1868 Meiji Revolution

In 1830 the land later known as the nation-state of Japan was ruled by a complex, hierarchical system of domains (han 藩) with the Tokugawa shogunate (bakufu, 幕府) at the top. The policy of national isolation (sakoku, 鎖国) was still in place and the system of “alternate attendance” (sankin-kōtai, 参勤交代) ensured a weak internal and external military capability. If they pledged and performed loyalty to the Tokugawas in Edo lords of the domains, diamyō (大名) were largely left to run their fiefs on their own. Sixty years later Japan was constituted as a modern nation-state with a national bank, a military that in 1905 would defeat Russia in a formal war, and the formation of a national identity that, in theory, included all residents of the home islands and reached down into the daily lives of all, constituting them as new subjects of  the newly installed Meiji emperor.

This key period was not only extremely … on its own, but the issues that came out of this moment—national identity vs. modernization, historical tradition vs. national development, and many more—continue to resonate today making the Meiji Revolution one of the key ruptures in Japanese culture and politics.

We will spend three weeks on the “event-ness” of 1868, paying attention to what movements and ideologies went into it, and what came out the other side, paying attention to the ways this historically specific debate continues to inform the present.

For starters, consider these two photos of the Meiji emperor, noting that not only are they of the same person, but they are also from the same year (1873), and by the same photographer.