Episode 81 – Dr. Carol Gluck (Columbia)

Originally published on December 4, 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. Carol Gluck, George Sansom Professor of History at Columbia University. Dr. Gluck is the author, most recently, of “Modernity in Common: Japan and World History” in Internationalizing Japan Studies: Dialogues, Interactions, Dynamics published by Tokyo University of Foreign Studies in 2017. Dr. Gluck, thank you so much for talking with me today.

Carol Gluck: Thank you for inviting me.

TG: This being the Meiji at 150 podcast, we’re looking at the sesquicentennial (the 150th anniversary) as an opportunity to reflect on some of the scholarship that’s been done, both in the West and in Japan. I understand you’ve been giving a number of talks on this topic, so I’m really curious to hear your thoughts about it.

CG: Well, thank you for asking because I have spent quite a lot of time over the past months reading what the Japanese historians have been writing about the Meiji Restoration in recent years, and particularly, the Japanese historians who have received so much play in the media during this commemorative year.

As you know, this 2018 has not produced the kind of excitement, debate, attention that the centennial did in 1968; it couldn’t be more different. In addition to the fact that there’s no buzz publicly about the Restoration (at least on the national level), there’s also a great contrast between the historians who are prominent in the media today writing about the Restoration, talking about their writings, and those who were prominent in 1968 because in 1968, they were largely progressive historians: nearly all of them (people like Ienaga Saburō and Irokawa Daikichi) were very active in contesting the government’s rosy view (or what Ienaga called “rose-coloured glasses” view) of the Meiji Restoration. But this year (and last year but leading up to it), the two historians whose voices are most widely heard are Mitani Hiroshi and Karube Tadashi, and if reading their works and listening to them, you have the feeling that they have succeeded in taming the Restoration.: I mean pacifying it, domesticating it to a degree that really was quite a surprise to me. Not a happy surprise, I must say, but Karube is intent on emphasizing continuity over rupture: he says that acceptance of “civilization and enlightenment” in the Meiji period was prepared by the Edo Neo-Confucian and other thinkers, and that 1868 wasn’t all that important. What was important was 1871 when the domains were abolished, and the prefectures established.

Mitani talks about the Meiji Restoration basically as a process that was carried out from the top, and he even makes that top to exclude the lower samurai (it’s even higher than that), and he’s fond of talking about how bloodless a revolution it was. He mentions nearly every time that only 30,000 people were killed during the Meiji Restoration, whereas 200,000 were killed in the French Revolution. He likes to say that’s two fewer zeroes. This is very different from 1968 when the French Revolution was considered the superior revolution by the progressive historians, and the focus for many (not just these two) has been on the abolition of the status hierarchy. You know, not on the Restoration, and not on other things (apart from Karabe on the abolition of the domains): it’s the abolition of the status hierarchy, and the dissolution of the samurai class that is singled out to be most important for the course of modern Japanese history.

When you read and listen to these historians, you get the impression that everything was a very smooth change during the Meiji Restoration: it’s a linear narrative – there’s a lot of good empirical work there, but the story is actually quite simple, and it certainly reminds me (and I think others) of the modernization theory view of the 1960s, which was the target of the progressive historians then because the idea of a smooth, successful Tokugawa prepared restoration, so those are “the prominent taming of the Restoration” historians in my view. There’s a lot of other work on the Meiji Restoration for the last 25-30 years. Most or all of it is really good empirical study based on a lot of new archival materials, but my view – and my view has been stated by Japanese historians as well – is that there, this mountain of work (or at least it’s a foothill of work), has remained fragmented and unconnected to one another, so there’s no synthesis there. One of the historians said rather nicely: “The Meiji ishinron has lost its ron.” In other words, the Meiji debates about the Meiji shin have lost their debates.

