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Q&A with James L. Huffman, Author of “Down and Out in Late Meiji Japan”

James L. Huffman is Professor Emeritus of Japanese history at Wittenberg University and the 2017 recipient of the AAS Distinguished Contributions to Asian Studies award. A journalist-turned-scholar, Huffman is author of several studies of the history of journalism in Japan, as well as Japan in World History (Oxford University Press, 2010), Modern Japan: A History in Documents (Oxford University Press, second edition 2010), and Japan and Imperialism: 1853–1945 (AAS “Key Issues in Asian Studies” series, second edition 2017).

Huffman’s latest book, Down and Out in Late Meiji Japan, was published earlier this year by University of Hawai’i Press. In this wide-ranging work, Huffman examines the lived experiences of the hinmin (urban poor) during the last decades of the Meiji Era (1868–1912), a time when Japan saw enormous growth in both wealth and poverty as the country industrialized. Near the end of the 19th century, hundreds of thousands of rural residents fled rising taxes and falling commodity prices in the countryside for the hope of achieving economic security in Japan’s rapidly growing cities. When they arrived in Tokyo, Osaka, and other burgeoning metropolises, however, many of the new urbanites struggled to achieve a foothold, joining the ranks of the urban poor. Estimates of this group’s size vary widely, but the most conservative numbers place 12 to 20 percent of Tokyo’s 2.3 million people in the ranks of the poor and destitute by the early 1900s.

Contemporary journalists, government officials, and social scientists lamented the plight of the country’s impoverished citizens, and Huffman does not downplay the struggles experienced by the hinmin. At the same time, he casts light on the remarkable capacity for resilience demonstrated by most poor families, and takes care to point out moments of joy that hinmin found for themselves. Huffman does not claim to speak for the Meiji-period hinmin in his work, but seeks to understand how they experienced day-to-day life and the ways in which the urban poor exercised agency despite structural and institutional obstacles.

Down and Out in Late Meiji Japan should be read by scholars interested in social history, urban studies, and modern Japan. For more about the book, please see my interview below with James L. Huffman, conducted via email.

MEC: After focusing on the history of journalism and journalists in Japan for much of your academic career, what compelled you to move in a new direction and study the lives of the urban poor in late Meiji Japan?

JLH: I find it hard to plumb my own motivations, but I always have had a special interest in people or groups who are ignored by mainstream society. This may be the result of growing up on a Midwestern farm, or of feeling marginalized by my pietistic (though deeply nurturing) religion, or of being at the University of Michigan in the 1960s when the fight for justice was so passionate among students. Even when studying the press, I was interested most keenly in journalists as outsiders. After writing for years on that topic, I decided to turn to one of the Meiji era’s most completely overlooked groups, the urban hinmin. I should mention too that my wife Judith played a crucial role in my shift in focus. She was even more passionate than I about paying attention to the silent and the oppressed, and after her death of cancer in 1996, it somehow seemed right to take up a topic that mattered deeply to her.

MEC: One of the most common problems encountered by historians seeking insight into the lives of the working poor is the paucity of sources—middle- and upper-class subjects are far more likely to have left diaries, letters, and other materials that provide direct narrations of their experiences. What are the sources you used to construct the history of Japan’s hinmin?

JLH: That is the question I get asked most often; the answer is that there were three kinds of sources. First was journalism. To my surprise (and delight), I found that late Meiji reporters were obsessed with the “shakai mondai (social problem),” the label they attached to the cities’ exploding poor population. As a result, they wrote constantly about life in the hinminkutsu, or slums. The second source was surveys and records, which government bureaus produced systematically and, in typically Japanese fashion, profusely; I found those especially helpful in examining topics such as crime, illness, and disasters. The third source was literature: short stories and novels by writers such as Higuchi Ichiyo who were reared in poverty. While I could not rely on literary works for factual accuracy, I found them terrific in providing texture. It bears note too that sources often had to be read against the grain: recognizing, for example, that stealing a boss’s charcoal chips—described as a crime by middle-class journalists—could just as well be seen as a salutary sign of agency and survival.

MEC: You frequently note how poverty affected different groups in different ways. How was poverty a gendered experience in the cities of Japan around the turn of the 20th century? How did it affect the very young and very old?

JLH: Gender had a huge impact on the urban hinmin. We already knew, from studies by scholars such as Patricia Tsurumi, that girls and young women made up the majority of factory workers well into the twentieth century. It also was true, I found, that males were paid much more than females, even when the women did more and better work. Moreover, women had to balance wage-earning with care of the home. The pattern in a typical family was that women prepared the meals, ran the household, cared for children—and then did several hours a day of piecework, wrapping cigarettes, making match boxes, etc. If they worked part time at a factory, they had to take their small children along (if bosses permitted that) or leave them home without care. When no other option was available, some women did sex work in the evening, to pay for special medical needs or simply to put food on the table.

