The Meiji Restoration: Nature and Impact

  By Praetor, 15 August 2007; Revised
  Category: Japan: Meiji Era
Contents »

For over two centuries Japan had been controlled by a “Shogunate” (literal translation of Shogun is “barbarian conquering general”) with an emperor retained as a titular head.The Shogun came to the fore via military power and oversaw what was basically a feudal society.After initially gaining control militarily succeeding Shoguns took Japan into an era of unprecedented peace through the pursuit of an isolationist policy.This peace and the Shogun power base were shattered by Commodore Matthew Perry in 1854 when he forced Japan into a trading agreement with the United States.

The Meiji Restoration commenced on January 3, 1868 when the Tokugawa shogunate was abolished by the emperor after the resignation of the incumbent Shogun.The first reform was the promulgation of the Five Charter Oath in 1868, a general statement of the aims of the Meiji leaders to boost morale and win financial support for the new government. Its five provisions consisted of

1.Establishment of deliberative assemblies

2.Involvement of all classes in carrying out state affairs

3.The revocation of sumptuary laws and class restrictions on employment

4.Replacement of "evil customs" with the "just laws of nature" and

5.An international search for knowledge to strengthen the foundations of imperial rule.

While the movement was dressed up as a “restoration” of the Emperor’s rightful position in Japanese society, the aim of the Restoration was the modernisation and strengthening of the nation through the removal of the old order and a thirst for knowledge.

This paper will review the nature and impact of the Restoration under the following headings:

- Internal conditions in Japan that allowed modernisation to take place.

- How and Why Japanese modernisation was carried out.

- Consequences of modernisation for Japan, the region and the emperor.

- Growth of Japanese militarism and imperialism following the Restoration.

Internal conditions in Japan that allowed modernisation to take place

The Tokugawa Shogunate began in 1603 and ended in 1868.In the 265 year period in-between these two dates many changes took place in Japanese society. Japan was, at the beginning of this time period, a feudal society based on a hierarchy of different classes fulfilling traditional roles, and this structure was maintained by the Shogunate in order to bring stability. However it was this very stability that would result in the downfall of the feudal system.

The Bushi or warrior class was the highest class in Japan in terms of status, wealth and power traditionally; indeed the Shogun’s themselves belonged to this class as did the Daimyo or Feudal lords. However the majority of the Bushi class were the Samurai, who served as senior retainers of their Daimyo lords and served as the warrior elite in their armies. Traditionally, the merchant class were lower in the hierarchy (largely due to the prevailing and shogunate supported Confucian philosophy which held of little value those who made a living by trading products made by others) then the Bushi class.

However, in an unprecedented era of peace and stability in the history of Japan there were no wars to fight and as a consequence the Samurai lost purpose and a great deal of their former revenue.Furthermore they could not become merchants as such an occupation was considered below their hereditary class. Many over this long period joined the Bureaucracy as a result and many others sank into poverty and the samurai class lost much power and prestige. The power of the Daimyo’s was also eroded over the course of this period as every second year the Daimyo’s and their many attendants had to travel to Tokyo (then called Edo), the capital of the Shogunate (at this time the “official” head of state: The emperor resided in Kyoto), and live there for a year and then return to their Domains (members of their family were held there permanently as hostages). This was a measure designed by the first Shogun to control the Daimyo’s (and a very successful one) and the journeys cost them a great deal of money. In addition, the very consumer lifestyle the Daimyo’s adopted while in the capital with little else to do, also added to their expenses.

The control the Shoguns had over the Daimyo, along with the great expenses mentioned before, and centralisation of Japan greatly weakened the power of the Daimyo greatly. However the plight of the Bushi class was to the benefit of all others, especially the mercantile class. The constant and extravagant pilgrimages to Tokyo helped to develop highways and stimulate trade, along with stimulating Tokyo’s growth into one of the largest city’s in the world. Peace and Trade and the improvement of agricultural techniques (itself stimulated by peace and stability) stimulated the growth of Urban centres across Japan, all of this served to improve the lot of the average person but particularly benefited the merchants who, thanks to all the above social and economic factors, became extremely wealthy and important over the course of this time period.

