The Meiji Restoration of 1868 marked the beginning of Japan’s revolutionary turn away from medieval and early-modern patterns of development, which had been characterized by samurai domination of virtually every aspect of society. Narrowly conceived, the Restoration amounted to little more than the coup d’état of 1868, which forced the resignation of the last Tokugawa (1600–1868) shogun and elevated Emperor Meiji (Mutsuhito, 1852–1912), then a teenager, to sovereign administrative rule. Viewed expansively, however, the Meiji Restoration was more than a mere regime change: It initiated a revolutionary transformation, achieved during the Meiji period (1868–1912), that was comparable in scope to the mid-sixth-century introduction of Buddhism and Chinese civilization. In the mid-nineteenth century, however, the new model for civilization came from the West. The Meiji Restoration brought about a revolution that led to the westernization of virtually all aspects of national life.
Meiji Japan’s embrace of the West reflected its determination to remake itself so as to acquire the power of, and achieve recognition as an equal to, the Western nation-states that dominated it in the 1850s and 1860s. Indeed, the downfall of the last samurai regime, the Tokugawa, resulted largely from its inability to mediate, without internal upheaval, the imperialistic demands of nations such as the United States, made powerful by the Industrial Revolution and seeking trade and diplomatic exchanges with Japan. Until the 1850s the Tokugawa shoguns, fearing the kind of domination that occurred in the Philippines, had effectively minimized contacts with the West. The only Western power permitted to trade with Japanese merchants were the Dutch, and even they were restricted to the artificial island of Dejima, created in Nagasaki Bay to circumscribe the presence of Dutch traders on Japanese soil. As long as maritime technology depended upon the winds, this approach was relatively successful. With the development of steam-powered vessels carrying heavy cannon, Western nations—Great Britain and the United States in particular—were able to dominate East Asia at will, with little significant opposition.
Through the Dutch, the Tokugawa regime was informed of Britain’s defeat of China in the Opium War (1840–1842) and the resulting Treaty of Nanjing (1842). When Commodore Matthew Perry’s flotilla arrived near Edo (Tokyo) in 1852 demanding treaty relations providing for exchanges between Japan and the United States, the Tokugawa regime realized that it had little choice but to comply, despite the fact that doing so violated its raison d’être: defending the realm against barbarian incursions. The resulting Treaty of Kanagawa (1853), though a sensible accommodation, marked the beginning of the end for the Tokugawa insofar as it became the target of unrelenting critiques from anti-Tokugawa forces. Significant opposition emerged from the “outer” (tozama ) domains of ChōshŪ and Satsuma, centers of long-standing animosities toward the Tokugawa.
Opposing the regime’s strategy of negotiating with the foreigners rather than fighting them, anti-Tokugawa forces called on the shogunate to do its duty: “Revere the emperor and repel the barbarian” (sonnō jōi ). When the Americans returned with demands for fuller diplomatic and trade relations, anti-Tokugawa forces intensified their opposition through terrorist attacks. Radical opposition was strong in ChōshŪ, which launched two military challenges to the Tokugawa in the 1860s. Although the first round of fighting resulted in defeat for Chóshú, in the second it was joined by forces from Satsuma and Tosa domains. The result was the military defeat of the Tokugawa in 1866. Within two years, the last of the Tokugawa shoguns, Yoshinobu (1837–1913), had turned over administrative authority over the realm to Emperor Meiji and his backers.
The new regime, ostensibly led by Emperor Meiji, was dominated by opposition leaders from Chóshú, Satsuma, and Tosa who had played instrumental roles in the military strikes that had forced the Tokugawa into a state of collapse. Though often described as statesmen, they remained in significant respects revolutionary leaders, defining a radically new political course that resulted in the creation of a modern nation-state. Ironically enough, once the pro-imperial forces had forced the collapse of the Tokugawa shogunate, the rebels-turned-statesmen proceeded to throw the gates open to the West in a search for knowledge and power. By the end of Emperor Meiji’s reign in 1912, this assimilation of Western knowledge had resulted in across-the-board achievements that impressed the world.
Socially, the imperial regime abolished the old hereditary social hierarchy that had been decreed by the Tokugawa. Economically, it created the yen, Japan’s first national currency, and the Bank of Japan to regulate economic growth. The development of a modern, centralized economy amounted to a revolutionary transformation of earlier economic relations in which the only equivalent to a national currency had been the rice bushel. At the same time, the imperial state induced an industrial revolution by promoting the development of heavy industries such as mining, shipping, and rail transport. Politically, the new regime, under the leadership of Itō Hirobumi (1841–1909), created a representative, constitutionally defined political system. The Meiji government instituted compulsory elementary education at schools created nationwide and established a Western-style conscript force, developed by Yamagata Aritomo (1838–1922) to replace the now-abolished samurai estate. Modeled after the Prussian military, Meiji forces proved effective in defeating internal rebellions and the armies of much larger nations, as seen in the Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905). With the latter victory, imperial Japan finally received the kind of respect internationally that it had long sought. By the end of the Meiji period, Japan was recognized as the leading military and imperial power among East Asian nations.
Geopolitically, Japan was reconfigured during the Meiji period, first with the move of the imperial capital away from its home for over a millennium, Kyoto, to a new center, Edo, the capital of the Tokugawa shoguns, now renamed Tokyo. In the countryside, imperial prefectures replaced the old daimyō domains. Before the Meiji period had ended, the beginnings of an empire were evident in the acquisition of Taiwan in 1895, following the Sino-Japanese War, and the annexation of Korea in 1910, a consequence of the Russo-Japanese War. Japan became a strategic player in the world of military alliances with the Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1902, in which both nations pledged to support the other in the event of multinational military aggression.
Though not billed in traditional historiography as a revolutionary movement, the Meiji Restoration entailed nothing less than a wholesale transformation of Japan. If there were flaws in the revolution that flowed from the restoration of imperial rule, they had to do with the extent to which military power was increasingly viewed as an expedient means to national power, prestige, and wealth.
SEE ALSO Imperialism; Industrialization; Revolution
Beasley, W. G. 1972. The Meiji Restoration. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Craig, Albert M.. 1961. ChōshŪ in the Meiji Restoration. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Fujitani, Takashi. 1996. Splendid Monarchy: Power and Pageantry in Modern Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Norman, E. H. 1975. Origins of the Modern Japanese State: Selected Writings of E. H. Norman. Ed. by John W. Dower. New York: Pantheon.
Totman, Conrad. 1980. The Collapse of the Tokugawa Bakufu, 1862–1868. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.