So you have, looking at this massive material, danger of a simple story on one hand (that would be what I would call the flattening of the Restoration by scholars like Mitani and Karube), and then you have bits of tantalizing research reports or little chapters on the other, and it’s a striking contrast to the people that you have recorded on your Meiji at 150 podcast because there’s been so much exciting work in English by people that you’ve had on your podcast about the Meiji Restoration, about the people, about the localities, about the popular, about women. All of these things, and it’s a contrast to what I found in Japan. Now, maybe there’s a lot more that I haven’t found, and I’m happy to be corrected, but most of the Western work, it seems to me, has the virtue of bypassing the binaries, so the Meiji Restoration did not occur either from the top or from the bottom alone; it didn’t occur only from the center, or only from the provinces; it’s no longer seen as either a success or a failure; and it’s no longer seen in terms of Western-Japanese or continuity-rupture or internal-external or modern-tradition or light and shadow.

All of these polar opposites, in the new work, those are not the focus. They are, however, very present in these simple stories that I just alluded to, so I was candidly surprised at these narratives (if you like) or these views of the Meiji Restoration by Japanese historians because I thought there would be the kind of work that we see in other places on the Restoration. So that’s my sort of short, unhappy story of what I see as the danger of a simple story, where when you talk about the Meiji Restoration and see it as the alleged founding of anything modern Japan, and everything just moves forward quite nicely to the present.

TG: You’re absolutely right that there doesn’t seem to be the same kind of energy put into the sesquicentennial. Why do you think that is? Why do you think there hasn’t been quite as much energy?

CG: Well you know, they’ve put a lot of energy into it, but it’s been a very bureaucratic energy. I mean, there’s a three hundred some odd pages of events or initiatives or small things that they’re doing (the government). Much of it is in support of the provincial commemorations because the Meiji Restoration has been well and truly commemorated in the provinces, partly for reasons of local pride in their Restoration heroes or in Aizuwakamatsu, for their Restoration, the tragedy of the Bōshin War, and for tourism. But the central government was really quite unimaginative, and you know, even the government rhetoric has been quite different from ‘68. I mean, Prime Minister Abe talked about (he said this several times, including most recently, last week) the need for Japan today to meet up to rise to the challenge, to meet the challenge with brave and bold decisions the way the Meiji leaders met the challenge of that crisis, and he says: “We’re facing a national crisis today that requires the same kind of bravery and boldness.” And that national crisis is the declining birth rate, and the aging society, which when you think about it, it’s scarcely the same kind of crisis as Perry’s black ships and the gunboats. So, there hasn’t been much celebration (if you like) compared to his great-uncle (Prime Minister Satō in 1968) who said very clearly over and over again: “The Meiji Restoration was the founding event for modern Japan, and Japan is now a first rank nation in the world.”

So even the government tone hasn’t been celebratory, but the larger question really, I think, has to be answered with what the mood is in Japan today. I mean, there seems to be a lack of dynamism (maybe this is a lack of dynamism about the future that translates into a lack of dynamic debate about the past – I don’t know). But surely, 1968 and 2018 have been enough of a contrast that that’s what so many of the commentators, including the progressive historians particularly, talk about: as if Meiji has lost its mojo, and I can’t answer that, but it would probably have to be answered in terms of how Japanese today see the present and the future.

I will say that there’s been very little interest on any level in comparison to earlier times: students aren’t interested, the Meiji Restoration has shrunk in the textbooks, and the general public…it’s the same heroes they had in 1868. I mean, it’s Saigō Takamori and Sakamoto Ryōma, although the NHK drama this year is not doing nearly as well as the one did (this is Saigō this year and in ‘68, it was Ryōma) in ‘68. Of course, they don’t do so well anyway anymore, but you don’t feel what the commentators call “the buzz.” “Mori agaranai” is what they say; it just doesn’t, you know, add up. And I can’t answer that, but it’s definitely different, and it would seem that the government documents (and Abe too sometimes) all talk about the importance of the “spirit” of Meiji. But they talk about it in terms that sound almost wistful about the lack of “spirit” of Meiji, so that must say something about today.

TG: And you’ve written about how we can use history, use the past to read the present, in some ways. So, if we were to look for some of those lessons of Meiji for today is there anything? Or maybe by even asking that question, are we contributing to this idea of misusing history?