The increased wealth, urbanisation and stability of the country gave rise to more schools and by the end of the Shogunate a literacy rate far greater then that of most European nations. Furthermore, powerful family-run companies were already coming to the fore by the Meiji Restoration, the predecessors of the giant industrial conglomerates encouraged by the Meiji oligarchs. All of these factors meant that by 1868 Japan was more ready then any other state in history to make the transformation from a medieval Feudal society to a modern Nation state as in many ways it was already there in all but name and so in many ways the Meiji restoration was merely the result of some of these factors and the accelerator of already existing trends.

How and Why Japanese modernisation was carried out

Japanese modernisation started before the abolition of the shogunate with the forced signing of the “Perry” Treaty.This treaty required Japan to open two Japanese ports to trade with the US, appoint special officials to deal with the US traders, trade payment was to be done in gold, crimes committed by Americans were to be tried by Americans according to American law.This treaty was soon followed by “treaties” with European powers.This ended the period of isolation, exposed the country to new technology and ideas, and forced the Japanese to deal with foreign powers – and at distinct commercial and “face” disadvantage.This was humiliating and greatly eroded the status and power of the shogunate.The Meiji Restoration was the start of the necessary political changes to allow underlying social, economic and military changes, necessary for modernisation, to take place. These changes were desired by the Japanese to increase their standard of living and to provide the strength to oust the foreigners from their position of power and restore the nations dignity.
With the removal of the Shogun and the “formal” restoration of the Emperor, a small oligarchy of “advisors” was appointed for the Emperor.In reality, involvement of the Emperor in actual affairs of state was considered below his status as a (demi) god, so these tasks were left in the hands of the advisors.This was not hidden from the people as this is what was expected of their emperor – he was to be revered, not held accountable for government.These oligarchs created the first draft Constitution of Japan (the Emperor of course was above it) in 1867 (after the removal of the shogun’s power but before the conclusion of the Boshin War in which the Shogun and his supporters were defeated).This document set out the changes that the new order wants to introduce.The final document was not passed into law until 1890 after being debated in parliament (which, of course, did not exist in 1867).

The first reform was the promulgation of the Five Charter Oath in 1868. This was a general statement of the aims of the Meiji leaders to boost morale and win financial support for the new government. Its five provisions consisted of

1.Establishment of deliberative assemblies

2.Involvement of all classes in carrying out state affairs

3.The revocation of sumptuary laws and class restrictions on employment

4.Replacement of "evil customs" with the "just laws of nature" and

5.An international search for knowledge to strengthen the foundations of imperial rule.

This was to establish a “nation state” of citizens who felt ownership of the nation through participation and removal of restrictions based on class.“Peasants” previously tied to agricultural pursuits reporting to a local Daimyo were now free to seek other employment.So were the samurai, who could now become merchants.This freedom unleashed the full potential of the Japanese people (as people are usually more productive if they are doingwhat they choose to do where it is needed) and encouraged the Japanese to see each other as fellow Japanese not Samurai or Merchant or Peasant. This, combined with the potent symbol of centuries of national unity that the Meiji oligarchs had transformed the Emperor into, and the real or perceived Foreign threats to their nations independence and integrity that the “western Powers” represented, created a sense of unity and loyalty to those in authority.

These reforms were not to be achieved overnight as the Daimyo and samurai were powerful groups and entrenched parts of society.The Meiji were not without powerful allies among the Daimyo, but others needed to be persuaded to give up their fiefs (which were then merged into provinces) in exchange for the government taking on their debt (recall their extravagant lifestyle in Tokyo) along with a royalty of future earnings from their land.

For the samurai – a position of esteem but little financial reward -privileges were gradually revoked, including their right to wear two swords in public.Initially given a stipend by the government to avoid being broke, they were eventually “paid-out” by a single lump-sum.They were encouraged to enter the bureaucracy.There role in the military was taken by a national conscript army modelled on that of the Prussians.Not all samurai accepted these changes quietly and a major revolt (Satsuma rebellion) started, led by one of the Meiji oligarchs (Saigo Takamori) but was eventually crushed by government forces.

Japan already placed a high value on education and this was made mandatory for all children (1872).The curriculum was set nationally and included “moral training” (Shinto) reinforcing reverence for the emperor and a sense of duty and patriotism towards the nation. The fifth plank of the Five Charter Oath reinforced this desire for knowledge by turning the Japanese outward to seek the best the rest of the world had to offer.They sent many agents to Europe and, in turn, encouraged many skilled Europeans to come to Japan to teach them valuable skills.This was particularly the case with military matters.They took the best that Europe had to offer in all fields, including constitution (Prussia), legal codes (France), navy (England) and army (Prussia).In this they wished to portray themselves as “as enlightened” as the west so as to build a stronger international image for future negotiations.