Age mattered too. The infirm elderly, of course, were often dependent on their adult children; the fact that they might require medicines often stretched household budgets beyond the breaking point. Older rickshaw men were especially challenged, as aging bodies made it more and more difficult to pull passengers for long hours. Suicide stories were numerous among elderly hinmin. The situation for the very young may have been hardest of all. They were the ones most often sent by desperate parents into the streets to beg or, sometimes, to pickpocket. The worst plight for children surely was that they were deprived of education because they had to earn income. Inhumanly low wages meant that great numbers of families could not eat unless the children worked for wages, and government officials in collusion with profit-focused industrialists exempted poor families from compulsory education so that the pool of cheap labor could be maintained. The result was low school attendance and low literacy rates among urban children. That, of course, doomed those same children to a poverty-stricken adulthood.

MEC: Government officials and social reformers often fretted about the growing population of urban poor, but as you explain in the book, there was no systematic attempt to address poverty from either the government or private sector. Why not? And what resources did hinmin have to draw on for assistance during especially tough times?

JLH: The short answer is that the government’s—indeed, the nation’s—focus was on industrial growth and national power rather than individual welfare; there was little concern about preventing poverty. In keeping with pre-Meiji traditions, it was expected that families and local communities would take responsibility for their own needs. The problem, of course, was that the urban poor had left their villages and had no community networks to turn to in the period that I studied. There were a few charitable organizations, and the wealthy (including the imperial family) doled out one-time gifts when disasters such as floods or earthquakes hit. But there was neither a general public assistance program nor a significant demand for one. Between 1895 and 1901, the number of people receiving public assistance in Tokyo averaged 128 per year! In other words, hinmin had nowhere to turn in dire circumstances, except to get loans at usurious rates or pawn their valuables. Some would pawn a futon in the morning, in the hope that they could redeem it before night came.

MEC: You take care to call attention to the agency exercised by the urban poor in different situations. In the workplace, for example, how did hinmin engage in collective actions that resulted in change?

JLH: It is important to me that people realize, first, that dire and degrading poverty did not prevent the urban poor from engaging life fully. They went to temples on festival days; they gossiped and strategized in the public bath and in line at the leftover food shop; they celebrated cherry blossoms in the spring. Even survival was a dramatic illustration of agency; one journalist said hinmin either graduated “with honors” from poverty’s school or died. One of the things that surprised me was how ambitious large numbers of poor families were.

Another was the frequency and vigor with which they took action to better their lots. While there was no generalized labor movement, protests and strikes in individual factories were frequent—and usually effective. Even the notoriously independent rickshaw pullers occasionally protested, and factory strikes resulted in better wages and improved working conditions. During the “era of urban riots” (1905-1918), the poor made up a majority of those arrested for protesting. Their massive rallies brought down cabinets and caused officials to at least delay tax and streetcar fare increases.

MEC: Chapters 7 and 8 move away from Japan’s cities to contrast the experiences of the urban poor with those of the rural poor and Japanese migrant workers on Hawaii’s sugar plantations. Why did you decide to include the stories of these two groups in a study of urban poverty?

JLH: The answer to that lies in the way my goals changed as my research went along. When I began this study, I intended to look at poor people more broadly, dividing the book into equal sections on the cities, the countryside, and the world of outsiders such as burakumin, miners, and emigrants. With that in mind, I did considerable research early on into the lives of Japanese workers in Hawaii. Later, deciding the work was going to be much too broad for any editor, I decided to narrow my focus to the urban poor. The question then arose: what to do with the Hawaii material, discard it or use it? The more I thought about it, the more I was persuaded that I should keep it and add a chapter on hardship in the villages, for comparative purposes. That decision was fortuitous, because looking at farmers and sugar plantation workers gave me insights I never would have expected into the way setting and environment affected the way poverty felt. I’ve written an article on that recently for Education About Asia (“Poverty in Late Meiji Japan: It Mattered Where You Lived,” Fall 2018).

MEC: And finally, what’s next on your plate now that Down and Out in Late Meiji Japan is finished?

JLH: This last year has surprised in this regard. Being in my mid-seventies, I told myself that once I finished this book I would leave Japanese history behind and turn toward some personal writing, including a novel I have had in mind (who doesn’t have one!) for decades, as well as doing more volunteer work, particularly with undocumented immigrants in the Chicago area where I live. I started that transition as soon as I sent my book manuscript to the publisher. But after accepting an invitation several months ago to take part in a Meiji history conference at the University of San Francisco, I found myself responding to one project after another (talks, articles, reviews, a collected works request), and deciding I was not quite ready to lay aside Japanese history. I likely will not take up new book-length projects, but my intent now is to stay involved in a mix of the personal and the professional. I’ll also feel less guilty than I once would have about taking time out to have my family and friends come for dinner or simply to stand at my balcony, as I did last night, and watch a full moon cast its reflections on Lake Michigan.

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