"Japanese" Identity Formation in the Meiji Period

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Page for ASIA 315 Project on Japanese identity in the Meiji period and its processes of its' creation.

With the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate (徳川幕府) approaching, and the arrival of the the Matthew Perry Expedition for the Opening of Japan (1852–1854), often simply referred to as kurofune (黒船 "black ships") – referencing both the colour of the vessels and the coal smoke which they emitted from their engines – Japan began to move away from isolation, and towards expanding the spirit of the bunmei-kaika (文明開化 "civilisation and progress" [1]). Japan began to westernise and to develop an idea of a modern 'nation state', which is defined by a core homogenous 'nation' of peoples. Through the process, various factors plays a role in the establishment of Japan’s national identity in the Meiji period.

Western Influence: the introduction to the idea of race

Japan’s idea of homogeneity was influenced by the Western ideas of race, which were introduced mainly in the Meiji period. In the Meiji era, Japan aimed to modernize their country, based on the Western model and promotion of scientific knowledge. Through the process of modernization, various knowledge and ideas from the West were introduced to Japanese people, many students and scholars were sent to study abroad and brought the knowledge back to their country.

The introduction of the idea of race started in the early Meiji era, mainly from the foreign visitors who came to Japan and brought the new ideas from the West, including ideas about race. Between 1868-1900, the Japanese government had hired 2400 Westerners, which hugely contributed to the knowledge about race in Japan. 1874 was the peak period of the Western employees, which were involved in the development of the idea of race, ethnicity and with the focus to Japanese origins . In addition, among them include scholars, who teach at higher educational institutions. Through their teachings, the scholars also taught Darwin’s evolutionary theory and Spencer’s Social Darwinism[2].

The introduction of Darwin's evolutionary theory and the field of ethnography and anthropology, have impacted the Japanese by encouraging their interests in the concept of race and gave them ideas to apply the knowledge to Japan. Later, the government also became interested in the concept of race, due to its importance to the status and image of the country, in the international arena [2]. The Western theories impact Japan’s interest in the concept of race and their view of the importance of the concept in establishing a place for the Japanese in the global hierarchy.

In the Western countries, within their concept of race, Asians were tend to be viewed as inferior to the people of the West. Many Japanese scholars who went to study abroad faced racism and humiliation from unequal views about race in the West. The experience of the scholars who encountered racial injustice may have motivated Japanese scholars to form a new national and racial identity, to strengthen their place in the world and compete with other Western powers [2].

Through the introduction to the idea of race, this impacts the Japanese by triggering the questioning of their place in relation to the Westerners and other East Asians. As their position within the Western view of race tended to be seen as inferior to those of the West, the Japanese seemed to hold discontent towards the idea of race. The discontentment towards the idea of race was more of an emotional and local rather than intellectual and universal. The Japanese opposition towards the idea of race, eventually impacts the establishment of Japanese definition of race and ethnicity, which also later contributes to the construction of the division of “Japanese” and “non-Japanese” that lasts until the End of World War II and later on [2].

Overall, the Japanese idea of homogeneity may be a result of the Japanese contact to the Western ideas on race. The ideas about race were introduced to the Japanese from foreign visitors, who brought new ideas into the country. The greatest contribution to Japan’s adoption of the new idea of race, were from the Western employees hired by the government, which some also teach in higher educational institutions. In addition, the Western ideas of race were spread to the Japanese through books and from Japanese who went to study abroad. Western ideas regard race tend to view Asians as inferior, which may have triggered Japanese to fight against such views and motivate them to establish their own definition of race.

Settler Colonialism in Japan: The Ainu Challenge to Japanese Homogeneity

The Ainu or Aynu (Japanese [日本語]: アイヌ) reference the Indigenous people's of the Northern Japanese region of Hokkaido (北海道) and north-eastern Honshū (本州), as well as parts of Eastern Russia. While the Encyclopedia of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity[3] lists the population of the Ainu at the beginning of the Meiji (明治) at roughly 80,000, the reliability of the monitoring of Ainu (アイヌ) populations throughout Japanese history up through the Meiji (明治) is heavily contested due to the fact the entire practice is overshadowed by an imperial-nationalist agenda of homogenous indigenisation, meaning that any official acknowledgement or documentation of the Ainu people is not without politicisation[4].

