Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Lost and Found - Recovering Regional Identity in Imperial Japan by Hiraku Shimoda

It is still a pretty widespread idea that Japan, during two centuries of Tokugawa-led seclusion, was a unified monolith, managed peacefully and efficiently by the central powers in Edo. Within this narrow focus, one tends to omit the fact that the mavericks leading the Meiji Restoration had the difficult task of uniting to their cause a people dispensed over 260 distinct domains. At the outbreak of the Meiji Restoration Japan was messy and full of troubling divisions and, as one would expect, parts of the population couldn’t shake off the past or old loyalties with ease. This dividing line between old and new was carried out at a regional level, with some domains clinging to bakufu allegiances while others embraced the Satsuma and Chōshū alliance (satchō). The regional split is why the road to ‘modernity’ was not an easy one: on numerous occasions it took a bloody turn, the worst example being the Boshin War (1868-1869) which culminated in the disestablishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate and saw the return of the imperial court to prominent position of power. Far from ending the regional split (even through various collective and individual punishments imposed by the victors) the peace and stability following the Meiji Restoration was every so often disturbed by calls for regional independence, preservation of regional identity and historical revision of the actors of the Boshin War. All of these features had been drastically reduced, transformed and amalgamated as requisites of a newfangled, modern nation-state. The obstinate cries supporting the original form of these features were most famously and vociferously expressed by the defeated bakufu supporters, the people of Aizu domain. The circumstances which set Aizu apart and gave it the rare courage to clash with the increasingly-autocratic Meiji government are the subject of Mr. Hiraku Shimoda’s book Lost and Found - Recovering Regional Identity in Imperial Japan.

Mr. Shimoda takes stock of a special topographical counterpoint to the notion of Japanese homogeneity and territorial uniformity by investigating a region where the strong local identity was often disconnected from the collective national ethos. In doing so, he confronts the massive reshaping of Aizu’s regional culture during the Meiji period and the resistance generated by such historical transfiguration. But if this local identity was so tenacious, so set against the forces building a nation-state (and, synchronously, an empire) then where is Aizu today? 

No political unit called Aizu has existed since 1868… One must squint at a map just to see the word Aizu appear as a mere vestigial prefix on the names of several towns and villages scattered across western Fukushima prefecture.

Situated in the heart of Tohoku region, Aizu comprised the western mountainous part of Fukushima Prefecture. During the Edo period, the area was a Tokugawa protectorate, responsible for keeping a look-out on northern daimyōs with dubious loyalties such as the Satake, Date and Nanbu. The region was generally stricken by poverty and only the city of Wakamatsu had a reputation for trade and prosperity. Against these adverse conditions and because it recognised the strategic importance of an ally in an area far from Edo’s reach, the Tokugawa continued to support Aizu financially and militarily until the tragic outcome of the Boshin War. While the foundations of adherence to the Tokugawa cause can be traced back almost two centuries before the Meiji Restoration, it is worth noting here that, even during the Edo period, Aizu had a reputation for unruliness, especially when it came to samurai standards of proper behaviour. In addition, what could be interpreted as a sense for regional loyalty or even strong regional identity was not exactly developed along strict lines but was more the object of self-serving, financial prosperity and survival:

The rulers and the ruled could diverge greatly on who and what ‘belonged’ in Aizu and how much they valued the domain as a rightful place of belonging that merited their allegiance. The domain did what it could, naturally enough, to keep human and material capital within its borders for the sake of domainal well-being.

This predilection for self-preservation rather than regional loyalty was evident after the Aizu resistance was crushed by the imperial forces in the Boshin War. Various witnesses recorded the failure on the part of the commoners to express pity or sympathy towards the daimyo and his generals who were captured and carried off to Edo as prisoners of war. This indifference especially shocked the commander in chief of the victorious Tosa army and compelled him to express his feelings as following:

“When I witnessed all the commoners fleeing with their belongings on their backs, I was deeply impressed… The people avoided conflict and scattered, with none feeling any debt to the many generations of lordly benevolence… Upon seeing the fall of their country, the people felt no more remorse than did some livestock — how could this be?”

How is it possible that after the demise of their mighty Tokugawa supporter, Aizu became synonymous with a hotbed of ‘rebels’ and ‘enemies of the court,’ a mix of rowdy people who vehemently resisted and constantly frustrated forced amalgamation into the budding Meiji nation-state? And why, from this resistance, did it emerge as a primary exemplar of steadfast loyalty to the imperial cause? The reasons are interestingly varied and Mr. Shimoda presents them with the skill of a masterly historian. 

After the Boshin War 70 percent of Aizu’s rice crops were destroyed and the land was plunged into poverty and famine. While the Meiji restorationists regarded these dire straits as a fit punishment for a region that acted against their goals, soon they had to revise their isolationist policy and to contribute to the socio-economic conditions of the area. This was highly necessary as between 1868 and 1876 Aizu was a hub for counterfeiters, bandits and antigovernment insurrections. Kido Takayoshi, one of the main protagonists in the Meiji Restoration, denounced Aizu as “the greatest villain of all” and sought to “instil fear by punishing the unruly rebels… and make it impossible for others to harbour any rebellious thoughts.” Another course of action which was seen as necessary for the creation of a strong, unified state was the relocation of Aizu samurai families so as to reduce the influence which they might have had upon local feelings of disloyalty and unruliness. As one statesman aptly put it, “there is no better way to imperialise the people and wash away old habits than samurai relocation.” 

