This paper examines material and social transformations of writing integral to the rise of the modern, imperial Meiji nation-state. In conscious reference to theories of postmodernity, it proposes a notion of “post modernity” that calls attention to the assemblage of modern writing systems and modes of sending (what Jacques Derrida calls “envois”) which rapidly replaced the heterogeneous practices of the late Edo period. I rely upon the discursive historiographic strategies of Friedrich Kittler and Bernhard Siegert to explore the changes in modern subjectivity concomitant with the technologies of inscription and post in the early Meiji state.
With this methodology in mind, I seek to identify some broad trends in the nineteenth century which betoken new ways of gathering up and fixing relations to language, the senses and our experiences of the world. Along with the international ratification of standard time, the metric system and a host of standard language movements, we see numerous technologies emerge which were conceptually marked by a shared proximity to writing, namely the shared principles of recording and transmission: photography, phonography, telegraphy, cinematography and so on. It is not my intention to exhaustively investigate each of these groundbreaking events, but rather to argue that they form a general set of conditions, or what we might call a “discourse network” for late nineteenth century Japan. Indeed, the establishment of the modern postal system by Maejima Hisoka, a leading proponent of national script reform who had advocated the abolition of Chinese characters in 1867, is closely bound up with the developments.
The paper concludes with a reading of two texts that contrast the postal conditions of the late Edo and early Meiji periods: Hokusai’s woodblock print “Shunshu Ejiri” from Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (-1830), which depicts a windswept scene of paper blowing above and beyond the post road of the Tokaido; and the final act of Kawatake Mokuami’s kabuki play Shima Chidori Tsuki no Shiranami (1881), which explores the rehabilitation of thieves impelled by newspaper and telegraph, and set against the backdrop of the newly founded Yasukuni Shrine.