Although this page is dedicated to the Meiji period, for a fuller understanding of the Ainu relationship to Meiji Japan it is necessary to form an understanding of the Ainu relationship to the Tokugawa. As a result of the processes involved in the formation of an early-modern state in the 1600s, the Japanese government found itself at the peak of an indigenising undertaking which arose out of complicated internal conflicts which brought the nation racing into the Tokugawa period (徳川時代) maritime restriction edicts (鎖国). Japan's relatively newly founded identity formation meant that Japan needed to establish for itself clear cut political boundaries for the first time[5][1]. Though, this complex socio-political process began even before the end of the Tokugawa (徳川), This included a boundary in southern Hokkaido (北海道) which acted as a (fort the most part) clear and constant demarcation of the Tokugawa Shogunate (徳川幕府) to the south, and Ezochi (蝦夷地), a "nominally autonomous appendage"[5], to the north. Ezochi's Ainu inhabitants occupied an interesting position both in regards to their intersection with the Tokugawa (徳川) efforts for indigenising and solidifying a Japanese identity, and in their now very real and political existence outside of the border of the Tokugawa (徳川). The Ainu's connection with the Tokugawa (徳川), and with the rest of Japan, following the arbitration of this border, was largely performed and managed by the domain of the Matsumae-shi (松前氏) in southern Hokkaido (北海道)[5]. The Matsumae (松前) took the role of traders and mediators between the Tokugawa (徳川) and the Ainu, maintaining the separation of the Ainu from the rest of Tokugawa (徳川) Japan, and thereby the Ainu's subordination to Japan. "But because Chinese and other realms of civilisation existed outside the Tokugawa polity, not everyone beyond Japan’s borders was barbarian: the barbarism of the Ainu and other peripheral Hokkaido peoples was a function of their political subordination to the Tokugawa state." (111-112)[5]. More importantly, while the Ainu saw this relationship as a trade relationship, for the Matsumae it was an effort to secure their position within the Tokugawa Shogunate[5]. The Matsumae lacked in agricultural production in comparison to other domains, due to the northern territory's topography and soil, much of the land was not arable[5][1]. Thereby, the Matsumae domain relied on continued economic relation with the Ainu for its place in the Tokugawa order[5]. In fact, "the Ainu were so important to Matsumae that the domain proved willing to create them if there were not enough “real” Ainu to go around." (112)[5] This process placed Hokkaido within political reach of the early modern state, and relied on the exclusion of the Ainu from the core Japanese polity[5].

in 1669 Shakushain (an Ainu chieftain) and the Matsumae went to war, which was largely considered the final consolidated attempt by the Ainu to sever relations with the Matsumae, and to trade with Japan on their own terms[5]. However, after some Japanese posing as if they came to negotiate peace murdered Shakushain, the war effort was lost, and with it any further centralised Ainu military resistance to the Matsumae, and so too their political structures collapsed into a new politics which was not fully fledged within itself, but rather was heavily reliant upon relations with the Matsumae. This served to finalised the subjugation of the Ainu as barbaric and beneath the Tokugawa.[5] After the war, much of the Ainu began a cultural shift away from the rest of Japan as a form of cultural resistance; where many groups in Ezochi (蝦夷地) had a long history of agriculture, many decided to focus on fishing and hunting which separated them from the Japanese.[5] In the late Tokugawa, even when many Ainu people lived their daily lives in Japanese villages, having Japanese names fashion, and way of wearing hair, some Ainu still participated in rituals of trade with the Matsumae in which they re-assumed their Ainu long-haired appearances for the sake of ritual, known in Ainu as uimam (trade), or omemie (audience).[5] These rituals were rituals of submission of the Ainu to the Matsumae, from the Japanese perspective, and in return the Ainu would receive gifts, which were of little value to the Japanese, but great value to the Ainu[5]. The Ainu, however, still saw these more as trade and did not accept simply the Japanese interpretation.[5] These rituals of submission continued until the beginning of the Meiji, where the new government saw these rituals as of "little use" (122)[5]. The Tokugawa placed their effort on excluding the Ainu from what it meant to be 'Japanese', and rather used their status of 'barbarians' in order to help demarcate the sanctity and superiority of Japanese-ness. However, unlike the Tokugawa, the Meiji government saw these rituals as hinderance to the effort to assimilate the Ainu into Japanese society in order to create an illusion of homogeneity. Even by the end of the Tokugawa, the Matsumae became such a successful fishing domain, that the trade relations with the Ainu did not really hold much practical influence on the Matsumae's place within the Tokugawa, but rather it held a very powerful symbolic role for the Tokugawa. It just so happens that the Meiji had no use for such a symbolic relationship of subordination because such a relationship relied on a separation of the Ainu from Japan, which would break the Homogeneity which the Meiji strove for.

