Rethinking the Meiji Restoration

The Japanese once celebrated the Meiji period as an optimistic and outward-looking era. But relative decline has led Japan's youth to embrace 'hikikomori', a philosophy of national isolation.

In 1877 the nationally revered hero of the Meiji Restoration, Saigo Takamori, rebelled against the government that he had helped to establish. Here his samurai army was eventually defeated by the government's modern conscript army
In 1877 the nationally revered hero of the Meiji Restoration, Saigo Takamori, rebelled against the government that he had helped to establish. Here his samurai army was eventually defeated by the government's modern conscript army. Credit: Asian Art & Archaeology, Inc./CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

I recall that the Japanese mass media celebrated the centenary of the Meiji Restoration in a big way fifty years ago, when I had just started university in Tokyo. All the major newspapers devoted much space to articles by historians and technocrats and interviews with elder statesmen and industrial leaders. They discussed the significance of this hundredth anniversary of the modern state of Japan. The centennial was regarded as marking the greatest accomplishment in Asia, and virtually every adult in Japan was expected to be proud of it. In 1968, there was almost unanimous agreement among the Japanese public that the Meiji Restoration denoted the beginning of a hundred years of exceptional achievement, which had opened up the country to the world, and eventually brought modern civilisation to the inhabitants of the Japanese archipelago. Moreover, it gave rise to what was applauded by American proponents of modernisation theory as ‘the only genuinely modern society in the entirety of Asia’.

Of course, some contested this exceedingly self-congratulatory evaluation. Some historians highlighted the brutal exploitation and miserable living conditions the rural peasantry had to undergo, without which modern industrial capitalism would never have accomplished the primitive accumulation of capital in Japan; others did not hesitate to remind the public of the environmental pollution from which millions of Japanese were suffering in their everyday lives in big cities and agrarian communities all across the country. A half-century later, the lack of public interest in the Meiji Restoration and the subsequent rejuvenation is striking. One wonders why the nation has ceased so drastically to be interested in Japan’s modernisation.

The Meiji Restoration has often been described as an event that opened Japan to the modern world. Prior to it, from the early 17th century, the general agenda regulating diplomatic policies of the feudal confederation of the baku-han system, an assembly of semi-autonomous states, has been portrayed as that of sakoku, meaning ‘the closed country’. Thus, it has been understood that the country was only opened to the rest of the world when the Tokugawa shogunate collapsed and the new centralised sovereign state was established in 1868. Yet, what was meant by ‘the country’ [koku of the compound sakoku] is far from self-evident. First of all, the baku-han system was by no means comparable to a nation state, the basic unit of the modern international world. In the terminology of modern international politics, the inhabitants of the Japanese archipelago neither constituted themselves collectively as a unified population subjugated to a sovereign state, nor were they individually subject to any central authority. In this respect, until the Meiji Restoration, there had been no nation in the Japanese archipelago. Strictly speaking, Japan was neither open nor closed to the world; it was not a political entity with a defined territory; it was almost impossible to tell geographically where the inside of Japan ended and its outside began.

What was supposed to have happened in 1868 was, first of all, an inauguration in which Japan declared itself to be the sole juridical authority headed by the sovereign, the Meiji emperor, governor of the entire land surface of the Japanese territory. In other words, the new Japanese state claimed that it was a territorial sovereignty comparable to modern states like the United Kingdom and France.

The Meiji Restoration was an event of exceptional significance not only in the context of Japan’s domestic politics, but throughout East Asia. For the first time, Japan joined the modern international world as a territorial sovereign state, and announced it would conduct diplomatic policies, not according to the protocols of a Sinocentric tributary, but following a Eurocentric system of international law – Jus Publicum Europeaum. On the western shores of the Pacific, Japan was the only state whose bureaucrats comprehended international law, and what it meant both economically and culturally as well as the political significance of a Eurocentric system of interstate rules. Japan’s neighbouring countries, the Qing dynasty in China and the Yi dynasty in Korea, refused to recognise these rules of the modern international world. It was for this reason that Japan was one of the very few countries in East Asia to escape colonisation by Euro-American powers.

