Episode 86 – Dr. Mark Ravina (Emory)

Originally published on January 15, 2019
[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. Mark Ravina, Professor in the Department of History at Emory University. Dr. Ravina is the author of To Stand with the Nations of the World: Japan’s Meiji Restoration in World History, published by Oxford University Press in 2017. Dr. Ravina, thank you so much for talking with me today.

Mark Ravina: Thank you for the invitation.

TG: You recently published this book To Stand with the Nations of the World: Japan’s Meiji Restoration in World History, and this being the Meiji at 150 Podcast, we’ve talked a lot about the Meiji Restoration, and particularly, this 150th anniversary. So, I was curious: what was some of the impetus behind writing the book? Was it purely because of the timing of the 150th? Or was this more of an opportunity to reconsider and revisit some of those narratives?

MR: It was, to some degree, both. My first book was, of course, on the domains on the construction of the pre-Meiji (Tokugawa) polity. That led me to be fascinated in what follows, and of course, I wrote a biography of Saigō Takamori, which was my second book. He’s this incredible transitional figure who actually helps overthrow the Tokugawa regime, and in some ways helps dissolve his own domain, but really, never comes to terms with the Meiji state. So, this was the logical in sequence, the logical next thing to write, simply explaining to myself a version of Japanese political history.

But of course, the sesquicentennial didn’t quite sneak up on us; I know it’s like: Oh it’s going to be 150 in 2018, so I did the math, and that was a driver to complete it early last year.

TG: But that said, you do take to task a lot of these received narratives we have of the Meiji Restoration, and particularly, you start off by talking about some of these myths of the modernization, and especially Itō Hirobumi elaborating and exaggerating some of these breaks between the past and the Meiji present.

MR: One thing that struck me in writing about this was the degree to which, in both Japanese language scholarship and American language scholarship, political history has not been the place where super exciting things have been going on for a while. So, returning to it was rebutting a received narrative, but those are really old received narratives. We were stuck, in political history, really with modernization theory, Western impact on Japanese response, really really old paradigms that you had to take out of the closet, stand up to knock them down again. I do rebut them, but they are really old. What was exciting, in some ways, was going at it with fresh eyes, and taking some of the insights of all of the newer forms of history: social history, the linguistic turn, gender histories, and seeing what happens once we’re informed by those, what does old school political history look like? What does old school diplomatic history look like? That, to some degree, was what I was trying to do and hoping to do.

TG: On that note, you’re right. I mean, the last book specifically on the Restoration probably was William Beasley’s book in 1972, right?

MR: Exactly, exactly. So in a lot of ways, I kept thinking I was missing something, and it turned out that in English and in Japanese, there hasn’t been a big paradigm. It made it, to some degree, rather easy and rather challenging.

TG: And you mentioned bringing up some of these new frameworks (gender and other ways of looking at the Restoration), but one of the things that you emphasize quite a lot in the book is the restoration of antiquity in Japan. In fact, one of the chapters is called “A Newly Ancient Japan,” which has a very nice sort of phrase there. Could you talk a little bit about what you mean by that, and how this antiquity is brought back during the Restoration?

MR: One thing that struck me when doing my reading was the degree to which that was treated, the idea of it being a restoration, and of course in Japanese, ishin. And the degree to which that was just invoked or noted, but not really engaged and of course, it was extremely important to the participants.

Many of them really believed that what they were doing was recreating some form of ancient Japan, and if you were a true nativist, you believed, to some degree, that you were going to recreate a Japan that was before Chinese influence, and the state would almost dissolve and people would connect to the emperor through their local shrines. There’s also other ways in which there’s a sense that the Nara and Heian institutions will be revived. But there’s a sense of reviving ancient greatness that was really important to the participants themselves, and we somehow lost it.

As I began to explore this, rather than it becoming something that was uniquely “Japanese,” it became something that connected Japan to other places the way in which the sense of a recovery of an ancient past is very important in modern history. I cherry-picked these, but Italian nationalists would talk about themselves as reviving Rome, modern German nationalists would talk about Barbarossa (going back to the Middle Ages), American revolutionaries explicitly looked back to the idea that they were reviving great ancient Athenian and Roman democracy. So, this idea of recovering the ancient, and making that a part of modern revolutions was absolutely not unique to Japan. It’s just that no one was taking it seriously and made the transnational connection, so you’re absolutely right. It was sitting there, and it was this sort of odd thing that I wondered why no one else looked at, although Takagi Hiroshi’s work dovetailed brilliantly with mine. I learned a lot from him. The invention of tradition… that trope has made its way to Japan, so there’s a lot of newer exciting work in Japan that I was able to build on.

