Episode 90 – Dr. Gavin Campbell (Dōshisha)

Originally published on January 29, 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. Gavin Campbell, Professor of American Studies in the Graduate School of Global Studies at Dōshisha University. Dr. Campbell is the author, recently, of “All Sharers in the Blessed Knowledge: Niijima Jō’s Transpacific Crusade for a Christian Japan, 1871-1873,” in Varieties of Southern Religious History: Essays in Honor of Donald G. Matthews, published by the University of South Carolina Press in 2015. Dr. Campbell, thank you for talking with me today. 

Gavin Campbell: Thank you for letting me join you. 

TG: So, in your research, you’ve looked especially at American and Japanese relations around the Bakumatsu and Meiji period, and particularly around diplomacy and the importation of Christianity. And other than that, you’ve written widely on topics ranging from [Niijima] Jō as one of these travellers back and forth to toilets, Britney Spears. So, I’m really interested to hear your perspective on the Meiji period. 

GC: I guess I’ve been unusual among the guests that you’ve had so far in that actually, my background is in U.S. history. I got my PhD at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and wrote my first book on the history of the South, which is what I was trained it, and had every plan to spend a career researching and writing about the American South and its culture. But I just happened to get a job teaching American Studies at Dōshisha University 17 years ago with a plan to be here for one year as a visiting professor and been here ever since, so my approach to the Meiji period is very much informed by my background in U.S. history, and particularly, by the transnational turn that’s taken in American history, in American studies. And I think that that can be a big benefit to study[ing] the Meiji period because of course, these are very critical issues related to transnational cultural interactions. So, that’s particularly my interest, is trying to use my background in American history to have a slightly more nuanced understanding of the transnational contacts that Japan is making. 

Naturally because I’m here at Dōshisha University, we get bombarded with Niijima Jō, Niijima Jō, and that intrigued me, and I began to research him and trying to understand how to think about him as a transnational figure. And I think that to me, what has been the most compelling questions has been – in my teaching among Japanese undergraduates and graduates – just how unshakeable the sakoku idea [is], even among our Japanese students here, and of course, among Americans. And despite all of the efforts, you know (laughter), historians have made over the years to try to demonstrate this, there’s a powerful metaphor involved with the idea of Japan being closed and then forcibly opened by an aggressive European/American power. And I thought that Niijima was an interesting way to begin to re-examine the relationship between the United States and Japan because it doesn’t put all the action on Perry. It doesn’t put all the action on the United States. That is, you know, when you begin a narrative – any historical narrative, where you begin tells you a lot about where you’re going to end. And if you begin the narrative with Perry, that’s going to tell you a lot about what you think that relationship is about. But if you begin 10 years before in 1843 in Edo with the birth of Niijima and his tremendous passion for Western knowledge and the degree to which he took extraordinary personal risks, intellectual risks, cultural risks to go to the United States not because he was forced to or because he had no other choice, but because of his intense curiosity about the world, that, I think, can help reframe some of this idea of Japan back on its heels, but actually, reaching out and embracing the world and finding it fascinating and seeking ways to intensify that relationship. 

So, a lot of my research in doing U.S.-Japan material has been to try to see the ways in which Japanese people have reached out and tried to imagine themselves in a larger kind of communion. And right now, I have an article coming out in the Pacific Historical Review in the fall that examines the relationship between missionaries in the larger East Asia region. And there are attempts, along with Christians and potential Christian converts in East Asia to try to imagine what this trans-Pacific communion would actually look like. And of course, there were many failures and limitations along the way, but I’m still continually fascinated by these points of contact in which people are not shrinking away, but actually are exploring, curious, eager to learn more. So, that’s sort of where a lot of my research focuses on. 

TG: And you mentioned that you got your PhD in U.S. History, and so, you’re approaching Japanese studies from this perspective of the U.S. And so often, we think of Perry (as you were talking about) as the one who opens Japan, but Perry wasn’t the first to come to Japan. In fact, there was this 1846 mission by Biddle to try to open Japan. And so, from this perspective of the U.S., where does Japan fit into the U.S. expanding into the Pacific in the mid-19th century? 

