Episode 88 – Dr. Colin Jaundrill (Providence)

Originally published on January 22, 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. Colin Jaundrill, Associate Professor of History at Providence College. Dr. Jaundrill is the author of Samurai to Soldier: Remaking Military Service in Nineteenth-Century Japan, published by Cornell University Press in 2016. Dr. Jaundrill, thank you so much for talking with me today. 

Colin Jaundrill: Great to talk to you, Tristan. 

TG: Your research has looked at military history, and particularly around the Bakumatsu period going into the Meiji period, and you recently wrote this book Samurai to Soldier: Remaking Military Service in Nineteenth-Century Japan. And before we get into talking about that, when we think of Japan, – and this comes up in our classes all the time – we always think of Japan as this samurai country, and things like bushidō are very prevalent in the conventional wisdom of Japan. So of course, yes, there is a long martial history, but is this a problematic assumption? Or can you unpack that assumption for us a little bit? 

CJ: I think the short answer is yes, it is definitely a problematic assumption, and a lot of the fun, I think, comes in the unpacking. I certainly don’t think that anything I’m going to say in the next few minutes is really going to answer this question in any final sense (laughter), but it is a lot of fun to talk about. 

I actually had a similar personal experience that relates to this. Going all the way back to my undergraduate days, I did my junior year abroad at Nanzan University in Nagoya, and followed a friend of mine to do karate for the college club. And at one point at the end of the year when we were all getting ready to leave, our senpai were giving us gifts, and the thing that they gave me as a keepsake to take home was actually a copy, entirely in Japanese, of Nitobe’s Bushidō, and my senpai’s comment was just: “Well, if you want to learn more about Japan and if you want to understand Japanese culture, this is the book to read.” I don’t know if I actually ever opened it (laughter). It’s probably, in fact, still sitting on my bookshelf in my office, but it does just goes to show that, you know, this sort of identification of bushidō and samurai with some kind of a national identity is pervasive, and you know, has been for quite a while. And you know, one that comes up not just in the U.S. because of course, it’s something that you know, as you said, we hear a lot from our students, for instance, but it’s something that you’ll even get from friends in Japan who aren’t historians, obviously. 

And it’s something that comes up for me in class as well. A couple classes that I teach that have, I would say, closer bearing on this question are, you know, I do a samurai seminar as many of us do, and another course I teach is Japanese pop culture as postwar history. And in both of those classes, I’ll usually ask students, whenever we do anything related to samurai – which in the case of the seminar is the entire class, and in the case of the pop culture course, we have a three week unit that’s principally on jidaigeki, samurai in films in Japanese cinema, but also American uses of that (we do a little bit on The Last Samurai, for instance) – and whenever we talk about those things, I always ask students what their own image of the samurai is, where it comes from. And one of the things I found that’s really interesting, especially when we’re dealing with North American students is that, you know, their perceptions of the connection between samurai, bushidō and Japan are really various, and it’s shaped by so many different layers and so many generations of pop culture. And sometimes, that’s stuff coming from the U.S., and sometimes, it’s stuff coming from Japan. 

In the most recent iteration of one of those courses that I taught, one student, when he was thinking about samurai, was drawing on this anime called Afro Samurai – I don’t know if you’re familiar with it – that sort of spawned from a dōjinshi and then turned into a show. And another was more of a cineaste whose image of the samurai and its connection to Japan was from older postwar period films. You know, like Kurosawa films, for instance. Even though all of them have this sense of some kind of essential connection between samurai, bushidō and Japan, what that archetype means to them, what they’re imagining when they imagine that connection varies widely. And one of the things I’ve liked to do in class is (to try to get at that) to give them assignments that relate to pop culture, and ask them to interrogate how the piece of pop culture they’re looking at uses the mythos of the samurai and how it relates to that. 

Another reason this ends up being useful is because you know, as somebody who is getting a little bit older and is not as in tune with the pop culture of the early 21st century, it’s good to have the students go out and do a little bit of legwork for me. You know, because I don’t have time to keep up with things like the Warhammer 40K mythos. And believe it or not, that’s one of those things in which you’ll actually see some of these connections pop up. Another that surprised me was actually the card game Magic: the Gathering. I had a student do a project that dealt with the way that one of its special releases mobilized bushidō and samurai imagery. It was really interesting. 

