Date of Award


Document Type

Undergraduate Honors Thesis

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts (BA)



Advisor/Committee Chair

Ryan Irwin


When a 260-year-old regime comes toppling down, how do you organize society after the fall? That is the challenge that faced members of the Meiji state after the end of the Tokugawa Bakufu. The need for internal unity and the pressure of Western Imperialism, as imposed by the Unequal Treaties,[1] raised the stakes of the Meiji State’s goal: to create a modern nation-state with a unifying national identity. What did that process entail? First, create a legal precedent for control and monopolize violence. Second, define the individual because a nation needs a public, and a public cannot exist without people. Third, negotiate the relationship between the freedom of the individual and the power of the State in the connective process of state-building. Frictions between individual and state, single or multiple, and truth or the absence of it emerged. This thesis argues that fighting over those tensions became the defining act of modernity and the foundation of Meiji Japan.

This project analyzes the ways individuals relate to their community because it is often taken for granted that this is a naturally occurring process. This thesis aims to answer the question of how underlying contradictions contributed to the formation of a modern nation-state. Additionally, some scholars previously suggested that there are good or bad ways to modernize a nation, and used Japan and Germany as examples of “bad” given their fall into Fascism. Historian Erik Grimmer-Solem summarized the trend of historiography to use Germany and Japan as examples of modernization that broke from the liberal-democratic path, “A number of these German influences would justify authoritarian, statist, semi-feudal, and nativist tendencies in Meiji Japan, thereby reinforcing Japanese peculiarity and deviance from liberal-democratic patterns of development.”[2] This project resists the tendency to split the making of a modern nation-state into oversimplified categories of “good” or “bad.” This thesis does not read from World War II backward, or accept Japan’s progress through the Meiji period and beyond as an inevitability. Those previous methods rob the history of the dynamic intersections and dialogues that shaped the way people experienced their relationship to “nation.” Instead, this project addresses the dialogues surrounding how the concepts of authority, individualism, and nation functioned in Meiji era Japan. To accomplish this, I tracked the relationships between different people, ideas, and the authority of the community through politics, intellectual debate, and literature. I combined these elements to demonstrate that not only are each of these areas connected, they were always a part of each other. None of them could have occurred the way they did without the influence of the others because they existed within the same space and thought. To make that clear, I will peel back the layers of creating a national identity.[3]

Included in

Asian History Commons