Yoshida Shoin was born in 1830, in the small, walled city of Hagi, in a time where Japan had secluded itself from all outside contact. This decree had started nearly 200 years earlier when some Portuguese sailors arrived in 1543. Soon after that, the Spanish Jesuit St. Francis Xavier entered Japan, and began to spread the word of Jesus Christ. After he achieved what could be considered a "success", Hideyoshi, a powerful warlord, proclaimed that the acceptance of the Church would only bring political unrest, and so, in 1639, all foreign contact was banned.
Shoin had given credit to Bushido, the strict code of the samurai, for keeping Japan in the current state of seclusion. Bushido was not only a warrior's code, but rather a way of life, that relied heavily on loyalty to one's superiors, and above all the emperor. Other flaws that Shoin saw in Bushido was that the unquestioned respect for samurai and shogun had caused a small amount of the population to become wealthy, while the rest of the populous was struck with famine.
Then, in 1854, Commodore Matthew Perry, who was in command of four American war ships, forced his way into Japan for water and coal. Perry pointed out to the people of Japan the obvious weaknesses that were affiliated with cultural isolation. Shoin became fascinated with the foreigners and their ideas, and was determined to learn more about them, and hopefully, travel with them to America. So, defying cultural taboo, as well as the decree of the shogun, Shoin met with Perry, and asked if he could take him to America. Perry refused Shoin's request. For this act against the will of his lords, Shoin was exiled to Hagi.
However, back in Hagi, Shoin began to teach in schools the ideas of Perry, and the concept of cultural interaction became popularized. Youths then began to rally, with the hopes of changing the way that the country was run.
At the same time that all of this was happening, the leaders of Japan decided that it would be best to return their country to a state of unified rule, hence the reinstatement of an emperor. The new emperor had dubbed this time period the Meiji period, and thus, the revival of an emperor was called the Meiji Restoration.
It was the will of the new emperor to break through the 200-year tradition of secludedness, as he expressed in the following poem:
May our country,
Taking what is good,
And rejecting what is bad,
Be not inferior
To any other.
Japan then began to welcome Western technology with open arms. And, after the Sino-Japanese War and Russo-Japanese War, Japan was able to claim its equality with other imperialist powers.
Yoshida Shoin is credited as being the intellectual protagonist of the Meiji Restoration, for having instilled the basic ideas that drove the reformation of Japan in so many. Shoin is very well known for saying: "Sincerity and perseverance always win", a saying that had a strong impact in the life of Japan's first prime minister, Ito Hirobumi. Shoin was executed on October 27, 1859, at the prison in Tenmacho, Edo, by order of the current shogunate, after he was suspected of being involved with the mass execution of the Ansei Era.