TG: In the early Meiji period (you’re absolutely right), there is this donning of these robes of the past, the historical patina that’s brought up to legitimize the present, bringing back the daijōkan system from the Heian period, everybody wearing the robes. At one point, they adopted these court names such as Fujiwara, and they would sign their documents using these adopted court names. But at the same time, there is this Charter Oath that is put out in 1868, where it very explicitly says: “We must tear asunder the evil customs of the past.” So, there does seem to be this paradoxical contradiction, isn’t there?

MR: Yes, but of course, the past in that case is basically the Tokugawa. What’s striking is even in the last documents, Tokugawa Yoshinobu had this amazing ability to resign himself to more power, which drove the people who were trying to force him from power crazy because he resigned his title as shogun and said: “Well of course I’m holding onto the title of kanpaku.” So, he himself was grabbing onto these ancient Heian institutions, and using those to rebuild his own power. What’s striking is that even in its last days, the Tokugawa regime gave up on the Tokugawa regime, and they said: “Yes, yes we went astray. We went astray from both ancient Japanese tradition and even Tokugawa tradition, and we need to go back before,” so it’s a very specific past that’s being renounced. It’s also the more immediate past that’s being renounced in favour of an ancient past.

TG: And you’re right about how this wasn’t really the first time that Japan had participated in a globalizing project or had undertaken even its own globalization project.

MR: This is the place in which I’m actually most satisfied with the work because you publish a book, and I’m immediately finding things now where I say: “Oh, I would have done that differently even in and out.” Twelve months later, I understand that better: the place in which (I’m not doing that yet, but I’m really satisfied) drawing that connection between two periods of incredibly radical reform that are generated by encroaching empires.

Of course, the first one is what prompts the Nara and Heian reforms. It’s just the Sui and the Tang dynasty, back in the 600s-700s, where ancient Japan faces this unbelievably powerful empire, and assigns an essence that you have to fuse local traditions with the best practice of this massive, terrifying empire. What’s so important about that is not only are people in the Meiji period explicitly citing it and saying: “We can do this again,” but it allows us to recognize the importance of Western imperialism without falling into the East-West dichotomy, and the old paradigm (and Cohen pointed this out) is illustrated in Paul Cohen’s History in Three Keys (or in The Search for Modern China). Cohen says that the problem with the Western impact-Chinese response paradigm is that China’s napping, Japan’s napping, so it needs to be awakened by the West. And so, we push against that, but a really powerful way to push against that is to note that the West is not the first empire to shake things up in Japan. Japan was shaken up by the Sui and the Tang Dynasty, and also to put this still in a broader context, anytime you try and build an empire in Japan, you undertake radical political, social and economic reforms. Hideyoshi, when he wanted to build an empire, transformed Japanese society and so, in that case, the Meiji period doesn’t become this singular thing that has to be put into terms of “modernity” (a term that I don’t especially like), but can be put in this broader multiple millennia long sense of cycles and sense of what you do when you’re threatened by an empire, or what you do when you want to build an empire.

TG: And so, you’re almost describing multiple cases of this naiyū gaikan paradigm, right? This “internal trouble, foreign threat” paradigm that leads to a type of revolutionary political change in Japan?

MR: Exactly, and of course, the exact words naiyū gaikan are not used in the 600s-700s, but it’s in the exact same sense in the case of the Sengoku period and Hideyoshi’s re-unification of Japan. There is no explicit gaikan, there’s no foreign threat, but there is this sense that Japan is powerfully engaged in the international order, and it needs to stake out its place, or at least it’s Hideyoshi’s ambition to stake out a place for Japan in the international order We get a radical transformation of Japan as well.

To piggyback on your phrase gaikan, whether you want to be a gaikan, whether like Hideyoshi would take over the world or whether someone else wants to take over the world, and you don’t want to be a part of their empire, we get these similar forces of radical transformation, of centralization, of new ways of mobilizing people and resources. And I found those parallels over multiple millenia to be really striking.

TG: In fact, in my own history class, I have to cover a lot of Japanese history and so, I’m not able to give premodern Japanese history as much time as I would like to. And trying to construct a narrative, come up with a metanarrative that would be easy for the students to follow along, it was that kind of cyclical naiyū gaikan narrative that I came to just like you were talking about, all the way back to the Sui and Tang. And then we could talk about, say, maybe the Mongols as one earlier form of foreign threat and then what about Christianity in the 16th century? Is this another type of foreign threat that leads to political revolution?