Let me return to 1968, the year of the hundredth anniversary of the Meiji Restoration. By the end of the 1960s, the vast majority of the Japanese conceded that Japan’s subsequent modernisation was something positive, and they were proud of themselves for this extraordinary accomplishment. Underlying this affirmative attitude toward Japan’s past (despite Japan’s colonialism and its defeat in the Asia-Pacific War) was a sense of a collective superiority as a nation. The Japanese public were convinced that in East Asia, only Japan had succeeded in creating a modern political system and a governing bureaucracy. This they saw in terms of appropriating the spirit of modern scientific and technological rationality, of competing with Euro-American nations in industrial capitalism, and of establishing an exceptionally high standard of living and education that set it apart from the rest of Asia. South Korea and Taiwan were still very poor countries with a per capita income of less than a tenth of Japan’s. Even though Japan was defeated in the Second World War, losing sovereignty over Korea and Taiwan, it could still enjoy the status of an empire, at least in economic terms. The gap in the standard of living between Japan and its former colonies was tangible.

This sense of self-congratulatory hubris is best captured by Shiba Ryôtarô’s historical novel Saka no Ue no Kumo [Clouds Above the Hill]. It is set in the Meiji period and focuses on three male characters who grow up in Matsuyama in Shikoku; they embody the Japanese resolve for modernisation and illustrate personal struggles in the achievement of modernity. The novel invokes not only the Japanese collective memory of glorious success in becoming a first-class international power through two victories, the first Sino-Japanese War (1894–95) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904–05), but also the national euphoria of the 1960s when Japan was recognised internationally as the symbol of successful modernisation in Asia.

The title of the novel summarises the positive viewpoint of the Japanese regarding the international world at that time. Clouds Above the Hill outlines the very attitude of people in the process of constituting themselves as a national community during the Meiji period (1868–1912): they look up above them at vague and abstract ideals as they struggle to continue on their steep, ascending path. At the summit are some goals that, like distant clouds, are only given in abstract and illusory forms. The road is sheer, but no matter how difficult it may be to reach the top, there is no going back once the journey has begun. These clouds are above their heads, but not within their country; rather they hang over a distant land called ‘the West’, a remote place where only foreigners live. In order to reach them, they must look outward and venture into the outside world.

Of course, this is one of the most typical symbolic representations of modernisation. One cannot imagine a better metaphor than the ascending road, saka, to represent a typically modern sense of historical time; in Clouds Above the Hill, history is apprehended as a continuous linear progress in which everyone is destined to move forward. It is a historical vision particular to the logic of the capitalist market in which you are either ahead or behind somebody else, a history that is always set in the form of evolution and competition. Shiba Ryôtarô does not allow for a different form of historical time; neither did Japanese readers want to entertain different ways of imagining its passage. In this respect, they were no different from the American ideologues of modernisation theory. They simply could not find any reason to reject the idea that unmodernised societies must be less advanced than modernised ones; they believed the entire world was governed by the law of progress or endless advancement.

It is this scheme of historical time that the Japanese public firmly believed in; it is thanks to this belief that, just as Shiba Ryôtarô portrayed, the Japanese during the Meiji period were optimistic and outward-looking; curious not only about their future but about foreign lands, other civilisations, and the world in general. This is why, from the Meiji period until the 1960s and beyond, youth in Japan symbolised a burning intellectual curiosity about the outside world; a desire to experience the foreign and the unknown – a belief that bestowed on young people a certain prestige. Hence, Shiba Ryôtarô’s representation of the mythic image of young Japanese. In 1968, this myth was fully alive.

Of course, this pattern could not be discussed independently of the modern international world; it was a world structured by what Stuart Hall called ‘the discourse of the West-and-the-Rest’, the world in which Western Europe established itself as the centre, with the rest of the globe viewed as potential virgin land for colonial conquest by European states. During the Meiji period, Japan joined this hierarchically-ordered world, and Clouds Above the Hill was nothing but a success story for the Japanese. Through victories in the first Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War, Japan obtained colonial territories in Taiwan and the Korean peninsula and joined the ranks of internationally recognised superpowers.

In stark contrast, fifty years later, this evolutionary narrative of Japan’s modernisation can no longer invoke the sort of enthusiasm that it once did. Today, one finds oneself exposed to relatively little publicity about the Meiji Restoration. And it is no longer fashionable to imagine the nation’s history according to the trope of an ascending linear passage to the top of a hill.

In the last five decades, some reconfiguration of international politics must have occurred on the western shores of the Pacific, as well as in Japanese national self-esteem.

When I examined the drastic changes undergone by societies in this region, I could not evade the issue of the myth of Japan’s successful modernisation, a myth that used to give its people a sense of colonial self-esteem. In the 1990s, I was compelled for the first time to reflect critically on this myth, partly because I witnessed the advent of a social phenomenon called hikikomori [reclusive withdrawal]. The term, used by some social workers, sociologists and mental health experts, refers to young people (it is said to be mostly men, but some women; recent government reports also include some older people in their forties and fifties who refuse to emerge from their bedrooms or their parents’ houses, thereby alienating themselves from social life. Besides this, hikikomori also designates the societal phenomenon of this type of extreme alienation.