GC: I think that it represents America’s opportunity to try to match its rhetoric, its self-image. But some reality: it’s an incredibly bellicose country with an incredibly inflated opinion of itself, of its standing in the world, which is just simply not matched by reality. It just doesn’t have the ability to stand up to the Western European powers, but it talks a lot. And I think that it finds Japan as a domain that is free and open for American action, so I think that it represents the opportunity for the United States to finally put into action what it thinks. And the way that Perry acts when he gets to Japan is to, you know, have this incredibly imperious attitude, which he thinks will shock and awe the Japanese. It doesn’t work all that well, but he’s impressed with himself, and I think that he carries with him the sense of American grandeur and destiny in that the Pacific is going to be an open field that hasn’t yet been totally controlled by the Western European powers. 

But I think more interesting to me than those sorts of political narratives that are very, very important…but I was trained as a cultural historian, so I’m very interested in these cultural encounters. And one area that I think is dying out for some research was a well-known merchant who was named Silas Burroughs who travelled to Japan almost within a week of the conclusion of the treaties. He wanted to be the first tourist to arrive in Japan, so he had built his own yacht, and he had travelled all around the world, and he arrives in 1854, and he’s determined to travel and see Japan. So, those are the kinds of stories that I think are worth exploring as, you know, these people’s interests, these stories sort of get buried underneath the Perry narrative. 

TG: Do the missionaries that you write about fit into that kind of cultural history of this mixing of cultures? 

GC: Absolutely, absolutely. They are just vital. And so, what I try to do in the latest article and with some of the stuff on Niijima that I’ve worked on as well is to try…I think we’re sort of currently stuck within two paradigms for thinking about the missionary encounter. One of them is that missionaries were agents of cultural imperialism or the shock troops for larger forces of military power and economic power that would come later. And the other is to argue that well, native converts to Christianity fundamentally reformed Christianity to meet local needs and local circumstances, so that, you know, they were not simply swallow whole the entire tee of the doctrine as was preached to them. 

And I think both of those are extremely valuable approaches, but again, because I’m interested in connections and contacts, I think it’s also worth pointing out that in fact, there are many, many native converts and missionaries in Japan who are actually eager in trying to figure out how to come to some cooperative agreements with each other. So, the article that I write about is about a doctrine that arrived in the late nineteenth century in the Proetestant denominations that was called “Second Probation.” So, the question arose: Well, if somebody had never heard of Jesus and had never read the Bible, never met a missionary, and just simply died in “pagan ignorance,” where are they going to go to hell? Was God going to send them to hell? And for many old-line Calvinists, the answer was pretty clear to them: “Yes, that was going to be true.” But a lot of missionaries in the field said: “Well, we’ve got two problems.” First is when we have a lot of places that do ancestral rites, if you go tell people: “Well, if you convert, well, your parents and your grandparents and every generation before them is in hell, and there’s nothing you can do about that.” Well, that turns off an awful lot of people. And so, this becomes a problem, and there are many, many Christians in Japan, for example, who are eager to figure out some way to compromise, but they also don’t want to make Japanese Christianity. 

People like Niijima were not interested in trying to create a Japanese version of Christianity. He’s a Christian. He sees himself in communion with other Christians around the world, so I think that we need to understand that there were people who were exploring how to come to some sort of compromise, as they may not have always worked out or may not have always been that satisfying, but I think it’s important to get an alternative way of thinking about this particular relationship beyond indigenizing Christianity or cultural imperialism. 

TG: In talking about the diplomatic relations between Japan and the U.S., especially following Perry’s visit with the black ships, there’s this old narrative The Clash by Walter LaFeber. What do you make of this idea? I mean, obviously, we don’t want to draw a straight line between Perry’s arrival and World War II, but it does seem to set these two countries off on a path towards expansion into the Pacific, right? 

GC: Absolutely. I think it’s possible to tell multiple narratives that don’t cancel each other out. We might have a political narrative that does that, but I think that again, as I said earlier, where you begin the narrative tells you a lot about what it’s going to contain and where it will end, and I think that basically, when you have the Perry narrative, it ends at Pearl Harbour. That’s the narrative arc. But if you begin with Silas Burroughs arriving on his private yacht a week after Perry leaves, then you have to tell a different story. Or if you start the story in 1843, with the Japanese baby who’s going to go abroad on his own volition to study in the United States for nine years, that’s a different narrative again. So, I think that it’s important to be able to tell multiple narratives, but none of them necessarily cancelling each other out. 