MR: That’s actually a very good point and of course, the response to Christianity by the Tokugawa is to stop it before it stops you, or before it destroys your regime. No one, because of how his dynasty collapses, explicitly cites Hideyoshi in the Meiji period, but what I do find in Tokugawa reformers is they look to the very early Tokugawa period before isolation and say again: “We can be inspired by that. We can be inspired by a Tokugawa regime that was authorizing shipping to Southeast Asia, and was seeking to extend its power internationally.”

What struck me was the way in which, as you’ve noted, we try in a classroom setting (where we’re covering multiple millennia) to formulate it this way noting these cycles. And what I found so exciting is finding the historical actors themselves in the late Tokugawa period saying: “We’re facing a crisis. What do we look at in our own history that will inspire us?” Indeed, they look to the early Tokugawa period, the period of national reunification, and then before that to Nara and Heian. So, it was the overlap between how do I explain this to myself, how do I explain this to students, and how are the actors explaining it to themselves? That made me genuinely excited and satisfied.

TG: And of course, one of these narratives of the Meiji Restoration that you’re reconsidering in the book is this idea of the West “opening” Japan. Of course, in the historiography in the last 20-30 years, there’s been a lot of work that’s really challenged that idea of Japanese isolation. But since we were just talking about the Tokugawa’s response to Christianity, there is a concerted effort to really block off Japan from Christianity in particular. And so, you can see where this idea is coming from, that, from the Western perspective, Japan is cut off even if there are several ships a year coming from the Dutch, and there’s several embassies from the Ryūkyū Kingdom and Korea, for example. But there is still this kind of seclusion policy, isn’t there?

MR: I think that’s absolutely true, and something we still struggle to finesse because the old story that is just wrong is that over the course of the first three shōgun and the first half century of Tokugawa rule, Japan cut itself off from the outside world. That’s just wrong because there was extensive trade, as you note, even if a lot of it was carried by non-Japanese traders, but Japan was still exporting enormous volumes of precious metals into the early 1700s. And of course, the shōgun remained very very concerned with diplomatic relations with Korea, but at the end of the day, incredibly few people leave Japan from the 1630s until the 1850s/60s, and in that way, it certainly is isolated; very few foreigners come to Japan and just roam around. Also, very very few Japanese leave Japan and re-enter.

And so, when you compare this to huge numbers of people leaving Europe and moving to the New World, to the Western Hemisphere, it really is a different type of dynamic. What we need to do is not fall into the trap of the old sakoku isolation paradigm, but draw that distinction that this is not like all the refugees from 1848 in Germany moving to the U.S and changing radical politics. It’s not like the Irish Potato Famine, which transformed the United States, and we need to take account of that, that millions of people moving really changes the rest of the world, and that doesn’t happen in Japan.

TG: And then as you note as well, there’s a lot of non-state actors who are going back and forth around the East China Sea region in the form of piracy and other types of informal trading networks.

MR: And of course, there too, that’s a major struggle the Tokugawa dealt with. That’s where Rob Hellyer’s work is just fantastic. It recognizes that we can’t fully document the pirates, but we know that something funny’s going on here from just fragmentary sources, from the way trade seems to move around. Yes, we do have to acknowledge its continuities, and that’s of course, a great reason for Japan in many ways, a motivation for the Tokugawa to withdraw because you can’t really control these non-state actors.

When you let a Japanese trader go overseas, and if he gets in trouble and a foreign government says he’s a pirate, do you really want to extend your power that far and defend him and say: “No, he’s not a pirate. He has a vermillion seal. He’s my trader”? Or do you just want to wash your hands over the entire thing because you might lose and you might lose legitimacy because you failed to defend one of your subjects? So, that’s, for me, one of the key issues, and it makes the Tokugawa withdrawal from global politics much more comprehensive.

TG: And you mentioned before that you dislike the term “modernization,” as I can tell from our conversations so far, talking about the antiquity that’s brought back during the Meiji period. But then, there is this introduction of a lot of newer technologies: railways, telegraphs, lighthouses.

MR: I don’t hate the terms “modernization” and “modernity.” In fact, I think they’re a great shorthand for the situation in which there seem to be a lot of things that happen at the same time, and are connected: industrialization, use of new technologies, the introduction of capitalism, the rise of new political forms, the rise of interiority and literature. I think if you just want to capture all of those in a word or two, “modernization” and “modernity” are fine, but I find it a loose, messy bag of stuff. And therefore, as an analytical tool, I really don’t like it.

