Postal Modernity in Meiji Japan: From Hokusai's Post Card to Mokuami's Telegraph

Seth Jacobowitz, Assistant Professor of Humanities, San Francisco State University

This paper examines practices of inscription and post integral to the rise of the imperial Japanese nation-state and to the formation of a unified Japanese language in the Meiji period (1868-1912). Along with the international ratification of standard time, the metric system and other developments that reinterpret the world through a uniformity of measure, we see new technologies of representation arrive in Japan such as the telegraph, photography and modern typography that betoken new ways of gathering up and fixing relations to language, the senses and our experiences of the world. It is not my intention to exhaustively investigate each of these groundbreaking events, but rather to argue that they constitute a general set of conditions for writing and disseminating information in late nineteenth century Japan. Indeed, the establishment of the modern postal system by Maejima Hisoka, a leading proponent of national script reform who had advocated the abolition of Chinese characters prior to the end of the Tokugawa shogunate, is closely bound up with the developments.

With these distinctions in place, the paper offers a close reading of two texts that bring into relief the disparity in postal conditions from late Edo to early Meiji. Hokusai’s woodblock print “Shunshu Ejiri” from Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (1830) depicts a windswept scene of paper and leaves blowing above and beyond a letter collection box on the post road of the Tokaido. Suggestive of an alternative mode of circulation that circumvents official discourse, the paper and leaves that appear to converge on the horizon just beyond the edge of picture plane are highly evocative of a scene of writing that in Japanese might properly be called Hokusai’s “postcard” (hagaki: lit., leaf-writing). If the late Edo period still allowed for poetic and artistic play outside the censorious ambit of the shogunate, the final act of Kawatake Mokuami’s zangiri (“shorn hair”) kabuki play Shima Chidori Tsuki no Shiranami (1881) affords us a dramatic view of the totalizing effects of print and postal media evident behind the formation of the imagined community of the modern nation-state. My analysis will focus upon how the rehabilitation of even the most recalcitrant stock villains of the kabuki theater into model citizens is impelled by two new technologies of writing, the newspaper and telegraph, and set against the backdrop of the newly founded Yasukuni Shrine, dedicated to those who die in the service of the emperor.

Friday, October 26, 2012 | 4:15 pm — 6:00 pm
Building 200 - Room 307, Main Quad

Stanford Humanities Center
Center for East Asian Studies