TG: And you mentioned that even more than some of these political narratives, you focus more on the cultural narratives, and if we think about cultures and clash, maybe one of the things that, as many tourists to Japan will know, the biggest clash of cultures (maybe not so much anymore) is about the toilets, which is something that you’ve written about, and I’m really curious: why toilets? And how did you get onto this topic, and what did you discover about Japanese toilets? 

GC: Well, I got onto this topic because I was reading many, many travel narratives about Japan (many of them contemporary), and in the contemporary (that is, say, beginning of the 1980s forward), it’s just guaranteed that in about 80-90% of the books, they will have some kind of story about their mishap with the toilet. It usually happens with the washlets where you push the wrong button and the water sprays out. 

TG: (Laughter) Right, we all have one of those…(Laughter) 

GC: Sadly . What sort of intrigued me was that this was often used as a sort of metaphor to understanding something about Japan and the Japanese culture and Japanese people. And so, that consistency intrigued me, so I began to research. I’m a historian, so of course, I was interested in going back and finding travelogues from the nineteenth century, and finding out what people had to say about the toilet, and it was true then as well. Of course, there weren’t any washlet toilets, but people, you know, were battling over the toilet as a symbol of Japanese culture, whether Japan was advanced or not, and there was, I think, a kind of intriguing ambivalence that people had. They wanted Japan, (and continue to have), they want Japan to be different. But when you go into the bathroom, you don’t want it to be that different. It’s not so charming to be different anymore. And then, you know, they become “backwards,” or it’s some “malfunction” of Japanese society. 

So with the washlet toilet, it’s often presented as a kind of peculiar technophilia that the Japanese have that sort of makes them slightly different than human because they’re so peculiar, they seem so afraid of bodily functions, and so, that’s why they have to have the noise machines on the toilet. It just sort of struck me, as even in the Meiji period as people began travelling to Japan, that the toilet sort of served as a frequent metaphor through which often, Western travellers tried to interpret the meaning of Japan and the meaning of difference. 

TG: This being the Meiji at 150 Podcast, there’s been a lot of talk about sesquicentennials and 150th anniversaries and things like this. And I noticed one of your publications even alludes to 150 years of plumbing. What is the anniversary there, and how does that story come out? 

GC: Well, okay (laughter). Although I’m a historian (laughter), I just sort of played fast and loose. I was just meaning that I was basically thinking about back to the Meiji period when, you know, we begin to have tourism come to Japan. But especially again, during the Second World War, there were a number of anthropologists and sociologists who argued that the Japanese character had been warped by its toilet training, and blamed militarism, so it just sort of seemed to me that there’s a kind of thread by which, for some reason, the toilet, of all things, is a way for Westerners or Americans to “understand” Japan. And I just thought that was a very peculiar thing. 

TG: Ruth Benedict and Chrysanthemum and the Sword

GC: There were more. I mean, she was just one of a number of people who made this similar argument, so you know, when the Occupation begins, well, they figure: Okay, one of the ways we can reform Japan is by reforming its toilet system as well. They start installing Western-style toilets and then they get mad, you know, because they find people squatting on the toilet seat on the top, and, you know. Somehow, again, I’m just sort of intrigued by why it is that toilets seem to be such a central metaphor for understanding Japan. You know, if you look up on Google “Japanese toilets,” you get an enormous range of things, but if you type in Japanese onto Japanese Google “Western toilet” or “American toilet,” you get hardly anything at all. But Japanese toilet has a whole Wikipedia page in English. 

TG: They certainly have become a noted feature of this kind of perception of Japan around the rest of the world, which is surprising because as you were saying, these are things are so mundane that we often take them for granted, and we don’t really give them the historical attention that they deserve. And this is true of many materials throughout history, and I understand you’re also working on a project looking at menswear in particular, and clothing being another thing that is very performative and deserves much more historical attention. 

