Episode 98 – Dr. Lionel Babicz (Sydney)

Originally published on March 1, 2019

[This transcript has been edited for clarity.]

Tristan Grunow: This is the Meiji at 150 Podcast. I’m Tristan Grunow. My guest on this episode is Dr. Lionel Babicz, Lecturer in Japanese and Asian Studies at the University of Sydney. Dr. Babicz is the author, recently, of “February 11, 1889: The Birth of Modern Japan” in Japan’s Multilayered Democracy, published by Lexington Books in 2015. Dr. Babicz, thank you so much for talking with me today.

Lionel Babicz: Thanks for having me.

TG: We were recently at a conference together where you were giving a lecture about February 11, 1889, and making the argument that that’s really the date when modern Japan starts. Now, we often think of 1868 as the beginning of modern Japan, but you’re saying instead, we could put it a little bit later in 1889. So, could you tell us the significance of that date, and what you mean in arguing that that’s the real beginning of modern Japan?

LB: Well, I think the Meiji Revolution (because it was a revolution) should be viewed as a process, a process spanning over a few decades. The Meiji revolutionary period started on the 8th of July 1853 when Commodore Perry sailed into Edo Bay, and it came to an end on the 11th of February 1889 with the promulgation of the Constitution, the Meiji Constitution. I think that only such a broad and dynamic view can render the complexity of Meiji, and the depth of the changes that Japan went through.

So, your question is why February 11, 1889 as the end date? First, because this is how the Meiji government wanted to see it. The Meiji government intended February 11 to mark the official birth of a new Japan, a civilized Japan, a modern Japan [as] we said today. The Constitution was said to be the crown on the edifice erected step by step along two decades, and it was to be the opening of a new and brilliant chapter in Japan’s long history. So, these are the official intentions, but there was also more to that than these official intentions.

We can find, actually, three main threads intertwined in that day. Three threads which together, create a symbolic milestone in the history of modern Japan, and which brings to an end the Meiji revolutionary period, the first chapter of Meiji. These threads are, first, the constitution, as I mentioned, but also the assassination of the Minister of Education Mori Arinori, and also a third thread, which is less well known, which is the launch of the new nationalist newspaper Nihon, which was founded by Kuga Katsunan. These threads, in my sense, are at the intersection of the past, the present and the future. They are closely related. They reinforce each other, and they create a new path, which will eventually lead to disaster. This is why we can say that February 11, 1889 marks the end of a chapter and the start of a new one. It is the end of the first chapter of Meiji, and the start of a new chapter, which will eventually lead to large-scale expansion, to war, to defeat, to catastrophe.

TG: You mentioned these three threads of modern Japan, and hopefully, we can unwind each one of them in turn. So, if we start with this first one: you’re talking about the promulgation of the Meiji Constitution on February 11th, 1889. Can you tell us a bit more about why that date in particular was chosen?

LB: Sure, sure. February 11 is a kigen setsu. It’s the foundation date, and this celebration had been established only at the beginning of Meiji in 1873. It marks the official anniversary of the enthronement of the first emperor, mythical Emperor Jimmu in 660 BCE. The decision to celebrate this mythical event had been adopted already in 1872, but the definitive name kigen setsu and the definitive date 11 February of the Gregorian calendar were to be set in 1873, in the following year. As this span of time shows between the adoption and the setting of the name and the date, this was no simple matter at all. The date of kigen setsu was closely linked to the adoption of the Gregorian calendar by the Meiji authorities, and this one was of the strongest symbol of Westernization.

In parallel, it was also decided upon complicated calculations based on the Nihon Shoki that the year Jimmu ascended the throne was 660 BCE of the same Gregorian calendar, and this would therefore become the first year of the imperial calendar, which was called kōki, so it’s kōki gannen. I think the fact that the foundational event of the Japanese nation was set and would be celebrated according to a foreign calendar expresses already in 1873 the deep ambivalence and pragmatism of the Meiji era.

