Tipping Over Tradition with the Meiji Restoration

Every nation experiences change and develop because of this change. The story of each country varies highly; some begin with tough monarchies and turn into fair democracies, while others have wars among small kingdoms that still form to make up a state until they agree to unify. The ways of life of those who live in that country have a lot to do with how it is run, and how its history is formed.

It is crucial to understand a nation’s history, as well as learn about the intricacies of its fragments. When it comes to Japan’s history, one of its most important and politically altering fragments is the Meiji Period, otherwise known as the Meiji Restoration.

The Definition of Meiji Restoration

This period is referred to by many different names, but it’s mainly known as the Meiji Ishin. You may also refer to it as Meiji Renovation, Meiji Renewal, Meiji Reform, or Meiji Revolution, as the change it brought is as large and drastic as its name. As for “Meiji”, it directly translates to “enlightened rule” – which represents a combination of honoring eastern values and tradition, as well as being open to certain areas of modernization. Emperors are usually just called “His Majesty the Emperor” – but because of the word representing this period so well, the emperor was posthumously named His Majesty Emperor Meiji, which is what he is referred to as now.

To define the Meiji Restoration concisely, it was both a socio-political and political occurrence that happened in 1868 and ended the Edo period of Japan. It was led by Itagaki Taisuke, Itō Hirobumi, Kido Takayoshi, Matsukata Masayoshi, Mori Arinori, Ōkubo Toshimichi, Yamagata Aritomo, and Yamaguchi Naoyoshi. This event gave complete power to the imperial forces of Japan, granting them the authority to rule over all of the countries instead of fragments of it.

Life Before the Meiji Restoration

Before the new emperor decided to restore the power of the nation to a unified government, Japan was under a military dictatorship, run by feudal warlords (daimyo). This was the case for the most part of when Japan was still called Edo. This military dictatorship (right before the Meiji restoration took place) decentralized power, and was called The Tokugawa shogunate, or “Tokugawa bakufu”/“Edo bakufu”. Those who were leaders of this government were called “Shogun”.

Although, the representative of Edo was still considered the ruler of Japan, much more of that power lied in the hands of the shogun, who were from Tokugawa Ieyasu’s clan. Why were the political decisions given mostly to the Shogun, and not to the emperor? This is because they did not want to tarnish the name of the Emperor in case he made wrong leadership choices.

War, And Then Peace

Before the Tokugawa period was the Sengoku period. The Sengoku period was a period when Japan was always in political turmoil, with feudal warlords relentlessly and violently warring with each other for land and dominance. Tokugawa Ieyasu founded the Tokugawa period when he won the Battle of Sekigahara, during the end of the Sengoku period. The Tokugawa period was known to be a period of peace, largely thanks to Tokugawa Ieyasu’s authority and distribution of power that stemmed from his castle at Edo. This period ran from 1603 to 1867. It is also known for representing the traditional times of Japan before it was opened to a larger sense of globalization and modernization.

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The Tokugawa shogunate followed a strict hierarchy of class, which respected the emperor primarily, then court nobility, then Shogun (Ieyasu’s dynasty), then feudal warlords/daimyo, then the samurai, followed by the rest of workforce of society (farmers, merchants, artisans, peasants). All the Shogun made sure that the lower-class daimyo never had too much power, and that they answered to the shogunate. As for any ordinary person, they were not allowed to change classes or livelihood, which made it unfair for the peasants at that time. They were lawfully forced to work agricultural jobs to make sure that those who were higher up in terms of ranks were sustained.

Japan boomed during this 200+ year reign of 15 different shoguns. Because they were purposely closed off as much as possible from the rest of the world, Japan developed and perfected its own products, culture and thrived in its own richness and production of art (woodblock printing, kabuki theater) and literature. They were so closed off that they had a 250-year-old “Sakoku” era that had a foreign relations policy giving the death penalty to any Japanese citizen who left the country, or any foreigner who entered it. Japan had gotten used to the seclusion, the implemented government and hierarchy – up until the Meiji restoration changed all of that.

The Meiji Restoration In Japan: A Date Of Revolutionary History

It all started when Matthew C. Perry, an American Commodore, paid a visit to Japan riding intimidating warships trying to convince Japan to open its trading ports. The Japanese noticed that Commodore Perry’s technology, for both warfare and otherwise, far surpassed advancement than that of their own. Japanese leaders, especially feudal warlord Shimazu Nariakira, agreed that allowing the influx of information on how to update their technology would ultimately be beneficial for them.

The Shoguns, along with the many of other rulers of Japan’s territory basically felt weaker from the division that comes with having a military dictatorship. Because they wanted to protect their country from possible foreign invasions, the Meiji Restoration was birthed from the initiative of defense. An alliance was needed with the Shogunate and the Emperor (At that time, it was Emperor Komei) to unify Japan, and two people headed this endeavor; Kido Takayoshi and Saigō Takamori. The alliance was called the Satsuma Chōshū Alliance, arranged by Sakamoto Ryoma.

