Episode 97 – Dr. Hiromi Sasamoto-Collins (Edinburgh)

Originally published on February 26, 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. Hiromi Sasamoto-Collins, Tutor in Japanese History in the Department of Asian Studies at the University of Edinburgh. Dr. Sasamoto-Collins is the author of Power and Dissent in Imperial Japan: Three Forms of Political Engagement, published by NIAS Press in 2013. Dr. Sasamoto-Collins, thank you so much for chatting with me. 

Hiromi Sasamoto-Collins: Thank you very much for inviting me to your program. 

TG: Well, the reason I wanted to talk with you is you recently published this book Power and Dissent in Imperial Japan, looking at what you call “the metamorphosis” of the Japanese state and society, calling particular attention to this tension between civil society and absolutism after the Meiji Restoration. And so, can you elaborate on this, and sketch out some of these Meiji institutions and policies that you argue are particularly authoritarian? 

HSC: Thank you very much for mentioning this tension. I started this project with two rather vague, but to me, very important questions. One is the absence of credible opposition in present-day Japan, say, in the form of political parties or non-governmental voices. The other question, or the other curiosity that I wanted to investigate is personal experiences of political dissent in the Japanese context. I wanted to know how when a people speak out against what appears to be a majority, dominant opinion and go against the grain…So, there are two things: the absence of credible opposition in present-day Japan and my interest about personal experiences of political dissent. This formulation, which is to look at modern Japanese history as a sequence of the tension and confrontations between centralized state power and voices that challenge it, was my way of dealing with these two questions to give dissent a proper place in Japanese historiography as a personal act, and also a social and political act, and also to describe modern Japanese history more critically from individuals’ perspectives. 

I’ve noticed many works on modern Japanese history assume that the Japanese have a very strong sense of national consciousness or identity, they’re a very group-oriented people, Japanese society is very conformist and the pressure from conformity comes from tradition and cultural forms. But my starting point was quite different. I felt that to describe modern Japan as culturally and socially homogeneous is not entirely accurate. My impression, for someone who [was] brought up and lived and worked in the country, [was that] Japanese society is always contentious, like any other society. There are [many other] forms with tensions, but the tension between different opinions and conflicting interests seems to me a very normal part of any social organization, and Japan is no exception. So, I described the tension which emerged after the Meiji Restoration in quite different ways. Sometimes, it’s the tension between the civil society and authoritarian government, civil society and absolutism, constitutionalism/absolutist state and free government/national unity. So, in principle, I thought the tension I’m trying to describe is between a new form of state power/state authority and the new kind of individualism. 

I feel after the Meiji Restoration, of course, there are many, many continuities, but one noticeable change is that some Japanese began to talk about such things as individual rights, need, privacy and their personal desires openly, formally, and question their government, the social organization, and so on from this quite individualistic perspective. So, I wanted to investigate that kind of interaction between a new form of state, and more assertive and individualistic voices. 

About the term “civil society,” you mentioned the tension between civil society and absolutism. “Civil society” we can use as a word, in my case, interchangeably with participatory democracy. The German political scientist Jürgen Habermas has described a civil society as [a place] where state authority is monitored through open, informed and critical discourse by the people, and its action legitimized by public opinion. And I think the whole assumption of Habermas’ civil society is this assumption of liberal individualism, and I accept his usage, although Habermas’ emphasis is, I think, much more sociological. He looked at actual new open forums such as newspapers, journals and coffeehouses and so on, where people can meet and exchange opinions. But my focus is more on public debate, but I do share Habermas’ assumptions of liberal individualism: each person possesses his or her inner life, which should be respected, and in this sense, people are equal with each other. 

So, in a fully functioning participatory democracy or civil society, its person should be treated equally as an autonomous being and allowed to take part spontaneously in the management of the affairs of their society. And whether this kind of civil society existed shortly after the Meiji Restoration, is probably an open question, but to analyze modern Japanese history, based on that assumption, is not the same as to question whether post-Restoration Japan really thought it showed signs of civil society. My interest is the former. I’m interested [in] what kind of knowledge we can gain if we look at modern Japanese history based on this assumption. 

