by Jolin Chan
Despite Japan’s long and rich history, much of the country we know today stems from only about 150 years ago: the Meiji Restoration. This time period, from 1868 to 1889, was a radical political revolution that brought sweeping economic, social, and cultural change as well.
Before Emperor Meiji and the Restoration, Japan was a feudal society with a strict class system of samurai, peasants, craftspeople, and merchants. The shogun ruled most of the land, while the remaining was parceled out to daimyos (feudal lords), who then ruled over their assigned land. This era was also characterized by isolation from the rest of the world as Japan attempted to protect itself from foreign influences. In 1853, however, this would all change as Commodore Matthew Perry from the United States entered Edo. Commodore Perry demanded that Japan open up to trade with America, consequently ending the country’s more than 200-year-old isolationist stance.
The Tokugawa shogunate ended in 1868 after political unrest and financial issues. The role of the samurai became obsolete, and discontent peasants began to rebel because of the inflexibility of the feudal system. The Chōshū Domain, in particular, played a critical role in toppling down the Tokugawa shogunate, promoting slogans such as “Restore the Emperor” and “Expel the Barbarian” (with the barbarians being Americans like Commodore Matthew C. Perry). Choshu and other clans, such as the Satsuma, joined together to force the last shōgun Yoshinobu to resign. The Choshu backed Emperor Meiji, who then stepped into power and led an oligarchy of samurai who finally got the power they dreamed of. At the time, Japan was a weak agricultural country with few modern technological developments compared to Europe and the United States. The Meiji Restoration, however, was a period of new foreign policy, industrialization, and Westernization that fundamentally transformed Japan.
Politically, the Charter Oath in 1868, which outlined the Meiji leaders’ new goals, was critical for the Restoration. It called for deliberative assemblies, participation of all classes in the new government, allowed common people to pursue occupations beyond their previous class designation, and more. Furthermore, it was especially important because it ended bakufu (military government) and did away with the Tokugawa feudal class system. With the Charter Oath came a more democratic government, a new constitution, and a new capital in Kyoto.
With the Restoration came the emergence of a representative government. This, however, did not come easy, as there were dissenting ideas and armed revolts during the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion, led by samurai but ultimately suppressed by the Meiji government. At around the same time, the Popular Rights Movement was growing and gaining support from most social classes. With the help of the press, the Popular Rights Movement advocated for more political power given to the people and a constitution that acknowledged popular sovereignty. The movement led to the creation of a representative government, inspired by the Prussian model, and the 1889 Constitution, which established the Imperial Diet consisting of a House of Representatives and a House of Peers.
As it radically transformed Japanese politics and society, the Meiji Restoration also began an intense process of modernization and Westernization as Japan emerged out of isolation. Social and economic reforms meant that the leaders focused more on financing machinery, modernizing the army, and supporting students to study overseas. Originally a country with intense isolationist policies, Japan intended to rework foreign policy, not only by joining foreign trade but also through education. Meiji leaders, recognizing the country’s weak military and lack of technological progress, were aware and interested in advancements in the West. To better understand foreign countries, Japan established “learning missions.” For example, one of these missions had members travel throughout the United States to learn about the American government, education system, factories, mines, and more.
The knowledge they brought back would help them catch up with the West and become a competitive superpower, especially as Japan pursued its imperialist ambitions in Manchuria, Korea, and China, not unlike Western powers during the Age of Imperialism. The country’s modernization was critical for the Russo-Japanese War. This war—and the Japanese victory—sent a message to the wider world that Japan could either be a powerful rival or ally. During the war, Baron Kaneko Kentarō was ordered to go to the United States and gain the American public’s sympathy and support. After their victory against Russia, which brought them Japanese supremacy in Korea, the Liaotung Peninsula, and more, President Theodore wrote to Baron Kaneko suggesting that “it would be well for the Japanese to point out… the enormous amount they have won.”
Japan envisioned a modern country based on Western progress. This entailed a Westernized education system that was open to all, a strong military supported by advanced weaponry, new railways and telegraph systems, the growth of industries, and even a new food category called Yoshoku, which is Western-style cooking.
From politics to people’s plates, the Meiji Restoration was a revolutionary era of change for Japan. The progress that the country made would change the global order and turn Japan into a rising superpower. Japan was becoming on par with the Western world and establishing to other countries that they were a force to be reckoned with.
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2. Dan Kurzman, Kishi and Japan: The Search for the Sun (New York, NY: Ivan Obolensky, Inc., 1960), 33–34.
3. Kurzman, 34–35.
4. Kurzman, 39.
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8. Japan: A Country Study, 44.
9. Japan: A Country Study, 38.
10. Japan: A Country Study, 40.
11. James Bradley, The China Mirage (New York, NY: Little Brown and Company, 2015), 59.
12. Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Kentarō Kaneko, Theodore Roosevelt Papers, Library of Congress Manuscript Division, Theodore Roosevelt Digital Library, Dickinson State University, https://www.theodorerooseveltcenter.org/Research/Digital-Library/Record?libID=o192599.
13. “The Meiji Restoration and Modernization,” Asia for Educators | Columbia University.
Header image: Allegory of the New Fighting the Old, in Early Japan Meiji, around 1870 by Unknown Japanese Artist