There Were Days Of Spontaneous Dancing In Japan To Celebrate The Approaching Meiji Restoration Of 1868

(Ōtsu-e Characters Dancing in the Bon Festival by Utagawa Hiroshige, c. 1847 – 1852, woodblock print, James Michener Collection, Honolulu Museum of Art, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

 

During the 1860s, the Tokugawa government of Japan was facing increasing pressure from all sides. As the decade progressed, more and more commoners, samurai, and even the emperor of Japan, all showed their displeasure with the leadership role of the Tokugawa clan as the shoguns of Japan.

In 1866, the Tokugawa government sent troops into the region of Chōshū, hoping to crush a hotbed of dissident samurai. Instead, numerous leading daimyo nobles turned their provinces (most notably Satsuma) against the Tokugawa and refused to aid with the invasion. In the end, what was meant to be a decisive strike against samurai rebels in Chōshū turned out to be an embarrassing defeat for the Tokugawa government.

With the power of the Tokugawa regime lower than it had ever been before, the dissident samurai began to mobilize their forces in order to topple the shogun government and restore the emperor to full power. As the authority of the Tokugawa government began to crumble irreparably, the average populace of Japan started to distinctly notice the political coup that was taking place in their country. There were well over a hundred domestic riots, both in cities and in the rural countryside during the year, 1866, before and following the failed attack on Chōshū.

Yet, there was an even more interesting phenomenon that occurred among the citizens of Japan, starting in 1867—partying. In central Japan (roughly from Osaka to modern Tokyo), there were many spontaneous festivals, seemingly thrown in honor of the shift in political power. One British observer, named George Wilson, witnessed one of these parties in Osaka, which he later recorded in his book, Patriots and Redeemers in Japan: Motives in the Meiji Restoration.

Wilson wrote that the party began after paper confetti, or luck charms, were tossed from the rooftops down into the streets. As if this was a signal, the city of Osaka erupted into a multiple-day festival. The people of the city dressed up in festive reds, blues and purples, and even carried red lanterns, or wore them on their heads. The houses, too, were decorated vibrantly with oranges, flowers, and colored decorations such as bags and rice-cakes. In the midst of all this color and decoration, the partiers sang, danced and drank aplenty. Parties such as the one held in Osaka remained in full swing throughout central Japan, despite demands from the eroding Tokugawa government that the celebrations be ceased. The partying continued into 1868, when the Tokugawa government was overthrown and the Emperor Meiji was restored.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Sources:

  • A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present (Third Edition),by  Andrew Gordon. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.
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