I’m currently working on a small project based in the Meiji period, so as soon as I got home (for the winter break), I grabbed Donald Keene’s Emperor of Japan: Meiji and his World off the shelf, and started flipping through it.
This is a monster of a book, as you can clearly see. It’s nearly 800 pages, and that’s not including notes, bibliography, index, etc. It’s surely the most detailed account of the life and times of the Meiji Emperor available in English – at that length, it would be hard not to be. One review on GoodReads, as well as several of my friends, expressed how difficult it is to get through this book, and I certainly can’t blame them. As the reviewer on GoodReads writes, “It wasn’t that the subject matter wasn’t fascinating; the problem was that Keene has no sense of priority. The book is loaded down with far too much detail with no concession to relevance.”
He may have a point. Still, I think that same level of detail that this reviewer complains about could potentially make Emperor of Japan a rather valuable resource. Granted, for any specific episode (e.g. General Grant’s visit to Japan in 1879, or the overthrow and annexation of Ryukyu around the same time), there is likely a full-length journal article or two that describes the topic in greater detail. But, even so, I’ve certainly found it an entertaining and interesting read for the brief sections I’ve chosen to pick up. To bring it around in a different way, let me say this – while an excessive level of detail may weigh down the book and make it less of a page-turner, it provides a fuller, more complete, narrative than most scholarly analyses. Where many other texts might mention King Kalakaua’s visit to Japan, for example, only very briefly, if at all, Keene devotes a full four pages to it. And where an argumentative/analytical work might pick and choose only those aspects of Kalakaua’s visit that support the author’s argument, Keene simply lays out a series of details (certainly not the most complete version possible, but, then, is that ever truly possible?) that allow one, as the reader, to then pull from in order to form different interpretations or arguments, or simply to understand a more full version of the narrative.
Here we see not only that Emperor Meiji and King Kalakaua discussed Japanese emigration to Hawaii, for example, and the political and economic details and implications, such as might appear in an article arguing something political, economic, or social historical about the origins of the Japanese-American community, but rather, we also see how Kalakaua and Meiji shook hands, how Meiji received Kalakaua almost at the threshold of his palace, and walked with him, as equals; we see Kalakaua being offered refreshments, but refusing, having heard it would be improper to eat in front of the Emperor, and we see the Emperor (or his men, at least) paying a visit to Kalakaua and his men only an hour after dismissing them, in an effort to adhere to European royal customs of etiquette, only to find the Hawaiians all in their underwear, relaxing after the long day. I suppose if someone really wanted to know the fine details of what Kalakaua ate while in Japan, where he stayed, what he wore, and what the Emperor wore, etc., they could look for the Complete Writings of David Kalakaua, or the like. But, there’s still something to be said, I think, for a rich, dense narrative like this one, that focuses not exclusively on political movements, but on personal, cultural, visual & material aspects, truly constructing for the reader a sense of the aesthetic & cultural world in which the Meiji Emperor lived, and the complexity of the many different things going on in his life, in his Court, in his government all at once. It is easy, when reading a journal article about Kalakaua’s visit, for example, to lose track of just what else might have been going on in Tokyo (or in the Imperial Palace in particular) at that time.
While there may be a wonderful wealth of books and articles discussing the Meiji period from a conceptual, ideological, or analytic point of view, providing valuable discussions of colonialist & imperialist discourses, discourses of “modernity,” and the like, here is a rare work actually describing what happened, in a direct, detailed, narrative manner.