This week, it’s a listener question episode! Let’s talk about the topics I’d like to cover, a D&D party made of Japanese prime ministers, the future of the show, and more.
Featured image: An anti-terrorism poster at a shrine that Demetria found amusing on our Tokyo trip.
Sources/News items mentioned in this episode
From listener and patron Sam: how were the English translations of kazoku titles established? Like we call him Prince Konoe Fumimaro, but who decided that koshaku meant “prince” and not “duke” or “count” or something else?
It’s funny you should mention Konoe Fumimaro, because more than anyone else it’s really him behind that naming system! Specifically, Ito was the primary drafter of the 1884 ordinance that laid out the basic laws behind Japan’s peerage system, which would continue to exist all the way to 1947, when the US-imposed constitution scrapped it.
Indeed, it kind of had to be Ito. By 1884, work is already underway drafting Japan’s imperial constitution, which would govern the islands until the US occupation. That constitution in turn has two articles (15 and 34) making reference to the system of nobility (specifically, granting the emperor the right to make someone a peer, and giving peers a spot in the upper house of the Diet/Parliament). So any law on how peerage worked had to be “compatible”, so to speak, with the constitution Ito himself was working on.
As for who picked those terms, I would assume it was Ito in combination with his advisors. Ito himself was a man of unbounded enthusiasm for Western history and culture, and had lived in the United Kingdom in the 1860s after being forced to flee his native Choshu for his involvement in the loyalist movement.
So far as I know–though this is a bit outside of my expertise–there’s never been any work going through his papers and looking specifically at the process of drafting this law, but one imagines that his time both in the UK and then in Germany in the early 1880s had familiarized Ito with the basics of Western-style aristocracies.
And as an aside: titles of nobility did exist in Japan before 1884, of course. Shortly after the Meiji restoration itself, the imperial court began to hand out titles of peerage; it’s just that the 1884 law systematizes what these titles were, where in the past they were based on interpretations of traditional court precedent.
The law is also what systematized their translations into English–prince/Koushaku, marquess/Koushaku (written with a different kou), Count/Hakushaku, Viscount/Shishaku, and Baron/Danshaku.
The shaku in all those instances is an older character derived from Chinese that connotes nobility, but it also refers to a type of bronze vessel. I’m going to be honest, I have no idea where that etymology comes from.
From listener Jason: You had mentioned in many episodes in the past that Japan’s response related to the events of the 1991 Persian Gulf War was thought of as lackluster and thought of as something of a national embarrassment by many citizens. So, are you following how has Japan responded to Russia’s invasion Ukraine? Do Japanese think their country has responded appropriately (too little, too much, or just right?) to this much larger crisis and how is the discourse about it different than 1991?
So, if you take a look at the news you’ll see that Japan has expressed pretty vocal support for Ukraine, for one pretty straightforward reason. As more than a few pundits have pointed out, Russia’s acts of aggression to seize territory they view themselves as having a historical claim to have some potential parallels in a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, and if Russia’s war in Ukraine goes well there’s definitely a sense in which it could embolden the government of Xi Jinping in Beijing to do just that.
Those fears have been deepened by growing China-Russia ties since the war began; one of the ways Russia is trying to make up for being cut off from European and American markets is to trade more heavily with China, and the People’s Republic is notably one of the only major powers that has yet to condemn Russia’s actions. That support, however, has been limited at this point to imposing sanctions upon Russia and humanitarian aid for Ukrainians–Japan has not, for example, offered training or arms to Ukraine.
This policy seems to have a broad level of support–polls from last year suggest over 80% approval of sanctions on Russia, for example, and I haven’t seen anything that suggests this changing any time soon. So broadly, there does appear to be support for pro-Ukrainian policies in Japan, and frankly it’s not hard to see why–the narrative of the great empire attacking a smaller independent democracy is a pretty powerful one, not to mention news of Russian atrocities in occupied areas.
And no weird tankies and Russia apologists, I’m not interested in hearing your weird takes about how Russia is secretly the good guy in all this. Feel free to scream into the void somewhere else.
I think this gets into the big difference between 1991 and 2022–Kuwait is certainly important to the world’s oil economy, but Iraq is not in Japan’s neighborhood, while Russia both is and is very friendly with a country that is commonly perceived as a direct military threat to Japan’s own security.
