- Gender and Nation in Meiji Japan: Modernity, Loss, and the Doing of History by Jason G. Karlin
Jason Karlin’s book Gender and Nation in Meiji Japan is the type of history that I like to read. It is satisfying on some points, unsatisfying on others, but always provocative. It is a bit all over the place—chronologically and topically—but always in the service of making connections unseen and arguments unmade by other historians. Karlin’s curious mind is at work on every page of the book, and the pulse of the historian is palpable.
This work of cultural history spans from the bumpy opening moments of the Meiji era to the morass of Japan’s wartime years, covers topics ranging from cultural fads and historical commemoration to social satire and violent action, and employs a series of sources relatively new to English-language historiography on Japan, including the satirical newspaper Marumaru chinbun, young men’s adventure magazines such as Bōken sekai, and the rural-directed publication Ie no hikari. What unites the book’s disparate topics is a fixation on the people who found themselves on the losing side [End Page 377] of history after the Meiji Restoration yet who continued to fight against the changes initiated by Japan’s modern revolution. Karlin’s two major themes are the cultural manifestations of resistance to state-led modernization and the manufacturing of nostalgia for worlds untainted by the corrosive touch of the modern. Karlin’s “people”—including descendants of the Tokugawa family, highbrow authors, geisha, and woodblock artists, among others—sought to suture the wounds inflicted by modernity. Those wounds were, in their eyes, akin to cultural amputation, the forceful and destructive severing of the past from the present. These people agitated to remember the pre-Meiji past and to celebrate its virtues, in order to dispel the rapidly emerging notion that the Edo past represented backwardness and the Meiji present represented progress.
The first chapter ponders the emergence of sōshi, ruffian men in the late Meiji years who ridiculed the “high-collar,” Westernized gentlemen (shinshi) in control of the Meiji state and who embodied a competing form of masculinity focused on primitive strength and authentic cultural expression. Karlin continues to explore the masculinities of Meiji Japan by devoting the second chapter to the topic of hero worship in young men’s print culture and by offering an analysis of how the quest for “admirable people in history” generated violent resistance against state leaders and also ignited aggressive desires to combat Western empire building in Asia. The third chapter shifts the focus to the specter of Edo in the Meiji era, exploring the question: How did people try to repudiate the Meiji-era reputation of Edo (both the time and the place) as a historical backwater and to implant longing-filled memories of Edo and its emblems (such as Genroku fashion, geisha, Ueno Park) into an alternative, modern national identity? His discussion of the 1889 tricentennial celebration of Tokyo is particularly noteworthy for its engagement with Takashi Fujitani’s argument on the power of the Meiji state to produce a hegemonic national memory. The final chapter examines the moral panic engendered by those who fretted the infection of the rural, both the people and the place, by the alluring ills of urban life, and it highlights those who remonstrated to defend the village as a place able to remain rural yet become modern.
Karlin’s most significant contribution is his dissection of the multiple masculinities of Meiji Japan. Finally, a book arrives that connects the history of men to the history of masculinity, a seemingly obvious connection that past historians of modern Japan have failed to make. Dating back to books by Earl Kinmonth and Donald Roden in the 1980s, and arguably to the earlier work of Albert Craig, Marius Jansen, and others in the 1960s, historians wrote the history of men without thinking much of masculinity, as if pre-Restoration samurai...