The definition of Meiji absolutism is much more complicated. In the 1930s, Japanese Marxists started to use the concept of absolutism to criticize the Japanese state and capitalist economy, and their definition is really a combination of the emperor system, feudal land ownership and monopolistic capitalism. They based it on their analysis of the contemporaneous Japanese state, and I largely accept their formulation, but my primary interest is not to describe the major characteristics of the Meiji state, but to understand how people – some of the most articulate ones – dealt with the power associated with the state. 

TG: You mentioned the prewar Japanese communists, who are looking at the Meiji Restoration as maybe an incomplete revolution.

HSC: Yes. 

TG: This also brings to mind the work of E.H. Norman, who, being here in Canada, we have a tie with; UBC has the E.H. Norman papers, for example. But as you said, you’re interested not so much in the constructions of state authoritarianism, but really, how the people reacted to that and looking particularly at intellectual dissidents. 

HSC: Yes. 

TG: And so, you describe three of these dissidents in your book who challenge the authoritarianism of the Meiji state. Can you introduce us to these three and briefly tell us about their activities? 

HSC: Okay. I introduced three people: Minobe Tatsukichi, who was a constitutional scholar and is perhaps well known [for] his advocacy of the emperor as organ theory in 1912, which eventually became a target of nationalist and nativist attacks in the late 1930s. My understanding is that he’s trying to introduce the idea of the rule of law. The power given to the state is not limitless. It must be contained, and it must be regulated through the means of the law. So, I was curious about his idea of the law and the political policy. In a way, he’s a part of the political elite, but he published quite extensively about not just the constitutional matters, but the required change [for] the electoral system. He’s very critical of the House of Peers because the house was given almost the same power as the House of Representatives. He was also talking about reforms of the courts and limit abuse of police power. He’s quite liberal, I would think, as a legal scholar. 

Sakai Toshihiko was a socialist leader, and he helped establish the Japanese Socialist Party in 1906, and also the Japanese Communist Party in 1922. He was a very close friend of Kōtoku Shūsui. He translated (with Shūsui) and published The Communist Manifesto in 1905, but he was not an anarchist or die hard communist. He was rather like a social democrat. He became quite critical about one party-led communist systems, so I was very interested in his socialist thought because [it] was very, very important to the development of Japanese political thought in general. But his socialism is much more flexible, and it pays much more attention to this individual desire to fulfill their own need or dream and so on. I’m interested in his very socialist but very individualistic kind of person. 

Saitō Takao is a politician, a conservative politician, who criticized government war policy in 1940. Japan was really moving towards launching a war after the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War. He was not a pacifist, but he was very concerned with the government’s behaviour, going to war without clear objectives, clear explanations. It’s not something that a constitutional government should do, so he attacked, quite severely, the military-led government in 1940. And as a result, he was again expelled from Parliament. He’s a minor politician, but also contributed to the introduction of universal male suffrage, so committed to British-style constitutionalism. 

So, these people are all political elites, I think. Their activities are mainly in areas of public debate through, say, publishing their articles in professional journals or newspapers, popular magazines, public speeches. I think they’re a new kind of public intellectuals. Again, they could talk about such things as people’s rights, autonomy, and then criticize government action based on that view of individualism. Saitō, for instance, was a farmer’s son, and it wouldn’t be impossible for people like him to become a member of Parliament and really talk about such things as an individual or people’s liberty and so on. 

TG: Of those three, I think Minobe Tatsukichi might be the most well known, and as you mentioned, it’s in the mid-’30s that he gets pushed out of Parliament as one of these so-called “Red Professors” along with the Takigawa Affair. But I’m really curious: what was the larger societal reaction to all three of these individuals? You mention Minobe’s emperor organ theory is initially published in 1912, which is the same year that the Meiji Emperor dies. I mean, so was it already seen as controversial in 1912 or is this just a sign of how much things shifted by the 1930s? 

HSC: I think there was a great shift. When he introduced or discussed this emperor organ theory publicly, that theory was more or less accepted. Many textbooks on the Japanese constitution actually mentioned the emperor organ theory as an orthodox theory, so you can see a drastic shift in Japan from a much more normal constitutional system to a very rigid, almost a rejection of constitutional theory. So, Minobe’s life gives us a kind of commentary on Japanese society, how drastically it really changed. 

