Meiji-era Advisors

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Kenji Morita

    Main guest

    Kenji Morita is a professor of economics at Osaka Gakuin University. He specializes in the history of social thought and modern Japanese history, and he conducts research on common culture during the latter half of the Edo period. Currently, Morita’s main focus is an analysis of various printed materials made during the late Edo period and early Meiji era. Those materials include color woodblock prints and kawaraban (single-sheet newspapers announcing various events and incidents during the Edo period). Morita has released numerous publications on kawaraban.

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December 11, 2018

Meiji-era Advisors

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2018 marks the 150th year since the beginning of the Meiji era, as well as the end of the age of samurai in Japan. Meiji means “Enlightened Rule,” and the era lasted from 1868 until 1912. The ultimate objective at the time was “bunmei kaika,” or civilization and enlightenment, which included modernizing the nation so that Japan could perform as a strong and respectable player in the world of international relations. The era was characterized by ambitious cultural, social, and political shifts. The focus of Japanology Plus this time is Meiji-era advisors, the foreign consultants behind many of these changes.

In order to understand the influences these advisors had on the nation and its modernization, it is important to appreciate the context that led to the Meiji Emperor’s reign. As we learned during a previous edition on Industrial Heritage, Japan’s sakoku (closed country) period ended in 1853 with the arrival of Commodore Mathew Perry and his infamous Black Ships. Perry’s appearance paved the way for Japan opening diplomatic relations and signing treaties with various nations, including the United States, Great Britain, and Russia. The terms greatly favored the Western countries by giving them extraterritoriality, access to ports, and control over tariffs. These "unequal" treaties were a rude awakening for the Japanese; they realized they trailed the West in terms of bargaining power, as well as development. Shortly after, an alliance between the Satsuma and Choshu feudal domains sparked a civil war that resulted in the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate and led to the 1868 Meiji Restoration.

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Peter Barakan and Kenji Morita chat inside Tsugumichi Saigo’s mansion, which was designed by French civil engineer Jules Lescasse.

After the Meiji Emperor came to power, the status system was abolished, the government was centralized, and an array of social reforms were introduced as Japan started asserting itself as a world power. Emphasis was initially placed on building up infrastructure and the economy in order to put Japan in a favorable position to renegotiate treaties and decrease its dependence on foreign currency. The policies adopted were selective in nature, as well as defensive: Japan had no interest in becoming a colony, and Westernization seemed the best way to avoid such a fate. A slogan emblematic of the nation’s focus on industrial, financial, and commercial improvements was “fukoku kyohei,” or “Enrich the Country, Strengthen the Armed Forces.”

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Professor Morita leads a tour through a train repair shop that’s been relocated to Meiji-mura from Tokyo.

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Due to the generators imported during the late 19th century, eastern and western Japan still use different electrical frequencies today.

Expert guest Kenji Morita says Japan’s fast-paced modernization strategy was comprised of three main factors. First, the government brought in and translated printed material to spread foreign technology and know-how throughout society. Second, Japanese citizens were sent abroad to gain knowledge in several Western countries. One notable example of this was the 1871 Iwakura Mission. This three-year fact-finding expedition sent a group of former samurai around Europe and the United States to learn about the outside world and develop models for building up different sections of Japanese society.

In addition to sending its own citizens abroad, Japan also found it necessary to invite outside personnel into the country, which brings us to the third factor: foreign advisors. These Westerners kick-started the development of Japan’s impressive rail and textile industries, as well as taught the Japanese their respective native languages. They were called “oyatoi gaigokujin,” which can be translated as “hired foreigners.” This term reflects the mixed feelings the Meiji government and common Japanese people held toward these advisors; while they were treated well and paid generously, fully integrating them into Japanese society was never a main goal. These consultants were not permitted to travel freely around the country, and they were usually only allowed to stay for the duration of their contracts.

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Peter stands in front of Japan’s first Western-style glass factory, whose construction was made possible by collaboration with foreign advisors.

Some foreign advisors did, however, stay on in Japan for the long term. One featured on the show is British architect Josiah Conder, who could be considered a pioneering Japanophile of sorts. Conder was originally tasked with designing several prominent Meiji-era buildings, but eventually fell in love with ukiyo-e woodblock prints and traditional Japanese dance. Another example is Thomas Blake Glover, a Scottish trader who moved to Nagasaki in 1859 and originally supported himself by selling weapons. His house was the first Western-style building in Japan and is now a popular tourist attraction. But that’s not all he’s known for—Glover might have the world’s most famous facial hair: the mascot of a famous Japanese beer company he helped establish features a moustache inspired by his.

Other physical holdovers from the Meiji era can be seen across Japan, such as the Tomioka Silk Mill, Yokohama’s Red Brick Warehouses, and architecture found in the port city of Kobe. But as host Peter Barakan and Professor Morita discuss at the end of the program, modernization did not come without its psychological difficulties. While the economy rapidly developed, many were fearful that Japan was losing its unique culture. The conflict between Japanese and Western viewpoints, and feelings of uneasiness over Japan’s changing identity during the Meiji era, have been memorialized in works of literature that are still read today, including Natsume Soseki’s Sanshiro and Junichiro Tanizaki’s Naomi. Striking the right balance between preserving traditional customs and embracing modern advancements is a problem that many countries face in contemporary times, showing that some debates last longer than any era ever will.

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