CG: I’m not a great “lessons of the past” person – at least in writ large – because if you were to ask what the “lessons” of the Meiji Restoration were writ large, that would be hard to answer. You would end up, I’m afraid, with another simple story. If you actually look closely at the historical process that was the Meiji Restoration, there’s all kinds of things one can learn, but it’s not so much “lessons” as it is windows into how things happen; what kinds of conjunctures are arranged so that something like the Restoration might happen; who are the actors; who are the people who benefit and who are the people who lose out; and those kinds of questions. So, I don’t see it as a lesson, but what I see is that the Meiji Restoration is very important certainly for Japan, but it’s also a very interesting historical long process, I must say, to study. And so, the lack of interest in that strikes me, just in and of itself, strange even if one wasn’t looking for lessons.

It’s also a really important part of 19th century history because the Meiji Restoration had all kinds of commonalities and connections with the 19th century world; there’s a reason that Meiji turned out the way it did. So, you know, if you’re looking at transnational history or comparative history across the long 19th century, the Meiji Restoration (like many other things) is an important part of it, so even from that later view of world history and global history, the Meiji Restoration seems to be important as part of that 19th century past. I still resist learning “lessons” from it, I’m sorry to say.

TG: Can you elaborate on some of those commonalities and connections with the 19th century world, and place the Meiji Restoration within global history?

CG: I think that if you want to answer the question: “How did Meiji turn out the way it did?,” that is to say not only “how did the Restoration happen” (the restoration of the emperor to the throne in 1868), but the subsequent 5-20 years of change – why did it end up looking the way it did – (or another way of putting it is: “Why did modern Japan end up looking the way it did?”)… I have two answers to that, and the first answer is one that everybody now acknowledges, which is what I call “pre-existing conditions,” meaning the historical situation at the time of this allegedly great change, and that would mean Edo (the importance of Edo) because obviously, these people who carried out the Meiji Restoration and the Meiji reforms were all people of Edo, of the Tokugawa period. I think that’s common sense, but all that Tokugawa conditions did was to set the conditions of the possible: they didn’t portend how it was going to turn out.
And so, you have pre-existing conditions, and then you have something (which I find really interesting) which is what was going on during the 1860s and ‘70s because far from that view of smoothness that I discerned from works like Mitani’s, this was an incredibly tumultuous time full of turmoil; these words were used all the time in 1860s and 70s. I mean, even as early as 1891, one of the early historians of the Meiji Restoration called it a “chaotic revolution” because that’s what it looked like: there was confusion, people didn’t agree. The different actors that we talk about in the Restoration (wherever they were in society) envisioned different outcomes, different “restorations,” they had different names for it (including the popular name of the goisshin). And they didn’t know where they were going to end up either, so before you get to how it turned out, I think we have to acknowledge that they didn’t know where they were going, and that’s something that the simple stories, whatever they are (whether they’re Marxist simple or Mitani simple or whatever), I don’t think they quite catch that.

This is not a 19th century example, but when I teach this (the Meiji Restoration), I often allude to the American Revolution because the actors in the American Revolution did not set out to declare independence from England. On the contrary, they were trying to get King George to shape up, and do his job properly, you know, and not tax, and all the rest of it. This really was not unlike the calls on the shogun (in the years after Perry arrived) to shape up and meet the challenge. Years ago, there was a historian of the American Revolution who said it took 13 years for people to understand: he talked about the period of clarification and consolidation under the pressure of events, and he talked about an intellectual switchboard of ideas until finally, what happened (which was the Declaration of Independence) was, for the groups, actually an unforeseen conclusion 13 years earlier, but it came to seem the only one.

And in a way, that’s the story of ōsei fukkō, it seems to me. If you really look at what was going on closely in the 1850s, but more particularly the 1860s, you will see they didn’t know where they were going, and the different positions and different opinions, I think, are very helpful to understand why the emperor was restored to the throne in what Harry Harootunian called the least radical succession, meaning the emperor from antiquity. That’s the first part and then the second part is that that does not explain what happened after the Restoration, after 1868 because the Meiji ishin (or the renovation, whatever you want to call the radical reforms), they were radical after the Restoration: first, in the early Meiji period, and then it took a while until the 1880s actually to finish the job that they started. This process too was anything but inevitable.

