From Meiji to modernity: how Japan reinvented itself through the 20th century

After centuries of relative isolation from the west, it was inventing itself anew. But its attempt to synthesise 'traditional' values into a modern national story was to spark unexpected consequences. Christopher Harding discusses how its subjects reacted in often surprising ways: with creativity, with despair, and with resistance

Japanese boats approaching a 'black ship' of US Commodore Matthew C Perry. His arrival in Japan in 1853 forcibly introduced the modern west to the semi-self-isolated island nation (Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Hiratsuka Haruko took extra care with the last part of her packing for what she believed would be her last journey, in spring 1908. She placed in her bag a small dagger in a black sheath. Then she set off for the train station to meet Morita Sōhei, who had invited her on the most unorthodox of journeys. He proposed to kill her, and she had apparently agreed to the act. Neither Hiratsuka’s well-respected family, nor anyone in Japan who held dear the ideals of family – as all were supposed to – would possibly have approved. This was the climactic episode of a melodrama inspired by a mix of imported western fantasies with ‘traditional’ Japanese ideals’. And while the fallout had a dramatic impact on the lives of its protagonists, it also exposed the cracks in the carefully constructed myth of modern Japan.

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The prodigious national transformation project launched in 1868 had been forced upon Japan by unprecedented pressures from abroad. By the mid-19th century, the United States had pushed its borders all the way west to the Pacific. The Russians had pushed eastward across the northern reaches of Asia, crossing the same blue expanse. The merchants and militaries of Europe’s sea-faring empires, too, were closing in.

Japan had so far maintained its independence, primarily as a result of being of little interest. No tall tales of untold wealth attached to it, as they did to other parts of the world – no El Dorado here, no flabby oriental despot sitting atop a mountain of gems, surrounded by slave girls. Japan was a place where you might stop briefly to re-supply your ship, but that was about it.

In the mid-19th century, that all changed. Beginning with the arrival on Japan’s shores of US Commodore Matthew C Perry in 1853, the world’s most advanced technological and military powers sent steamships puffing into Japanese ports. Trade was demanded, at the point of a gun: ‘friendship’, or else.

The old order overthrown

These off-key overtures drove Japan’s already febrile politics into outright crisis. For two and a half centuries there had been peace under the auspices of a shogun based in Edo, a city comparable in size and splendour with Paris. But the fruits of prosperity had been unevenly shared. Rural Japan periodically starved and rebelled. Urban merchants flourished, while impoverished samurai [military officers] pawned their armour and sold off their daughters. The shogun’s feebleness when faced with foreign power proved to be the final straw.

Young, middle-ranking samurai rose up in arms, defeated the shogun’s armies, and established themselves as Japan’s new leaders in 1868. The emperor was brought out of seclusion in Kyoto and planted in the old shogun’s castle in Edo, soon to be renamed Tokyo. There he served as figurehead for the new regime, semi-divine symbol of a nation in which it was intended that the timeless, the traditional and the ultramodern should meet.

Trams trundle through a Tokyo street in a photo of c1905
Trams trundle through a Tokyo street in a photo of c1905. In just a few decades after the 1868 Meiji Restoration, Japan had transformed its transport, industry, military, education, banking and communications (Hulton Archive/Getty Image)

Making all this reality entailed a breakneck programme of modernisation, marrying Japan’s existing capacities – a highly literate and skilled population, centralised infrastructure, a large and diverse economy – to the best of what the west had to offer, imported and adapted to Japan’s needs. Within a few short years, modern industry and a military were conjured into existence.

Suddenly Japan had postal, banking and railway services. Schools and universities. Telegraph and tram systems. Brickwork, ballroom dancing, horse-drawn buses. Short hair, sideburns and beef-eating. Knives and forks. Starchy collars, brogues and canes. A constitution and a parliament. Pocket watches, ostentatiously withdrawn from the jackets of constrictively cut suits so that increasingly busy lives were kept on track.

Japan represented a beacon of modernity in Asia, leading benighted near-neighbours out of the feudal darkness

Alongside nation-building ran myth-making. Stories were told about ‘Japan’, both inside and outside the country: a mixture of truth, predictions for the future and pure fantasy. Some distilled the hopes of the country’s new leaders, and were intended to shape the behaviour of its people. Japan, it was said, represented a beacon of modernity in Asia, leading benighted near-neighbours like Korea and China out of the feudal darkness and into the light of rational, technocratic governance, improved livelihoods, and self-respect within the global order. Japan, moreover, was the place where ‘traditional’ Asian virtues of reverence for family and selfless attentiveness to the common good would be shown to offer firmer foundations for modern human life than those in the west, where hyper-individualism and the hypocrisies of empire were exerting a corrosive effect.

Western visitors and commentators fancied that they saw Japan developing into a flattering mirror image of their own societies, glittering proof that modern western life was fit for export and could successfully take root around the world. Their stories, overlapping with those of Japan’s leaders, painted the country as an up-and-coming, western-style democracy, albeit with a few harmless and picturesque local trimmings. The US, only more refined and demure. Britain, in a kimono.

