Participation and Protest
In Japan of the Tokugawa era, the idea that common people could play a legitimate political role hardly existed. Commoners were to be the object of political action, not actors in their own right. A good ruler kept the common people alive, but barely so. In one stern Edo era injunction, attributed to Tokugawa Ieyasu, “peasants should be neither dead nor alive.” Alternatively, peasants were likened to oil-producing sesame seeds: “The harder you squeeze them, the more you extract.” 1 Political debate among educated samurai often centered on what one might call the “stupid commoner” problem. Thus, Aizawa Seishisai in 1825 had written:
[T]he great majority of people in the realm are stupid commoners; superior men are very few in number. Once the hearts and minds of the stupid commoners have been captivated, we will lose control of the realm. …The barbarians' religion [Christianity] infiltrated Kyushu once before, and spread like the plague among stupid commoners. Within less than a hundred years, 280,000 converts were discovered and brought to justice. This indicates how fast the contagion can spread. 2
What to do to keep the plague of barbarians from capturing the hearts and minds of the stupid commoners? Aizawa's solution in the early 1800s was certainly not to seek commoner loyalty by drawing them into politics as active participants. He wanted to indoctrinate them more thoroughly than before with a sense of the glorious essence of the emperor and their need to be loyal to him.
The Meiji political elite extended Aizawa's reasoning in some very important ways. They came to anchor the new political order in the absolute sovereignty and transcendance of the imperial institution. But in order to do this, they sought to keep the emperor outside of politics and above it. The effort contained contradictions and a certain danger. The logic of the emperor-centered polity offered the potential for various actors to claim to represent the imperial will.
Despite (and in some ways because of) government efforts to contain and indoctrinate the populace, the Japanese political world was quickly opened up to far more of the “stupid commoners” than the early Meiji leaders—not to mention Aizawa— could have possibly envisioned. Already in the early 1880s popular movements had some impact on the critical decision to promulgate a constitution. In the late 1880s political agitation in the streets of Tokyo derailed diplomatic negotiations to revise the