When I’m teaching, I don’t know that I’ve ever set up the topic of the samurai in such a way that I’m dealing with the myth of the samurai versus the reality. I’ll make references, in some case, to the historical situation, but I never adopt a fact versus fiction framework because in some cases, I don’t even think that it’s desirable. In the postwar pop culture course that I teach, for instance, one of the films that we screen for students (one of my favourites of all time) is Seppuku, the Kobayashi film, and with that, I mean, that’s a film that’s so rich in terms of its connections between…I mean, it’s dealing with themes of bushidō and war, and I don’t know if you can take that out of its immediate postwar context because even though it’s, you know, notionally about the seventeenth century, it’s so much about the use of bushidō and the samurai as an icon during World War II that taking it on its own in trying to approach it in sort of a fact versus fiction way would miss out on all those rich connections that are a part of the mythology. 

And it’s funny. Even on a personal level, dealing with essentialist portrayals of the Japanese military that treated this bushidō/war/samurai connection unproblematically was one of the things that got me into doing this topic in the first place. When I was…I think I was either a freshman or sophomore in college, I don’t remember the exact year. I was, at that point, double majoring in history and Japanese, and I went to go see Malick’s version of The Thin Red Line on film. And as a sophomore who had just read Dower’s War Without Mercy in a Japanese history class, I remembered being sort of incensed because you know, at least to me at the time, the film was recycling tropes from World War II-era propaganda that portrayed the Japanese as “at one with the jungle,” and that’s one of those things that I ended up cycling back to in my senior year when I wrote a thesis on seishin kyōiku in the interwar military. And as I was doing that, one of the things that I discovered was that a lot of the…at that point, I don’t think Ed Drea had published…I mean his history of the Japanese army certainly hadn’t come out yet, and only a couple of academic essays that dealt with the topics that I wanted to explore had been released in English. In Japanese, there was a great big field out there, ready for a young undergraduate to dive into, but in English, one of the things that surprised me was that a lot of the so-called “histories” of the Japanese army that were out there were pretty heavy on essentializing generalizations. 

And it was a desire to write a better history to get away from that is one of the things that prompted me to write about conscription and to write about military service in a more historically grounded way. 

TG: As you were saying, so much of this contemporary understanding of Japan as this land of the samurai and the samurai warrior is filtered through World War II, where there’s this kind of easy conflation of the samurai with the Japanese soldier. But of course, you just wrote this book, which is talking about well, there is a divide between those two right around the Meiji period. So, diving more deeply into your book, can you talk about this conscription process, how the samurai class is replaced by the soldiers, and can you describe why this transformation occurred? And what role does the Meiji government have, and what is the Meiji government trying to achieve by replacing the samurai with the soldiers? 

CJ: As with any history, the short answer to that is it’s complicated. The perspective that I was trying to update was really this older idea that you know, the Meiji government comes to power after the Restoration, and sets about building this militarily strong, industrialized nation, and everything that had happened before that was essentially just prologue. And I think that, you know, one thing that happened in our field over the course of the ‘90s and then the first decade of the 21st century is we saw that idea of the Meiji government as the initiator of these things demolished in so many different areas of mid-19th century history with regard to diplomatic relations, capitalism, proto-industrialization, just to name a couple of different things. All of these things have much deeper roots, and the military was no exception to this. 

Even as our perspectives on those other things shifted, there did still seem to be this idea that oh well, with conscription, yes, it really was the Meiji government that was doing the innovation. But the reality is you have this long process of military reform and change that stretches back at least a couple of decades into Bakumatsu. So, the Meiji government is coming in at midstream. It’s not just reforming the military on its own, and I would say that the timeframe for my book really starts in the 1840s with the way the Tenpō Reforms tried to engage new military technology. But I think that it’s fair to say that it’s really around the 1850s and the 1860s when you start to see major changes to military organizations happening, and also happening in an accelerated fashion. 

And contextually, one of the big things that’s going on here is just that the likelihood of armed conflict, moving from say the 1840s into the 1860s, has risen dramatically. In the 1850s, and you know, right up until around the middle part of the 1860s, up until 1863/1864, the main concern was external pressure: defending the country against Britain, the United States, Russia or France. But especially after 1864, when it’s clear that the wheels of political hegemony are coming off of the Shogunate, you have civil war happening in Mito, Chōshū has essentially become a rogue state within the Japanese archipelago. All of a sudden, you start to see militaries envisioned for domestic use and not just for defending the waterline, and there are really two sets of things that drive changes to military organizations:. you know, this gradual replacement of the samurai by other kinds of fighting men. And one set of reasons is sort of the political and social dynamics of existing military organizations, and the other set especially as we get into Meiji is fiscal pressures. 