Now, if we go back to 1889, by choosing this anniversary, the anniversary of the ascension of Jimmu to the throne of Japan, the Japanese leadership was stressing that Japanese modernity was linked to the remotest origins of the imperial dynasty. This link was expressed in the official ritual of the day. This ritual was made of two parts, which were both held in the new Imperial Palace. The first part happened at 8:00 in the morning. The emperor entered the sanden, the threefold shrine, which was the most sacred sanctuary of the palace, and which was totally newly built. Present there were members of the government, members of the nobility as well as prefectural governors – not a very big group. The emperor was wearing traditional court dress, he performed the kigen setsu rites, he addressed his ancestors to inform them of the event of the day (which was the promulgation of the Constitution), and then he also read an oath to the ancestors.

This event was deeply symbolic, but it was the second part of the ceremony which would be remembered as the main event of the day. The first event was quite intimate, in a small circle. The second part, the grandiose happening, was held in the seiden, the newly built Great Hall of Ceremonies of the Imperial Palace. But the seiden event has been visually represented in numerous images, and it has become part of the collective memory of modern Japan, at least until 1945. So in the early morning, we see the emperor addressing his ancestors. Now, later in the morning, he’s addressing his subjects. The Constitution defined the subject’s duties and rights, so it was crucial that they could see the emperor addressing them directly. And it was also no less crucial that the Western world could see Japan turning into a constitutional nation, a civilized nation. This is why the audience is much bigger than in the morning.

We have the government, members of the nobility, but here in the seiden, we also have members of the diplomatic corps, and we have also foreigners employed by the Japanese government. So, the emperor entered the hall at 10:40 at the sound of the Kimigayo. He was followed by the empress. He had stepped out of the traditional clothes he was wearing in the early morning ritual, and he was now dressed in a Western-style military uniform. The whole event was very short. It did not last more than 10 minutes. The participants were then handed the Japanese and English versions of the Constitution, and a few hours later, we have special editions of the newspapers sold in the streets, and the Constitution was disclosed to the public.

If we continue following the day, the rest of the day was a mixture of popular festivities and grandiose official ceremonies. At 1:00, the emperor reviewed the troops in Aoyama, and afterward, he went back to the palace to rest, and in the evening, he hosted a magnificent dinner.

By the way, for the Japanese public, one of the highlights of the day was the role the empress played in the festivities. The empress was present in the palace Great Hall. She entered following her husband. She was wearing the diamond crown and a long-sleeved pink gown. And at the end of the ceremony, the imperial couple headed for the military parade grounds in Aoyama in the same cart. The people who have gathered along the streets were truly astonished at this extraordinary sight. It looked [as] if the empress was on an equal footing with the emperor. That was totally incredible.

TG: We should also mention that February 11th is still National Foundation Day in Japan. In fact, some of these rituals that you’re talking about the emperor still conducts on February 11th each year. But the day isn’t called kigen setsu anymore. Now, it’s called kenkoku kinenbi (literally National Foundation Day). Can you talk about why is there this change? Is it because of this linkage to the earlier Jimmu story that you were referring to before?

LB: Yes, because actually, 11 February has a long history also after that. The biggest kigen setsu will be held in 1940, for the 2600th anniversary of Jimmu’s ascension to the throne. This will be [a] huge celebration. It’s 1940. 11 February even before that was adopted especially by right-wing organization[s]. 11 February would also be used by the Japanese authorit[ies] in their colonial outpost in Korea. For example, the enforcement of Japanese names on Koreans (what’s called sōshi kaimei) began on the 11th of February 1940. This was part of the larger policy of forced assimilation of the current population to the emperor’s people.

So, the celebration of the 11th of February was suppressed after the war in 1948, if I’m right. But at the end of the 1950s, you see a conservative movement aimed at restoring the central position of the date in the national calendar. So, there was a strong opposition to the move, but it was finally revived in 1967 under the label that you mentioned: National Foundation Day (kenkoku kinen no hi or kenkoku kinenbi). And it is celebrated today, I have to say altogether very modestly, except by some right-wing groups.

TG: Interesting that there is that conservative connection because if we go back and unwind that second thread you mentioned: the assassination of Mori Arinori, there is kind of a conservative element to that as well.

