Escaping the Binaries of Meiji Modernity

I gave a talk at the “Promoting and Resisting Westernization in Meiji Japan” symposium this past weekend at Scripps College in Claremont, CA. The symposium, associated with the opening of an exhibition titled “Chikanobu: Modernity and Nostalgia in Japanese Prints,” was a lot of fun and included a diverse mix of art historians, historians, and religious studies scholars. The dominant analytical themes were, not surprisingly, “nostalgia,” taken from the catalog and exhibition, and “resisting and promoting Westernization,” taken in part from William Steele’s opening lecture on the “Civilization and Enlightenment” critic Sada Kaiseki.

The proceedings included a few surprises for me, one of which was that the basic opposition of promoting and resisting Westernization, as if Westernization were a coherent and tangible thing, went relatively unchallenged. This seems a bit like piling one problematic binary structure on top of another. I think the organizers intended the name of the symposium to become fodder for analysis, but instead the idea that Westernization and tradition stood in stark contrast, and that people alive during Meiji could be categorized as either promoters or resisters (what I like to think of as the “cheerleader” vs. “rebel” model of Meiji ideology), didn’t really endure much sustained probing. (Maybe we were all too busy looking at the woodblock prints, many of which I hadn’t seen before.)

Today I was back in the classroom teaching “Modern Japan” and I found myself remembering the way that this binary had been taught in my undergraduate days: as a pendulum of public opinion, swinging back and forth between pro- and anti-Westernization. This was a clear and easy hermeneutic to follow when I was 19, but it seems to me now that for many in Meiji the reality was a hybrid culture that emerged from shifting engagement with new ideas, technologies, and people from all over the world. When Kyoto held the first domestic exposition or hakurankai in 1871, it was engaging in a practice that had been learned, in some ways, from the phantasmagoric International Expositions that had been held in Europe and that would soon also be held in America, to be sure. But as Peter Kornicki has shown in his 1994 Monumenta Nipponica article, ample domestic precendents existed. Wannabe industrialists as well as tea masters organized that event, and both were trying to make sense of recent political changes and new socioeconomic opportunities. Of course the dialectic of “bunmei kaika” and “tradition” was an important part of Meiji discourse, but weren’t both of these ideas fundamentally part of Japan’s modernity and thus not really in opposition?

This is, I know, an old debate, but I’m wondering how people deal with this in the classroom? How, when you have to cover a period of time like 1868 to the present, or 1600 to 1945, or however you structure a course on Modern Japan, do you devote ample time to teasing out these lived complexities?


  1. I ignore them.

    Seriously, when I talk about “conservatives” (or liberals, for that matter) I always try to define very carefully what that means at whatever time I’m talking about, and nowhere does it get weirder, I think, than Imperial-era Japan. When I’m talking about culture… well, “syncretic” is my favorite word, all my students will tell you. “Tradition” is a conscious choice (so is change, most of the time), particularly in eras where change is happening quickly, but it’s so rarely a pure thing that there’s little value in creating dichotomies.

    I’ve gotten to the point now that I hardly ever use the term “traditional” without quotation marks (you can hear them in the classroom, actually), and without noting explicitly when the tradition in question dates from. They all have origins, and they all stem from ongoing functional decisions, and when you look at it that way, the issue drops away, at least one layer of it.

  2. I actually do some of the tradition and modernity stuff. Actually, I’m doing it on Monday, so I guess this is a good time to think about it. Part of it is that I like to give them some idea of the historiography. Part of it is that at least some of the people at the time used language like that, and it helps to explain what it might mean. Maybe most importantly I think it helps to have some idea what you are being syncretic with. Lots of people in Meiji Japan really do seem to have thought they were going from and old Japan to a new one, and while the old tradition/modernity thing does not work to explain what they were thinking it does give you a start.
    Actually, I find myself doing more tradition and modernity as the textbooks do less of it. One of the annoying things about the newer books is that as they do less and less of the old “Tokugawa society 1-2-3” I have to do more of it to give some structure to things.

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