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Discursive Transformation: Public Perception, Anti-Chinese Public Discourse and the Deterioration of Sino-Japanese Relations in the Meiji Period
AuthorWatt, Justus Alexander
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Despite a long history of productive cross-cultural interaction, the Sino-Japanese bilateral relationship deteriorated rapidly in the late-nineteenth century. Although a number of theories, often focusing on power relations and economic transformation, have been presented to explain why this transition unfolded the way it did, the roles of cultural production and identity construction have been largely neglected in these analyses. This work seeks to correct this imbalance by specifically focusing on the ways in which identity and culture influenced the bilateral relationship in the 1890s. This analysis necessarily examines the shifting nature of Japanese identity during the period, specifically the growing distance between Chinese culture and Japanese identity that was the product of both a nativist skepticism of Sinitic cultural influence and the disorienting profusion of Western social and political thinking introduced to Japan during the Meiji period (1868-1912). The unmooring of Japanese identity from its traditional Sinocentric foundation provided the necessary space in which a re-conceptualization of both Japanese national identity and the Sino-Japanese bilateral relationship became possible. In an analysis of cultural production, specifically the Meiji periodical press and woodblock prints, I argue that a previously unarticulated anti-Chinese public discourse that emerged in the Meiji period contributed to an attempted reversal of the traditional, hierarchical Sino-Japanese relationship in the late-nineteenth century. These cultural productions constructed a representation of Qing China as a weak and backward society that was incapable of competing in the modern world of powerful nation-states; a society that required the guidance of a more advanced and enlightened civilization as it proceeded along the path of modernization. This representation defined an acceptable public interpretation of the bilateral relationship and served as a normative discourse that contributed to a Japanese public consciousness. In this work, I suggest that the newspaper press and woodblock prints exerted an important social influence on late-nineteenth-century Japanese society and played a consequential role in the dissemination of the anti-Chinese public discourse of the period. The influence of these cultural productions stemmed from their ability to present and organize information and to define the boundaries, permeable though they were, of a legitimate social discourse that was useful in undermining a sense of Chinese civilizational superiority through an inversion of the roles each was expected to play in the bilateral association. This social discourse, in turn, informed a Japanese sense of self during the period and contributed to the deterioration of Sino-Japanese relations in the late nineteenth- and early-twentieth centuries.