“The Meiji Restoration”


Calvin W. Lew


28 September 1995



            The Meiji Restoration or Revolution” is one of the single most important events in modern Japanese history.  This “revolution” greatly affected the events of history within Japan as well as Japan’s relations with outsiders.  With seeds for the “restoration” brewing in the last years of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the Meiji Restoration ultimately exploded with changes that changed the character of the Japanese nation forever.  That is a country that was confident at home and ready to encounter the world; a country unique among its Asian contemporaries that was willing and seemingly able to face the world as a nation among equals.

              For over two centuries before the “restoration” the Tokugawa clan controlled Japan; its power and dominance secure.  But, with the coming of the kurobune, Commodore Perry and other barbarians in the 1850s, opposition to Edo began to arose.  Supporters of sonno joi, the policy of “Revere the emperor and repel the barbarians,” saw the Shogun’s inability to extract the barbarians as cause and a chance to “restore” Kyoto’s prominence once again.

            Especially angered of the Shogun’s indecisiveness and allowing the barbarians within the gate were the shishi, or the “men of spirit.”  These “angry young men” were a segment of the samurai within the clan domains.  They were aggressive and more than willing to use force as a means toward their objectives.

            Eventually, more opposition arose and began stirring.  The Satsuma, Chosu and other han began to mobilize and modernize their military forces.  A precursor of the revolution to come could be seen in a slogan originated from the young Toshimichi Okubo of the Satsuma clan: Fukoko Kyohei or “Enrich the country, strengthen the army” -- one of the main themes of the Meiji era to come.  In the last days of the Shogunate, the opposition’s armies began to modernize; a trend that will continue far after Meiji.

            The groups opposed to the Tokugawa finally succeeded in a coup d’état on 3 January 1868.  They later legitimized their “Revolution” by using the term the “Meiji Restoration.”  That is restoring rule away from the Shogunate and back to the Emperor (at this point in time, Emperor Mutsuhito, whose reign name is Meiji or “enlightened rule”).  The Revolution or Restoration began by eliminating remaining opposition Tokugawa in several campaigns, dismantling the bakufu’s domains, and bringing legitimacy to the Revolution.  Thus sixteen year old Emperor Mutsuhito was led before his “subjects” on several grand trips.

            But what is the “Meiji Restoration?”  More important than the actual “restoration” of the Emperor and the “revolution” against the Shogunate, is the meaning of the Restoration and the effects of the Meiji era on the Japanese nation.  The Meiji Revolution continued far beyond 3 January 1868.  This continuing Revolution brought about significant changes to the Japanese culture in terms of education, social order of the entire country, and mass modernization.  This whirlwind of mobilization touched all aspects of society.  One of the reasons why Japan “revolutionized” so early and swiftly while other Asian countries were behind is because rather than gradual changes, these national directives of the Meiji Revolution were commanded top-down; from Edo, now Tokyo, the historic center of power.

            Major reforms of the Meiji era included: compulsory universal education (in 1890 the Imperial Rescript on Education declared “loyalty and filial piety ... [to be] the glory of the fundamental character of Our Empire, and ... the source of Our education”), universal conscription into the military (national duty eventually was considered an honor and an avenue for social mobility), mechanisms for local self government,  the Meiji constitution with the establishment of the Diet and the guarantee of male suffrage, and the encouragement of capitalism and markets.  Eventually emerging were also the zaibatsus; the business conglomerates existing between the Meiji Restoration and 1945.  These family-owned, subsidiary controlling holding companies often expanded their operations through ties to the Meiji government.

            These revolutionary ideas of the Meiji Restoration meant that Japan had the environment for mass national mobilization and rapid modernization; as opposed to the slow crawl of other Asian countries.  In terms of the Japan we know now, the Meiji Restoration with its reforms formed the basis of the modernization of pre-World War II Japanese industrialization; and also the makings and experience for the post-war “Japanese miracle” in our time.

              Another meaning and significance of the Revolution can be seen by examining how Japan responded to Western intrusion as compared to China’s response.  In fact, by viewing China’s situation as the great Middle Kingdom being strangled in the grip of heavily armed and hostile barbarians, Japan may have formed a different mind set that eventually led to the Revolution.  The Chinese mind set is that of perceived self-superiority of the Middle Kingdom’s culture as opposed to that of the inferior barbarians.  When Western forces showed their modern military might, Peking was so far and secluded (geographically as well as mentally), that it thought such weapons were fanciful.  Thus, China remained complacent and its responses were few and futile.

            Japan’s Western intrusion in comparison was by great black ships sailing straight towards Edo through Edo Bay.  Immediately the Shogun, and eventually the rest of the country, realized the importance of modernization of the country and the military; if not, then Japan may suffer the same fate as China.  Also, Japan’s initial encounter with the West (not counting the Portuguese and such centuries before and others) was actually rather pleasant.  Commodore Perry was very delicate yet firm in his initial dealings; and offered some rather amazing technological gifts.  Thus, Japan’s initial inability to “repel the barbarians” and Perry and Townsend Harris’ relatively unforceful demands became a blessing in disguise.  Fortunately for Japan, its leaders had the foresight to recognize the importance of modernization.

              Thus, this “new” Japan was in a position to win in hostile situations with its neighbors; in a war with China (1894-1895) and surprisingly in a war with Russia (1904-1905).  The causes for the Sino-Japanese War had to do with Korea and its historical role with China and its relations with Japan.  Although considering itself somewhat an autonomous nation, Korea has historically been a tributary state of China.  At this time, Japan began to have territorial tendencies toward Korea, as well as overwhelming Korea economically.  Thus, delicate tensions arose between China and Japan; including a treaty that one country (China or Japan) must notify the other if moving troops into Korea.  To complicate matters, internal political turmoil began erupting in Korea.  The immediate cause of the war was when popular protests and uprisings occurred in Korea demanding an end in rice exports to Japan and a restructuring of power and privilege in Korea.

            Korea’s King asked for China’s help to quell the rebels, and China moved in troops (after notifying Japan).  Japan immediately invaded, destroyed the Chinese fleet, captured Taiwan and occupied Korea.

            Tensions about another East Asian territory led to another Japanese War; namely Russia’s continued troop deployment in Manchuria, despite China’s and Japan’s request for Russia to withdraw.  Russia argued that its railroads must be protected.  Russia’s new Far Eastern Viceroy remained unmoved as well as uninformed of Japan’s new capabilities.  Finally in 1904 Japan launched an attack and sank the Russian fleet in port, fought a very costly and hard won land campaign, and completely destroyed another Russian fleet from the Baltic in a classic naval battle where the Japanese fleet “crossed the T.”

            These victories increased Japan’s confidence at home with nationalistic pride.  Finally, Japan expected the West to treat Japan with the respect of an equal “imperial” power.  But, the Japanese would be disappointed.

              The Meiji Restoration and its consequential events would have effects reaching far outside Japan’s borders.  As Japan exerted its independence and headed toward Western imperial equivalency, Japan acted as a role model for other Asian countries to emulate; that it was possible for an Asian country to break the bonds of Western powers.  Its eventual industrial and military capacity would thrust Japan and all around her into other more major wars in the next “pacific” century.  And finally, another legacy of the Meiji Restoration would be the internal Revolution in Japan that enabled it to create the economic revolution of the next century and beyond.