- Lost and Found: Recovering Regional Identity in Imperial Japan by Hiraku Shimoda, and: Meiji Restoration Losers: Memory and Tokugawa Supporters in Modern Japan by Michael Wert
What a difference a sesqui makes. Back in 1968, official commemorations and unofficial lamentations of the Meiji Restoration’s centennial focused on the winners, the men who brought down the Tokugawa shogunate and shepherded Japan into Western-style modernity. The lamenters spoke as well of losers, but they meant the people whose suffering resulted from the Meiji state’s victory: peasant freeholders driven into tenancy or worse by the cruelties of a market economy and precocious democrats who dared to speak against oligarchy. Their losers comprised the entire nation, which eventually succumbed to the poisonous effects of the emperor-system ideology and the fascism it spawned. Critics of the centennial came to bury the losers, not to praise them, and to remind us that the evil men do lives after them.
Now, as we approach the Restoration’s sesquicentennial, let us gather to praise the coup d’état’s losers, the men and women who lost their land, lives, and livelihoods as the direct result of the shogunate’s collapse. NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster, devoted the 2013 season of its long-running primetime historical drama series (taiga dorama 大河ドラマ) to a photogenic loser, Niijima Yae 新島八重, who fought on behalf of her doomed Aizu 会津 domain during the Boshin War 戊辰戦争 of 1868–1869. Each of the books under review here—Hiraku Shimoda’s Lost and Found: Recovering Regional Identity in Imperial [End Page 228] Japan and Michael Wert’s Meiji Restoration Losers: Memory and Tokugawa Supporters in Modern Japan—narrates a short story of loss during and immediately after the Tokugawa’s collapse and a longer story of recuperation and rehabilitation in the decades that followed. Like NHK’s Niijima Yae, who survived the war to marry the cosmopolitan Christian educator Niijima Jō 新島襄, Shimoda’s and Wert’s subjects asserted that they, too, had always loved the emperor and had always strived to contribute to the making of modern Japan. Memory and history made loyalists and visionaries of the Restoration’s losers and thereby made them winners.
The two books differ in many respects, but they narrate similar three-act dramas. Act I: Downfall. Previous scholarship told us, correctly, that the Tokugawa regime fell surprisingly quickly and easily. But we should not therefore see the Meiji Restoration as a bloodless revolution. Many people suffered and died, and the victors often behaved vindictively. Act II: Rehabilitation. It took decades of effort, but by around the beginning of the twentieth century, journalists and private boosters had succeeded in their project of rehabilitating many key figures previously maligned as opponents of the imperial regime. Those rehabilitated included fallen angels of the Restoration, such as Saigō Takamori 西郷隆盛, as well as Tokugawa officials like Ii Naosuke 井伊 直弼 and the last lord of Aizu, Matsudaira Katamori 松平容保. Act III: Apotheosis. Not satisfied with “not so bad after all,” the losers’ advocates pushed even harder and eventually succeeded in making credible the once incredible notion that no one had ever opposed the emperor, the Restoration, or Japan’s embrace of Western-style modernity. It turns out the Restoration had pitted good guys against good guys after all. Nowadays, historical memory and popular culture celebrate equally the loyalty and patriotism of heroes like Sakamoto Ryōma 坂本龍馬 (winner), the Shinsengumi’s 新撰組 Kondō Isami 近藤勇 (loser), and Saigō Takamori (winner turned loser).
Shimoda’s analysis focuses on Aizu, the northeastern domain that famously defended the shogunate even after the last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu 徳川慶喜, had himself given up the fight. He devotes about half of the book to a narrative of the years just before and after the Restoration, in which he describes Aizu’s surprisingly opportunistic political machinations at the end of the Tokugawa period, its vain military struggle against the...