The reality, as it unfolded across Japan’s tumultuous 20th century, was far more mixed and messy. But there was too much depending on the buy-in to these stories, to give them up. Much commentary on Japan instead ended up merging history – with its interest in contexts and complexity – with something else entirely: the course of events as the working out of a national purpose, even a national personality. To outsiders especially, the country’s blend of the exotic and the familiar meant that Japan and the Japanese often came to be ‘explained’ according to slightly different rules. Compared with other countries, far greater claims were made about the power of culture and psychology to shape a nation’s affairs.

The Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05 seemed straightforwardly to confirm the hopes of the storytellers: western commentators hailed the first victory of an Asian nation over a white western power. But Japan’s international relationships soured soon after, moving through mutual mistrust in the 1920s and deepening pariah status in the 1930s as Japan’s armies rampaged across China, finally into all-out war with the west, beginning with a surprise attack on the US at Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

Japanese soldiers during the Russo-Japanese War
Japanese soldiers during the Russo-Japanese War. Western commentators hailed Japan’s victory in that conflict, though relations soured soon afterwards (Bettmann/Getty Images)

An optimistic story

After the end of the Second World War in 1945, though, the US found itself in need of an east Asian ally to counter communist power. A great deal of money and diplomacy were invested in promoting the idea that the war had been a mere bump in the road – a dispensable sub-plot in a more optimistic story that still had legs. It largely worked. By the time Tokyo hosted Asia’s first Olympic Games in 1964, Japan seemed to be living up to the old aspirations: an exemplary land of competitive modern industries and co-operative relationships within families, neighbourhoods and companies. This was a country whose deep cultural reserves in the arts, food and festivals could be happily co-opted by modern capitalism to become consumer products, serving as solace at the end of a hard working day and helping to instil selflessness in each new generation as a core Japanese value.

Long-running economic stagnation starting in the early 1990s represented a challenge to this. Japan was still a beacon of modernity in Asia, but its dystopian sides were now exposed: insecurity, despair, loneliness, an empty and faltering consumerism. It still reflected western life, but it was, equally, a crystal ball – a vision of what might lie ahead if western leaders failed to manage their economies and societies.

From the early 2000s onwards, a government-sponsored ‘Cool Japan’ trend featuring anime, manga and cutesy, clever pop laid bare the country’s mixed realities as though for the first time. Young people around the world encountered a nation that could be saccharine sweet but also deep and desolate; where violence co-existed with humour and play; where utopian visions of the future ran alongside reflections on present-day bullying and depression; where technological advancement coincided with conservative mentalities in many other areas of life.

Commentators still wedded to the idea of a singular, special national character in Japan continued to bend over backwards to accommodate conflicting information. The Japanese must be inherently paradoxical, some claimed – even inscrutable. Anyone prepared, at last, to let the stories go would discover in the process plenty of Japanese people who had spent the modern era either arguing against any all-encompassing vision of ‘Japan’ or living their lives in scandalous disregard for it. These women and men might have been greater in number, and better known outside Japan, were it not for the censoring pressures of those powerful stories – including the strict policing in Japan, literally and metaphorically, of a certain set of public ideals. Anyone who publicly went against them could expect to pay a very high price – including Hiratsuka, who discovered that the train trip she undertook with Morita would end up costing her dear – just not in the way she might have expected.

Fall-out for Hiratsuka

One of the great pillars of Japan’s modern story was a vision of traditional family relationships. Like much that was ‘traditional’ about Japan after 1868, a great deal was either imported from abroad or reworked to suit new needs. Women were encouraged to learn from the supposed frugality and resilience of the samurai wife. New, scientific ideas went into the mix, too: how to prepare nutritious food, how to bring up children healthy in mind and body. And though conversions to Christianity were relatively few, western ideals of the modern Christian household became surprisingly influential. Parents and their children were thought of as the real, loving core of a family. Anyone else – from servants to extended family members – represented clutter, compromising true familial affection and cohesion.

A great deal that was ‘traditional’ about Japan after 1868 was imported from abroad or reworked to suit new needs

Morita and Hiratsuka had driven the proverbial coach and horses through all of this. The two had met at a literary society for women in Tokyo, where Morita lectured in western literature. Morita had got hold of Hiratsuka’s first attempt at a novel – The Last Day of Love – and had been thrown dramatically off balance by what he read. The central character was smart and ambitious. She jumped out of her lover’s bed to interrogate him about all of the things on which they disagreed; she ignored his pleas to marry him regardless; and, eventually, she left him for an independent career as a high-school teacher. Lifting his eyes from the page, Morita had noted his own wife’s relative dullness of spirit. He had felt all the more keenly his utterly conventional life, and the soulless slog of his career. So he had proposed to Hiratsuka a romantic adventure – climaxing with her own death at Morita’s hand.

