Alternative Narratives in Modern Japanese History

Alternative Narratives in Modern Japanese History

Alternative Narratives in Modern Japanese History

Alternative Narratives in Modern Japanese History

Synopsis

Presenting a challenge to established views of modern Japanese history, the narratives presented here are based on a wider than usual variety of source materials, including woodblock prints, political cartoons, letters and local campaign literature.

Excerpt

Historical narratives are constructions. The dominant account of modern Japan focuses on the nation-building that brought Japan into the modern world. After centuries of isolation, American warships forced Japan to open its doors to the West. Patriotic samurai criticized the Tokugawa government for giving into Western demands; they sought a return to imperial rule as a means to unite the country against the foreign threat. Following the Meiji Restoration of 1868, a decentralized past was rejected in favor of the ideal of a centralized bureaucratic state. Tough new leaders carried out a series of modernizing reforms designed to make Japan into a "rich country with a strong military": the abolition of the daimyo domains and the establishment of prefectures; land tax reforms; the creation of a Western-style conscript army; the establishment of a new education system; and the making of what came to be called the "emperor system" of benevolent but absolute rule over an impatient but grateful populace. There were those who attempted to resist change, but the new government showed itself powerful enough to suppress its opponents. The people's rights movement, for example, was suppressed. Other movements seeking to promote local autonomy meta similar fate. The oligarchs knew what was best for the country. This is the usual story.

However, alternative narratives need to be told. The nine chapters in this volume introduce other actors, other places, and other dimensions of social and political activity in an attempt to construct a broader and more complex historical account of modern Japanese history. They assert the possibility of another look (or other looks) at modernity. Local history need not be belittled for dealing with the particular; local men and women need not be marginalized for the everyday quality of their deeds. Localism need not be discredited for its failure to limit the power of the state. Local history, local people, and localism can be studied on their own terms. Just as one can narrate Japanese history from above, one can look from below; just as one can narrate Japanese history from the center, one can look from the periphery. Unlike the singular center there is a plethora of peripheries; and the telling of stories from below is necessarily openended. The history of modern Japan is exciting precisely because we can ask new questions, adopt new perspectives, and expect to have new horizons appear before us.

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