To go back to Bakumatsu, when you do have pretty, I mean, “revolutionary” might be a little bit of a strong word, but when you do have fairly drastic experiments with new kinds of Western-style militaries in the 1860s, you start to see the Shogunate and domains drawing manpower, and it should be noted that this is only manpower. Although there’s a little bit of stretching of the boundaries of traditional military recruitment, there’s never really a moment when you see people in a position of authority talking about recruiting women for military service, for instance. But you have the Shogunate and domains drawing manpower from the social margins, so that means recruiting footsoldiers, menials (that is to say bukei hōkōnin) commoners, and at least in the case of Chōshū, even outcastes for military service. Creating a nineteenth-century Western-style army with infantry, cavalry and artillery, it’s easy to draw people from the margins and re-organize them willy-nilly than it is to reorganize the upper echelons of the retainer band, and maybe risk angering people who, you know, have more to lose and have, also, a lot more political clout than the average footsoldier. Those are pressures that actually continue for the Meiji government until the abolition of the domains in 1871. 

And both, in fact, (the Shogunate and the Meiji government) try to create federal military systems, where they have a strong military core under central control and then domainal militaries that are all a part of the forestructure, but both of those sets of efforts fail. And when the Meiji government finally pivots towards abolishing the domains in 1871, it really is sort of a “two birds, one stone” proposition where it gets to remove any potential domestic challengers to its legitimacy, and it also centralizes military control at the same time. But of course, I mean, another thing that will come up in any survey history of Meiji Japan is once the domains were gone, the Meiji government ends up assuming the burden of warrior stipends, which is just crippling from a fiscal perspective, and there’s an internal debate at this point over what the army should look like in the wake of the domain armies going away. 

There are two real sets of opinions within the Meiji government: one is that there should be a professional army where soldiers are paid and it should be fairly small, and another group within the Meiji government advocates for a conscript military, which would be much cheaper. You know, the conscripts don’t really get a salary. They just get fed and housed and uniformed, and you end up creating a massive reserve with this system. And that’s the vision that eventually wins out, but there is an internal debate all the way up until 1872 over what the Meiji government’s army is going to look like. That’s another thing that’s, I think, important to keep in mind is the Meiji government was very much figuring things out in a trial and error fashion, from the outbreak of the Bōshin War right up until the time conscription was instituted. 

And reactions to the conscription law, once it was announced, surely, while hurting former samurai, there would have been new opportunities for commoners too. And it’s funny, that’s how Yamagata tried to pitch it (laughter). So, if you sit down and read the Conscription Ordinance, it really is a fascinating document because it does try to pitch conscription as a kind of opportunity for the people who would be drafted and end up serving in the army, and when these documents are drafted, it’s late 1872 through early 1873. There’s a rescript on conscription, there’s a proclamation regarding it, and then there’s the Conscription Ordinance. And they all look like they emanate from different periods in time, but it’s actually right around the end of 1872 when the Meiji government switches from the lunar calendar over to the Gregorian calendar. And so, even though it looks like it’s several months part, it’s actually only a few weeks. 

When the conscription law is announced in early 1873, it doesn’t use any language that evokes the warrior past in any real way. In fact, when warriors are mentioned, they’re actually excoriated by the conscription ordinance. It tends to portray warriors as…because here, it’s thinking of warriors as, I’m assuming the Shogunate, at least from the perspective of leaders of the Meiji government. It sort of labels warriors as lazy usurpers, implying that what the Meiji state is doing is taking military service back to the good old days of, basically, the Nara period, when you had a conscript military that represented the nation, and the emperor was its direct commander-in-chief. So, it tries to refer back to a past that, at that point, was a thousand years old and imply that that was the natural defence arrangement of the country. And in describing that system and how the Meiji government is going to bring it back, the conscription ordinance implies that everyone in the nation, including both samurai and commoners, have now been ennobled to an equal level because now, they both have the opportunity to serve directly under the emperor, as it should be. But of course, when the policy itself is announced, very few people are happy with it. In 1873, quite famously, there are major conscription riots, particularly in western Japan, and after these protests happened, the Meiji government will be happy to promote the narrative that the ignorant masses were misled by the language of a so-called “blood tax” (a ketsuzei) in documents related to conscription. But this is something that is belied by the fact that many groups of rioters actually drew up very perfectly cogent lists of demands that also called for the abolition of the new land tax, the abolition of the Western calendar, the rollback of outcaste emancipation. Rolling back conscription was also among those demands. So, I think people knew what it was, and also, the Meiji government was not, as I’ve said earlier, the first governing body in the archipelago to conscript commoners for military service. Certainly, domains and the Shogunate were doing it in the 1860s as well. You know, so the idea that this was an unknown phenomenon just…I don’t think it ever really held any water. 

