ve not mentioned is Yokoyama Gennosuke, and they would spend major amounts of time (sometimes in disguise) living in poverty, living in slum areas, living in cheap lodging houses (the kichin yado) themselves and writing about it. They say things in their writing about the need for change. Matsubara, for example, makes the comment: “At times that charity is nothing but a little bit of repaying for the stealing that we have done from the poor by not giving them adequate wages.” But by and large, they write from the vantage point of, I would say, “it’s a pity” more than really pushing for reform or for change, so it may be muckraking, but it’s not muckraking with a major goal of changing things.

TG: In my own research on urban planning of Tokyo in the 1880s, I do turn to those newspapers quite a lot and you often see those types of editorializing comments.  I mean, it’s not surprising then that these journalists are – maybe it’s not muckraking all the way, but it’s still highlighting these problems…

JH: Oh very much so.

TG: …that are confronting the government, and it really does bespeak that very antagonistic presence that some of these newspapers have.

JH: Very much so. Yes, I mean one of the characteristics of the press is this constant tension between papers that were anti-government and papers that were pro-government. Well, moving in a different direction, one of the things that absolutely fascinated me in my earlier studies of the press was trying to figure out why is it that the government would attempt to crack down on the press? Press laws were pretty draconian in the Meiji period, but yet you never stopped having newspapers that were sharply critical of the government, and it finally dawned on me. I say in my life I learn things slowly, and then all of a sudden, the lights go on.

It finally dawned on me, at one point, that what you have is different factions. Now, I’m talking about establishment papers more and not the new papers that I had been talking about, but at any given point, the faction of the paper was tied to might be in or out of power. They might be part of the Itō faction or part of the Ōkuma faction, and when Ōkuma was in power, they would become pro-government, and when Ōkuma was out, they would be anti-government. But the factions they were with were strong enough even when they were out of power to keep the papers from just being destroyed by the draconian laws. But you always have a significant portion of press fighting against the government, and then you certainly have significant numbers who are just more anti-system in their orientation, which I would say was true of the populist papers like the paper of Kuroiwa that I mentioned, or another paper Miroku Shinpō, which was the paper of Akiyama Teisuke. Both of those got their subscribing base from poor people, and so they were fighting against the government much of the time except when it came to issues of patriotism and on that, most of the papers were all aligned with the government.

TG: Much like what we were saying earlier, the history of the down and out in Meiji Japan also gets left out of the story of modernization. In contemporary coverage of Japan, the poor people are often left out again, and when talking about slums of Tokyo, the one that comes up from the early Meiji period and even until today is the neighbourhood of Sanya up in northeastern Tokyo. Now I understand that even this neighbourhood is gentrifying as a result of the 2020 Olympics and backpackers coming in. Do you see continuities, or what’s happening with the state of the poor people in Tokyo now?

JH: Actually, the slums themselves pretty much vanished after the Great Earthquake of 1923, partially because of efforts to not let them re-establish. When you talk about Japan today, I have spent some time, just as one does, in Fukagawa and in Sanya.

I have a former student who very proudly took me through Sanya just a year or two ago and was happy to show me where the old Yoshiwara (or pleasure quarters) were, but it doesn’t look much different from any place else in Tokyo right now. With Fukagawa, the same is true: there’s no way (or almost no way) you would know that there were slums there when you go through. So, it’s quite a different situation now, as you said. For one thing, it is a different era when it comes to government and poverty.

I did a little bit of work trying to compare what I had found with Japan of the 1990s to early 21st century, and one clear difference is that there is a general public view that poverty ought not to exist, that there ought to be equality of opportunity at least, and there was no view of that before. Poverty was considered as normal in the Meiji years. There are also all sorts of significant social welfare programs today. Inadequate perhaps, but significant, and they simply weren’t there in the period that I’ve looked at, and then yes, the physical slums are just not there today.

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: 

James Huffman, interview with Tristan Grunow, The Meiji at 150 Podcast, podcast audio, November 13, 2018. https://meijiat150.podbean.com/e/episode-77-dr-james-huffman-wittenberg/.

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