As to whether I think what the Japanese government has done is enough, I don’t know that I’m really in a position to comment on that since I neither live there nor am a citizen. As an American who believes strongly in the US-Japan alliance, I’m glad to see good security coordination with our allies in Tokyo, though.
From patron and listener Tim: Basically I’m wondering if there is a good, comprehensive comparison of the three Bakufu, where they are placed side by side and evaluated all in one place. Also as an aside, is there a good book on the Russo Japanese war in English? I’ve looked but can’t seem to find one readily.
In terms of a specific political comparison across all three, I can’t think of any–though that period is a bit outside of my expertise. That would be pretty hard to do honestly, since especially the Tokugawa shogunate was so structurally different from what came before.
Honestly, what I’d recommend is finding good overview books on Japanese history which will treat all three naturally over the course of their narratives. I’m a big fan of Conrad Totman’s A History of Japan for this purpose, though I am somewhat biased in that it was the reference text for the class of my favorite Japanese history instructor, Will Johnston at Wesleyan University, in his intro class.
As for the Russo-Japanese War, again to my knowledge, there isn’t really a “complete” history of the war out there–and by that I mean something that deals with both its military and social aspects. There’s plenty out there on blow-by-blow accounts of the conflict, and plenty about how the conflict change Japan’s domestic politics (for example, by triggering the massive Hibiya riots when it was revealed that the peace deal was not as favorable for Japan as jingoistic war propaganda had led people to assume). However, there’s not anything out there that treats both.
So you’d have to read across several different texts to get what I’d call a complete account–say, Ed Drea’s Japan’s Imperial Army and Kaigun by David Evans and Mark Peattie for the Army and Navy, and then something like Michael Lewis’s Rioters and Citizens for more of the social context. But even those won’t touch on some things, like propaganda and homefront mobilization in the war years.
The other option would be to look at something like Totman’s A History of Japan or Marius Jansen’s The Making of Modern Japan–which deals only with things 1600 or later but which is VERY comprehensive. Donald Keene’s Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World is also ostensibly a biography of the Meiji Emperor but deals very well (in my view) and highly readably with the larger historical context.
From listener Tommy: 1. As someone who grew up in the 90s I’d love to hear more about topics relevant to that era. What are some more topics that you could possibly cover from then?
So there are a lot of 1990s topics I have thought about doing–and quite a few I’ve done, on things like the rise of the old Democratic Party of Japan and on the bubble collapse and its attendant consequences. I’m considering some future episodes on things like the Recruit Scandal as well, though those might get wrapped into a project I’ll talk more about at the end of this episode.
And then there are topics that I think would be interesting but are wildly outside my area of expertise–for example, on Jpop and its rise to global notoriety, or on the history of different Japanese video game manufacturers or franchises. I think these would be interesting, but I am very much not at all knowledgeable and would not even know where to start to go for good research.
So those are more under the “one day maybe I’ll find some books that would help me” category than anything else. So if anyone out there knows some good books on subjects that would get me primed to do topics like that, let me know!
2. Also as someone is who also interested in Japanese politics I’d love to hear more episodes focused on the post war era of important LDP politicians, specifically ones like Hashimoto and Nakasone to name a few. Would you consider doing more of these kind of focused episodes similarly to how you covered Abe and Ikeda Hayato?
I have considered doing this, actually! I just worry that so much political history is boring for those not into the subject–I happen to love it but I understand it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. But I really enjoyed, for example, those episodes on the DPJ.
I’d love to do something on Nakasone at some point, and of course one of my very first episodes was on Tanaka Kakuei. There are also some very fascinating prewar prime ministers who I think would be worth an episode. But it’s really a matter of trying to vary subject material more than anything.
From listener Brandon, five really good questions!
Who is your favorite of the Three Great Unifiers? Why?
Definitely Tokugawa Ieyasu. I have a lot of respect for someone with that good of a grasp of politics–understanding when to lay low and when to strike, and (unlike, say, Hideyoshi with the Korea campaign) not letting his ego get in the way of things. I wouldn’t call him a great person–I don’t think anyone who wields power in a system like that really can be one–but he was an effective ruler, and I think one of the better options for the country because of it given the circumstances. Also I’d just be way too afraid to party with Hideyoshi or Nobunaga for fear that I’d say the wrong thing and get my head chopped off.
