Daily Archives: 19 December 2021

Reactions to Abolishing the Clans, 1871

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle pp. 199-200:

The need for abolishing the domains had by this time become clear to men like Ōkubo as an administrator and to Yamagata Aritomo (1838–1922) as a military man. Yamagata had just returned to Japan after a year in Europe where he had studied different military systems. Although the government seemed not to be menaced by any immediate threat of an uprising, it was obvious that like any other government, it needed military forces to deal with whatever unforeseen crises might arise. William Elliot Griffis said of the government of that time: “Without one national soldier, it possessed only moral power, for the revolution had been carried through because of the great reverence which the Mikado’s name inspired.”

The funds available to the government were also so limited that the need for cash had become desperate. The replacement of the domains, which had been more or less autonomous, by prefectures under the control of the central government seemed to reformers the only solution, but it was by no means easy to effect. Not only was it likely that the samurai class would fight for what it considered to be its rights, but the common people, most of them unaware of any higher authority than the daimyo, would hardly oppose a daimyo if he chose not to obey the emperor. The daimyo’s influence was pervasive, touching the daily lives of all who dwelled in his domain.

Griffis was present when the decree abolishing the domains was received in Fukui, the seat of the Echizen daimyo:

I had full opportunity of seeing the immediate effect of this edict, when living at Fukui, in the castle, under the feudal system. Three scenes impressed me powerfully.

The first was that at the local Government Office, on the morning of the receipt of the Mikado’s edict, July 18, 1871. Consternation, suppressed wrath, fears and forebodings mingled with emotions of loyalty. In Fukui I heard men talk of killing Yuri, the Imperial representative in the city and the penman of the Charter Oath of 1868.

The second scene was that in the great castle hall, October 1, 1871, when the lord of Echizen, assembling his many hundreds of hereditary retainers, bade them exchange loyalty for patriotism and in a noble address urged the transference of local to national interest.

The third scene was on the morning following, when the whole population, as it seemed to me, of the city of 40,000 people, gathered in the streets to take their last look, as the lord of Echizen left his ancestral castle halls, and departed to travel to Tōkyō, there to live as a private gentleman, without any political power.

Similar scenes were no doubt enacted in many others of the 270 domains, great and small. It is extraordinary that the daimyos, faced with a loss of hereditary privileges and compensated by only titular recognition as governors of the domains where they had reigned, accepted haihan chiken so calmly. The Meiji Restoration had shifted the apex of Japanese society without changing its structure. Haihan chiken [廃藩置県 ‘abolish clan establish prefecture’] had a far greater impact: close to 2 million people—the samurai class—had lost their income, formerly granted by the daimyos, and were faced with the prospect of permanent unemployment.

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