Japan’s Modern Myths: Ideology in the Late Meiji Period. Carol Gluck

Gluck, Carol. Japan’s Modern Myths: Ideology in the Late Meiji Period.  Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985.

Carol Gluck’s analysis of the ideologies that developed in the latter Meiji period in Japan’s Modern Myths is incredibly nuanced.  Rather than present a single reading of one set of Japanese ideologies, she attempts to provide a complicated picture that highlights the multiple origins, concerns, and narratives that surround the form she is talking about.  At the same time, she does not reduce any description of ideology to a single line of thought or a homogeneous whole.  Her reading of the reaction to the death of the Emperor and General Nogi’s suicide is one such case.  Although she places the two in binary terms, she complicates that picture even as she paints it.

Gluck notes that, for a short time, the Emperor’s death was seen as the end of an era of modernization.  The uncertainty about cultural (and ideological) change was briefly consolidated and reassured by his death.  He was being eulogized as the purveyor of modern practices, the man who had changed the nation, and his legacy was that Japan was now a modern nation.  Also she discusses the widespread national participation in the ceremonies to memorialize his death, and how there really was a national sentiment of mourning for the loss and consensus on the reading not only of the Emperor’s death but also on the way to read his life.

Yet in the same set of paragraphs Gluck beings to discuss Nogi’s suicide and how it almost immediately ruptured the ideological picture that people had painted.  She notes that it divided opinions in ways that the Emperor’s death did not.  The reading of the ideological perspective of the time was immediately complicated by the bifurcation of attitude towards Nogi’s suicide.   The fact that people polarized so easily in their readings – some believing his act was the highest form of loyalty, some who agreed with the act but did not want others to emulate it, some suggesting that it was proof that Japan, as much as it had adopted the trappings of modernization, was not modern “at heart” – suggests that even in the moment of perfect consensus, there will always be other perspectives.

Gluck’s reading of these two events is not necessarily new, but given the context that she raises them, it underscores the themes of the rest of her book.  Although initially one can read the death of the Emperor in a specific way, Nogi’s death immediately interrupts that idea.  The same goes for all of the other ideologies she presents.  Although there was present a cultural idea that politicians were corrupt, after reading Gluck’s book one can never accept that is the only narrative present in Japan.  Although the idea that education is the only way to create a moral society, after reading Gluck’s analysis one understands that there was no perfect consensus on the part of anyone in Japan (be they politicians, leaders of community, teachers, parents, etc.) on what kind of education would achieve the desired goals, nor what the goals were.  There were certain moments where one set of beliefs came to the fore, but those beliefs rose from specific places, to address specific needs, and then transformed over time.

Carol Gluck starts her book, Japan’s Modern Myths: Ideology in the Late Meiji Period, with this thought:  “Although no society is innocent of collective notions about itself, some countries have made more of ideology than others” (Gluck, 3)  Not only is this an auspicious beginning for her careful and nuanced account of the dominant and often conflicting ideas that developed in the late Mejii period in Japan, it illustrates so much about her attitudes towards Japan.  On the one hand, Japan is similar to other societies, yes, but on the other it is more extreme in a certain way.  For Gluck, this “why Japan” is the emphasis on ideology.  Gluck’s goal is similar to Nakane’s – Gluck is trying to identify Japanese beliefs in order to understand something about the society.  However, in many ways her analysis is quite different as she does not rely on a theory of “underlying structure” that pervade the entirety of social discussion in Meiji Japan.  There is also a narrowing of viewpoint consistent with the emerging scholarship of Rohlen and Johnson.  Unlike Benedict, and Nakane, Gluck is concerned with a very specific slice of Japanese history, and not a nebulous construction like “contemporary Japan”.  This approach allows her to be far more nuanced in her analysis.  Instead of concentrating on absolutes to draw a larger picture, Gluck is able to examine contradictory viewpoints from within this historical period.

Gluck draws on Clifford Gertz’ definitions of ideology, but provides nuance to her definitions by locating herself within the post-Marxist community and drawing on Althusser’s conception of social relationships and Gramsci’s definitions of hegemony.  This differentiates from Benedict’s and Nakane’s, because instead of looking for “real” structures her analysis acknowledges that “disseminating institutions both public and private…help to construct an ideological universe” (Gluck, 7).  In other words, there is no “intrinsic” Japanese nature for Gluck, and the way is opened for her to examine how ideologies are created, reinforced, or undermined in late Meiji.  This is one of the first major movements away from the sweeping pictures of Japan drawn by earlier anthropologists, and should be used as a standard for how to explore specific narratives and particular views without resorting to the slightly overstated methods of Rohlen and Johnson.

This is not to say that Gluck is not still invested in answering a specific question of Japan.  She is.  However, instead of discussing “why” Japan is the way it is, her analysis concentrates on “how” Japan is being constructed.  She challenges the notion that the latter end of the Meiji period was simply characterized by conservative backlash against the modernization project begun earlier in the area.  She is also careful to present a picture of multiple ideologies, not a single picture of even the states, and her nuanced picture links that to significant aspects of lived social relations.  She undermines a homogeneous picture of Meiji elite pushing their agenda on a populace that mutely accepted it.

Gluck’s nuanced perspective leaves its mark on the field.  In the 1990s scholarship had, for the most part, stopped trying to represent Japan as a total undifferentiated entity and instead had begun to place a premium on nuanced perspectives.  Although their subject matter is incredibly varied, Dower, Kondo, and Curtis are in some ways all part of this newer tradition that places a premium on presenting their subject matter with all of its complications.


About kathrynpagel

Working on my PhD in Japanese literature, visual studies, and new media.
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