Geographies of Identity in Nineteenth-Century Japan

Geographies of Identity in Nineteenth-Century Japan

Geographies of Identity in Nineteenth-Century Japan

Geographies of Identity in Nineteenth-Century Japan

Synopsis

In this pioneering study, David L. Howell looks beneath the surface structures of the Japanese state to reveal the mechanism by which markers of polity, status, and civilization came together over the divide of the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Howell illustrates how a short roster of malleable, explicitly superficial customs--hairstyle, clothing, and personal names-- served to distinguish the "civilized" realm of the Japanese from the "barbarian" realm of the Ainu in the Tokugawa era. Within the core polity, moreover, these same customs distinguished members of different social status groups from one another, such as samurai warriors from commoners, and commoners from outcasts.

Excerpt

The history of the world in the nineteenth century is an anthology of radical change. The period from the French Revolution to World War I saw the impact of republicanism and socialism, industrialization and proletarianization, imperialism and colonialism, and all the other hallmarks of modernity. Among the many stories of metamorphosis, perhaps none is as striking as Japan’s. At the beginning of the century the country was relatively isolated from the rest of the world, prosperous and stable to be sure, but governed by political, economic, and social institutions poorly suited to cope with the challenges presented by an increasingly expansive and self-confident West. By the time of the Meiji emperor’s death in 1912, Japan, alone in the non-Western world, had joined the ranks of the advanced military and industrial powers and had enthusiastically embraced the institutions and ideals of Western-style modernity. Most important, it underwent this transformation without succumbing to Western colonialism.

Japan’s transition to modernity has long been one of the big issues facing historians of the country, both within Japan and abroad. This book is a contribution to this important investigation, though writing such a book was not my original intent. When I began to work on this book I planned to write about how contemporary Japan became ethnically and culturally homogeneous—or, more properly, about how the idea of ethnic and cultural homogeneity came to be a defining feature of Japanese national identity even in the face of manifest heterogeneity. Questions of . . .

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