If you had to form a 4-person Dungeons & Dragon party from Japanese prime ministers, who would you make into the party’s PCs?
Ok this is actually a fantastic question. I’d want Kan Naoto as my wizard, because he seems like the kind of huge dork who would spend a lot of time going through the spell lists to make sure he’s got as optimized a build as possible.
I’d want Tanaka Kakuei as a rogue or bard playing the face of the group, because he seems like he could do some inventive bluffing when called for and also if he’s focused on the game he’ll ideally be too busy to engage in any graft.
Ikeda Hayato seems like he’d be a good cleric, willing to stay in the backline and do unglamorous buffing and healing as it’s needed while pulling out the big guns and zappin’ fools if necessary.
As for a tank, I’m going to go a bit off the beaten track and say Sanjo Sanetomi. When he was young during the final years of the shogunate he flung himself into court politics to the point of getting exiled despite being from a fairly minor family, and that’s the kind of energy you want in a fighter/paladin/barbarian. If he’d ever made prime minister I’d have said Itagaki Taisuke since he literally did tank a knife to the chest at one point, but sadly for him he doesn’t make the cut.
Why has Japan lagged behind other industrialized nations when it comes to gay rights, such as legalizing gay marriage?
This is a big and VERY hard question, and honestly would probably make for a good episode in its own right. Very briefly: generally LGBTQ rights are a left-wing issue in global politics, and the Japanese political left is and has basically been in shambles since the 1960s. It’s true the LDP is not socially conservative in anti-queer sense (or at least the mainstream of the party is not), but it also doesn’t draw support from areas of society associated with queer rights (like the cities) because of how gerrymandered the Diet is.
If you compare this to, say, the Democratic Party in the US, I think the difference is pretty clear. The Democrats draw from queer and queer-adjacent constituencies in big cities, and so are incentivized to support queer-friendly laws. That’s why you see this sea change over the past few decades as queer movements start getting organized within the Democratic Party itself. Comparatively, groups like the Log-cabin Republicans (remember them)? Never took off in the GOP because the Republican Party doesn’t rely on those votes to win elections.
There are other reasons as well, of course, but for my money I look at where the governing party gets its support when I try to think about why its policies are a certain way.
Do you think to some degree, Queen Himiko existed? Or is she really just legend (or largely legend)?
So, I’m generally inclined towards the “legends usually have some basis in reality” analysis, but that is more a matter of feeling and interpretation (I have a hard time explaining where legends come from otherwise) than concrete evidence. So I would suspect there’s something there, but something in this case would be a female ruler who was associated with religious power and divination. This broadly fits with what we know of early Japanese religion (where women have prominent roles, something you see maintained in the position of the miko/shrine maiden today) and would explain where all the stuff about Himiko’s sorcerous powers comes from. But barring some pretty big archaeological finds, I doubt we’ll ever know.
What is a more off-the-beaten path area of Japan that doesn’t get enough attention to its great stories and culture, in your opinion?
Absolutely Hokkaido! I lived there in 2009 and loved it to pieces, and have always wanted to go back (and hopefully will soon). Hakodate remains one of my favorite cities on earth, and I honestly like Sapporo even if people knock it as just a lesser version of Tokyo. There’s a lot of natural beauty, some great history (and some really cool Meiji-era architecture) and some killer food (soup curry being my favorite). And to top it off, unlike the rest of Japan it’s not like wading through a sweaty armpit in the summer; the weather is pretty similar to the Pacific Northwest in being fairly warm and dry.
Special mention as well to Shikoku, specifically Tokushima–one of my very first Japanese friends lived out there and housed me and two friends during our first ever trip to Japan, and I’ll always remember that trip really fondly. Shoutout to the Nishikawa family, who did us all a real solid and showed us an amazing time.
From listener Samuel: You’ve talked a lot about how various heads of states throughout history were just nominal rulers and didn’t wield the actual power. How aware were these rulers of this? Did the Kamakura Emperors realize their role had been decreased? Did the Minamoto/Tokugawa shoguns with overly-strong advisors resent them?
So it’s hard to know this specifically, because we don’t have a lot in the way of, say, diaries from powerful people in various periods. Many of these texts, where they did exist, were kept within families and often lost–the ones we have are the ones that survived and were uncovered by researchers in later periods.