GC: Yes, well actually, you put a finger on something that also animates almost all of my work, is I love any project where it’s something that you deal with frequently or daily, and yet, we don’t really think about it very much, and actually bring[ing] it to our attention is something that I really, really enjoy doing. 

So lately I’ve been working on a book called Fashioning Japan that examines the history of menswear in Japan and the Meiji period particularly. I haven’t figured out exactly where I’m going to cut it off, but the bulk of it will take place in the Meiji period, and I’m interested in the transition to Western-style menswear. And I think that, you know, my interest here, again, is transnational. Here, I am interested in thinking about the ways in which Japan encountered the world, and the Western world especially, so the idea of the book is to try to use [it] to challenge what I think, again, is sort of this standard narrative of Japan being closed and then Perry coming in and breaking things open and then a huge scramble to figure out what to do. And I think that clothing has very frequently been used to symbolize the rapid transition in the Meiji period towards Westernization, and when that comes up, it’s almost invariably pointed out that in 1872, Emperor Meiji began wearing a Western-style uniform and then it sort of implied that the rest is history. From there, everything flowed. 

But actually, I think when you begin to look into it, clothing formed an extremely central political question: a political and cultural question about the kinds of relationships that Japan would have, the cultural and political relationships Japan would have with the West. And I think that when you begin to look into it, you find that actually, the emperor had, in many ways, a very limited impact. Japanese wear has now been narrowed down to the kimono, but of course, everybody knows that there was an enormous range of traditional wear depending on marital status and occupation and age. There was an enormous range of clothing options, and the kinds of wear (things that the emperor wore at court or things that the shōgun wore at court, and the daimyō) had very, very little influence outside of those contexts because the clothing there was specifically designed to meet the political and status needs of those people. So, unlike in many Western European countries where often, fashion flowed from court into the broader upper class and middle class, that was not true in Japan. The emperor changing his clothes didn’t convince everyday people to just begin wearing Western wear. He’s wearing a specific kind of uniform, so I think that, you know, we have a sort of idea that why did people begin wearing Western clothes? The answer is the emperor did it. 

I think that’s not very accurate, or the other is that the Westerners did it because they come in and they ridicule. You know, they particularly don’t like things like naga-bakama. They think [they] look ridiculous or they don’t like the painted eyebrows and the blackened teeth. They think, you know, these are all kind of ridiculous, but the problem with the idea that the change occurred because of Western opinion is that, in fact, when you look at Western accounts, particularly in the latter half of the nineteenth century, they hate Japanese people wearing Western clothes. They want them to wear kimono. They want them to look like [what] they have seen in the ukiyo-e. So, if Japanese are changing because they’re afraid of Western opinion, they would have probably stayed in a kimono because the dominant opinion is that the Japanese looked “ridiculous” wearing Western clothes. I think if we dispense with either “the emperor did it” or “the Westerners did it,” we can begin to take a more nuanced approach to how Western clothes began to arrive in Japan, and what were the reasons that people began to adopt either an entire outfit or to just simply use pieces. 

So, one way to do that, I think, is to see that the points of contact between Japanese and Western wear are different, and so, the reason people began to wear clothes depends on that point of contact. For example, many ryūgakusei go study abroad. None of them stay in their traditional wear. They begin to wear Western clothes, and when they come back, they wear Western clothes, but the reason they do that is not because the emperor ordered them to do it. And then of course, government employees who changed into their workwear and then changed when they got home again back into their everyday wear, or government officials who go negotiate on the global stage. Another one is, say, business people working in the treaty ports, working with foreigners, or people who just are stylistically curious. So, I think we need to understand that there are multiple motivations, multiple points of contact to Western wear. 

I think we also need to understand that we have to be more careful in defining what Western wear means because if you look at any pictures of the Meiji period of a large crowd of people, you’ll find lots of people wearing Western hats and maybe carrying a Western umbrella, but then otherwise in traditional wear. So, do we call that Western wear? Are they Japanese wear? All through the Meiji period, it was far more likely to see somebody on the street who was wearing a kind of hybrid style, a kind of modern style that had elements of modernity to it, but yet, not going entirely over to wearing…So, what’s the point at which we can say somebody’s wearing Western wear? 

