The period between 1868 and 1912 in Japan's history. During this time, the total isolation of the Edo period was finally broken, and Japan was transformed from a feudal state into the modern industrial nation it is today. This transformation was initiated by Western fleets which, using their technological advantage, forced Japan to open its harbors.

Many samurai who had never accepted the centralist Tokugawa shogunate, saw this as a chance to restore power to the emperor, and after a brief civil war, the Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu had to step down and leave the government to Saigo Takamori, Okubo Toshimichi, Kido Takayoshi and other restoration leaders. In 1869, Edo was renamed Tokyo and the emperor moved there. But the real changes had only begun: a quick and radical industrialization took place, and large number of Western experts were brought in to modernize nearly every facet of the country's economy, education and society. Ironically, among the things that were abolished were also most of the samurai's privileges.

While the achievements of this feat are amazing, the quick change was really only possible because of extremely authoritarian leaders, and the people's willingness to follow them - eventually, this also caused the disastrous imperialist tendencies that culminated in World War II.

Edo period | Taisho Period

Reforms of the Meiji Period

In 1868, the Japanese aristocracy staged a coup to overthrow the Tokugawa shogunate and the bakufu. This coup was staged primarily by wealthier Daimyos and the troubled samurai class of Japan. The revolution is known as The Meiji Restoration. There were two primary goals of those who supported the Restoration; Restore Emperor Meiji to rightful power, and to strengthen Japan to prevent "invading" European powers from doing to Japan what had happened in China; near-complete submission to Europe. This would prove to be a daunting task, as the stronger European Western powers already had a foot hold in Japan. In 1854 Matthew Perry secured the Treaty of Kanagawa, and the British and French soon followed suite. Yet seemingly under the West's nose, Japan transformed from bassackwards country into a power that defeated the Chinese in Korea in 1876, and again in the Sino-Japanese War in 1894. Japan even got so strong as to defeat Russia in the Russo-Japanese War in 1904. Within 40 years after the topple of the bakufu, the Meiji Government was able to modernize every aspect of its government, economic policies, and to an extent, the social structure in Japan.


As history has proven, a strong government usually means a strong country. The Meiji's initial reforms were all within the government. Because there was no set plan for the Restoration other than 'get rid of the bakufu,' there was no planned government for the Meiji Era. At first, the wealthy Daimyos and Samurai that had led the revolution were in charge, acting in the name of the Emperor. These Daimyo had to dismantle feudalism before they could build up a successful "monarchy," so steps were taken to reorganize all of the land within Japan and create a sort of local martial law (although that is a tad extreme view of the situation). The new government was also structured much like the Chinese, a bureaucratic nightmare but a healthy alternative to Japan's old feudalism. The oligarchy thus ruled in the name of the Emperor, but not without opposition. Political Parties were birthed and died after a brief stint in the late 1870's, and two uprisings by samurai, one in 1874 and the larger Satsuma Rebellion in 1877 all tested the new government's power. Internal reform was finalized in the 1889 Meiji Constitution that was modeled after the German government (studied in 1882-83 by the great Ito Hirobumi). Prior to the finalization, Ito Hirobumi had become the Japanese Prime Minister in 1885 and led a European-style cabinet made of ex-Daimyo and the like. The 1889 constitution created a Diet of two houses, the House of Peers and the House of Representatives. The House of Representatives was elected by 1.1% of the total Japanese population. The most useful power the Diet had was control of the government's budget, while the Emperor and his Cabinent retained most of the other useful powers, like the declaration of war and the power to dissolve the Diet. The formation of the Diet brought back the Political Parties, the Jiyuto and Kaishinto; liberal and progressive respectively. With the political parties opposing the government, a few censorship laws were enacted and others were detained from voting or running for office. As time went on and the government and Japan grew stronger, Japan was able to renegotiate all of its unfavorable treaties with the Western Powers and would even go on to colonize Korea in the same fashion the West would have.


Even before the Tokugawa bakufu fell during the Meiji Restoration, the majority of the Japanese Daimyo had begun to modernize their military equipment. Indeed, the primary division of the Tokugawa regime was in the shogunate's court and the stronger Daimyo that provided military services to the Tokugawa. As unrest and unruliness erupted in the early 1860's, the Daimyo saw that the bakufu were unable to get a hold of the situation and were themselves terrorized by foreign powers seeking indemnities for slaughtered brethren. In 1866, Choshu and Satsuma, two of the strongest regions not directly controlled by the shogunate made a secret alliance and eventually took up arms against the bakufu. British-backed Satsuma would have provided naval support for Choshu's ground forces, but instead broke their agreement and did not get involved with the revolution. Choshu was still able to defeat the Tokugawa Bakufu despite being out numbered. A brief attempt to save the bakufu was made in the political arena, but unacceptable terms brought Satsuma into the conflict in 1868 and the Tokugawa Era ended.