The Japanese government nationalised, developed and expanded modern industries.They introduced telephones, built railways across the nation, developed modern ports, and built steel mills and factories.Once these were established (and found to be expensive to own) they were sold (at subsidised prices) to various powerful business families.These families buisinesses were encouraged to grow fast and prosper leading to the establishment of “super companies” (zaibatsu) and a continued increase in the development of these industries but at a lesser expense to the government.That is, modern Japan was built on the back of a few huge companies, not a myriad of small companies.

Consequences of modernisation for Japan, the region and the emperor

Emperor Meiji of Japan, 1867 - 1912
Emperor Meiji of Japan, 1867 - 1912
The results of Japan’s rapid modernisation made Japan, first, a regional economic and military power, and then a world economic and military power.The quality of life for the average Japanese citizen increased and the world that the average Japanese citizen lived in would have been unrecognisable by their ancestors before the arrival of the “black ships” under Commodore Matthew Perry. By the early twentieth century the majority of Japanese lived in large industrial cities, classes had been abolished and many aspects of “western” culture and “western” goods adopted and Shinto replaced Confucianism as the dominant ideology of Japan.

The Emperor, thanks to the abolition of the Shogunate, the encouragement of Shintoism (the Emperor was the head of the Shinto religion) rather then Confucianism, and other cultural and ideological beliefs and values encouraged by the Meiji oligarchs was returned to the fore after circa one thousand years as the symbol of Japanese unity, identity and centre of reverence.Though the power of the of the Emperor had increased dramatically, the actual power of the Meij emperors had hardly changed.His residence was moved from the former site at Kyoto to a new palace on the site of the former Shoguns castle in Tokyo.

The consequences of Japanese modernisation for the rest of the region (I define region as meaning East Asia) were disastrous as Japans increasing militarism (see next section) resulted in two offensive (from the Japanese perspective) wars with China which resulted in much destruction and death in China (particularly during the second Sino-Japanese war). Korea was occupied and the native inhabitants treated cruelly, Russia’s power in the far-east was greatly weakened as a result of their loss to Japan in the Russo-Japanese war and as a result of Japan’s conquests in the Second World War the control of the European powers over their far eastern colonies was greatly reduced.

Growth of Japanese militarism and imperialism following the Restoration

The Meiji Restoration and the events immediately preceding and immediately following it changed Japan forever.However, the consequences of those events stretched far beyond the shores of Japan.A new nationalistic Japan with a modern army and navy was eager to prove that it was the equal of any European nation by success in war and the acquisition of an empire.In addition, the country lacked the raw resources (oil, iron, coal) at home for continued expansion as an industrial powerhouse.While these could be acquired through trade, ownership would be cheaper and more secure in times of turmoil.

It was with this idea of increasing its prestige and gaining control of strategically vital territories that the first Sino-Japanese War was started (August 1894 – surrender in April 95).Victory over the forces of the “non-industrialised” Qing Dynasty was swift resulting in the control of the Korean peninsula by Japan (the Yi dynasty of Korea was a vassal of China).China had to cede Taiwan, the Liaodong Peninsula, and the Pescadores to Japan "in perpetuity". In addition, China had to pay a war indemnity of 200 million taels, and open four more treaty ports to external trade(many European nations already “enjoyed” this privilege).

The speed of the Japanese victory alarmed many western powers.In the so-called Triple Intervention, Russia, France, and Germany joined together to force Japan to return the Liaodong Peninsula, but China was obliged to pay a further 30 million taels.This further fueled Japan’s distrust for the west as, by acting against an “Asian” power differently to a “European” power, they saw their actions as hypocritical. It also further increased Japan’s desire to grow even stronger militarily in order to “demand” respect.