Although hesitant, I began to use the idiom ‘nationalism of hikikomori‘ to roughly group an assembly of socio-political issues in some way related to emerging reactionary, discriminatory and exclusionary political trends observable in Japan during what is generally called ‘the two lost decades’ [ushinawareta nijûnen] from the 1990s through to the 2010s. It is necessary here to clarify my use of hikikomori in the idiom ‘nationalism of hikikomori‘: this does not refer to hikikomori people; instead it designates a parallel socio-political tendency witnessed in many post-industrial societies, sometimes labelled ‘inward-looking society’. By using this phrase, therefore, I designate a social and political constellation based upon the fantasy of a nation as an enclosed space of security, almost an equivalent of the enclosed space of a bedroom for the hikikomori people. Adherents of this type of nationalism fear their national space is vulnerable to the intrusion of aliens, and so advocate building a metaphorical or physical wall to stop them.

Of course, Donald Trump is a case in point. He repetitively fabricates and falsifies issues about immigration without articulating what constitutes immigration problems. In doing so, he advocates the fantastic politics of what Tongchai Winichakul called ‘the geo-body of a nation’, according to which, supposedly, the integrity of a national community is constantly threatened by potential intruders. No doubt Trump’s rhetorical tactics are entirely fantastic, but, regardless of how derisive they may sound, they have successfully convinced a certain portion of the population in the United States. Similar rhetoric has proven effective in some countries in Europe as well. It must be acknowledged that Trump’s fantastic politics is somewhat inherent in the very constitution of the modern national community: the nation form cannot be entirely cleansed of this type of anti-immigrant racism.

However, let me emphasize that, in their political orientation and conduct, the hikikomori people have little in common with these anti-immigrant racists who speak loudly for the nationalism of hikikomori or whose behaviour is largely inspired by this type of nationalism. During the 1980s and 1990s a number of significant political reforms were implemented in Taiwan and South Korea, thanks to which parliamentary democracy seems to have taken root in these former Japanese colonies. Furthermore, these political changes were accomplished against the backdrop of rapid economic growth. In the early 1980s, per capita GPD in Taiwan and South Korea was about 45 per cent and 30 per cent that of Japan’s respectively; ten years later the figures were 56 per cent and 44 per cent And by the early 2000s they were 81 per cent and 71 per cent. In the same period, China’s per capita GDP increased from 3 per cent to 5 per cent to 11 per cent by 2002, and then 25 per cent by 2012, while Japan’s remained almost the same in relation to the United States of America’s. What is worth noting is that during the decade 2002–12, Taiwan’s per capita GDP exceeded that of Japan (at 107 per cent). And in 2017, Taiwan’s per capita GDP (ppp value) exceeded that of both the United Kingdom and France.

Of course, this is one of many indicators, and one cannot draw conclusions from statistics in isolation. However, they help us to understand how drastic the social changes have been in the last four decades in this region. It also means that Japan’s position relative to other countries in East Asia has been redefined throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries. As ‘an empire under subcontract’, Japan used to enjoy prestigious status under the American Policy of Containment and benefited greatly from the special treatment it received from the United States. During the political climate of the Cold War, and thanks to the global conditions set by Pax Americana, the Japanese people were allowed to behave as if they continued to be part of a nation of colonial suzerainty, even though Japan had lost its overseas colonies. As a result, many Japanese people have failed to shed the old habit of looking down on their Asian neighbours.

But since the 1980s, with the global hegemony of the United States gradually eroding, a new configuration of interstate politics has finally emerged in East Asia. Not being able to liberate itself from its reliance on Pax Americana, the Japanese public finds it increasingly difficult to view the position of Japan with its Asian neighbours through the lens of Clouds Above the Hill. Finally, the Japanese nation had to face what has been described as ‘the loss of empire’ in British cultural studies. As a telling indicator of the Japanese attitude toward the outside world, let me mention other signs of the loss of empire.

In the 1980s, many Japanese students were visible on university campuses throughout the United States. Their presence was understood as a manifestation of the worldwide trend toward globalisation, just as compact Japanese automobiles began to dominate the American market. As time passed, the number of Japanese students was surpassed by that of Korean students, and the globalisation of higher education in the United States became indisputable. In the last two decades, a larger number of students have begun to arrive at American universities from India and China. Even at Cornell, where I have taught for the last thirty years, this trend has been irrefutable.

