From Patrick Smith, Japan: A Reinterpretation (Pantheon, 1997), pp. 57-59:
The events leading up to the [Meiji] restoration were extremely bizarre. In 1866 the political scene was a tangle of forces backing either the shogun or the throne. The fires of antiforeign chauvinism, long fanned by the bureaucracy, were raging. Crop failures and the new foreign trade—imports of manufactured goods, exports of gold and silver—had wrecked the economy. Popular unrest was at a peak; more than a hundred rural uprisings, and urban riots at the rate of several a month. A thread of premonitory superstition ran through all of this. A comet that year was taken as a portent of some imminent but incalculable change.
Early in 1867 everything went strangely quiet. Popular unrest more or less ceased. But in the autumn Japan broke out in ecstatic revelry—a combination of rioting, religious hysteria, sake-powered partying, and spontaneous, orgiastic street dancing. Houses were hung with brightly colored rice cakes, straw, and flowers. Dancers—men and women, young and old—clogged the streets to clamoring bells, drums, gongs, chimes, and whistles. Drunken commoners tramped through the houses of the privileged without—unforgivably—removing their shoes. Popular lyrics celebrated food, sake, and sex. People gave clothing away to strangers and threw money in the streets. The frenzy swept from Edo to Hiroshima after thousands of amulets, paper charms with Shinto and Buddhist gods painted on them, began falling from the sky.
No historian has explained the rain of amulets. But they were not the only peculiar feature of this altogether odd interlude. Cross-dressing was widespread. Despite all the pent-up anger of late Edo, there was no violence. A British diplomat traveling in Osaka remarked on the absence of fear or animosity. Everywhere the revelers repeated the same incantatory chant: Ee ja nai ka! This elusive term has numerous inexact translations. Its nearest literal meaning is “Isn’t it good?” or “Why not? It’s all right!” A scholar recently described it as falling somewhere among “Right on! Go for it,” “What the hell,” and “No more bullshit!”
Odd as it seems, given our image of the Japanese, ee ja nai ka was the sound of modern Japan’s beginning The delirious chanting lasted until the spring of 1868. And amid the cacophony of a sexually charged carnival, two samurai clans loyal to the emperor, the Satsuma and the Choshu, found a singular opportunity. During the interim from the autumn of 1867 to the spring of the new year they secured the shogun’s resignation and wheeled the new emperor forward as the new ruler of a new Japan.
Ee ja nai ka! The subtext of every shout was an open declaration of liberation, a jack-in-the-box release of pent-up desire. This alone would give ee ja nai ka a place in Japan’s hidden history, but there is more. What does it mean when people of no great sophistication take to cross-dressing, or to trampling across tatami in muddy shoes, or, in abject poverty, to throwing money away? We cannot be satisfied with the notion that a commoner celebrating sex and gluttony in late Edo Japan saw no farther than the next sake barrel and a free-spirited companion. Ee ja nai ka was a shout toward the heavens, a rejection of the reigning order. It was as if people had seen through the roof of the great house of Tokugawa to glimpse an immensity of alternatives in the open sky beyond. Above all, it was an act of public individuality.
Edo’s last months were both expectant and subversive. By the end, ee ja nai ka took on an explicitly political meaning—it was another inchoate expression of rebellion, like the constant protests of the Edo era. The evident sexuality offers us a clue to understanding this moment as one of undirected individual assertion, desire without an available language. But the formlessness of this rebellion does not obscure its psychological complexity. Speculating, we can wonder whether the shouts of ee ja nai ka were the deformed flowers of a Japanese enlightenment ready to sprout but without the ground to grow. More certainly, they reveal that the individual’s struggle against the enfolding web was part of modern Japan from the moment it came into existence.
(Smith goes on to note that the first thing Mutsuhito, the sixteen-year-old Meiji emperor, did was issue the Charter Oath, a pledge of his intentions for the country. The third of the five clauses ran like so:
"The common people, no less than the civil and military officials, shall all attain their aspirations, so that the people's minds shall not be made weary.")