I personally get greater insight if I look at the individual components of what we call “modernization” or “modernity.” So, “capitalism” I like; I think I got a sense of what “capitalism” is and how that transforms economic relations and how it transforms law and how it transforms how people treat each other. So, if we talk about the introduction of capitalism in 19th century Japan, I feel like we’re getting something. I love the idea of the transnational diffusion of the nation-state, and what’s going on in Meiji Japan is older political forms and attitudes and practices are being reworked to create a Japanese nation-state in contrast to a very different type of polity. I feel like I can get real traction, I can get real insight there, and I’d much rather talk about capitalism, new technologies, nationalism and the nation-state rather than throw them together in a messy soup and say: “Ah, it’s modernity.”

So, it’s a preference, and I was originally going to try and write the book without ever using “modernization,” and I found it was actually impossible, but I don’t use it as a broad, analytical term. In the book, I use it only really to mean much better technologies, or changing in a way that’s closer to the way we do it now. I just don’t like it as a way of trying to explain things. I use it as a very very simple adjective.

TG: And another one of those narratives that had been received from older scholarship that I think we’re now starting to question is not only modernization, but using the term “Westernization.”

MR: That is really messy and for me, what I find fascinating about “Westernization” is the internal anxiety in some of its advocates. I love to make fun of Niall Ferguson because you shouldn’t punch down, but you’re definitely punching up: he’s at Harvard, he’s at Stanford, but he’s a great Westernization advocate, and he explicitly says: “Singapore’s great because Lee Kuan Yew basically spoke English rather than Chinese.” I mean, he’s absolutely vocal about this, and he says: “The Meiji Restoration was Japan copying the West, which is why it was a success.”

So, it’s a wonderful recap of the oldest 50-80 year old versions of the Meiji Restoration as Westernization, and what I find marvellous about Niall Ferguson is how he allays (and perhaps intentionally) his anxieties on the line because he doesn’t know what to do with the success of, for example, 21st century Chinese capitalism. Because it has to, on the one hand, be copying the West or it can’t be successful. On the other hand, it’s clearly not fully Western, so they must be cheating, and it lays out all this tremendous, tremendous anxiety, which is what happens when Western forms are transformed in other places.

To flesh this out a little more, you could arguably celebrate that phenomena that are originally Western, like the Industrial Revolution. When they go global, that is a triumph of Western forms, but for someone like Niall Ferguson, that can’t be right because they’re inherently Western, so for any other civilization to master them almost denudes them of their “Western-ness,” and it’s stealing and cheating. And he almost uses those words in some places. He almost accuses China and Japan of software piracy, that they’ve stolen these Western ideas without proper acknowledgment. So what I love about Niall Ferguson’s account of Westernization is how it underlines this confusion that people, to some degree, don’t want these ideas to go global; you want to hold onto them tightly and make them Western. On the other hand, you want them to go global, but only in a system of Western domination. So the idea that Japan and China could make great cars and take the internal combustion engine, and do it better than it was ever done in Europe or the West could be a form of celebration, but if you’re a Westernization advocate, it’s a source of endless agony and frustration. They save me a lot because I can just say: “Look at those hysterical internal contradictions, and that’s why that idea doesn’t work.”

TG: Earlier, we were placing the Meiji Restoration longitudinally within this longue durée of Japanese history. But if we think about the Meiji Restoration more latitudinally, and looking at some of the things that are happening around the world in the 19th century, do we see some links between these synchronous events? Or is the Meiji Restoration another one of these 19th century revolutions around the world?

MR: You hit on one of the things where I feel like I’m just coming to understand some of the things I point to in the book, and one thing I’m playing with now is noting some of the things we hold up as the “key points” of the Meiji Restoration, so the abolition of old class distinctions, the abolition, in effect, of serfdom, a new emphasis on vernacular literature, the cultural commonalities of the Japanese people in contrast to a celebration, for example, of classical Chinese literature making Japan culturally similar to the rest of East Asia, an emphasis on basic literacy across the realm. And you can come up with this checklist. I did this, and if I simply took out vernacular Japanese and Chinese, and replace them with Hungarian and Latin, I was talking about the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 rather than the Japanese Revolution of 1868.

They are astonishingly similar. There is almost a template of what a 19th century nationalist revolution looks like, and the Meiji Restoration fits in there. So then, the question is: how and why? One simple answer is the leaders of the Meiji Restoration were looking at what was working in the world, and they didn’t describe it as Western. They simply described it as the new legitimate form of polity in the same way that we described as the rising political form, and that’s what you do. The idea that everyone in the world is exploring this new model at the same time makes it much easier to break this out of an East-West paradigm. I mean, if Japan, Hungary and the Latin American republics were all scrambling at the same time to work out the same model, what we have is simultaneous global change rather than this old “Japan catching up” paradigm.

