Book Review: Irokawa Daikichi’s The Culture of the Meiji Period
Irokawa Daikichi’s work The Culture of the Meiji Period (Amazon) dissects its subject in a much more negative light than others who have studied the same period. While Irokawa understood the benefits of modernization and the Restoration, he also comprehended the cultural sacrifices required for the sake of “bettering Japan.” Unlike studies Keene and Kikue, Irokawa’s is a bottom-up history. He observed the Samurai classes placed his emphasis on the lower classes, the farmers and artisans, whose lives were most completely changed.
Irokawa questioned the integrity of the “Restoration” and showed the hardships created Japan’s by governmental changes. He saw the Restoration more as a transfer of power from one group (the shogunate) to another (the emperor’s advisors), rather than to the emperor himself. Irokawa portrayed the powerbrokers of the Meiji Period as men who were attempting to compromise between an absolute ruler and the capitalist democracies in the West. These men, who had Japan’s best interests in mind, had a difficult task. Regarding Emperor Meiji, Irokawa saw him not as a man who accomplished great and many things (as Keene saw him) but as a man in whose name many things were accomplished.
On one point, Irokawa seemed to contradict himself. He claimed that modernization and capitalism made life increasingly difficult for the majority of Japanese, especially peasants and farmers barely able to subsist. However, he also wrote of a visual culture that was growing more vibrant and was available to involve more people. If people were experiencing difficulty in maintaining enough food or money to survive, how were those same people able to spend money on luxuries, such as roof tiles and paper for windows?
According to Irokawa, as Japan continued to modernize in areas such as industry, it regressed in some capacities. The 1889 Meiji Constitution instituted the emperor as a divinity, which affected not only the governmental but also the spiritual condition of the Japanese. This became the source of the great nationalism that would eventually involve Japan in the Second World War. By quoting Ito Tasaburo, Irokawa correctly identified the this essence as “the harmonious unity of the ruler and the people, the whole nation as one family under the rule of the emperor, his line unbroken for ages eternal.” The people clung to the emperor and the imperial line even when they were opposed to government actions. Irokawa suggested that the people saw Meiji much as he himself did – less as a person who did things and more as a figure. A figure cannot be blamed for the actions of others.
Rozman’s “Social Change” focused even more on the lower tiers of society than did Irokawa. New presumptions and perceptions by historians have allowed late Tokugawa and early Meiji Japan to be better understood. Rozman rarely approached Emperor Meiji or those close to him.
The article focused on the shifting roles and experiences of the majority of Japan’s citizens. Many of these changes began in the latter half of the last century of the Tokugawa period. Those involved in agriculture were affected by increasing numbers of citizens migrating to the cities. Fewer available workers required the implementation of better farming techniques and technology. The chonin and nomin experienced a changing climate in social mobility. While acquiring a certain amount of freedom in 1869, they also faced competition which had previously been minimal.
Social status also changed in 1869 with the removal of samurai status. Those of lower societal rank could theoretically mingle with those higher up on the food chain. As the cities began to change in structure, so did the families, due to changes in marital situations and childrearing. One of the most significant changes of the period was mandatory education. Opportunities for educated citizens were much wider than had ever previously been the case.
The above-mentioned are only brief glimpses of what Rozman covers in detail. Both Rozman and Irokawa’s histories are bottom-up accounts of the Meiji area. Both offer different insights of the period than the other literature read in the class, allowing altogether for a more complete and rounded understanding of the Meiji Era.
 Irokawa Daikichi, The Culture of the Meiji Period, 247.