We are excited to announce a new title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book series: Samurai to Soldier: Remaking Military Service in Nineteenth-Century Japan, published by Cornell University Press. The book’s author is D. Colin Jaundrill, who earned his PhD from Columbia University and is Associate Professor of History at Providence College.
In Samurai to Soldier, Professor Jaundrill rewrites the military history of nineteenth-century Japan. In fifty years spanning the collapse of the Tokugawa shogunate and the rise of the Meiji nation-state, conscripts supplanted warriors as Japan’s principal arms-bearers. The most common version of this story suggests that the Meiji institution of compulsory military service was the foundation of Japan’s efforts to save itself from the imperial ambitions of the West and set the country on the path to great power status. Jaundrill argues, to the contrary, that the conscript army of the Meiji period was the culmination—and not the beginning—of a long process of experimentation with military organization and technology.
We thank Professor Jaundrill for taking the time to discuss his book with us. Please read the following Q&A to learn more about the research and questions that drove his project.
What led you to focus your research on the military history of Japan?
Two sets of considerations drove my interest in Japan’s military. The first was a desire—shared by many historians—to complicate popular understandings of my research topic. In my experience, the popular understanding of Japan’s military history—especially for Americans—often rested on culturally essentialist assumptions colored by the Second World War. Even some scholarship demonstrated the same biases. I wanted to fix that. Second, although military history is a lively field within Japan, it has been under-represented in recent Anglophone scholarship and stands to benefit from re-examination. Luckily, the past few years have seen an upswing in publications on the topic.
How, in general terms, did military service change in Japan during the nineteenth-century?
At the start of the nineteenth century, there were dozens of different military organizations in the Japanese archipelago—those of the shogunate and domains. The warriors who made up the rank-and-file of these militaries derived both their livelihoods and sense of identity from their position within the status system of the Tokugawa period. Military service was thus highly regionalized and bound up with the status system in a myriad of complex ways.
As the shogunate and domains tried to grapple with the challenges posed by imperialism, they began to experiment with military reform. Although this process began with efforts to acquire and implement new technologies, it soon led to attempts to alter the structure and composition of armies—including the first attempts to conscript commoners. Taken together, these changes represented the gradual unraveling of Tokugawa military service—and the status system with which it was so intertwined—and the first steps toward its replacement by a more uniform, national model.
These processes were still unfolding when the Meiji Restoration occurred in 1868. With its eventual creation of a national conscript military, the new government completed the processes begun decades earlier, although it took a decade and a half of missteps and challenges.
What kinds of archives and sources did you consult in your research? What challenges did you encounter while researching and writing about this topic?
I worked with archival collections at a number of government-run sites in Japan, including the National Diet Library, National Archives, and the Defense Research Institute. In particular, I found Army Ministry correspondence and conscription records from the 1860s and 1870s to be some of my most revealing sources. In addition, I found some fascinating materials—including late-Tokugawa drill manuals—at the National Museum of History and Ethnography in Sakura.
The collections available at the University of Tokyo—where I was affiliated during my research—were also extremely valuable. I found many of my Tokugawa-period sources in the archives and databases of the Historiographical Institute. The Meiji-era periodicals available in the Meiji Newspaper and Periodical Archives were also vital to the later chapters of the book. But my favorite archive at the University of Tokyo was the Ōgai Archive (Ōgai bunko), a collection of books that once belonged to the famous novelist Mori Ōgai, who was also an army doctor. This archive included a number of gems, including manuals on military hygiene that were unavailable at any other site.
The greatest challenge I faced was finding on-the-ground accounts written by those affected most directly by the transformation of military service. I would have benefited greatly from firsthand accounts written by a Chōshū outcaste trooper or an early Meiji conscript, but those stories are largely inaccessible due to a lack of records.
What research discoveries led you to challenge the conventional narrative that compulsory military service in the Meiji period was the beginning of an effort to contend with the Imperial West?
I began this project with the intent of writing a social and cultural history of conscription from the 1870s through the 1940s. Although I was aware of earlier military reform efforts, I thought of them the way most scholars did—as a prequel to the main story. But the deeper I dug into sources from the 1850s and 1860s, the clearer it became that many of the political authorities of the late Tokugawa period were just as concerned with imperialism as their followers in the Meiji era.
What findings surprised you the most in the course of your research?
In the past, the history of the Tokugawa-Meiji transition era was written as a civilizational struggle between canny reformers who “got it”—that is to say, who understood the challenges posed by imperialism—and the benighted reactionaries who occupied positions of power and influence. The actuality was far more complicated. Most of the historical actors I reference in the book saw the necessity of military reform — they just disagreed as to what kinds of change were necessary.
How would you like your book to affect or complicate people’s understanding of Japan’s history?
For starters, I hope that it helps draw greater attention to late-Tokugawa developments that lie outside the ambit of imperial loyalism. The shogunate and its allied domains were not ineffectual or reactionary, and their efforts deserve to be explored in greater depth. Second, the book is the latest in a recent line of works that have emphasized the messiness and complexity of the early decades of Meiji. Those years were obviously determinative for the new government, but they were also full of unexplored alternatives—that’s why I find it the most interesting period in Japanese history.
What is your next research project about?
I am in the very early stages of researching a new project on the 1868 battles at Toba and Fushimi, which made possible the Meiji Restoration. My ultimate plan is to write a “deep history” of the battles—one that begins from an operational, ground-level narrative and then expands to consider topics such as violence in the capital in the 1860s, later efforts to commemorate the battles, and even their representation in popular culture. The project will be a chance to offer a new take on the Restoration moment, as well as a chance to re-conceptualize battle history, which remains one of the more traditional modes of military history.