Costume in Meiji Japan

When Stoddard travelled Japan between 1895 and 1897, it was ruled by the emperor Mutsuhito, better known as Meiji Tenn˘. The once hermetically closed empire had been forcefully opened to the "West" only a few decades earlier, followed by a major restructuring of power: The sh˘gun, who had been the actual ruler for centuries, relinquished his power to the emperor in 1868. Shortly after, the tenn˘ moved from the old capital Ky˘to to the new, "Eastern" capital T˘ky˘.*

By the time Stoddard visited, the Meiji government ("Meiji" can be translated as "enlightened government") had already effected, and were still working on, reforms that were to lay Japan's path into modernity: new laws and a constitution modeled on those of France, Germany and England, a new educational system, the study of Western science and many more. Stoddard expressed his admiration for the elementary schools open to children of all classes, and the huge and modern Imperial University, now known as the prestigious T˘ky˘ Daigaku AKA T˘dai.

Europe and America were the shining examples of the time, imitated and admired. What Stoddard witnessed was the transition of a society from the middle ages to the industrial age - from the centuries-old feudal system, with the clearly defined class structure of warrior <- peasant <- artisan <- merchant (shi-n˘-k˘-sh˘), to a pre-industrial society in which the once mighty warrior class, the samurai (shi), had no place at all. In fact, status definitions and ranking - all-important in Japanese society - were being almost completely re-defined just then, ending in the present state of definition via job.

But then as now, it is only the surface that is "modernised" or "westernised". What Stoddard remarked on and what many modern visitors fail to notice is that Japan always remained Japanese at its core, be it Meiji era (1868-1912), Sh˘wa era (1926-1989) or Heiwa era (now).

Yet at the same time, Stoddard's Japan appears to be farther removed from the modern Japan than from that of the 17th century. But then Stoddard pictured and described what appeared to be exotic rather than what seemed familiar to him, and isn't 19th century Europe also an exotic land to us now?


Meiji pictures I
Meiji pictures II

*) As a scholar of things Japanese, I of course use the Hepburn transliteration, i.e. long vovels are marked by a dash above. As normal fonts don't contain that peculiarity, I use the accent circonflex (^) instead. Normally, vovels are short in Japanese.



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