Toilet seat warmers for winter, graphic anime designs and a self-cooking kitchen are some of the contemporary innovations in modern-day Japan. Quite a contrast to the famous slogan, of the nineteenth century, “Eastern ethics and Western science”; “ancient patriotism and modern scientific application” which indicates the secret ingredients of feudal Japan’s rapid rise to power. In just forty years the hitherto, homogenous country radically modernised –a remarkable feat, breaking old, traditional habits to adopt “superior” Western ways. Perry’s opening up of Japan launched the Enlightenment or Meiji era, one characterised by nationalistic ties which not only succeeded in westernising politics, social class and culture but created a window for us to view the tensions and bloody consequences. It was a time when imperialism and a strong nationalism drove the country to take the West, and serve the divine Emperor, -“Revere the sovereign, expel the barbarian.”
Before 1868, foreign pressure, or should I say, economic imperialism (from the West) and the arrival of foreigners, immensely strained traditional Japanese culture and its customary solitude. At times it led to civil unrest and the emergence of the shishi or “men of spirit” who opposed the Westerners. It was believed that the outsiders would “poison the souls of the Japanese and convert [them] to Christianity and demolish their identity.” This is revealed in the primary source, of a Nishiki-e print where a reassuringly fearsome, sumo wrestler is beating a powerless European sailor. The huge Japanese man is portrayed as far more powerful as he towers above the sailor who has been pinned helplessly by only one gigantic bare foot. In the background, the western onlookers are cowering aghast, defending a vulnerable woman in a crinoline. This 1860s print emphasises the deep Japanese hostility towards occidentals, the strong Japanese nationalist spirit and also the fear of change. Yet, it may also be seen as propaganda which attempts to convince the public to avoid changes to society and preserve its true culture and isolation. Not only that, but since the Nishiki-e prints were a popular medium at the time, it was designed to convey its message quickly and accurately to the general public especially to the lower classes who were illiterate which emphasises its purpose, as misleading, biased propaganda. So, this source is not entirely reliable but is useful for providing one perspective of Japanese society and its reactions to government policies. We must also take into account the varying perspectives of historians, quoted throughout this piece which the majority of them are American.
By the dawn of the Meiji era, when political reforms started revealing their effects, more pressing concerns arose. Despite the Emperor Mutsuhito being merely sixteen, he signed the Charter Oath in 1868 consisting of pious hopes, elements of democracy and seeking knowledge –“all classes…shall unite,” “no discontent,” “the just laws of Nature.” But really, most of the power throughout this era fell heavily in the hands of the genro, comprised predominantly of samurai leaders like Kido Koin of Choshu, Okubo Toshimichi of Satsuma and Saigo Takamori, who aided in the process of forming a centralised government. The major step was “imperial restoration” and the decimation of the Bakufu system by abolishing the domains ruled by daimyos. Eventually political parties were created as a result of two pressures. There was a feeling that political parties and an elected government and a Constitution were symbols of a civilised nation. And two, in 1874, a number of senior politicians protested at its cautious foreign policy so issued a manifesto calling for an end to the ‘tyranny’ of the Meiji government, and an establishment of an elected national assembly. This marked the Popular Rights Movement demanding elections and a modern Constitution.
The process of modernising...