Meiji Japan


When did the samurai become Japanese? It’s not as absurd a question as it seems. No good samurai would have considered himself “Japanese” in 1100, or 1400, or even 1700. A loyal servant of a one’s lord or a member of a warrior family, perhaps, but surely not “Japanese.” In fact, a good case can be made it was not until 1899 when the book Bushido, The Soul of Japan was published that the samurai became Japanese. Even stranger, this means that the samurai became Japanese three decades after the last one ceased to exist. How—and why—did this happen? The secret lies in the ideology and practice of the nation-state, a new form of identity so powerful that once it starts it, reaches back into the past and rewrites it in its own image, telling the story of itself to itself. In the process even those good samurai of 1100, 1400, and 1700 became Japanese. And this is just one of the nation-state’s many tricks. We’ll study this trick specifically in week nine. Before and after that we’ll have many chances to uncover and reveal other hidden historical accidents, mistakes, slippages, and contingencies in something so seemingly natural and obvious as national identity. One more from week four: Why is it so important to serve beef prepared according French recipes when the Duke of Edinburgh is coming to visit?

Using Japan’s transformation from the samurai warrior government to a modern nation-state in 1868, we will constantly move back and forth between general theories of nationalism and national identity and the concrete experience of Meiji Japan as a way to interrogate the rise of both the nation-state of Japan and its location within a global system of nation-states. In the process we will explore the concepts of national borders, the idea of national progress, the invention of national culture, forms of government and representation, the struggles over national identity, managing populations, and the role played by coincidence, contingency, accidents, ideology, and violence in the whole process.

There will be occasional in-class writing, a review paper, another short paper, a group bibliography project, and a final take-home paper.

Corcoran Department of History
University of Virginia
Nau Hall - South Lawn
Charlottesville, VA 22904


(434) 924-7147
(434) 924-7891
M-F 8am to 4:30pm
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