By Gideon Fujiwara
Japan is now commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration. Beginning in late 1867, Satsuma, Choshu, and other powerful domains of the southwest restored the emperor to the center of government and toppled the Tokugawa regime. These actions would bring an end to nearly 700 years of samurai rule. The imperial forces fought supporters of the Tokugawa in the Boshin civil war, while they formed the new government and advanced modern reforms across state and society. The Restoration thus represents a political revolution that accelerated major transformations across government and society. As such, it would be useful to include this Meiji Revolution within the larger Age of Revolution.
Nineteenth-century Japan witnessed a series of revolutions across the Japanese archipelago. I examine two of these—one informational and another political—in this post, as well as in my recent article, “Channeling the Undercurrents: Fūsetsudome, Information Access, and National Political Awareness in Nineteenth-Century Japan,” in The Journal of Japanese Studies. While it was known previously that communication and cultural network revolutions enabled the spread of information across social classes in early modern Japan, I focus on the emergence of private compilations of political documents called fūsetsudome, which were explicit in reproductions of uncensored edicts, memoranda, and letters issued by the shogun, feudal lords, members of the court, and Western officials. These documents reveal the pervasive culture of information sharing between the Japanese elite and commoners. Those with samurai contacts who had political authority increasingly had access to sensitive and uncensored political information.
Japan had a widespread print culture pre-Meiji. Evidence of this can be found in the public media broadsides (kawaraban), brocade pictures (nishiki-e), and “print material” (surimono) produced in especially large volumes following the arrival of U.S. Commodore Matthew C. Perry and his naval fleet to Edo Bay in 1853. By juxtaposing public media forms alongside the private collections of fūsetsudome, we see the far-reaches of the informational revolution that indicate both the growing breadth and depth of national political awareness across Japan. Such developments are especially well-documented in the case of merchant-class painter and kokugaku (nativist) scholar Hirao Rosen (1808-80), who compiled two fūsetsudome to document both Perry’s arrival and the Meiji Restoration from the Hirosaki domain on the northern edge of Japan’s main island of Honshu.
When Hirao Rosen compiled a fūsetsudome in 1855 following Perry’s arrival to Japan, he documented the incursion of Western powers to Japan, the “opening” of Japan’s ports, and the challenges of responding to these developments across the country. In producing his second fūsetsudome in the early 1870s, just following the Meiji Restoration, Rosen not only documented the political and social changes, but he highlighted contributions of his own domain of Hirosaki to the cause of the Restoration, and celebrated the repositioning of the young monarch and the imperial court to the center of politics. It was not until the late 1870s that the modern newspaper had spread across Japan and become the accessible, preeminent news source for readers of the modern Japanese state. In this sense also, the fūsetsudome served a vital function, especially from the 1850s and until well past the Restoration, as it continued to fulfill a sharp demand for uncensored political information, and represented rigorous efforts to collect high quality information with considerable volume and speed.
These two revolutions—of information access and the Meiji Restoration—shaped one another. Criticisms of the Tokugawa regime through print media had previously been suppressed and punishable by death, but from the 1850s, the authorities could no longer restrain dissenting opinions that demanded change. While popular print media such as broadsides and the emerging newspapers facilitated the spread of information in great speed and volume, the private collections of fūsetsudome offer glimpses into the quality and extent of uncensored political information that was being accessed even by merchant-class intellectuals. My analysis of these documents transmitted between the capitals of Kyoto and Edo and Hirosaki domain on the northern periphery confirms the view that this domain made its fateful decision to shift allegiance from the Tokugawa shogunate to the New Government primarily based on intelligence of the latter’s victories in the Boshin War. My examination of Rosen’s fūsetsudome chronicles in detail how these two revolutions unfolded on the northern edge of Honshu. Further comparisons of these many fūsetsudome and their compilers across the archipelago will surely add to our understanding of how the two revolutions (in)formed one another. In turn, the Restoration encouraged public discussion on political and social matters and advanced both the dissemination and accessibility of information.
Gideon Fujiwara is an assistant professor in the Department of History and Coordinator of Asian Studies at the University of Lethbridge. He holds a PhD in Asian Studies from the University of British Columbia and an MA in Japanese Intellectual History from Tohoku University. He teaches courses on the histories of the world, East Asia, China, Japan, Nations and Nationalism, and Modernity, as well as Asian Studies. Recent publications include: “Channeling the Undercurrents: Fūsetsudome, Information Access, and National Political Awareness in Nineteenth-Century Japan,” in The Journal of Japanese Studies (summer 2017), and “Rebirth of a Hirata School Nativist: Tsuruya Ariyo and His Kaganabe Journal,” in Values, Identity and Equality in Eighteenth and Nineteenth-Century Japan, edited by Peter Nosco, James Ketelaar, and Yasunori Kojima (Brill, 2015). Gideon recently presented on the history of the New Year Poetry Ceremony at the Japanese Imperial Court and did a podcast on the Meiji Restoration as part of the “Age of Revolutions” for the Meiji at 150 Project at UBC. Gideon is completing a book on ethnography, kokugaku, and the experience of community in nineteenth-century Japan. Current projects include a history of Tohoku region and studies of waka composition from Meiji times.
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Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken in Procession before the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, in a colorful triptych which represents the Meiji Restoration.