1884 is not a particularly significant date in the history of Meiji Japan. Yet, this year is a fascinating object of study because it falls amidst major, revolutionary change in Japan. During the Meiji period (1868-1912) the space of the archipelago was completely reconfigured from an amalgamation of communities and domains to a nation-state, time is reckoned differently, science and rationality become the dominant epistemology, constitutional government is adapted, the economy begins its shift from a small-scale agrarian to a heavily capitalized industrial system, and the people are told how to be Japanese.
By focusing on a year (it could have been any year), I hope to produce a study that recognizes the many competing, alternate, and autonomous societal forms that coexisted. A year, any finite period, enables one to think of time differently; not as a moment between past and future (as if these are always distinct and separate), but as the coexistence of many different temporalities.While there are several issues embedded in this essay, my overall goal is twofold: first, to explore the many ways people lived amidst the change that we call the modernization of Japan. What we find is not a gradual progression from a traditional to a modern or primitive to civilized, but: leaders, elite, and the emerging bourgeoisie striving to foster their vision of a modern nation state; experiments that have led to nowhere; many different societies and communities that were ignorant of the changes; others trying to understand, adapt, and cope with what was new; and overall, people who were trying to figure out the relation between inherited forms of knowledge and the new. Second, historical narratives, the printed essay is necessarily linear. The foresight and courage of the American Historical Review in encouraging experimentation with electronic essays provides a wonderful opportunity to merge an intellectual issue the need of history to recognize different notions of time with a practical problem, the potential (rather than threat) of the electronic form of publication to go beyond the linearity inherent in print publications.