That said, it’s hard to imagine someone being unaware of being puppeteered in that way, and there is evidence to suggest it was even obvious to those outside the halls of power. For example, we have the tale of Lady Nijo, subject of episode 454 and an imperial consort. After she left Kyoto under somewhat ignominious circumstances in the late 1200s, she made her way to Kamakura (among other places), and there saw one of the new puppet shoguns (who was 12) being installed while the previous one retired at the ripe old age of 25. She was savvy enough to see how these puppet shoguns were being manipulated by the Hojo family, who actually ruled Kamakura using the shogun as a mouthpiece–and if it was obvious to her as someone who had just come to the city, it’s hard to imagine many people closer to what was going on missing it.
Nor is this the only example. Remember, at the end of the Kamakura shogunate in the 1330s emperor Go-Daigo led a rebellion to try and reassert the power of the imperial throne–which of course implies that the throne previously did not hold power. It’s also worth noting that these sorts of political fictions are far from unique to Japan–there are historical reasons why the imperial family, for example, became a particularly useful puppet for political manipulation, but there have been plenty of puppet rulers in other monarchies.
Is there a consensus on whether or not the imperial regalia still exist? I know the sword was lost at sea, but what about the jewel and the mirror? If so, why wouldn’t the Japanese government document their existence somehow?
To the best of my knowledge, nobody has really delved into this too deeply, simply because if you want to work on anything even remotely related to the emperor or imperial family annoying the imperial household agency is a bad idea.
If you need some reminding: the imperial regalia of Japan consist of three treasures–a sword, a mirror, and a curved gem–that were supposedly brought down to earth by one of the divine ancestors of the imperial family, Ninigi no Mikoto (who in turn is the grandson of Amaterasu, the sun goddess). These treasures in turn became heirlooms of the sitting emperor, and are bequeathed to him upon his enthronement. But they are not displayed publicly, unlike say the crown jewels of the UK–the most you can see of them are photos of the boxes in which they are presented to the emperor upon his coronation. My understanding is that the emperor doesn’t even get to open the box–literally, nobody knows what these things look like, though there are plenty of guesses based on archaeological finds from early Japanese history.
The sword is almost certainly a replica–during the Genpei War of 1180-85, the defeated Taira clan took the sword along with their claimant to the imperial throne, Emperor Antoku, when they retreated from Kyoto in the face of the advancing Minamoto clan. In turn, Antoku and the sword were both lost at the climactic naval battle of Dan-no-Ura. There’s all sorts of fun legends from medieval Japan about how the “real sword” magically found its way home anyway, but likely these are just legends intended to protect the legitimacy of the treasures and thus the throne itself.
When they’re not being used for coronation, the three regalia are housed in different places–the sword is in Atsuta Shrine in Nagoya, the Mirror in Ise Shrine, and the gm is kept on the grounds of the imperial palace in Tokyo. But again, they aren’t publicly displayed–the idea being, I suppose, to protect the mythology around the items themselves. Nor has any researcher ever been given access to them. So really, there’s no way to know–and that’s not really the point of the regalia anyway. The whole idea of their power comes from their antiquity and mystery, from the tradition of it all. Actually sneaking a peak would break the spell, so to speak. So I doubt we’ll ever know–and again, nobody wants to hack off the IHA by digging too deeply.
I thought it might make for a cool episode to talk about traditional Japanese music and how it differs from western music. I saw a koto performance once and their sheet music was something I’d never seen before. The rhythm and notes seemed different as well.
I definitely think this would be an awesome episode. Unfortunately, I also am utterly without musical talent or indeed even a basic grasp beyond “that sounds cool.” I’d definitely need a guest to come on and help with a topic like this, so if anyone knows someone who’d be interested, please don’t hesitate to reach out!
From listener Jim: Your most recent episode brought the question of travel memoirs to mind. Have you read any travel writing about Japan that you have enjoyed?
I’ll always have a soft spot for Alan Booth. If you don’t know him, Booth was an English writer who lived in Japan from the late 1970s until his death from cancer in 1993, having initially moved to the country in order to study Japanese theater. He wrote two books–the Roads to Sata and Looking for the Lost–both of which are really fascinating portraits of more rural parts of Japan in the latter half of the boom years.