Maybe I’m about to say that the “lessons” we should learn from the past is that nothing is inevitable, which is encouraging, but I’ll give you one example that I often use in teaching because I hear it so much from historians from other places. I mean, if you think about it for a minute, you might wonder why the daimyō handed over their lands (that’s to say the so-called “return of the registers: hanseki hōkan). They returned lands that had been private property for generations, and some of them were properties of great wealth without any serious resistance. Now, historians of other countries always find that very strange, and they say: “How could that be possible? It’s private property.” That has to be examined too.

It turns out to be a complicated process like all of these things: it was sort of touch and go, and of course the daimyō who did return their registers believed that the emperor would re-register their lands to them, which helped them turn it over, but it’s true that 236 domains turned over their register voluntarily, and the remaining 38 were ordered to (this was all in 1869). So in a few months, it was done, and actually following that process tells you as much about the way the shogunal system had operated as about the way the new Meiji government would take shape. What it tells you about the new Meiji government is to look for trial and error because the Meiji reforms – all 20 years of them – were not smooth or straight at all, and that’s why I compare the Meiji reforms to a historical earthquake: I say that it’s a seismic shift of institutional and social and political and economic and – you name it – cultural ground that affected nearly everyone. Nearly everyone, but not at all in the same way, and it seems to me that there’s where the interest is: to follow the operations of capitalism where the technologies of national power or the upheavals of social order, these were all the changes associated with the first half of the Meiji period.

They dislocated everybody directly or indirectly, and these are, what I call, the dislocations of modernity, which played out over decades, as people in the Meiji period and beyond (actually, some of this “finding the footing” again took until the 1920s) from all over Japan, from Hokkaidō to Okinawa, from the fishing villages, and the mountain villages to the educated elite were really having to maneuver, manipulate and manage (or fail to manage) to regain their footing in a different historical world. So here, (I haven’t taught this yet, but I will now because it’s a new book) I will add to my story of the Meiji Restoration (or stories of the Meiji Restoration). I take a cue from a recent book on the American Revolution by Alan Taylor, and it’s called American Revolutions, plural, and I think we can look at the Meiji Restorations, plural, including the ones that were and the ones that never were (in other words, the ones that didn’t happen).

And if you look at different social and physical spaces, you can actually follow the tectonics of change, but you have to include a plurality of stories. That’s what Taylor’s book does: he includes the Native Americans, he includes the other European empires in North America. So, the second part of it, with these multiple “restorations,” and lost “restorations,” really requires a greater diversity of stories in one place, not little bits and pieces. If you take that as background, (which I do: I see them as the “long” restoration as I call it from 1820s to 1880s – not a terribly original term, but that’s what I call it), then with that background, with the pre-existing conditions of Edo, with the not knowing how it turned out under the pressure of the circumstances et cetera of the Restoration process, you ask: “Why did Meiji Japan develop as it did?” Then, I have my second answer, and that’s what I call “available modernities.” By that, I mean the versions of modernity that are available at any given historical moment that is (this is true for the new nations in Africa after decolonization in the 1960s, or the new post-Soviet nations in the 1990s) the available modernities at the time when this massive change takes place, when these reforms take place, and for Japan, it’s the late 19th century.

What the Japanese called “civilization,” the Japanese and the Chinese and the people in Turkey and other places understood “civilization” to be a universal stage in world history. They knew it was Euro-American, it was Western, but they also believed it was universal, and in fact, the available modernities in the 19th century, – which have to do with compulsory national education, a national language, national history, national boundaries – all of these things actually has nothing to do with any East-West distinction because it really was (and this is where the world history context comes in) the temporal commonalities of that global conjuncture that affected Japan, but also affected, not only the new nations like Japan or Germany or Italy, but the same thing was going on in the old nations like France (one of the oldest).

They were undergoing similar changes because the idea of the nation-state – in its late 19th century form – was different. During the same time that Meiji was developing its sense of all Japanese as subjects of the emperor, France was turning peasants into Frenchmen, spreading the French language, establishing French education. This is true all over. You can look at the establishment of a standard Japanese language, which took a long time, and compare it to the Danish or other attempts to do the same thing: to get everybody to speak one language. So, it’s more important that this was the trend of the times (as Meiji Japanese always called it) than that Japan was a new nation: the available modernities in the late 19th century cocooned in the power relations of a Western-dominated international order. In other words, Japan was becoming a nation in a world of nations, and that world of nations was a world whose rules were set by the West.