In terms of other reactions, former warriors did not respond to the conscription law all that well either, and that was especially true of people within the warrior status group who were further down the status ladder. The institution of a conscript army meant that some people who had been employed as volunteer soldiers could no longer count on the military as a potential avenue of employment going into the Meiji period. And one of the things that’s interesting to note about the shizoku rebellions in particular is the locations. If you think of at least a few of the major ones: so Hagi, Saga, Kumamoto, Satsuma. All of those are domains that had fought on Kyoto’s side in 1868 with fairly recently reformed armies that also drew heavily on the lower echelons of the warrior status group. So, those were precisely the kind of people who thought that they had helped make the Meiji government, and presumably expected something resembling employment in it, you know, after the Bōshin War had been settled, but that avenue is closed out by the conscript army. 

And this is something that, you know, was by no means unique to shizoku in the aftermath of the Restoration. After 1869, for instance, you actually have an uprising of veterans in Chōshū who are upset that the domain’s reorganization of the army had cut out some of the commoner veterans of the Bōshin War. Likewise, the village of Totsukawa (south of Kyoto) had contributed a large body of men to the defence of the capital in 1868 on the expectation that they would have some kind of employment in the post-Bōshin War army. But it doesn’t work out that way, and they do threaten to rise up at one point, although the early Meiji government manages to negotiate a resolution. So, it wasn’t just warriors who were upset that they might not have employment in this new conscript army, and yes, I don’t think that there were many people who were all that happy with this. (Laughter) 

TG: You mentioned that in that initial conscription edict that was promulgated in 1873, they actually write out warriors from that edict. In fact, it leads to an excoriation of warriors, but then, it’s not to say that this idea of the warrior spirit or bushidō way of the warrior is also expunged from Japanese history. In fact, it comes back quite often as a way to instil esprit de corps into this Japanese military in the 1880s and 1890s, isn’t it? 

CJ: One thing I think when we think about the way that the army uses the samurai legacy and uses bushidō is we have to be very careful not to see a continuous thread running from Bakumatsu all the way up through World War II. The sense of a lingering continuity is something that you’ll see in postwar kōzaha historians of the military particularly. Because for them, there’s this idea that Meiji was an incomplete revolution, and you have these feudal survivals into the modern era that almost doom Japan to militarism. It’s important to empathize with those historians because given the history that they lived through, how could they not see it that way? 

But for our purposes, it’s also important to break up the timeline a little and try to figure out where some of the twists and turns, and where the inflection points are. And so, you know, like I said earlier, the early conscription ordinances is pretty much allergic to samurai. You have a tough time finding language or anything that portrays former warriors in a positive light, and I think one of the things that, of course, complicates the army’s potential use of, let’s say, warrior language or its appropriation of warriors for ideological purposes is the fact that in the 1870s, they’re still fighting against the government, right? We have shizoku uprisings of the early 1870s, culminating in the Satsuma Rebellion, and as long as they’re actually fighting the government, valorizing them (at least within the army) is not something that’s really possible. 

Plenty of other people are valorizing the rebels during the 1870s. If you look at Satsuma Rebellion nishiki-e for instance, it’s not really hard to know who the artists are rooting for. Very often, it doesn’t seem like it’s the conscripts, but after the Satsuma Rebellion, once warrior rebellion is a less present danger, once it’s a less realistic possibility, warriors do become appropriable, but that’s not the entirety of the story. Another thing that’s going on in the late 1870s through the early 1880s is that at the command level, the army is very concerned about politics within the ranks, and this is particularly true of Yamagata. There is some criticism at the top level. For instance, with other generals being critical of the Chōshū clique within the army, and even at the lower levels, you even have – and this is something that Tobe Ryōichi has written about  – non-commissioned officers in some cases, many of whom belong to the upper strata of various commoner groups who become active in Freedom and Popular Rights Movement agitation. And so, depoliticizing the army is a major concern for its commanders in the late 1870s, early 1880s. 