For her part, Hiratsuka had felt the world around her to be somehow wrong and inadequate. It cried out for radical action. So in the spring of 1908 she journeyed out of Tokyo with Morita, by train, by rickshaw and then on foot. Eventually, the two of them stopped at the edge of a steep drop on a snowy mountain road. As night fell they poured whiskey over their letters to one another and set them alight. With great drama, Morita brandished the dagger. But then, crying out suddenly that he couldn’t kill anyone, he threw the dagger into the valley below and collapsed into the snow, wailing.

The two were found by police and escorted home. Morita made the most of the strange vacation by writing a closely autobiographical novel – for the purposes of which, Hiratsuka suspected, he had engineered the whole episode. Hiratsuka found the negative press attention generated by the incident focused almost entirely on her. It was to be the same across her career as a writer and one of Japan’s first literary feminists.

“Immoral home wrecker, who ought to be sent to the slums!” “Poisoner of young minds!” “Shameless ingrate!” “Madwoman!” While the nation’s journalists abused her in print, strangers sent her pornographic images in the post. Others made sarcastic proposals of marriage, along with offers of an altogether less wholesome kind. Amid the turmoil, Hiratsuka’s alma mater, Japan Women’s University, were kind enough to send a messenger to her home – to let her know in person they had expelled her from their alumni association.

The ideal woman

The story about Japan sketched out by its leaders included in one of its key roles a biddable, industrious, homemaking housewife – and it was the duty of people such as Hiratsuka to make it come true. Women who challenged any of this were gossiped about and reviled in the press. They were sat down in police stations to be given patient explanations about why womanly virtues ought not to be messed with. And they were finally included in Japan’s democratic franchise only under the auspices of the Allied Occupation (1945–52), at which point it suited an updated US version of Japan’s story to give it to them.

Some of Japan’s great novelists worked to puncture these shifting national ideals wherever they could. Natsume Sōseki lampooned what people in the early years of the 20th century insisted was a ‘Japanese spirit’, animating the whole modernisation project. “Admiral Tōgō [a great naval hero] possesses the Japanese spirit,” he wrote. “The local fishmonger has it as well. Swindlers and murderers also have the Japanese spirit. Since it is a spirit it is always blurry and fuzzy; there is no-one in Japan who hasn’t had it on the tip of his tongue, but there’s no-one who has actually seen it.” Speaking to an audience of students, Sōseki urged them to resist the single, banal rallying cry that reverberated through public and private life alike: live and work for the sake of the nation. “What a horror,” he declared, “if we have to eat for the nation, wash our faces for the nation, go to the toilet for the nation!”

Student activists staged sit-ins and fought the police with stakes, hitting out at a grimly functional education

What the press, the police and the prospect of heavy public disapproval did to protect Japan’s dominant stories before the war, a heavily managed society and a homogenising mass media did afterwards. Student activists in the 1960s staged campus sit-ins and fought the police with wooden stakes. They were hitting out at a grimly functional education designed to prepare them for a grimly functional life. But they were hoping to land blows, too, against the less tangible threat of what they called the ‘everyday’: parental control, the complacency of privilege, the lure of affluence, the comforts of home, the opinions of others, the glow of the television – and the sheer normality of it all, which made imagining and working towards an alternative world so costly, in time and energy and security.

Japanese workers plant rice in traditional fashion, c1905
Workers plant rice in traditional fashion, c1905. Less than half a century earlier, the rule of the shoguns had been overthrown in a rebellion that owed much to the simmering resentment of rural workers and impoverished samurai (Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Avant-garde artists tried to point out the absurdity of what Japan was becoming. When the authorities ordered an epic spring-clean of Tokyo in 1964, laundering the image of the country and the city in preparation for hosting the Summer Olympics, members of the radical art collective Hi-Red Center took to the streets in lab coats and surgical masks, cordoning off small areas of pavement to scrub them with toothbrushes.

The same group invited people to Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel, measuring them up for their very own personalised atomic fallout shelter. Body size was determined by immersing the person in a bath and noting the amount of water displaced. Photographs were taken from six angles, then turned into the six planes of what looked very much like a coffin. Few shelters were sold (though among the clientele was a young artist by the name of Yoko Ono) but Hi-Red Center’s satirical commercial pitch – billed as ‘Shelter Plan’ – was not much less ridiculous, its members thought, than a society going about its business with scarcely a thought for the way their alliance with America might end in a nuclear holocaust.

Half a century later, in March 2017, a construction worker helping to prepare Tokyo for a second stint hosting the Summer Olympics took his own life after being forced to work excessive overtime. ‘Overwork death’ and ‘overwork suicide’ have appeared increasingly in the news in Japan in recent years. Campaigners have called for drastic reforms to the country’s workplace culture. Perhaps the broader impact of tragedies such as these will be to bring home to people the often spurious and unhelpful nature of national stories – not just Japan’s. We may see fewer lives blemished or curtailed in trying to live up to them, and instead find countless smaller stories flourishing in their place.

Christopher Harding is lecturer in history at the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of Japan Story: In Search of a Nation, 1850 to the Present (Allen Lane, 2018)

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This article was taken from issue 10 of BBC World Histories magazine