Freedom, Slavery and the Meiji Restoration: Revisiting the Maria Luz Incident

Mihalopoulos, Bill orcid iconORCID: 0000-0001-6112-6094 (2021) Freedom, Slavery and the Meiji Restoration: Revisiting the Maria Luz Incident. In: Revisiting Japan’s Restoration: New Approaches to the Study of the Meiji Transformation. Routledge studies in the modern history of Asia (8). Routledge, London, pp. 33-40. ISBN 9781032075785

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One of the difficulties of doing historical research is the relentless temptation to endow the past with the inevitability of the present. The temptation manifests itself in a desire to identify the origins or prime agency of history. In the context of Meiji Japan, this aspiration finds expression in seeing the Meiji Restoration as an epochal event heralding the origins of new institutions grounded in rights claims. This has been the preferred approach by recent scholarship on the Maria Luz Incident which has linked the freeing of Japanese licensed prostitutes to a “shared global culture of modernity” “within the great ‘master narrative’ of nineteenth-century liberalism” – culminating with the Japanese drawing up a constitution guaranteeing individual rights. But this approach leaves us with a methodological quandary. Are institutions reflective of the transitions brought in by a distinct epoch? Or do the institutions compose what it means to be free and generate the meaning of autonomy? It is through this line of inquiry that we revisit the Maria Luz Incident. This will be done by redirecting focus to the compatibility of narrower ideas of freedom (the freedom to enter into contacts) with seemingly “traditional” relationships of subordination, in this case women engaged in licensed prostitution.

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