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Gender and Nation in Meiji Japan

Modernity, Loss, and the Doing of History

Jason G. Karlin

Publication Year: 2014

Gender and Nation in Meiji Japan is a historical analysis of the discourses of nostalgia in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Japan. Through an analysis of the experience of rapid social change in Japan’s modernization, it argues that fads (ryūkō) and the desires they express are central to understanding Japanese modernity, conceptions of gender, and discourses of nationalism. In doing so, the author uncovers the myth of eternal return that lurks below the surface of Japanese history as an expression of the desire to find meaning amid the chaos and alienation of modern times. The Meiji period (1868–1912) was one of rapid change that hastened the process of forgetting: The state’s aggressive program of modernization required the repression of history and memory. However, repression merely produced new forms of desire seeking a return to the past, with the result that competing or alternative conceptions of the nation haunted the history of modern Japan. Rooted in the belief that the nation was a natural and organic entity that predated the rational, modern state, such conceptions often were responses to modernity that envisioned the nation in opposition to the modern state. What these visions of the nation shared was the ironic desire to overcome the modern condition by seeking the timeless past. While the condition of their repression was often linked to the modernizing policies of the Meiji state, the means for imagining the nation in opposition to the state required the construction of new symbols that claimed the authority of history and appealed to a rearticulated tradition. Through the idiom of gender and nation, new reified representations of continuity, timelessness, and history were fashioned to compensate for the unmooring of inherited practices from the shared locales of everyday life.

This book examines the intellectual, social, and cultural factors that contributed to the rapid spread of Western tastes and styles, along with the backlash against Westernization that was expressed as a longing for the past. By focusing on the expressions of these desires in popular culture and media texts, it reveals how the conflation of mother, countryside, everyday life, and history structured representations to naturalize ideologies of gender and nationalism.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

Beginnings are also endings. The path leading to the publication of this book began in the Department of History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2002. As a student of Japanese history, I owe much gratitude to Kevin M. Doak and Ronald P. Toby. They gave generously of their time and energy, and despite the many revisions of this book since, I believe it still reflects their philosophy of history. I also thank David Prochaska...

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pp. 1-6

In the discourses of modern Japan, the term ryūkō proliferated as an expression of the rapid social changes fostered by the rise of print media and capitalism. Since language provides us with the means to make visible the zeitgeist of a particular period in history, I began this study by examining how this term was deployed in the Meiji period (1868–1912) to not only...

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Introduction Nationalism, Everyday Life, and the Myth of Eternal Return

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pp. 7-18

After an initial period of euphoria, the establishment of the Meiji state in 1868 gave way to the sentiment that the revolution was a betrayal. At the root of this sense of betrayal was the contradiction between the elitism of the Meiji oligarchy and the expectation of popular political participation. E. H. Norman described the Meiji Restoration as an “incomplete revolution” owing to the persistence of “feudal remnants” that enabled the ruling...

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Chapter 1 Competing Masculinities in Meiji Japan

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pp. 19-71

As officials and leaders in the Japanese government traveled to the West in the Meiji period, they looked to the lifestyle of the European gentleman as a model of sophistication and style. They cultivated a concern for fashion, accomplishment of manners, and superiority in taste as an expression of refinement and civility. This genteel form of masculinity reconciled with their belief in civilization and progress and conformed to their desire to...

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Chapter 2 The Mythos of Masculinization: Narratives of Heroism and Historical Identity

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pp. 72-120

Amid the modernization of Japan from the late nineteenth century, hero worship became an important ideological tool for molding adolescent boys into men who could serve the Japanese empire. In history, the figure of the hero is a cultural construct of idealized masculinity that arises within the context of a struggle over the gendered order. Since the meaning...

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Chapter 3 The Aestheticization of Everyday Life: Inventing the Modern Memory of Edo

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pp. 121-176

The Meiji period was a time of intense social and cultural transformation. The acceleration of history and endless renewal of fashion created a sense of disjuncture and difference that allowed Meiji Japan to imagine itself as the victim of a deformative process of cultural loss and foreign invasion. Fashion is above all else a ritual of forgetting that celebrates novelty and...

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Chapter 4 The Lure of the Modern: Imagining the Temporal Spaces of City and Countryside

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pp. 177-234

As new social practices were introduced into Japan during the early Meiji period, they disseminated unevenly from the cities to the countryside. While Western fashions were adopted initially among the elite, who had ties to the government and who were concerned about promoting Japan’s image as a civilized nation, they soon spread to members of the middle...

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Conclusion Oedipus in Chains: Eternal Return and the Memory of the Epic Past

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pp. 235-240

I began this book by considering how the Meiji Restoration had nurtured the sentiment that the revolution was incomplete. The calls to action that adhered around the notion of the “incomplete Restoration” in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were (re)productive of the myth of the Meiji Restoration. For both the state and its critics, revolutionary action...


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pp. 241-282


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pp. 283-302


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pp. 303-316

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780824838270
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824838263

Publication Year: 2014

OCLC Number: 882423070
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Gender and Nation in Meiji Japan

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Subject Headings

  • Japan -- History -- Meiji period, 1868-1912.
  • Japan -- Civilization -- Western influences.
  • Japan -- Social life and customs -- 1868-1912.
  • Nationalism -- Japan.
  • Japan -- Historiography.
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