LB: Of course, indeed. Actually, so if we go back to that second thread, we have one odd event that occurred during the morning ceremony in the seiden. The seat of the Minister of Education Mori Arinori had been left empty, and no one could explain why. But the matter would be kept secret the whole day, and disclosed only toward the end of the festivities. Mori had been stabbed in his residence that very morning, just before leaving for the palace. Mori was seriously injured, and he will die the following morning on the 12th of February.

Mori is very famous, but we should remember how original, iconoclastic and controversial he was. Mori was one of the first Japanese to have been sent to study in England before the Meiji Restoration when he was only 18. He also travelled to Russia, he travelled to the United States, and there, he converted to Protestantism. He returned to Japan immediately after the Restoration, he was recruited by the government, and he worked for many years at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He was the first Japanese ambassador in the U.S., and he was also ambassador in Beijing and in London. It’s also well known that on the intellectual front, Mori was one of the founders of the Meirokusha society and of its publication Meiroku Zasshi.

Mori was radical. He was provocative, both in words and deeds. He suggested replacing the Japanese language with a simplified form of English. He was also a proponent of women[‘s] equality, and he married in a Western-style ceremony, signing the contract with his wife, and the couple will be so modern that they will eventually even divorce.

Mori became Minister of Education in 1885 as a member of the first Western-style government, and when he was assassinated, he was only 41 years old. He was killed for having allegedly desecrated the grand shrine of Ise. The rumours said that Mori pushed aside a sacred veil with his walking stick to check what was behind it. Mori’s murderer – and here, we’re coming to the conservative side of the assassination – was a 24 year old who was named Nishino Buntarō. And Nishino was the son of a samurai from Chōshū, he was an employee of the Public Works Bureau, he had also studied some English, and the press reported that he was on duty at the Ise Shrine during Mori’s visit.

Mori’s visit happened one year before that in 1887, and Nishino is said to have been deeply shocked by the sacrilege committed by Mori. Nishino was killed on the spot by one of Mori’s guards, and Mori, as I said, died himself the next morning. The death of Mori was a big shock, and the press, at first, mourned the passing of a committed minister, a great public figure. But very soon, the newspapers started also to praise his murderer.

The fact that Nishino had paid for his action with his life created intense sympathy: Nishino sacrificed his idealism, the touching letters he had left to his mother and brother, all these deeply moved many people. And as the days passed, voices for support and sympathy not only became louder, but critics of Mori’s actions multiplied. His conduct during his visit at the Ise Shrine was scrutinized, and Mori was accused of being a seiyō kaburei, a man affecting Western manners.

In my sense, these reactions to Mori’s death were not anecdotal. They were the expression of widespread feelings and ideas that were in deep harmony with the new chapter opened by the promulgation of the Constitution. The fact that Mori’s life ended one day after modern Japan was officially born amid applause for his murderer, was symbolic of the end of an epoch. It was the end of the time of the old enlightened Meiji nationalism, and it was the beginning of a new age, which would eventually lead to expansionism, militarism, war and disaster, as I mentioned before.

TG: It’s certainly [an] age of increased conservatism in the middle part of the Meiji period.

LB: Yes.

TG: And you write that Mori Arinori really is this very controversial, very radical figure. He is Minister of Education, but some of these more conservative gestures in education do come during his time [as] Minister of Education, don’t they?

LB: That’s right because Mori was a patriot. So actually, he is following people like Fukuzawa Yukichi who see the development of the individual in the service of the nation. And so, Mori’s education is aimed at developing the individual, but the eventual aim is to serve the nation, to serve Japan.

TG: Right, and that’s certainly a different emphasis than you see earlier in the Meiji period where it’s talk about “well, we need education so that each of the subjects can go out in the world and make something of themselves.” Not so much of that Neo-Confucian traditionalist aspect of serving the emperor first and foremost.

LB: Yes, but I’m not sure Mori is Neo-Confucian. Mori is more, as I said, along the line of developing the individual in order to serve the nation. This is what Fukuzawa is saying already in Gakumon no Susume: the strong country is made of strong individuals.