The victim of this ambition to improve further militarily and to increase ones empire and sphere of influence was the Russian empire – one of the west’s “own”. The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 was fought over the territories of Manchuria and Korea, specifically the control of the all-year-round port of Port Arthur.The Russian army was defeated and the Russian Pacific Fleets annihilated.This was the first defeat in war of a western nation by an eastern nation in modern times.In the peace treaty brokered by the United States Russia not only lost control of the port and surrounding territory, plus half of Sakhalin Island, and had to withdraw all forces from Manchuria.The resulting loss of prestige for Russia was matched by an increasing prestige for Japan, now seen as a modern Great Power.
However, the victory had come at significant cost to Japan and widespread discontent spread through the populace upon the announcement of the treaty terms. Riots erupted in major cities in Japan as there were no territorial gains, no monetary reparations to Japan, and, under pressure from the United States, they were forced to return half of Sakhalin Island. Japanese felt that they were treated as “inferior” – even as the defeated power - in the peace accord leading to increased acrimony and feelings of distrust towards the west at every level of Japanese society.It also fuelled feelings of militant nationalism. Which further increased during the 20’s and 30’s as a result of the domination by the military and extreme right wing groups of the Japanese government, which came about largely due to the corruption of the Democratic parties who had risen to power prior to the military’s dominance and an economic slump to coincide with this corruption. Further treatment as an inferior race by the Western powers made the situation still worse. The culmination of this was finally seen in.

Source Analysis

Treaty of peace and Amity, between the United States of America and Japan, Kanagawa, March 31, 1854.
From "Meiji Japan through contemporary sources"

This is the initial treaty signed between The United States of America (represented by Commodore Mathew Perry) and Tokogawa Japan. This treaty is considered to be the document that forced an end to Japanese isolationism. As a treaty it is completely reliable as it only deals with itself, and as it is itself it is therefore a flawless interpretation of itself….as a historical text, completely reliable by definition. It is a very useful source also demonstrating the imbalance of power between Japan and the western powers, though it is written very diplomatically, so one must read between the lines.

Constitution of the Meiji government, June 17, 1867
From "Meiji Japan Through contemporary sources"

This is an extract from the constitution of Japan as of June 17, 1867. As such it only deals with itself and is fully reliable in regards to interpretations of itself because it is itself. It is useful as a source that is contemporary with the period I am writing this essay on and is an important document from that time. The document is useful in that it shows the changes that the government wants to or claims to want to introduce in Japan. It is also an interesting study in the contradictions of Meiji era Japan, preaching equality and instituting election by merit while retaining the monopoly of the elite on the highest offices are on example of this.

Okuma, Fifty Years of New Japan, 1907-08

This source is about a Japanese historian looking back from approximately fifty years since the first treaty with the United states and on how much has changed since then (in Japan) and how. In terms of reliability the Author (Okuma (probably Okuma Shigenobo) was a witness to many of the changes taking place at that time and would have had an “insiders” knowledge as he was an important politician and statesman (a two-time prime minister) during this period. This is extremely useful as it gives us an insight into the views of a key figure that helped shape the country. However as a politician who advocated acquiring western knowledge far before this is written there is a considerable possibility for bias, both intentional (to promote or defend his policies) and formed by his pre-existing beliefs.

Wikipedia, meiji restoration

This is an encyclopaedia source, whose author/ authors are unknown and do not necessarily have any qualifications or extensive knowledge of the subject, Furthermore it can be edited by anyone. All of these factors leave its reliability in much doubt. However it is constantly revised and questioned and often as a result edited, furthermore viewers of the encyclopaedia entry have access to the debates about its reliability if they are sceptical, this at the least usually makes one aware of controversy. However it is a most useful source as a very brief and easily accessible introduction and very importantly contains a number of links to more detailed information.

Tokugawa Period’s Influence on Meiji Restoration

This source was brief and cites one source of its information: Pyle, Kenneth B. The Making of Modern Japan. Lexington, MA:D.C. Heath, 1996. However aside from the authors apparent fetish with things Japanese I see no reason for bias, Though the source appears to lack diversity in its sources. It is a fairly brief source, however it is extremely valuable in outlining many of the reasons why the Japan created by the Tokugawa’s was so essential for the rapid transformation that took place during and after the Meiji restoration, which is very useful for several of my arguments in this essay.



Online Sources
Nanking Massacre <>
Okuma, Fifty Years of New Japan, 1907-08 <>
The Meiji Restoration and Modernization<>

Tokugawa Period’s Influence on Meiji Restoration
Meiji Japan Through contemporary sources: Constitution of the Meiji government, June 17, 1867.
Meiji Japan Through contemporary sources: Treaty of peace and Amity, between the United States of America and Japan, Kanagawa, March 31, 1854.
Challenge Change and Continuity, Maureen Anderson, Ian Keese and Anne Low, Publisher jacaranda
Atlas of World History, Professor Jeremy Black, Publisher Dorling Kindersley