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Reviewed by:
  • Meiji Restoration Losers: Memory and Tokugawa Supporters in Modern Japan by Michael Wert
  • Hiraku Shimoda (bio)
Meiji Restoration Losers: Memory and Tokugawa Supporters in Modern Japan. By Michael Wert. Harvard University Asia Center, Cambridge, Mass., 2013. xii, 225 pages. $39.95.

Who gets to be a hero? This question becomes especially pressing when chronicling a nation’s founding. Equally pressing is the question of who plays the villain. What does history do with the vanquished, the fall guy, those who chose wrong? And what hopes and possibilities for redemption await them in posterity? By looking to the red side of the historical ledger, Michael Wert’s fine monograph, Meiji Restoration Losers: Memory and Tokugawa Supporters in Modern Japan, invites us to ponder how and why we choose to remember those we do from that momentous event and asks us to reexamine the contemporaneous uses of that history.

Its title notwithstanding, this work is ultimately a treatment of one particular “loser”: Oguri Kōzukenosuke Tadamasa (1827–68), a high-ranking Tokugawa bannerman and a shogunal commissioner in the bakufu’s waning years. To be even more specific, the book focuses on efforts to improve the posthumous reputation of this one man. These efforts, which began shortly after his premature death and continue to the present, have given Oguri a long and curious afterlife.

Wert’s smooth and engaging narrative proceeds chronologically. He begins with a concise and energetic biography of Oguri Kōzukenosuke. The Oguri family traced its proud ancestry back to Ieyasu’s Mikawa days, and Tadamasa himself enjoyed significant landholdings of 2,700 koku scattered around the Kanto plain, including present-day Gunma Prefecture. This connection to Gunma becomes an important part of the story later. Oguri’s career in the bakufu began in earnest in 1859, when Ii Naosuke appointed him an inspector (metsuke), then later a commissioner (bugyō). His duties [End Page 373] involved mostly foreign affairs and finance, and the highlights of his career include participating in the 1860 embassy to the United States, leading military and financial reform in the Bunkyū era, proposing the Hyōgo Shōsha (a novel, semipublic trading company that never got off the ground), and working with the French to establish a modern shipyard in Yokosuka (surely his most lasting legacy). Politically, Oguri was a Tokugawa hardliner in that he resisted court-shogunal union and insisted on defending Edo militarily against Satsuma-Chōshū advances (and clashing with Katsu Kaishū, his foil in life and history books, in the process). This is ostensibly what has made him something of a villain in certain Restoration histories. After he was rebuffed and the shogunate fell, Oguri retired in a huff to the Gunma countryside. There he, in a mayhem typical of the time, was dubiously accused of raising a militia and was hastily beheaded by the imperial forces in the intercalary fourth month of 1868. The chapter’s title, “The Last Bannerman,” takes artistic liberty—even if any one person can be proclaimed as such, it was not Oguri—but still, it gives us a useful baseline portrait of “the man” before moving on to “the myth, the legend” which are the heart of this vibrant, enjoyable volume.

From here, Wert carefully depicts various “memory activists” who produced what he calls an extensive “memory landscape” (both physical and abstract) and “a powerful emotive discourse” (p. 75) that were dedicated to rehabilitating Oguri’s posthumous image. Whether they were working on Meiji-era broadsheets or postwar television, these memory activists (Wert credits Carol Gluck for this term; the more colorful label “reputational entrepreneurs” is also mentioned) were always a mixed and intriguing lot. The author treats us to a full cast of men engaged in this project: early Meiji newspaper reporters, Tokugawa die-hards, local historians in Gunma, “country gentlemen” types such as a certain Tsukagoshi Yoshitarō who wrote an Oguri biography, and temples with competing claims to Oguri lore. Some prominent figures such as Fukuchi Gen’ichirō and Fukuzawa Yukichi weighed in on Oguri, too. Fukuchi, who often defended the Tokugawa legacy, is presented here as an example of what Conrad Totman called the “Meiji bias,” which reimagined shogunal men...


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pp. 373-377
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