All of these actions enraged the Aizu people and reinforced their antagonism toward the central government. This enmity was already rooted in the terrible devastation brought upon the land in the aftermath of the Boshin War. But with the displacement of the old families and the encroachment of modern industrialisation supplanting old forms of mercantilism and sustenance, they also felt that their culture was being forced out of the region. Aizu locals voiced their displeasure in various petitions, calling out for the return of the Matsudaira lords (who have ruled Aizu by Tokugawa decree for centuries):

“We are a people who have always lived in an isolated land enclosed on all four sides, and we are stubborn in our ways. We are accustomed to the several centuries of benevolent nurturing by Matsudaira lordship… The ways of our old lord have seeped into our skin over more than two hundred years, and they cannot be forgotten even for a moment…”

The anger increased in 1876 when Aizu was incorporated into Fukushima prefecture. Mr. Shimoda regards this move as the straw that broke the camel’s back because it gave the people of Aizu a platform to hold even more tightly unto to their views of regional exceptionality and resulted in pronounced demonstrations of local identity.

It was the climate of modern national consolidation that fostered this local self-discovery. Faced with external violations of unstated but long-understood borders — an insensitive gerrymandering where Tokyo’s designs seemed grossly incongruous with established practices — some residents of  former Aizu were driven to reaffirm local norms and discover their distinct locality. Both prefectural rule and administrative consolidation had aimed for nation-building efficiency, but those impositions gave rise, most unwittingly, to a sharper awareness of Aizu’s regional identity relative to its neighbours and the new nation.

From this strong notion of personal and collective identity prevalent in the ex-Aizu province, the concept of Aizuppo became established. A singular definition of this term (which is in use even at the present) is hard to pinpoint. To be sure, it harkens back to the notion of “the Aizu spirit” that was invoked regularly and obsessively during the late Meiji Period to signify strength of character, loyalty and, above all, stubbornness in the face of drastic change and modern reform. “The Aizu spirit” was (and is) thus a thoroughly conservative notion, one that adhered to the acute exceptionalism of a supposedly unchanging tradition. 

The famous stubbornness of “The Aizu spirit” gradually began to be equated with steadfast loyalty which, in the nationalistic and military environment of the Meiji period, was the most admirable and supreme virtue the Japanese people could have. And because absolute loyalty toward country and emperor was the criterion that all good citizens had to demonstrate, the Aizu locals could now claim that they were the paragon, the embodiment of this moral attribute. Owing to its committed and unfaltering support for the Tokugawa government throughout history, the Aizu province had proven to be reliably loyal and so the designation of “rebels” attached to them and to all bakufu supporters in history textbooks had to be revised. The Aizu people couldn’t be rebels when in fact they most ardently and loyally supported the original Japanese state, seeing it through to its tragic demise. The sacrifices made by being on the wrong side of history were enough to warrant special consideration in the case of Aizu as it not only endured disproportionate humiliation and punishment compared to other provinces, but it eventually disavowed its ties to the old regime by taking down Saigō Takamori’s troops in the Seinen War of 1877 (otherwise known as the Satsuma Rebellion). All of this energised a grand region-wide movement in support of the elimination of the appellation of ‘rebels’ when referring to Aizu people, which even drew the passionate assistance of Tokutomi Sohō, the famous journalist and historian. Mr. Shimoda details with intriguing zest the well-publicised fight over textbook terminology but I cannot focus on this matter here. Nevertheless the report on this subject is one of the most exhilarating episodes in the book, well worth exploring. 

Furthermore I decided not to go into the excellent account of the famous Byakkotai contained in the latter part of the book. Mr. Shimoda does an outstanding job of demystifying this historical episode. I will say this though: while the Japanese nation-state was being wrenched onto a new track of history, it needed new narratives to keep the people galvanised to its cause. Imperialism needed a new disguise, a rhetoric that could be easily consumed by the public. Into all of this came “the Aizu spirit” which proved to be the most popular promoter of loyalty to the nation-state on the strength of its weighty history and convincing symbolism. National identity — a strong sense of it, necessarily accepted by everyone —  was at the forefront of governmental work in the Meiji period. Devising and institutionalising collective appreciation for a sense of belonging to a greater, unifying whole proved to be tougher than it was expected: regional differences constantly undermined this project imposed from above and from outside. In the end, these regional differences allowed room for finding a distinct socio-cultural place in the emerging national landscape that was in much need of uniformity and conformity in order to stay strong. And even regions wanted to be part of a strong nation. In Aizu’s case, Mr. Shimoda best exemplifies this trajectory when he remarks the following:

Aizu’s sense of difference — articulated through decades of identity rhetoric and captured by the idea of a so-called Aizu spirit — emerged out of an ultimately synthetic project whereby those who had once been deemed different sought to, and largely did, overcome that difference. In doing so, they could discover a homeland that satisfied local claims to legitimacy while ultimately confirming the nation’s supremacy. Thus an Aizuppo could be undeniably and unapologetically Japanese; in fact, there could hardly be an Aizuppo without a Japanese.

Work cited:

Shimoda, Hiraku. Lost and Found. Recovering Regional Identity in Imperial Japan. Harvard University Press, 2014.

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