The point of this alliance was to make changes in Japan’s governing system to help the country keep with the times. Other goals were made clear in the Charter Oath. While this ministry was formed in 1866, Emperor Komei died one year later, on January 30, 1867, thus placing Emperor Meiji in the spotlight. By November 19, 1867, the last Tokugawa, Tokugawa Yoshinobu resigned, formalizing the transition of his political responsibilities to the hands of the then-Emperor Meiji. By January 3, Emperor Meiji was in complete control of all of Japan. The Meiji Restoration thus began.

Not Without War

As with almost all political shifts that take away power from those so used to it, opponents start wars and revolutions. Scores of noblemen and samurai who did not like the blossoming globalization of Japan took to arms to fight against imperial forces. As soon as the turn of the year in January 1868, the Boshin War began, with the first battle, the Battle of Toba-Fushimi, which lasted 5 days. The entire year of 1868 would be peppered with these battles, thus giving it the name “War of the Year of the Yang Earth Dragon”.

Before the Meiji Restoration took place, each political leader under the Tokugawa Shogunate was given plots of land to own and govern. All that land was transferred to the possession of the government, also known as imperial control. The Fuhanken sanchisei was put into place, a system that slowly would help reorganize Japan’s land based on prefectures instead of warlord-owned kingdoms.

More Japanese warriors and landlords would not give in to the new government, as their land was being taken back. The remaining members of the shogunate went to Hokkaido. Here, they tried to create a division between Japan, and their own newly formed Republic the Republic of Ezo. Their efforts were futile, as they lose the Battle of Hakodate that happened in May of 1869.

The han system (having several warlords take control over their ascertained kingdoms) was finally abolished by 1871, as the Emperor had all the feudal warlords appear before him, forcing them to surrender their land to him, and to the imperial system. Fuhanken sanchisei was implemented to these 300 domains, categorizing them, and giving them state-appointed governors. To compromise with the warlords, they would be given private income in the form of a tenth of what their previously owned lands would earn.

Changes in the Military, Socio-Economic Outlooks

To strengthen the core of the country (which is the first reason they opened their doors to globalization and reformed their entire governing system), the Emperor decided to create an army. It became mandatory for men of the age of 21 to serve 7 years in the military; 4 dedicated to the armed forces, and 3 years dedicated to the reserves unit. They would also overthrow the “four divisions of society”, which would let anyone shift classes or livelihoods if they were capable enough to do so.

The Meiji Restoration Timeline - Important Turning Points in Japan

The plan to change the way Japan was governed all stems from the visit of Commodore Perry. That is the first and most important mark in beginning the reformation. Next was the acknowledgment of Shimazu Nariakira that Japan needed to evolve. The shogunate would then reach out to the Emperor to combine forces and unify Japan. This Emperor would pass on before the restoration could take place, leaving his son to take over.

Emperor Meiji officially took over by 1868 – to the disgruntlement of many noblemen, feudal warlords, and samurai who did not want to leave the shogunate – causing wars. Eventually, the Emperor’s army and ex-members of the shogunate who shared sentiments with him would win the wars waged by the rebels. The emperor recreated Japan, changing the way land was divided, the way people worked and lived, and became much more open to trade, thrusting the country into a hyperdrive of industrial development.

The After Effects of the Meiji Restoration on Japan

By the time the 20th century was welcomed – 40 years into the welcoming of globalization - so much had changed in Japan. Not only did the country have extensive telegraph and railroad lines, Europeans introduced different financial systems, revolutionizing the country’s banking system. Shared ideas were made evident in technology. Western culture, architecture, and philosophies also started making themselves apparent in Japan, blending in with the nation’s culture.

There was surely a huge boom in Japan’s economy and exports, with silk, coal, and merchant fleets growing exponentially. It’s good to note, however, that while Japan was very much interested in what the world had to offer, it also made sure to honor what it had for so long. It was successfully able to mix both foreign and local ideas when it came to education, art, and literature. Samurai values, for example, were still honored and highly regarded.

For Japan to have a solid national identity, it created a standard language called “hyojungo”, which would be used as the standard in all forms of communication in the country, such as in media or press, business/establishments, government, and educational matters.

Facts About the Meiji Restoration

Japan didn’t look far to make it worried about how the western world was dominating Asia. If you wondered why Japan was so apprehensive about westerners initially, it’s because of the way Spaniards dominated their neighboring countries – specifically the Philippines. The Japanese did have outside world contact with the Dutch and Portuguese, though sporadic, minimal, and monitored.

The Yen currency was also birthed during this period, being the first national currency of Japan to have ever been made. Along with this, the industrialization and infrastructure generation was so swift that Japan that it became a force to reckon with in a matter of decades. It would later have disagreements with China, leading to wars that they would end up winning. These wins would gain them respect from Westerners. By the time Emperor Meiji passed away in 1912, Japan was well on its way to being one of the most modern and advanced countries in the world.

Though Japanese history may not have been taught in your university, brushing up on a little bit about this unique country helps in understanding its roots and culture, letting you appreciate it more if you ever plan on paying a visit.