With the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate approaching, Japan began to move away from isolation, and towards expanding the spirit of the bunmei-kaika (文明開化 "civilisation and progress" [1]), westernising and developing an idea of a homogenous, modern 'nation state'. This homogeneity project was thereby hindered by all which the Tokugawa had done in the relations between Japan and the Ainu. The Meiji restoration saw with it a notion of mushuchi (Terra nullius), a notion that Hokkaido was largely 'empty' land which was open to the Meiji government to colonise because the Meiji had the means to "cultivate the land with their labour"[6], which therefore meant they could claim ownership of the land. Without this principle, the Ainu were exploitable labour for the Tokugawa, but with this principle for the Meiji, the Ainu were altogether disposable and completely inconsequential[6]. The only important thing for the Meiji government was not to let the Ainu identity affect the attempt to homogenise, and therefore the Meiji's establishment of private property in Hokkaido saw with it the structural elimination of the Ainu way of living, and thereby of the Ainu identity[6]. What really made the Meiji stand apart from the Matsumae and the Tokugawa before them, was that never in the time of the Tokugawa and Matsumae was there an effort to settle Hokkaido with Japanese people and thereby to replace the Ainu. With this comes the notion of Japan's settler colonialism[6]. As much as the Tokugawa, in the late Tokugawa period, were systematically using the Ainu for forced labour, it was not until Meiji migration policies which brought Japanese settlement into Hokkaido in a meaningful way, that there became a real effort to displace the Ainu. The Ainu began to be seen as standing in the way of making Hokkaido just a regular part of Japan like any other, and with this came a powerful "eliminatory impulse" (601)[6]. Hokkaido was vital to the Meiji nation-state formation and the westernised notion of capitalist modernism, because it was a tangible and vital border from the Russians, which also held multitudes of natural resources which could be used for capitalist industrial means[6]. Whilst the Ainu people were still very much alive, they became a sort of "living fossil" (602)[6] which were entirely irrelevant to the capitalist vision of growth under which Hokkaido becomes, simply, nothing more than natural resources. The Meiji established laws, however, which seemed to support a continued Ainu existence, such as the "Former Native Protection Law" of 1899[6]. However, the principles by which this law was written were already working under the same capitalist assumptions of ownership which would allow the systematic destruction of the homes and livelihoods of the Ainu[6]. The Ainu were forced, quite literally, to become 'Japanese' in the sense of a Japanese identity rather than an Ainu one, befitting of life under imperial Japan, or to die.

"Kokutai": The Emperor as a Unifying Vessel

The term Kokutai (国体, "national body/structure of state"), in simplest terms was the concept of national identity that justified the imperial rule of Japan through the lore surrounding him. The emperor of Japan and this mystical term are conjoined. The lack of specificity around the term, as well as the paradoxical utilization in the Meiji period, was especially important in garnering the trust and loyalty of the Japanese people and unifying its nationality[7].


Although popularized in the Meiji period, the ideology was formed by scholars in the seventh century who utilized Shinto religious principles to legitimize the emperor by attributing him with higher divine powers, ‘manifest kami’, that allow him to communicate with and act as a vessel for Shinto religious figures[8]. The emperor does so by following the “imperial rescripts”, known as the Ritsuryo State, which became the model which the Meiji Restoration employed to establish their new, uniquely Japanese nation-state[8].

At the core of the term lies the importance of the emperor and his “unbroken” lineage, tracing back to the birth of Japanese civilization. The “myth” states that at the start of the emperor’s ancestral line, “Jinmu-tenno” first ruled Japan, employed to do so by religious figures such as gods (or Heaven)[9]. Despite historians’ definitive proof that “Jinmu-tenno” is fictitious, the Meiji period used the narrative as fact. The sacred nature of the emperor resulted in his deification, the propagation of the Shinto religion, and the ‘quasi-religious’ nature and supremacy of the Meiji state[9].

Characterizations of the Term

The emperor’s role, outlined in the “Kokutai no Hongi” (book of guidelines), is defined as follows: an unlimited responsibility, all-enveloping embrace, and a “spiritual axis” which grips the hearts of its subjects. Together, this responsibilities are to create an “ideological homogeneity” and a balance of dependence between the emperor’s right to rule and the reliance on the villagers’ unquestioning devotion/trust[10]. In theory, the emperor, via Kokutai, was a benevolent leader, connected to the people in a “natural bond”, whose goal was to serve the people and oversee the Japanese government that functioned beneath him in theory[9][10]. In actuality, the emperor had little authority to write or create any legislature.