These military powers of the Tokugawa would also lead the military of the Meiji. Choshu produced Kido Koin and Ito Hirobumi and Satsuma had Okubo Toshimichi, three of the most prominent members of the early Meiji government. Because of the division of land and power enforced by the Meiji, the Japanese decided to build their army on the basis of conscription, largely thanks to the efforts of Yamagata Aritomo. This new military effectively eliminated the elitism of the Japanese samurai and had a profound affect on their social situation (discussed later). Choshu military leaders became leaders of the army and Satsuma became the naval center of Japan. Because of the rapid modernization and growth of the Japanese military, many wanted to invade Korea prematurely, which lead to the uprising of samurai previously mentioned. Also because of the conscription, many poor country farmers were for the first time able to view the backwardness of traditional ways and view first hand the prowess of European science and technology and the need for a modern Japan, uniting the Japanese and created a sense of Nationalism. Also while in the army, many of the peasantry were taught to read and write, thus helping the nation in that sense.

Economic Reforms

In order to create a strong Japan, the Meiji government had to dissolve feudalism. Removing the local han and daimyo from power was only a partial step in the process, securing a social position (or lack thereof) for the samurai was second. With no han for to reap the economic benefits of, the loss of both social and political functions, and even the abolishment of their traditional swords in 1871 were enough to drive anyone into a revolt, which the samurai did, twice, in 1873 and 1877. Both revolutions were put down and the samurai were still with out a purpose in their own society. Luckily a new merchant class was on the rise and was in need of skilled business managers and capital. Many samurai went into business, where they made vast fortunes securing government contracts and subsidiaries around 1880. These vast conglomerates of business became known as Zaibatsu and were the source of many large Japanese corporations we know of today. The zaibatsu led the nation into the industrial age and became almost self sufficient in producing European style weaponry and textiles for the Japanese market, reducing the power of the foreign governments that had rights to Japanese ports. The Meiji government itself led Japan into the industrial age, financing factories, mines, and other industrial centers and then selling the means of production to the zaibatsu. And with samurai as the heads of business, the zaibatsu were deeply loyal to the Meiji Emperor and the well-being of Japan.

Social Reforms

Other than the samurai and daimyo, little social reforms were carried out that affected a few individuals as opposed to the whole of Japan. Ideas from Europe's Enlightenment had reached Japan by the 1870's and Social Darwinism followed shortly after. Social Darwinism fitted nicely into the Meiji's plans to strengthen Japan and the Japanese people started to view themselves as racially superior to other Asians (especially the Chinese) and even to the white Europeans (this in no way means any race is superior to another). Shinto was established as the national religion which gave the Emperor and the Meiji government a sort of divine rule, as the Shinto tradition focused on Emperical rule.

Western Art began to heavily influence Japanese art, led by figures such as Takahashi Yuichi and ukiyo-e artist Koayashi Kiyochika. Western art became more prized than traditional art, but an American by the name of Ernest Fenollosa helped create a renewed interest in the traditional. Fenollosa was a recruited as a teacher at Tokyo University, which opened its doors in 1877.

In fact, education was at the forefront of Japanese social reform. At first the Meiji government sent students over-seas to learn, Ito Hirobumi himself was educated in London's naval academy. The Ministry of Education was created in 1871 and drew plans to create a national school system. This included prescribing text books and training teachers or recruiting them from abroad. The Ministry was modeled after the French and focused on teaching skills necessary for Japan's modernization. In 1895, the Treaty of Shimonoseki that ended the Sino-Japanese War gave somewhere around 300,000,000 Chinese Yen to Japan as reparations; the vast majority of this sum of money, if not all, was used to fund Japanese education, and by 1902, Japan had 27,076 elementary schools, 222 middle schools, and 2 universities.

As a revolution that occurred from the top down, that is, the aristocracy and samurai initiated the revolution and then during the Meiji Era the peasantry was finally affected, the Meiji Restoration and Era both made Japan into a strong, modern nation that continued to develop and still flourishes today. This dramatic change was brought about by the vast reforms that changed Janan into, essentially, a European powering little under 40 years. It wasn't until 1945 when the Japanese surrendered did such another dramatic change affected Japan. Only time will tell if Japan's ultra-modernization will cease or at least slow down to a pace where the rest of the world can catch up.

Sources: A brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilizations by Conrad Schirokauer, nodes on e2 for the various treaties and odd dates, and many many lecture notes.

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