TG: Speaking of this wave of conservatism, one of the vehicles for this was, of course, the Nihon newspaper, and you mentioned your third thread is the first issue of this Nihon newspaper, which is also published on February 11th, 1889.

LB: And we can say that if Mori’s death symbolized the failure of this Meiji liberal Enlightenment ideas that we just mentioned, the publication of Nihon denoted the emergence of a new kind of nationalism. At first, the name of the publication is of striking simplicity: just Nihon (Japan). And its founder was an ambitious young journalist named Kuga Katsunan who’s not very known today in Japan. Kuga was seeking new definitions of Japanese identity, and was attempting to resolve the question that tormented his generation: What does it mean to be Japanese in the modern world? Kenneth Pyle wrote a fantastic book already in 1969 (if I’m right) about all these groups, this generation of Meiji Japan.

Kuga himself was a product of this new Japan. He was born 10 years before the Restoration, and he was born in the backward northern hinterland: Ura Nihon, the back of Japan. But Kuga had succeeded thanks to the possibilities the modern world had offered him. Like Mori, Kuga had carefully studied Western thought, but unlike Mori, he was not seduced by Enlightenment ideas. Kuga was fascinated by another brand of thinkers: conservative, counterrevolutionary people such as Edmund Burke or such as the French de Maistre. And the reason Kuga chose February 11 to launch his newspaper was to signify that the Meiji Constitution not only marked the success of Japan’s modernization, but also, it symbolized the opening of a new chapter in which Japan should express its uniqueness and find its original way.

Nihon, as you may know, will become one of the richest intellectual press organs of late Meiji, and it would host some of the most talented people of the time: people like Masaoka Shiki, Hasegawa Nyozekan, Maruyama Kanji. The quest for new definitions of what we can call “Japaneseness” launched by Kuga and Nihon produced incredibly sophisticated outcomes, and influenced generations of Japanese intellectuals. Kuga called his nationalism “kokumin shugi,” and he explained that kokumin was the concept of “nation” as defined by the French Revolution. And this view was far away from the ideas that would eventually prevail and lead Japan towards imperialism and war.

Kuga himself died quite young in 1907, and his liberal conception of nationalism ended in a stalemate. Nevertheless, his ideas and activities would be of utmost importance because by playing his part in the rise of a new nationalist alternative to early Meiji Enlightenment thought, Kuga indirectly contributed to the extreme nationalist ideology that would eventually triumph.

TG: It’s amazing that all of these events happened all on the same day, and it’s easy to forget this. But at the time, did people think of them as connected in anyway or is it just total happenstance that these all occurred on the same day?

LB: I don’t think people saw these as connected. The 11th of February was intended to spectacularly mark the birth of modern Japan, so they did. The ceremonies were a great success, and a sense of [a] new beginning was transmitted to the Japanese public and to the outside world, which was no less important.

At the time, I would say that Mori’s assassination and the launch of Nihon were not really seen as part of the events of the day. Nevertheless, with hindsight, these three threads appear closely linked, reinforcing each other into a mesh in which modern Japan would eventually get entangled. I would go even one step further and say that the ambiguities and paradoxes of the 11th of February reflect the contradictions of modern Japanese history because on the one hand, modern Japan is exceptional. Japan is situated in Asia, it’s part of the great Chinese civilizational sphere, so one could have expected Japan to struggle with the industrializing Western countries in a way similar to China.

But Japan took a different course and became the first country in Asia to industrialize and modernize. This is, you know, the standard Meiji narrative. Nothing is original here. But on the other hand, Japan’s modernization process itself was also very typical. Like other modern industrialized countries, Japan built a modern nation-state. This state was based on a modern nationalist ideology. This ideology was anchored into a mythical past, and Japan also became a modern imperialist power. So, Japan became a modern country. As a result of these contradictions, modern Japan, on one hand succeeded in escaping colonization and occupation at least until 1945. But this is the other side of the coin: it also brought huge suffering, not only upon its neighbours, but also upon itself.

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:

Lionel Babicz, interview with Tristan Grunow, The Meiji at 150 Podcast, podcast audio, March 1, 2019. https://meijiat150.podbean.com/e/episode-98-dr-lionel-babicz-sydney/.  

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