However, in general I don’t read that much travel writing–which is actually something I’d love to change, so if anyone has recommendations definitely send them my way!
From Listener Jordan:1. I’m sure a bunch of Japan-based fans, myself included, would have treated you to the good sake during your recent visit. Did you think about doing an audience meetup? Not your style? Consider it a standing offer for next time you’re here!
I actually wanted to organize something while I was there, but put off doing so until it didn’t make sense. But it’s the sort of thing I’d absolutely enjoy doing at some point!
2. You haven’t spoken much about the history of the Japanese language. It seems like an interesting topic, with layers of ancient local, Korean, Chinese, and Western influence, a lot of changes in how the different writing systems are used, rapid change in the modern period… is it a topic you’ve decided you don’t want to cover, or is it somewhere on the backlog?
This is one of those topics I find deeply fascinating, but also feel like I have no background to cover. With topics related to anthropology, politics, economics and the like, my background in academia means I can generally make sense of the basics of what I find in a research paper when I’m digging into a subject. Linguistics, however, is something that I could just never really wrap my head around. There’s a few specific things I want to talk about at some point–like the changes to the Japanese language that happen during the Meiji era, for example, with the incorporation of new terms to define Western ideas. But it feels odd to do those without some context on the evolution of the language as a whole, and I’ve never really come up with an approach that felt like it made sense for that.
From listener Raunach: 1. Thoughts on the rise of the Japanese department store (its relation to modernization in early 20th century Japan, consumer culture, commercial art, etc.)? Perhaps a future episode 😉
2. You’ve done some episodes that cover historic tales (The Tale of Genji, Heike Monogatari, etc.). What do you think of the tale of Dojoji and other illustrated handscrolls, or just otogi-zoshi generally? I’ve mainly looked at them as art/literature pieces, but the upheaval of the Muromachi period is probably contextually important.
These are both ideas that I absolutely have thought about–and which are both a bit out of my specialty, so I have to devote some time to some heavy reading for background. I especially love looking at premodern literature and art, because it’s an area I didn’t really get to talk about in grad school–but outside of the “major works”, so to speak, that usually means dealing with pieces I haven’t read before, which takes a good amount of time. For example, when I did Ise Monogatari last year, that was because I had an uninterrupted week at the beach to work through the text while taking notes–which tragically is not a luxury I have often, because I can’t really imagine a better way to spend some time at the beach. The department store idea, meanwhile, is not something I’d thought about before, but it does sound really fun! I’d need to think about how to frame it to keep things from being too abstract, and see what’s out there in terms of research. That’s usually the limiting factor for any topic: what can I find in terms of good sources to work from.
So both of these are on the docket, so to speak, but provisionally–depending on what’s out there. And good luck with the PhD!
From listener Yiftach: What is your attitude towards your Jewish heritage? How do you manage a mixed house hold (by the name I assume Demetria is not Jewish).
So actually our household is not mixed; Demetria and I are both Jewish. Her name is from her Greek ancestry (Demeter is the harvest god of ancient Greece), but Spinrad is very much a Jewish last name, and actually if you’re a deep cut scifi nerd you might already be familiar with that: Norman Spinrad was one of the great weird Jewish scifi authors of the late 20th century, and I do mean weird. And they’re distantly related, though I do forget exactly how it all fits together.
Anywho, as to our relationship to said heritage, this is where we need to back up a spell and do some explaining for our non-Jewish friends. Broadly, Jewish movements today define themselves in relation to Halacha, traditional Jewish law. Demetria and I are a part of America’s liberal mainstream of Jews, who represent a majority of the USA’s Jewish population and who take a more interpretive view of Jewish law. Specifically, I’m a part of the Reform Jewish movement, which treats traditional Jewish law through a more historical interpretive lens rather than treating it as immutable. Other movements take different interpretations–many of my friends growing up were Conservative Jews, who take a more traditional reading of Halacha but try to interpret it in ways favorable to living in a modern, pluralistic society. Then there’s the Orthodox movement, which takes a more traditionalist approach. Those are the “big three”, so to speak, in the US–but Reform, for example, is not that big in Europe because it was very associated with the German Jewish community pre-World War II and was brought to the US by German Jewish immigrants. The European branch of the movement was largely wiped out in the Holocaust.
