Careful readers of my last two blogposts from a book chapter, “Cultural Change in Nineteenth-Century Japan,” by the late Marius B. Jansen, will have noticed a theme that runs through both excerpts: that Japan’s ardent reformers were inspired as much by the need to return to an imagined past as by the need to adapt to the intrusions of the modern world. The section excerpted below focuses on two terms that highlight the nuances of these dual motivations. The book in which it appears is Challenging Past and Present: The Metamorphosis of Nineteenth-Century Japanese Art, ed. by Ellen P. Conant (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2006), pp. 32-35:
Some years ago Sakata Yoshio divided the Meiji Restoration epoch into periods characterized by themes of fukko [復古] or ishin [維新], “revival” or “renewal.” In modern parlance the terms are quite different in their connotations. Revival suggests nostalgia and conservatism. The 1974 Kenkyusha dictionary, for instance, gives the following examples: “ōsei fukko—the restoration of the monarchy; fukko ronsha—a reactionary.” By justifying sweeping change in the name of the past, Meiji statecraft might seem, to present-day commentators, to have injected a problematic retrogressiveness into values and culture.
In the Chinese Confucian context from which these terms derived, however, the idea of revival was entirely positive. F. W. Mote has asserted that in Chinese tradition, because neither individual nor state could claim any theoretical authority higher than men’s rational minds, there being no external creator or lawgiver, ultimate authority rested with historical experience….
In Meiji thinking, ishin and fukko could be linked. Tetsuo Najita points out that “I [維 ‘tie’] means to pull together the disparate strands in society, to regroup, as it were, and the second part of the compound, shin [新 ‘new’], means starting out in a totally new direction.” The appeal of return to an imagined moral past made it possible to utilize both “restoration” and “innovation” in government pronouncements. The official chronicle Fukkoki emphasized the theme of return, but contemporary assurances that everything would be changed (hyakuji goishin) had connotations of a “world renewal” (yonaoshi) of the sort that late Tokugawa insurrections had announced. In the event, however, the new government lost little time in suppressing advocates of such radical ideas.
Late Tokugawa nativism modified and added to the notion of the perfect past to which Japan might return. The kokugaku (National Studies) scholars argued the virtues of Japan before it had become tainted by imported values, words, and books. Their version of fukko gave rise to impressive efforts in historical philology…. Another respect in which the Japanese tradition provided helpful arguments for advocates of cultural and institutional change was to be found in tradition and historical memory that validated the practice of cultural borrowing without prescribing the category or the character of what was to be borrowed….
A final element conducive to cultural borrowing was the nature of Japanese cultural nationalism. Acutely aware of other civilizations, especially the Chinese colossus to the west, Japanese thought in comparative and competitive terms. The country and its deities were divine, and the question was how to serve them best….
In sum, revivalism differed in Japan from its counterpart in China, partly because of the shadowy nature of the Japanese past that the nativists exhumed, and partly because of the historical precedents for change and for borrowing. To paraphrase Maraini’s argument and apply it here, Europe might be constrained by absolutes of theology, and China by its commitment to a transmitted body of ancient learning that was relatively constant, but in Japan fukko permitted the greatest flexibility in appropriating or devising stratagems for protection of the cultural polity. It could blend with change and even slide into renewal.
Terms like “Meiji culture” and “Tokugawa tradition” suggest rapid change in a previously stable setting, but it is important to remember that late Tokugawa culture was profoundly eclectic and that the Meiji changes represented acceleration of many trends that were already in progress. What was new was the explicit acknowledgment and the clear assessment of problems and the unity of determination to remedy them.
Nowadays, 明治維新 (Meiji Ishin) is the usual Japanese term for what English speakers often call the “Meiji Restoration.” I was not familiar with the alternate term 復古 (fukko) (‘return-past’) but it seems to be a better translation for ‘restoration’. The core meaning of 復 fuku seems to be ‘return, revert’, as in the everyday term 往復 ōfuku (lit. ‘go-return’) ’round trip’ or in 復活 fukkatsu (lit. ‘return-life’) ‘rebirth, revival, resurrection’ (as in 復活祭 fukkatsusai [lit. ‘return-life-festival’] ‘Easter’).