Since the 1990s, the composition of the American university student body has undergone a drastic change. In 2016 the total number of international students (including both undergraduate and graduate) studying at American universities exceeded one million, of which 320,000 were from China, 170,000 from India, and 80,000 from South Korea. In spite of this increase in international students from Asia, however, the number of Japanese students in the United States has gone down in the last three decades. As of 2016, the total number of students from Japan at American universities is less than those from Taiwan – even though the population of Taiwan is less than one fifth that of Japan.

It is not merely the number of Japanese students at American universities that has dwindled; the level of intellectual curiosity about the outside world among young people in Japan has drastically declined.

Recently a friend of mine who works in political science in Japan gave me a thought-provoking datum: only 5 per cent of Japanese people in their 20s have ever applied for passports. In the last five years, this percentage has fluctuated between 5 per cent and 6 per cent. Fifteen years ago, the figure was about 9 per cent, so it is obvious fewer young people are interested in going abroad. Since about 24 per cent of the total population of Japan own passports, this is an astonishingly low figure. While one must not overlook the economic adversity experienced by an increasing number of young Japanese in the last few decades, there are more statistics that paint a picture of changing attitudes.

According to a 2015 survey conducted about Japanese corporations, 63.7 per cent of new employees responded negatively to the question ‘are you willing to work abroad?’, while 36.3 per cent responded affirmatively (9.1 per cent said they would work in any country; 27.2 per cent would not work in certain countries). In 2001, only 29.2 per cent answered the same question negatively, while 70.7 per cent answered affirmatively (17.3 per cent would work in any country; 53.1 per cent would not work in certain countries). Evidently, a drastic change in attitudes toward overseas experiences has taken place.

These findings seem to confirm the trends that I have observed about Japanese society in the last three decades. I am now convinced that it is on the mark to portray today’s Japan as an ‘inward-looking society’. In his brilliant study of the imaginary formation of nationhood in today’s Thailand, the historian Thongchai Winichakul explored how modern cartography contributed to the process in which the kingdom of Siam was transformed into the modern Thai nation, and how the technology of modern mapping gave rise to a collective imagining that allowed people to imagine themselves as members of a new collectivity called ‘a nation’. A nation is a particular form of modern community whose imaginary constitution is closely tied with geographic enclosure; it is embodied in a national territory, a geographic space bound by national borders. Therefore, a nation is not only a collectivity of people connected to one another through what John Stuart Mill called ‘sympathy’. In this respect, a nation is not only an imagined community but also a community of patriots bound together by the fantastic bonds of sympathy. Sympathy that binds a nation together is regulated by the image of a ‘geo-body’; it also signifies a collectivity of people who are geographically bound, distinguished from the rest of humanity by the fact of their residence in a determinate territory. It follows that their membership in this community – exclusive membership is indeed called ‘nationality’ – is marked by a national border, and that all the individuals living outside this border must be regarded as aliens, excluded from nationality or from sympathy. In other words, for a nation to exist, it is essential that fraternity, a bond of national camaraderie, must never be shared with foreigners.

By now it will be evident why I have adopted the term hikikomori in describing a certain nationalism that has characterised Japanese society in recent decades.

Confinement to one’s bedroom is one thing, while metaphorical confinement to the geo-body of a nation is quite another. Hikikomori people are afraid of the social space outside their homes, but are not necessarily afraid of a possible intrusion from the world outside their nation. On the other hand, the nationalism of hikikomori suffers from a phantasmic fear of intrusion from outside the national territory. This is why the nationalism of hikikomori is insistent upon the building of a wall, in fantasy or actuality, to prevent alien intruders from entering the national interior. It is important to note that this is not unique to Japan, while hikikomori as a sociological phenomenon may, at least statistically, appear particular to Japan; it is universal in the sense that the nation state cannot be built without this mechanism of exclusion based upon the geo-body of a nation. Every formation of a modern community called a nation potentially includes hikikomori.

Hikikomori nationalism shares many features of an ‘inward-looking society’, including anti-immigrant racism, that have been observed in many post-industrial countries. And in Japan, the “inward-looking society’ seems to manifest itself in the public’s changed attitude toward the Meiji Restoration, which is no longer depicted as an event symbolised by the outward-looking attitude of youth. Instead of being curious about foreigners, an increasing portion of the Japanese people are afraid to encounter them, and wish to distance and insulate themselves from them.

What historical conditions have compelled so many people in postindustrial societies to withdraw into the confined fantasy space of a nation? Could the nationalism of hikikomori be a repetition of what the world witnessed in the 1920s and 1930s – a repetition of what is loosely called fascism?


Naoki Sakai