International Comparisons

Some scholars believe the strict enforcement of Kokutai was to emulate the system of oligarchy in Europe, affiliated with Christianity, in order to anchor the legitimacy of the state with divinity[10]. However, those who made such claims in the Meiji period (scholar Minobe for example), were ostracized or removed from positions of power to protect the lore[9]. Similarly, scholars have connected Neo-Confucianism to the term via the "Mandate of Heaven", which gives the emperor divine power from Heaven to rule over the people, so long as s/he is governing as a servant to the people and their needs.

This term furthermore solidified the unique Japanese identity as it forced all people to subscribe to the Shinto religion and the worship of the Emperor, and made it so Japanese folk religion became the centre to which all life orbited

Shintoism in State-led Identity Creation Efforts

Shinto, which is a overarching term referring to beliefs and rituals traditionally held in Japan, is understood as a religion, but is far from homogeneous. It features deities, shrines, and philosophies with different backgrounds and has changed over time.  During the Meiji period, various political and economic reforms to Japanese state brought it more in line with developments in colonial European empires. This quest for European-style modernity takes on many forms, from adopting European clothing styles to the a growing interventionism of the state in every aspect of life. Like many other things, religion is one of the crucial topics which was utilised by the state for its prerogatives, yet the extent to which Shinto evolved due to state intervention and rather than organically is still contested[11].

As religion is often a key factor in the construction of state and nationhood, Shinto has often been assumed to be a fundamental aspect of Japanese identity. However this alienates and obscures the non-Shinto Japanese, such as the Ainu people, indigenous to the island of Ezo or Hokkaido, or Christians. This association also obscures the complex, changing relationship between the state and Shinto, the state having been an important factor in the creation of this perception.

Nevertheless, attempts were made to use Shinto as a nation-building tool, which contributed to its usage in the creation of a homogeneous Japanese identity. Its instrumentalization comes through an increased focus on emperor worship, as the belief in his descent from Amaterasu was encouraged[11]. Shrines were to give up many Buddhist aspects and became locations of worship of the imperial family, unifying rituals across Japan when they had previously been very disparate. For example, the state actively sought to integrate Shinto shrines with more Buddhist or Christian characteristics while actively ridding them of Buddhist and Christian aspects. Scholars have traditionally referred to the growing involvement of the state in Shinto as “State Shinto”, as it refers to a somewhat alien governmental approach to religion in Japan which took on more European aspects.

The state’s instrumentalization of Shinto has contributed to creating a mythology of what constitutes a Japanese identity, with emperor worship being an important aspect of this identity. The degree of intervention of the state in these processes is, however, contested. More recent scholarship concludes that “State Shinto” is an oversimplistic term, and will prefer “State Managed Shinto” to describe the variety of processes which linked Shinto’s own evolution and the State’s participation in this process[11]. The problem with the idea of “state Shinto” is that it reduces the local organic development of Shinto, attributes too much weight to European influence in these changes, and reduces the prerogative of Shinto priests. It is sometimes understood to be an anachronistic concept used by the American post-war occupation to retroactively describe Japan, making it somewhat orientalistic[12].  “State managed Shinto” allows for Shinto to maintain its own organic nature yet emphasize that the state has in fact instrumentalized it, without relying on a foreign understanding of the Shinto of the period.  


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Swale, Alistair D. The Meiji Restoration. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2009. https://doi.org/10.1057/9780230245792.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Kowner, R. (2016). Japan and the Rise of the Idea of Race: The Meiji Era Fusion of Foreign and Domestic Constructions. In Y. Sugita (Eds), Social Commentary on State and Society in Modern Japan. (pp. 31-48). Springer
  4. YOSHIDA, and K. ‘O3-12 Population of the Ainu before the Meiji Restoration Was More Estimated than That Documented’. Anthropological Science 113, no. 3 (2005): 327.
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  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 Antoni, K. (2016). Shintô und die Konzeption des japanischen Nationalwesens (kokutai). Der religiöse Traditio- nalismus in Neuzeit und Moderne Japans. (A. DePasquale et al). Tübingen, Germany: Eberhard Karls University Tübingen: Tobias-lib Tübingen.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Gluck, C., DAIKICHI, I., & Jansen, M. (1985). THE EMPEROR SYSTEM AS A SPIRITUAL STRUCTURE. In The Culture of the Meiji Period (pp. 245-312). PRINCETON, NEW JERSEY: Princeton University Press. doi:10.2307/j.ctvx5wbxq.13
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