What you start to see around that time is the creation of a sort of positive disciplinary code that references warrior values, right, in a broader sense: things like loyalty, respect and propriety. Things that are not necessarily screaming “warriors,” but they do have, very broadly speaking, a kind of Confucian valence that evokes warrior values. And it’s also important to point out that the people running the army at that point, people like Yamagata, had that shared education, so that’s what they draw on when they’re looking for tenets to motivate conscripts in a positive way in terms of why they’re fighting. 

And so, that’s sort of the first injection, I would say, of the samurai bushidō stuff, and it doesn’t reach a fever pitch at this point, but there is another, I would say, inflection point around the time of the Russo-Japanese War, where you have a coincidence between the army’s own efforts to propagandize itself and the popular discourse of bushidō that’s ongoing at the same time. And I mean this is something that I am by no means an expert in, but would certainly recommend Oleg Benesch’s book. His book talks about the popular discourse, but this overlaps within the army, with the army particularly after the Russo-Japanese War, when you have the publication of Sakurai Tadayoshi’s Human Bullets (Nikudan), which, you know, very much says that the single factor that has enabled Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War is a yamato damashii, which comes from its samurai legacy, and Sakurai portrays himself in the book as just another officer, but he’s somebody who actually has fairly strong political connections, particularly to Ōkuma Shigenobu. And as soon as the book is published in Japan, it is translated almost immediately and read fairly widely. It’s an official attempt to combine these threads into a narrative of the army representing a modern version of that warrior past, and as such, something that is essential to the Japanese nation. That’s where you see those elements coming together in a very strong and overt way, and then of course in the 1930s with the rise of the so-called “Imperial Way Faction” within the army and also the navy, that connection gets intensified even further. 

TG: Along the same lines, there’s this book Hagakure that, I believe, gets very popular again amongst the conscript soldiers during World War II, and continues to still be very popular as the book The Way of the Samurai, all of the secrets of the way of the samurai. And it’s one of these that continues to be popular even amongst businesspeople, along with other books like Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. And maybe we can talk about another type of reappropriation of this bushidō samurai spirit in the business setting. And you get these haphazard comparisons between Japan’s new businesspeople during the 1990s: they’re the new samurai who are now waging warfare on the economic battlefield. 

CJ: Yes, I mean it’s a body of texts that I always chuckle at, and I’ve never really analyzed in any kind of serious way. You know, when I do my samurai seminar with undergraduates, many of them don’t have Japanese language ability, and so unfortunately, we don’t get to take these things apart in any kind of critical way even though I’ve always wanted to do it. 

I’ll tell students: “One of the things that’s funny about Hagakure or any of those is you can walk into a bookstore, particularly a popular bookstore and find Hagakure for business.” It is really funny that you have this whole genre of books that is taking little nuggets from things like Hagakure, from things like The Art of War, and turning them into lessons for businessmen. You know, again, probably emphasis on the men in that case. It’s appealing to a very particular idea of corporate masculinity, I think, but I think one of the things that makes that possible is both of those are texts that very much lend themselves to piecemeal appropriation, and well, let’s just say “convenient reinterpretation,” so ones that have these easily digestible maxims that one can apply to a variety of different situations. 

And in the case of Hagakure, well, let’s just say that Tsunetomo is covering a wide range of topics (laughter), I think it’s fair to say. And any 40 of them could easily be plucked out of the text and used as an epigraph for a chapter, and there you go, you’re off to the races. There’s something, I think, particular to the business world in which people think of themselves as fighters and conquerors, and look to the martial world or the military world for inspiration of a kind. You know, so in addition to looking for texts like Bushidō and The Art of War, I’ve also seen bookstores stock books that are like George Patton’s 10 Best Lessons for the Business World or the same for Ulysses S. Grant or anyone else like that. There is this idea that there is an affinity between the business world and the battlefield that somehow can be exploited by people in the present day if they’re able to tap into this ancient wisdom. And I think the orientalized version of that that’s drawing on Hagakure or drawing on The Art of War is just a subgenre within that bigger genre of business self-help authors going martial. 

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: 

Colin Jaundrill, interview with Tristan Grunow, The Meiji at 150 Podcast, podcast audio, January 22, 2019. https://meijiat150.podbean.com/e/episode-88-dr-colin-jaundrill-providence/

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