‘The Japanese Body: A Contested Terrain in the Meiji Restoration Era’ by Emilia Boulton

The relationship between society, dress and the body has always been complicated throughout history. For Japan, this became prevalent during the Meiji Restoration Era (1868-1912). Before, the Japanese body was symbolized to represent a place in society, and the naked skin was just as integral as the material that clothed it. However, as a result of the country’s borders being opened, therein followed a significant influx of people from the West, with their naked skins clothed. The country’s leaders, being aware of the “Western gaze,” then saw it as a necessity to modernize its people and their bodies. As a result, the Japanese body had turned into a contested terrain where the ingrained cultural practices that carried on for centuries had to be discarded within mere decades for something that was alien to them.

My research began with a visual analysis of historical paintings and photographs depicting how the Japanese (dressed) body had significantly changed within mere decades of the Meiji Era. Michel Foucault’s theory of the “docile body” was a key source in understanding how the act of practicing power can efficiently instill significant changes in human behavior. What’s important to understand is, it was not the West trying to influence the nation in changing the way the bodies were dressed and displayed. Rather, it was the leaders of Japan, being aware of how their nation’s culture was seen under the “Western gaze,” that decided to implement new laws on their people through the Meiji Misdemeanor Law. This was seen as a way to reduce the risk of colonization and thus raise the country’s status in the international sphere. Along with the leaders, well-known figures and scholars at the time also propagated the need to modernize during this time. This approach in controlling the Japanese people’s dress practices was not isolated. Rather, these new regulations were systematic and institutionalized.

Print from Meiji Era, 1897-98.

The indigenous bodily practices, which were so ingrained in Japanese culture for centuries, rapidly diminished from the public eye in mere decades. Foucault’s argument, in that systematic and continuous practices of power and knowledge can render the body docile, gives us an indication as to how the Japanese body was affected during this time. Having said all this, there were still people going back to their “indigenous” dresses during the Meiji Era. 

Although wearing Victorian costume appeared to be popular amongst the Japanese upper-class women, it was short lived. Even the emperor himself would change back into his Japanese clothes when out of the public eye, and this was indicative of the kimono clearly being more comfortable amongst Japanese society. The presumed “docile” body did not want to adhere to the constrictions of the suit and corset. This then begs the question, was there something else going on within the Japanese body?

Late 19th century.

The Japanese body was actually more aware of its surroundings and was tactfully trying to mediate this contested terrain through its “double life,” (二重生活- nijyuu seikatsu). Rather than the Japanese body being docile to the new system and reforms, there was something else going on. Although there were valid points raised when applying Foucault’s theory with the Meiji Restoration period’s new laws and practice, the concept of the nijyuu seikatsu, has been described in Japanese history. Not every aspect of Japanese culture was discarded completely. It seemed that the Japanese body itself was working with the mind in trying to adapt, and at the same time maintain a collective identity.

Wajiro Kon stated that the nation and the body saw the modernization as a way to move away, and thus be unbound from the restrictive traditions. Kon is well known in Japanese history as the creator of “modernology” with its focus placed on the changes and development of life and the city. Although Kon conducted his studies after the Meiji Era, the reforms that were put in place at that time were still carried forward to the time period when Kon compiled his findings. In 1925, Kon observed how the Japanese people dressed in the city of Tokyo. What was interesting to find was that out of the 1,180 people observed, 1% of women wore Western dress and yet 42% had adopted a Western-style haircut (i.e. unbound and cut short). They may have changed their hairstyles, engaging with the influence from the West. At the same time, they were not passive nor docile, to the point that they would discard their kimonos completely. The Meiji rule may have taken away the indigenous practices from feudal Japan, however, Kon believes that these practices had actually limited its people. By taking these traditions away, it actually gave them a little more freedom and agency with their dress practices. The conclusions Kon drew from his research can give us another indication of how the Japanese body tried to navigate itself at a time of significant change. In other words, the body was far from docile.

Kon Wajiro 1925.

This “double life,” can be seen as the Japanese strategy, whether they did this consciously or subconsciously, to alleviate the influence from the West. This conveys the idea that the Japanese body itself was just as integral in trying to navigate around the contested period when confronted with different social customs. 

If the Japanese bodies were all rendered docile by the state, would this “double life” have existed? The concept of the “double life” arising during the Meiji Era demonstrates how the Japanese bodies were not completely subservient to the changes enforced upon them. Some of the traditional practices have been lost, yet as Kon theorized, this allowed an element of agency to the body.

Contrary to applying the Foucauldian thought that the Japanese bodies were completely passive during the Meiji Era, instead there is the idea that the Japanese body was well aware of the contested environment they were in. Thus, they tried to negotiate themselves around it through their sartorial “double life.” The Japanese body was not completely docile, bowing down to every Western practice and ideal. Rather, there was something more innate, a more thought out development of the Japanese body. To fully acknowledge this period of non-Western history, and realize that modernity and the development of fashion are not exclusive to the Western culture, to me is a significant start to decolonizing fashion. 

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