That’s why Meiji Japan looked the way it did. That’s why Bismarck’s Germany looked the way it did. That’s why the French Republic looked the way it did. Now, are they the same? No. Never. That’s not what world history is, but it’s the commonalities and connections and conjuncture that explain why Meiji Japan looked the way it did. Now, the way it actually happened in Japan was very different from the way it (meaning these modernizing changes) happened in Germany, or happened in France, or happened in Denmark, or wherever because pre-existing conditions are very important. One example I’ll give is from one of your podcasts, and forthcoming book by Christopher Craig, who talks about the “middlemen” of modernity: that a lot of the people who carried out all these modernizing reforms were actually the local elites; they were in the provinces, they were in the villages, they were in the localities. The government enunciated, but the local elites implemented in many ways, particularly for the first 20-30 years. That’s not necessarily true of other places, so then you begin to look at different kinds of patterns, and then you have comparisons which are very interesting.

So you ask yourself – the government spoke such a strong story, and I’d been actually deeply criticized for my language of calling the early Meiji state a not so strong state (I will stand by my comment) – why did the local elites play such a role in Japan, where the central government did in France (that kind of question). And then you tease out other aspects of Japanese history or French history or whatever. That’s the kind of approach to this long, complicated process and this plurality of stories that I try to get across when I talk about the Meiji Restoration and about Meiji Japan, and I try very hard to avoid the binaries – every single one of them – and I also get pushback on that. I also try to avoid the linearities because I don’t see a straight line from the Meiji Restoration to Japanese fascism.

I mean, history doesn’t work in straight lines, and you can get off easy, I think, if we ascribe Japanese fascism to what went wrong with the emperor system because that’s not all that was going on. So, I’m against these linear chronologies: it’s a question of both continuities and changes. There are a lot of people who, for a long time and even now again in some places, want to separate the two parts of Meiji: there was the bright Meiji (where everything was possible because liberal politics was possible between 1868 and the Constitution of 1889 and the Rescript of Education of 1890), and then comes the dark Meiji, which is the period of the emperor system and the foreclosure of a liberal parliamentary representative democracy etc. But you know, it doesn’t work that way: just like the Meiji Restoration was not a new beginning between a night and a morning in 1868, the lights didn’t go out in 1890.

There was a lot of two-way interaction, again, between the rulers and the ruled (if you want to put it that way) that explained what happened to the late Meiji state, explained how it got as strong as it did, and some of the most interesting things in that period are the initiatives on the part of the provinces to get the government to do more because they hadn’t been doing as much (particularly financially) as they had done earlier. I guess I’m trying both to complicate the stories, multiply them, and also to move away from straight lines to anywhere because I think if you’re going to explain the late Meiji state, or Shōwa fascism or postwar Japan in its first 20 years, or about to be post-Heisei Japan coming as of next year, if you’re a historian, you have to be this complicated and this open-ended, and this non-inevitablelist. At the same time, you have to tell a story. So, I mean I don’t want to end up in fragments, but it’s a pretty complicated story, and I think that we are beginning to do that actually.

I also think Japanese historians, I hope, are not going to get stuck in the particular conservative mode that they at least publicly proclaimed this year with basically saying that the Meiji Restoration was better than the revolutions that happened anywhere else and that everything was smooth and bloodless. I suspect that won’t last too long (at least I hope not). So, that’s the kind of thing: if you want to have lessons, those are the kind of lessons. They’re actually lessons that tell us: “Be careful what you think.” In other words, look at the open-endedness, look at the contingencies, and think about our own present and future in those terms because that’s the way it’s going to happen. It’s not predestined, as many of us who had been watching what’s going on in the world today will tell you that the populist wave around the world (not only in the United States) was not something foreseen in the 1990s.

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: 

Carol Gluck, interview with Tristan Grunow, The Meiji at 150 Podcast, podcast audio, December 4, 2018. https://meijiat150.podbean.com/e/episode-81-dr-carol-gluck-columbia/.

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