The Meiji Restoration
October 31, 1988

"The Meiji Restoration has been described as a period of unprecedented change in all aspects of Japanese life. Write an essay discussing at least four of these changes. Include references."

Firstly, a bit of background. The period is in the 1860s, in Japan. The Emperor has just ordered the Shogun to close all ports to foreign trade, and to terminate all outside treaties. The Shogun knew that this was impossible and so did not do anything - however, his enemies stirred up trouble for him. They antagonised American, British, Dutch and French traders, and these countries sent forces against Japan. Western technological expertise soundly defeated the Japanese.

This led to unrest among the people; although the Shogun had tried to avoid confrontation, they held him largely responsible. His popularity declined, and the call for the Emperor to be restored to political power grew louder.

In 1866 the Shogun died, and a year later so did the Emperor. Tokugawa (the Shogun family) Keiki succeeded the Shogun, while 15-year-old Mutsuhito became Emperor. Anti-Shogun pressure groups persuaded the Shogun to relinquish his powers to the Emperor, which he did in November 1867. However, he held on to his lands. The anti-Shogun groups were not satisfied - they seized his palace three months later. There was a major battle, in which the Shogun was severely defeated, and he had to give over most of his land to the aggressors.

The Emperor, now 17, came to be called Emperor Meiji, which means "enlightened rule". As there was no Shogun, the power that the Shogun once held shifted to him, and he became the main decision-maker in the Japanese government. However, he did not want to make decisions on his own, and so employed about 100 men to be his advisers. These men were mostly daimyo and samurai from the anti-Shogun groups, and actually carried out the Emperor's will. With their help, Meiji prepared and released an outline of the political direction that his government was going to take. Known as the Articles Oath and the Charter Oath, this is what it said:

  1. Deliberate assemblies shall be widely established and all matters decided by public discussion.
  2. All classes, high and low, shall unite in vigorously carrying out the administration of affairs of state.
  3. The common people, no less than the civil and military officials, shall each be allowed to pursue his own calling so that there may be no discontent.
  4. Evil customs of the past shall be broken off and everything based upon the just laws of Nature.
  5. Knowledge shall be sought throughout the world so as to strengthen the foundations of imperial rule.

These reforms had widespread effects. Apart from the changes that the reforms themselves introduced, there were many others that occurred as an after-effect. These changes made themselves felt in all aspects of Japanese life, especially in government and military affairs, industrial and economical matters, and both home and foreign issues. The attitudes, beliefs and values of the existing society were overturned, and a "new wave" of philosophies came into being.

Possibly the most important change was the elimination of the position of Shogun. Although not part of the Articles Oath itself, there was very little time between the loss of the Shogun's position and the proclamation of the Oath, and the effects of both would have been felt at the same time. After the eradication of the Shogun, Japan started to swing toward being less of a military state. The Shogun was the de facto head of the military and when he went the military lost a lot of face and a lot of power. The Emperor stepped away from being just a ceremonial head to being a leader wielding real power. Wars between rival factions slowed in occurrence - Japan was moving away from its Feudal lifestyle.

Although all of the the Meiji Restoration reforms are named to one man, Emperor Meiji, they were actually the result of a group of Sumarai working with the Emperor. There had been no war to speak of in Japan for 250 years, and during this time the Sumarai, as well as learning their traditional role of elite warrior, were also encouraged to learn. These educated warriors were very dangerous toward the old state (before Meiji) because they questioned their role and the role of others in society. It was these Sumarai that helped in the overthrow of the Shogun.

These Sumarai were the real rulers of Japan - the Emperor was just the public manifestation of them. One of their achievements was the abolition of feudalism. They convinced the most powerful Daimyo that feudalism was not in the best interests of the state, and the Daimyo co-operated. Once the initial stepping down was done, there was no going back, and when the Daimyo were out of the way, so were the rest of the Sumarai. This meant that there was no-one to fight any inter-estate wars, and so the feudal system was over.

Once the barrier of internal conflict was been overcome, the Japanese could afford to start looking overseas for territory. With this in mind, the leaders of the country formed a conscripted (involuntarily signed up) army. They trained and equipped this army well, and it was to do them service later on. This was the army that put down the deposed Sumarai rebellion and won the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars.

The Emperor, with the help of his aides, also re-organized the financial system and economy of the country. The new system was based on a Western equivalent (as opposed to their old one) and significantly improved Japan's financial situation. This put her in a better position to bargain with China over their differences, and better equip the army and developing navy. It also raised the standard of living within the country, which made the people less antagonistic to the changes that were going on around them, and less antagonistic to the government that was causing all these changes.

The government started up a nationwide system of education, with the equivalent of primary, secondary and tertiary institutions being established all over the place. The education system's main aim was to churn out loyal, patriotic and efficient citizens (a hint of modern Japan??) from all classes of society. This would have the effect of bringing the classes together, while educating them at the same time. It would also bring Japan equal to, if not ahead, of other Western nations in the field of education.

The legal system also received an upgrade. The government's target here was to get rid of the trade treaties which were unfair to Japan, to take control of tariffs out of foreign hands, and to make the prosecution of foreigners in Japanese courts possible (this was previously not allowed). The reforms were successful in all respects.

In addition to all of the above, the government instigated an industrial revolution. The Japanese populous were slow and unwilling to risk their hard-won money in a venture which might not succeed, like a railroad company, and so the government did it for them. Railways were built, and rail and telegraph services were introduced. They also took over mines and shipyards, in an effort to boost productivity and revenue, and constructed factories. The government acted as a giant bank, lending money to those who were willing to invest. The reason that such extensive measures were taken was that the Japanese presumed, correctly, that the key to international prowess and imperial expansion was in industrialization.

The government, despite all its reforms, was still reluctant to accept a constitution or a democratic state. It thought that speedy Westernization and industrialisation were of top priority, and democratic representative governments and institutions would throw a spanner in the works. It was not until 1889 that a constitution was formally proclaimed, and there was still no real democracy - parliament was elected by only a fraction of the population.

However, this was but a small blemish in comparison with the government's other successes. In five years it had transformed Japan from a backward, feudal set of military states into a growing, progressive and united nation with an educated and loyal population. The government had succeeded in making something out of nothing. Well done Emperor Meiji!


Focus On Nations A.J. Koutsoukis, Longman Cheshire, Perth, 1984

The History of the World - the Last 500 Years Viscount Books, Middlesex (England) 1984