And then I think the last thing that the project is aiming to do is to understand, for folks who focus on Japan, that this idea of “Western clothes” becomes a sort of category that’s without history. It’s just Western wear, but I think that we need to understand that Western clothes have a history too, and we can understand that the Japanese adapted, and adapted a very particular wardrobe. They didn’t begin wearing Western clothes. They didn’t wear kilts, they didn’t wear lederhosen, they didn’t wear sombreros. They picked a very small range of Western wear, and I think it’s because we need to understand that those garments were themselves quite recent in Western countries, particularly in terms of their political usage. So, they’re very much a development of the Napoleonic era and the early years of the nineteenth century, as men begin adopting a particular kind of wardrobe, and it’s that particular wardrobe that is a kind of symbol of imperialism. This is the wardrobe that Japan encounters, so if they’d encountered the West 100 years earlier, they might have been wearing the outfits that you would have seen in Versailles at the end of the ancien régime. So, I think we also need to break down this idea of “Western,” and one way to do that is by looking simultaneously at Western wear, its history and its development. 

And I’ll end this long soliloquy by just inserting the United States as an example in that, and the book also takes a deep dive into the United States because I think the United States, at almost the same period, faces many similar kinds of questions about how it wants to represent itself in clothing abroad. As I mentioned earlier, the United States has a very inflated opinion of itself abroad, but it actually has very, very little power. And it goes abroad, and it wants to show that it’s a republic, and so therefore, they don’t want to wear the kinds of uniforms that are dictated by court. But they don’t really have enough power to assert themselves, so there’s this constant battle about what they’re going to wear when they go to the various courts of Europe, just like Japan. So, they’re not able to dress themselves. They have to follow the rules of the court until 1853 when the Secretary of State issues an order saying that well, whenever it’s possible, you should just wear a black suit, a black wool suit, and no ornamentation to show that we’re a republic. 

But this creates an enormous diplomatic kerfuffle in the courts of St. James and in Paris as well, where they are ridiculed and sidelined. So, when the United States arrives in Japan in 1853/54 (the very same year that Marcy, the Secretary of State, issues this order), Commodore Perry is not going to have anything to do with that. He’s not representing a republic. He’s representing the United States Navy, and he insists on a full dress uniform for himself and for all of the marines and the navy men who are coming along with him. And they take great pains to dress themselves so that Japanese would see them in a particular kind of way. But once he leaves, the United States is too weak to actually enforce its will in Japan. So, when Townsend Harris arrives in 1856, you know, he’s negotiating and negotiating, trying to even get in to meet the shōgun, and a lot of the negotiations revolve around clothing. For example, Townsend Harris is told that he can’t wear his shoes when he goes into the court, that he’s going to have to wear his stockinged feet, and nobody in the bakufu is going to wear Western clothes to receive him. They all wear what is appropriate for themselves, but they go through an enormous range of discussions about what they’re going to wear, but none of it is discussions about what they’re going to wear for Western wear, what’s appropriate to wear in this case. 

So, they have to go back to the records and find out the last time the Korean delegation came (sometime in the early 19th century), and they say: “Okay well, we’ll wear those clothes.” So, clothes really represent a kind of contact point where people are trying to represent themselves personally and their own personal authority as well as the nation itself: What does the nation stand for? What are its values? And can you, by using clothing, try to force your counterpart into recognizing you and the nation that you represent in the way that you’re representing yourself and that nation? 

I think clothing, therefore, represents a very intriguing approach to diplomacy, but also individual identity and individual self-fashioning. So, I think people like Niijima Jō again come into it because when he comes back from the United States, he brings back with him a pattern for a shirt, which he has a tailor in the United States make for him and the tailor writes detailed instructions about how to make a shirt, so that when he gets back to Japan, he can wear Western clothes again. He’s planning on wearing Western clothes as a kind of statement about who he is as an individual and his place in Japan and his relationship with the world. So, this book Fashioning Japan is an attempt to try to examine the role of clothing, particularly menswear, in coming up with a connection between national identity and personal identity. 

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: 

Gavin Campbell, interview with Tristan Grunow, The Meiji at 150 Podcast, podcast audio, January 29, 2019. https://meijiat150.podbean.com/e/episode-90-dr-gavin-campbell-doshisha/

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