Isaac Meyer

Historian, teacher, podcaster

Month: February 2016

Episode 138 – The Fall of the Samurai, Part 21

Aaand we’re done. This week, some final thoughts on the period and its key players before we put the Meiji Restoration to bed for good!

Listen to the episode here.


Beasley, W.G. The Meiji Restoration.

Jansen, Marius. The Making of Modern Japan.

Morris, Ivan. The Nobility of Defeat.



Because I know you didn’t believe me about the shogun coffee thing.


Matsudaira Yoshiko in the 1920s. It would not be until she married into the imperial family in 1928 that the stigma of Aizu ‘treason’ began to die out.


Ishiwara Kanji, who expressed the notion of the West as Japan’s antagonist in his time in the docket at the Tokyo War Crimes Trials. Ishiwara’s view was far from unique among Japan’s wartime leaders; most saw a clash between the US and Japan as the inevitable fulfillment of the Meiji Restoration.


After WWII, local pride movements in Japan began to emphasize unique local heritages. Valorizing people who had fought against the restoration was no longer taboo. This was nowhere more evident than Aizu; these high schoolers from Aizu are performing a local folk dance (complete with a giant “Aizu” flag) as part of an exchange program in Chicago.


To me, one of the most interesting questions of the restoration is the notion of revolution. I keep coming back to notions of political violence in the restoration, like the assassination of Ii Naosuke shown here. In almost any other context this would be pretty easy to label a revolutionary act. I certainly think it was one. What about you?


I forgot I still had this photo from my time in Hokkaido. It shows a bunch of my classmates dressed in the uniforms of the countries that participated in “opening” Japan — though the German flag used there is the post-WWI Weimar/modern German one, not the flag of Imperial Germany. Anyway, I think it’s an interesting example of how “domesticated” the Meiji experience is now by a generation who live with the benefits of openness to the West but who did not experience its worst dislocations.

Episode 137 – The Fall of the Samurai, Part 20

This week, we turn to the final drama of our series — the samurai rebellions that will break out in final defense of 1000 years of samurai tradition. As the group of leaders who had overthrown the Tokugawa becomes ever smaller, the final course of Japan will be set. From this point on, what the new Japan will look like will be clear.

Listen to the episode here.


Drea, Edward. Japan’s Imperial Army: Its Rise and Fall, 1853-1945.

Jansen, Marius. The Making of Modern Japan.

Ravina, Mark. The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori.



Okubo Toshimichi of Satsuma was one of Japan’s most prolific Westernizers; by the time this photo was taken in 1876 he’d completely absorbed a Western style of comportment and dress.


Saga Castle, site of the last stand of Eto Shimpei’s Saga Rebellion. This photo is from the 1880s, but the damage to the exterior from the fighting is still visible.


Eto Shimpei’s famous post-decapitation photo. That’s no way to…get ahead in life. If only he’d…kept his head under pressure.


The Shimpuren rebellion, which broke out in the old Choshu capitol of Hagi, was one of a series of minor rebellions spread through 1875-76.


Saigo Takamori’s Satsuma Rebellion was the last and largest challenge to Meiji rule. In this Battle of Tabarazuka, he was yet again defeated during the long retreat to Kagoshima.


The Battle of Shiroyama, Saigo’s famous last stand. His death represented the end of real challenges to government authority.

Episode 136 – The Fall of the Samurai, Part 19

This week, Saigo Takamori is going to sidetrack the whole government by pulling the idea of invading Korea off the shelf, sparking a political crisis. Once the dust from this debate has settled, the political landscape will have changed once again, and the battle lines for a final showdown over the fate of Japan will be drawn.

Listen to the episode here.


Lu, David. Japan: A Documentary History, Vol II.

Ravina, Mark. The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori.

Harootunian, Harry, et al., eds. The Sources of the Japanese Tradition.



During the Tokugawa era, Japan and Korea maintained very cordial relations, and visiting Korean ambassadors enjoyed celebrity status. This print by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (courtesy of depicts visiting Korean ambassdors being greeted by the shogun.


The debates over the Korean invasion created a massive rift within the government and resulted in the resignation of Saigo Takamori and his supporters. Here, the events of the final imperial conference where the invasion was decided against are depicted. Notice how Westernized the government already is by this point; all the major figures except the emperor are depicted in Western clothing.


After being forced out of the government, Itagaki Taisuke would spend the rest of his life agitating for representative government. In 1882, he was nearly assassinated by a supporter of the government, an event dramatized in this print.


Conscription physicals like the one shown here proved ccontroversial at first for a population not used to this kind of invasive treatment. By the early 20th century, when this photo was taken, they were commonplace and considered something of a right of passage.


After the slow abolition of the samurai class, the military was one of the few career paths open to ex-samurai. Much of the army and navy leadership was dominated by samurai and their descendants. Here a group of samurai officers are depicted in 1877; notice that the former symbols of samurai status have all been replaced by Western affectations.


The national police force was another common vocation for ex-samurai. This group of members of the Tokyo Metropolitan PD, shown in 1888,


Episode 135 – The Fall of the Samurai, Part 18

This week, we cover the major issues of the new government. Who’s in charge? What do they want to do? And what could possibly go wrong if we just take half the leadership off for a two year trip?

Listen to the episode here.


Nish, Ian, ed. The Iwakura Mission in America and Europe: A New Assessment.

Pyle, Kenneth. Japan Rising.

Umegaki, Michiko. After the Restoration.



Okubo Toshimichi of Satsuma was a childhood friend of Saigo Takamori who would help lead the charge for the abolition of feudalism. His kickin’ sideburns didn’t appear until later in life, but I think they nicely encapsulate his self-image as a conscious Westernizer who wanted to remake Japan in the Western image.


Guido Verbeck, the Dutch-American engineer-cum-missionary who dreamed up the Iwakura Mission.


I have been hunting for an excuse to use this photo, and now seems like as good a time as any. This picture was taken in 1868; Verbeck, with his daughter, is in the center, surrounded by the leading restorationist samurai. All manner of famous restoration leaders are in here: Ito, Yamagata, Sakamoto Ryoma, even Katsu Kaishu. It’s great!


Iwakura Tomomi, center, during the mission. Standing at center right is Ito Hirobumi. Sitting at the far right is Okubo Toshimichi.


Wherever the Iwakura Mission went it was greeted with lavish parties like this one, depicted in a contemporary American magazine. The affairs served to boost Japan’s overseas profile.


The Iwakura Mission actually included a number of women, charged with learning about the West. Several chose to stay and study abroad in the West; Tsuda Umeko (shown here as the youngest, sitting on another girl’s lap) will eventually attend Bryn Mawr College before returning to Japan to found her own university. You better believe she’s getting an episode.


The path of the Iwakura Mission. Courtesy of

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