Since I’m part of the Reform movement, my view of Jewish tradition is a lot less literalist than other branches of Judaism. I treat issues of Torah far more interpretively than my counterparts in other movements, as part of a historical evolution of ideas about what it means to be Jewish rather than a hard-and-fast set of rules. For example, I don’t follow the same standards around Shabbat (the Sabbath, or day of rest) as Orthodox Jews usually do–I use technology and drive a car, while an Orthodox Jew generally would not. But I do take the day completely off from all work, and do something restful and fun instead. I also engage with the ritual of Judaism, moreso than Demetria does–which honestly I started to do largely because of my study of Confucianism, interestingly enough. Confucius makes some good points about how ritual is far more this-worldly than we give it credit for–it’s a way of expressing ideas about how the world should work through our actions. And I like that as a way of interpreting the ritual side of Judaism. For example, the Jewish new year is coming up, and while I don’t literally believe that God is writing our fates for the coming year and sealing them on Yom Kippur, I see the value in a ritual reminding us to make amends for mistakes of the previous year and renew our resolve to be better in the coming one.
That said, my way of doing things is not the only one, and I certainly would not claim it to be the right one. Demetria treats Judaism as more of a cultural and ethical inheritance, for example. I’ve heard it said that there are as many different ways to be Jewish as there are Jews, and to be frank that’s always been my favorite thing about Judaism. One of the things I do at work is help to run a community for Jewish students and faculty, and discussing our different ideas about what Judaism is and what it means to be Jewish has been so rewarding. I’ve become a firm believer in the definition proffered by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the foundational figure of the Reconstructionist branch of Judaism, who called Judaism, “the evolving civilization of the Jewish people.” There’s a lot of complexity there, and it goes well beyond what most think of as purely religious into the worlds of politics, culture, and elsewhere.
Our history encourages discussion and debate about how to interpret ideas, and that valuing of intelligence, combined with an emphasis on respect even when we disagree with others, is one of the things I love about being Jewish.
And now…a very special announcement about the future of the podcast
It’s pretty wild to think that I’ve been working on this podcast for (at this point) just over 10 years, and more or less been producing an episode a week every week for that entire time. It’s been an incredible ride, and I’ve enjoyed it a great deal–but there are a few things I’d love to take another crack at.
Chief among these are actually the very earliest episodes of the podcast–the 20ish episodes I used to provide a basic overview of Japanese history. The goal of that overview was, of course, to give a basic framework for us to then jump around in with all of the subsequent 470ish episodes. But of course, they were also my very first ones, and the production quality is…rough. Or at least that’s what I’m told; I’m horrified at the prospect of re-listening to some of those, personally!
These are also far and away some of the most downloaded episodes in the entire backlog (which is really saying something at this point). Partially, of course, that’s because they’re the earliest–but also, I’ve heard from a lot of folks who go to them for basic information to supplement an intro to Japanese history course, or because they’re going to Japan for the first time and want to know a bit about the history. I think that’s great; I’m glad they’re useful for folks.
But now, 10 years on, I am a) much better (at least in my opinion) at audio editing and just generally producing quality content and b) much more knowledgeable about Japanese history, because thanks to all of you I’ve read far and wide about subjects I never would have touched in grad school because they were too far outside my specialty. With that improved background, I think it’s finally time to do something I’ve wanted to do for a while.
We have arrived at episode 500. Starting next week with episode 501, we will return, so to speak, to the beginning. I will be doing a new intro series to Japanese history to take advantage of all this new background I now have!
The tentative framework is to build this out to 38 episodes instead of the 20 I tried to do last time, but honestly my plan is to just take it “one at a time.” If you are one of my beloved patrons, you already know roughly what I’m thinking in terms of episode breakdown–if not, you get to enjoy the surprise as it comes! I know roughly what I want to cover, so I’m going to go through and give it as many episodes as it takes. If you’ve been listening to this podcast for a while, you already know about my tendency to vastly underestimate how long things will take, but my hope is to keep things reasonably digestible.
Hopefully this is an exciting prospect for you all; I’m glad to be providing an introductory primer to Japanese history for all who are interested. And I’m excited to return to a project I’m very proud of and (hopefully) do it better the second time around.