Meiji Restoration

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The phrase Meiji restoration (明治維新 Meiji-ishin) refers to the events both during and following 1868, which resulted in the restoration of power to the Emperor, as well as the period of significant social and economic reforms within Japanese society that coincided with the Meiji emperor's reign (1868–1912).[1]


Faced with increasing local dissent, fueled by the influence of Western powers, especially the Americans under Admiral Matthew C. Perry, and increasing pressure from feudal landlords, the Tokugawa shogunate finally submitted in 1854 to foreign demands and signed a number of treaties that effectively ended Japan's isolation from the outside world. However, as they had done with other subjugated Asian nations, these treaties drawn up by the Western imperial powers were extremely one-sided, granting the Westerners unfair economic and legal benefits within Japan. In an attempt to regain her independence from the Europeans and Americans and establish herself as a respected nation in the world, Meiji Japan was determined to close the gap with the Western powers, both economically and militarily. This resulted in drastic reforms being carried out across all sectors of the economy and society.[2]

The Western influence was challenged unsuccessfully by the powerful Choshu and Satsuma domains of Western Japan and after their defeat in 1863, they demanded creation of a new government, loyal to the emperor, with the aim of expelling the foreigners. In January 1868, a palace coup took place, led by Samurai from these two domains, supported by anti-Tokugawa court nobles. This resulted in the abolition of the shogunate and returned power to the Emperor. Shortly afterwards, the court was moved from Kyoto (meaning "Capital City") to Edo (later renamed Tokyo, meaning “Eastern Capital”), where a centralised administration was established.


Dramatic reforms were implemented across all areas of Japanese society, under the slogan Fukoku Kyohei (富国挙兵 "enrich the country and strengthen the military"), in an attempt by the new government to make Japan a democratic state, with equal rights for all its citizens, and to make Japan a power equal to the stronger western nations. This resulted in the class boundaries of Tokugawa Japan being gradually broken down. As a result, the Samurai lost all their privileges, despite the fact that their actions had precipitated the reforms. The reforms also included the introduction of basic human rights such as religious freedom, which was introduced in 1873.[3]

In order to stabilise the new government, the former feudal landlords were required to return ownership of all their lands to the control of the Emperor. This process was completed by 1870 and thereafter was followed by the restructuring of the country into prefectures, which still exist to this day. The education system was remodeled, based firstly upon the French and later the German schooling systems. During this time, compulsory education was introduced. In addition, many Japanese scholars and politicians were sent abroad to study the Western education and political systems and to research new and existing technologies present in Europe and North America. At the same time, many Westerners were invited to Japan to help build and develop new industries there.[4]

It was around this time that industries such as beer brewing, dairy production and Japan's first railway system were introduced, all under the supervision of Westerners. Large government investments were undertaken to improve infrastructure. The transportation and communication networks in particular benefited from this funding. In addition, the government also directly supported the growth of business and industry, paying attention to the large and powerful family businesses, zaibatsu (財閥) lit. ("financial clique"), in particular.[5]

At the same time, Japan prioritised the development of her military, as a counter-measure to the European and American imperialist forces holding sway in the region at the time. The army was remodeled on the Prussian example and universal conscription was introduced, and later the new navy was structured on similar principles to Britain’s Royal Navy.


A couple of decades into this period of intensive Westernisation, conservative and nationalistic feelings began to strengthen again. The principles of Confucianism and Shinto, including the worship of the Emperor, were taught with increasing emphasis at educational institutions.

The extensive government spending led to a financial crisis in the mid 1880s, which was followed by a reform of the currency system and the establishment of the Bank of Japan.

In spite of the increasing industrialisation of the country, the textile industry grew at the fastest rate and remained the largest Japanese industry until World War 2. Work conditions in the early factories were poor, but developing socialist and liberal movements were soon suppressed by the ruling clique, thus not only preventing any significant improvement in working conditions, but resulting in a largely subservient and obedient workforce. Combined with the increasing emphasis on Emperor-worship, it could be argued that even at this early date, the seeds had been sown for the fanaticism shown in the buildup to, and during, World War 2.[6]


Japan adopted its first European-style constitution in 1889. A parliament, the Diet was established, although the Emperor maintained his sovereignty - On paper he headed up all arms of the military, as well as wielding executive and legislative power. The ruling clique, however, kept a firm hold on the reigns of actual power, and the intelligent and capable Emperor Meiji approved the majority of their actions. A lack of unity among their members prevented the various political parties from wielding any significant power.

Conflicts of interests in Korea, between China and Japan gave rise to the Sino-Japanese War in 1894-95. Japan defeated China, but was forced by Russia, France and Germany to relinquish the territories she’d captured,in the end only managing to annex Taiwan. This so-called Triple Intervention led to a stiffening of resolve by the Japanese against the western imperial powers, and an intensification of the build-up of the army and navy.

New conflicts of interests in Korea and Manchuria, this time between Russia and Japan, led to the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-05. The Japanese army was once again victorious, thus gaining additional territories, including the full annexation of Korea in 1910, and international respect. The successes in the recent wars resulted in a surge of nationalism, which filtered through to other Asian nations, which also started to develop national self-confidence and identity. In addition, it finally allowed Japan to declare the one-sided treaties with the West null and void, and emerge as a world power.[7]

End of an Era

In 1912 emperor Meiji died, and with his passing, the era of the ruling clique of elder statesmen (genro) was about to follow suit.


  1. W. G. Beasley, The Meiji Restoration (1972)
  2. K. B. Pyle, The New Generation in Meiji Japan (1969)
  3. M. Umegaki, After the Restoration: The Beginning of Japan's Modern State (1988)
  4. K. B. Pyle, The New Generation in Meiji Japan (1969)
  5. Wall, Rachel F., Japan's Century: An Interpretation of Japanese History since the Eighteen-fifties (1971)
  6. M. Umegaki, After the Restoration: The Beginning of Japan's Modern State (1988)
  7. M. Umegaki, After the Restoration: The Beginning of Japan's Modern State (1988)