TG: That’s a great point because another of these received narratives is that Japan (and usually paired with Germany) is usually identified as the late developer. But like you were saying, when you start lining these things up, it could be the Hungarian Revolution, it could be Japan, it could be the Italian Risorgimento, even the abolition of slavery in the U.S in 1863, right? In Japan, we see the abolition of domains in 1871. So, should we revisit that narrative of Japan as a late developer?

MR: Well, there’s two points here: one is that the “late developer” narrative basically means after England and sometimes, after England and a little bit after France which still basically means after England. And there, I think we see the gradual disappearance of a much older Anglocentrism in which basically everything modern had to go back to the Old World plow and the enclosure movement, and any other way of explaining things outside of the exact English experience was somehow deviant. I certainly think that’s dying, but we haven’t fully taken account of the fact that Japan is so much in the mix of things, and some of your examples are fabulous.

Here’s another one where I found the period sources were speaking directly to my own question, which is the Meiji leaders themselves don’t think they’re desperately behind. They’re revolutionaries, and revolutionaries don’t overthrow a government unless they think they can solve the problem fast. If you think the problem takes years to solve, you work within the old system, so these people are in a hurry, and they’re absolutely convinced that they can re-make Japan within years.

One thing I find strange but pervasive in our discussion of Meiji Japan is how much we look at it backwards, so if for example, we look at the canonical works of Meiji literature, they will defined generally as the later works of Sōseki, which are these late Meiji works looking back with sorrow on unrealized potential. At the risk of a biological metaphor, we look at the Meiji state not in its vibrant use, but we look at it in its late Sōseki/Shimazaki/Tōson midlife crisis. Therefore, we miss some of the urgency of the original revolution and the confidence that Japan is having a revolution and can just jump right in: “We’re not behind. We’re the cutting edge. Everyone else is doing this at the same time, so it’s not that hard to steal a march on someone.” And that’s so much part of the ethos of the early Meiji state.

TG: With this being the 150th anniversary, we talked about this being the opportunity to revisit some of those narratives and reconsider those narratives. But if we think about it with 150 years of hindsight, would you say that there’s certain lessons that we can draw from the Meiji Restoration for the world today?

MR: One thing I’m working through is the degree to which our current moment feels in some ways very 19th century/early 20th century, and this is not unique to me. I don’t remember who I’m quoting, but there’s a way in which World War I now feels more relevant than World War II with the collapse of the bipolar world. And one way in which that’s very vivid to me is we’re living through, right now, the paradoxes of the nation-state.

On the one hand, it celebrates universal values but on the other hand, it’s very very particularistic. So, the idea of individual emancipation is very much a part of nationalist discourse everywhere, and to some, this is even captured, for example, in the United Nations Declaration for Human Rights. But on the other hand, nation-states are very particularistic, so if you’re in the wrong nation-state, do you have minority rights? And if minorities have equal rights, then why were there nations to begin with? To get to an immediate example, if a Somali refugee is as comfortable in Sweden as he is in Somalia, then why have a “Sweden” and a “Somalia”? So, I see, actually, the Meiji Restoration as being part of the creation of this paradox because it’s a nation-state like any other in the world. It is also officially in the discourse admitted to the family of nations, so it’s recognized just like a world power. On the other hand, that demands a certain particularism. You have to insist that Japan is unique in the world, otherwise why have a Japanese nation-state? And these are the paradoxes I think we work out now in world politics and in domestic politics with matters like refugee crises, so it’s a way in which the Meiji Restoration feels very very immediate: what is the legacy of the Meiji Restoration for modern Japan?

I think what’s difficult and what’s parallel to our own moment in U.S history is we need to recognize both. For example, in American history that the “Founding Fathers” (used the cliché term) gave us a vision of emancipation and democracy and a fabulous civil society, and they were slave-owners. While they were writing in glowing terms about the glories of human rights, they were brutally denying it to people in their own possession on a daily basis, so we have to work through both the promise and the burden of these foundations of the state, and you can see that in the Meiji Restoration as well. I have no doubt that success of postwar Japanese democracy is rooted in the jiyōminken undō. I have no doubt. At the same time, we get the uglier forms of Japanese nationalism: a need to build an empire to glorify Japanese “uniqueness” that can also be traced from the Meiji Restoration, and certain authoritarian forms that are also built in the early years of the Meiji period. So the idea of looking back on this, and, honestly, struggling with the potential and the burden of it is something very 21st century and something common to honest history across the 21st century.

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: 

Mark Ravina, interview with Tristan Grunow, The Meiji at 150 Podcast, podcast audio, January 15, 2019. https://meijiat150.podbean.com/e/episode-86-dr-mark-ravina-emory/.

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