TG: That’s a great point about how this state-society relationship changes over the course of both the prewar period and then into the postwar period, and one of the anecdotes that keeps coming up in the podcast series is that Japan didn’t have a storming of the Bastille marking the beginning of the Meiji Restoration. To extrapolate on that, you could say that a lot of political changes in Japan really have been somewhat top-down, but that said, we also should recognize that there is constant tension between the state and the society. We could look at all of these protest movements going [on]: you know, the uchi kowashi riots leading up to the Restoration, then you have the Popular Rights Movement and the protests growing from that in the 1880s, the decade of violence in Tokyo in the 1910s, on and on even the 1960s, even today. So, it’s important that we recognize this constant push and pull, but you mentioned that there’s a shift in it as well, especially in that prewar period. So, can you map out some of those shifts over time? How do you think that this relationship has changed over the years? 

HSC: It’s a difficult question, but at the same time, if we look at the things which are really visible like riots and demonstrations and so on, it might [just be] possible to say that Japanese didn’t really go through a radical socio-political transformation. That’s, I think, the one way of looking at it, but at the same time, alternative approaches are possible. 

If we want to understand the Meiji Restoration and its consequences in a way which is more relevant to us today, and perhaps here, we need to examine how [strongly] Japanese, especially educated elite, committed to certain values, and there are certain weaknesses of the political elite, including intellectuals. Perhaps the three people I mentioned are exceptional. They adhered to certain principles because for them, these principles are really central to their worldview, their value system, so why it’s so fragile…at least the Japanese managed to produce a parliamentary system and other things as well, but why did it go so easily to something different? It’s the responsibility of not just politicians, but intellectuals that are the core of civil society. It requires intellectuals who are able to articulate the social problems and propose alternative visions and being critical of the state, and that core of civil society was extremely fragile. Therefore, quite simply, when the political pressure became so strong, that core was crushed, disappeared, and my specific interpretation might be a bit elitist: what about ordinary people? To blame ordinary people for the failure of Japanese democracy is a little bit unfair because ordinary people live their lives, and they have to do everyday things. They don’t have time. They don’t have opportunities to think and act, but the intellectuals – professionals like scholars and journalists and politicians – are different. 

TG: You mentioned before that you started the project from this question of why is there such an absence of opposition in Japan today. And certainly, that’s something that Japan is accused of: having this very low level of civil society and low level of civic engagement, where people are more interested in TV shows and comedians on TV and idols than they are in politics. But at the same time, there are protest movements in Japan today, and you were saying that maybe we shouldn’t blame the normal people. We should blame the institutions instead. Would you say the same is true for Japan today? 

HSC: I think if they are given clear explanations, clear alternatives, they would respond, and I think that each person has the ability to make judgments. So, if Japanese society looks [like a] low-level civil society, first responsibility of blame, I think, should go to professionals, perhaps even scholars, even historians, even sociologists. I’ve always been impressed and moved by the writings of the postwar generation like Maruyama Masao (you know, people who are described as modernist). Their way of analyzing the state system’s authority and questioning it and also [questioning] Japanese society’s practices is so deep and critical, and I think the postwar Japanese liberalism image after the war ended can be described as much more liberal, and I feel it’s thanks to their work [and] intellectual commitment. 

And if we don’t see a vibrant civil society in Japan now, perhaps as I say, it’s a failure of [the] intellectuals (I probably should include myself, perhaps), it’s our inability to articulate the problems that Japan has now. From a historian’s point of view, perhaps Japan needs to look at its history, especially modern history after the Meiji Restoration more critically. It was a militant state, it was colonialist. Its objective was really to pursue the so-called “national achievement goal,” but it’s, in fact…Such a national grand narrative was provided/created by the political elite, the people who had power. It’s not really the narrative created/accepted by ordinary people. So now, we need to bring out the different kinds of narrative, different kind of perspective, which is much more relevant to our value system. 

I do believe there is such a thing as universal values: it’s the value of the individual. The person should be really respected for being a unique human being. If Japanese society looks much more undemocratic or [like a] low-level civil society, what we can do is to inject much debate about, really, values and really, the person’s point of view, not the state’s point of view. Very often, the intellectuals sometimes fail to think about the social issues of government policy from the individual’s perspective. 

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: 

Hiromi Sasamoto-Collins, interview with Tristan Grunow, The Meiji at 150 Podcast, podcast audio, February 26, 2019. https://meijiat150.podbean.com/e/episode-97-dr-hiromi-sasamoto-collins-edinburgh/

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