Asian Revolution in a Global Age

Ian Rapley

The events leading up to and surrounding the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the revival of direct imperial rule in 1868 have always been amongst the most significant in modern Japanese history. Indeed, the Meiji Ishin (or Restoration, as it is usually rendered in English) became both a reference point for historical actors and an interpretive problem for historical scholars almost as soon as it had taken place. Mark Ravina’s book, To Stand with the Nations of the World, is an important and timely contribution to our understanding of a complex and nested set of events. It is the first major narration of the Restoration as a whole (in English) for a generation and, as such, it is a call to us all to bring the insights of new methods of history to a classic debate.

The internal dynamics of the Meiji Ishin

Central to the task of interpreting the Meiji Restoration and understanding its meaning and significance has been understanding its trajectory. The Restoration originated in a movement which took the slogan ‘Revere the emperor and expel the Westerners’ (Sonnō Jōi), advocating resistance to the incursions of the Western powers and reversion to some manner of Japan’s ancient politics, yet the Meiji government which resulted ended up embracing international trade and politics and reforming many of the aspects of Japan in obviously Western ways. The title To Stand with the Nations of the World, is taken from a speech given in 1871 by Itō Hirobumi which articulated a view of the Meiji Restoration as a modernising revolution, showing how immediately the processes of forgetting and reinterpreting began. One of Ravina’s main aims is to take this style of rear-facing interpretation to task by demonstrating the internal dynamics of the Restoration as considerably more complex and conflicted than one might suppose.

The core analysis of the first half of the book is an examination of the politics and ideas of the different factions who fought over control of the Japanese state in the middle of the 19th century. In analysing the spectrum of competing motivations, Ravina coins two phrases: ‘cosmopolitan chauvinism’ and ‘radical nostalgia’, which take aim at two binary oppositions common to the modern history of Asia: East–West and Tradition–Modernity.

Rather than nativist against foreign, or precedent against reform, Ravina effectively demonstrates how much similarity there was in approach between different, opposing factions such as the ruling Tokugawa Bakufu, the rebels from Satsuma and Chōshū, and the holdouts of the Northern Alliance. The Tokugawa embraced and experimented with Western ideas in a range of fields at least as eagerly as the rival Han, for example. Similarly, the initial instincts of the new Meiji government were more incremental than one might suppose. Even freed from the precedent which had hampered the Tokugawa’s efforts at reform, the early Meiji leaders initially aimed to retain the federal structure of Japan’s domains. Only when bottom-up efforts led to the conclusion that a centralised approach was inescapable did the radical restructuring that saw the elimination of the samurai as a class take place. In this way, Ravina does not so much eliminate ideas of East, West, tradition, and modernity as show that, though each of the impulses was present, they related to one another in unexpected and complex manners that added ideas of the universal to the native and the foreign, and the ancient to the traditional and the modern.

Towards a global history of the Meiji Ishin

In the second half of the book, Ravina explores how the new Meiji state conducted a series of reforms with the effect of transforming a complex polity into one that we recognise today as a paradigm example of a modern nation-state: fixing borders and sovereignty over peripheries such as the Ryukyu Islands in the south and Ezo (Hokkaido) in the north, centralising the government and its monopoly over international relations and military matters, and standardising and regularising the idea of the Japanese people and their relationship to the Japanese state. It is important to stress two dimensions of what Ravina calls a ‘global isomorphism’: firstly the adoption of new forms for reasons of function (i.e. what worked) but also for reasons of perception (that is to say, rendering the Japanese polity into a form recognisable and readily legible by the Western powers).

However, whilst the model of the modern nation-state is clearly analytically insightful when looking back at events, I wonder whether arguing that the Tokugawa reformers were seeking to create a ‘nation-state out of conventional political structures’ (p. 84) or that the new Meiji rulers were acting ‘in order to create a nation-state’ (p. 126) risks an overly teleological view which naturalises the concept of the nation-state as settled, static, and clearly dominant earlier than it perhaps was? These are minor turns of phrase, it is true, but I think that they do indicate ways in which to take the study of the Meiji Restoration more thoroughly into an age of global history.[i]

In the late 19th century the West was far from settled in terms of political models: Europe was convulsed by revolution in 1848, the US Civil War took place in the 1860s, as did the Russian emancipation of the serfs, and the unification of German and Italian states, for example, were progressing even as crisis was swelling in Japan. In his history of the 19th century, The Transformation of the World (Princeton University Press, 2014, p. 406), Jürgen Osterhammel calls the 19th century an ‘age of nation-state formation’ [his italics] rather than ‘an age of nation-states’. This highlights that idea that the emergence of the Japanese nation-state occurred at a time when imperial structures and national ones coexisted side-by-side. Indeed, not only did Japan label itself an empire at least as early as the treaties signed in the 1850s, but when Itō Hirobumi was charged with writing the Meiji Constitution, he spent as much time in Vienna, capital of the multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire, as he did in Berlin.

Work such as Seth Jacobowitz’s Writing Technology in Meiji Japan (Harvard University Press, 2016) shows that in some dimensions Japan was much less the recipient of the conclusions of Western experiment and debate as a participant in the ongoing experiments themselves. I think we can productively extend this to the case of national formation, by asking the extent to which Japanese reformers were able to discern a single emergent model out of the flux they found in the West, if so how they did so, and if not, how they prioritised different concepts such as republicanism, constitutionalism, and nationalism. Ravina explores Japanese use of Napoleon as a way of thinking through Western politics and Asian models, and introduces a series of early Meiji thinkers, but I think it would be productive to further problematise the dynamic space of possibilities encountered by Japan in the West.

This is important and exciting work. The Meiji Restoration, as demonstrated by Mark Ravina, is replete with exciting contingencies (the untimely death of Emperor Kōmei or the assassination of Ii Naosuke, for example), interesting counter-models (such as the alternative Emperor and Shogun promoted by the short-lived Northern Alliance) and global entanglements (e.g. the warship the Kotetsu-maru, aka the CSS Stonewall Jackson). At stake is not only the question of how Japan was shaped by a global moment: there is also the question of what is revealed about the global by the case of Japan. Whilst it might be the case that few at the time were struck by the importance of the Meiji Restoration, as an example of global trends playing out in a context distinct to the better known Western states, it can hardly be matched. As such it continues to have much to tell the scholarly world beyond those of us who study Japan. Whilst projects such as Meiji At 150 ( document the rich and sophisticated work being done on the Restoration in a variety of fields, Mark Ravina’s book is a welcome call to rejuvenate a classic debate of modern Japanese history and encourage us to continue to tackle big interpretive questions.

[i] It has become usual to distinguish between world history and global history as distinct approaches to thinking on a supra-national scale; in context I think it is clear that Ravina’s approach owes more to the latter than the former, despite the subtitle ‘the Meiji Restoration in World History’.