Meiji period

The Meiji period (明治時代, Meiji-jidai) denotes the 45 year reign of Emperor Meiji, running, in the Gregorian calendar, from October 23, 1868 to July 30, 1912. During this time, Japan started its modernization and rose to the status of a world power. The name 明治時代 means "Period of Enlightened Rule."


The Meiji Period began with a political revolution that brought about the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate and returned the nation to the direct rule of the emperor Meiji. The leaders of the Meiji Restoration were primarily young samurai who were concerned by growing domestic problems and realized that in order to escape the threat of foreign encroachment, Japan must emerge from feudalism and establish genuine national independence and equality. Japan established a constitutional monarchy which remained in place until 1947, with a House of Representatives elected by a very limited franchise of male citizens, a House of Peers, a cabinet independent of the legislature, and a military with direct access to the emperor. The new government quickly instituted economic and social reforms and subsidized industrialization, building railroads, communication systems, agricultural stations and model factories. Foreign technical experts were brought to Japan, and Japanese students were sent abroad to learn about Western technology. Japan established herself as a world power with victories in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904 – 1905) and emerged from World War I as a competitive economic power.

The Meiji Restoration and the Emperor

On February 3, 1867, 15-year old Mutsuhito succeeded his father, Emperor Kōmei and a new Japanese era of Meiji, meaning "enlightened rule," was proclaimed. The next year, the Meiji Restoration of 1868 ended the 265-year-old feudalistic Tokugawa shogunate and re-established the emperor as the sole ruler of Japan. The leaders of the Meiji Restoration were primarily young samurai from feudal domains, historically hostile to Tokugawa authority, who were concerned by growing domestic problems and the threat of foreign encroachment. They adopted the slogan “wealthy country and strong arms” (fukoku-kyohei), and sought to dismantle the old feudal regime and create a nation-state capable of proclaiming itself equal among Western powers.

The first reform was the promulgation of the Five Charter Oath in 1868, a general statement of the aims of the Meiji leaders, intended to boost morale and win financial support for the new government. Its five proposals consisted of

  1. Establishment of deliberative assemblies
  2. Involvement of all classes in carrying out state affairs
  3. Freedom of social and occupational mobility
  4. Replacement of "evil customs" with the "just laws of nature"
  5. An international search for knowledge to strengthen the foundations of imperial rule.

Implicit in the Charter Oath was an end to exclusive political rule by the bakufu and a move toward more democratic participation in government. An eleven-article constitution was drawn up to implement the Charter Oath. Besides providing for a new Council of State, legislative bodies, and a ranking system for nobles and officials, it limited office tenure to four years, allowed public balloting, provided for a new taxation system, and ordered new local administrative rules.

The Meiji government assured foreign powers that it would follow the old treaties negotiated by the bakufu and announced that it would act in accordance with international law. Mutsuhito, who was to reign until 1912, selected a new reign title, Meiji, (Enlightened Rule) to mark the beginning of a new era in Japanese history. To further dramatize the new order, the capital was relocated from Kyoto, where it had been situated since 794, to Tokyo (Eastern Capital), the new name for Edo.

In a move critical for the consolidation of the new regime, most daimyo voluntarily surrendered their land and census records to the emperor symbolizing the abolition of the Han system, and placing the land and people directly under the emperor's jurisdiction. Confirmed in their hereditary positions, The daimyo were then confirmed in their hereditary positions as governors, and the central government assumed their administrative expenses and paid samurai stipends. The han were replaced with prefectures in 1871, and authority remained in the hands of the national government. Officials from the previously- favored han, such as Satsuma, Chōshū, Tosa, and Hizen, staffed the new government ministries. Court nobles who had formerly been out of favor, and lower-ranking samurai, replaced bakufu appointees, daimyo, and old court nobles as a new ruling class. All feudal class privileges were abolished. A national army was formed, and strengthened by a universal conscription law passed in 1873. Between 1871 and 1873, a series of land and tax laws were enacted as the basis for modern fiscal policy. Private ownership was legalized, deeds were issued, and lands were assessed at fair market value with taxes paid in cash rather than in kind as in pre-Meiji days, and at slightly lower rates. Monetary and tax systems were unified, and the agricultural tax reform of 1873 provided the government with its primary source of income.

In order to establish the pre-eminence of the emperor, efforts were made to create a Shinto state similar to the one which had existed 1,000 years earlier. A new state Shinto incorporating syncretic Buddhist and Shinto beliefs was created, with an Office of Shinto Worship which ranked even above the Council of State in importance. The kokutai ideas of the Mito school were embraced, the divine ancestry of the imperial house was emphasized, and the government supported Shinto teachers. The importance of the Office of Shinto Worship was diminished in 1872, but by 1877 the Home Ministry controlled all Shinto shrines, and certain Shinto sects were given state recognition. Shinto was released from Buddhist administration and its properties restored. Although Buddhism suffered from state sponsorship of Shinto, it had its own resurgence. Christianity was also legalized, and Confucianism remained an important ethical doctrine. Increasingly, however, Japanese thinkers identified with Western ideology and methods.


In the mid-1870s, the revolutionary changes wrought by restoration leaders acting in the name of the emperor faced increasing opposition from disgruntled samurai. They participated were several uprisings against the government, the most famous of which was the Satsuma Rebellion led by Saigo Takamori. Peasants, distrustful of the new regime and dissatisfied by its agrarian policies, also took part in revolts. The newly formed army suppressed these uprisings with great difficulty.

The major institutional accomplishment after the Satsuma Rebellion was the start of a trend toward development of representative government. People who had been excluded from the government after the Meiji Restoration heard of the success of representative institutions in other countries, and applied greater pressure for a voice in government. The introduction of liberal Western ideas gave rise to a growing popular rights movement which called for the creation of a constitutional government and wider participation through deliberative assemblies. A major proponent of representative government was Itagaki Taisuke (1837-1919), a powerful Tosa leader who had resigned from the Council of State over the Korean affair in 1873. Itagaki sought peaceful rather than rebellious means of gaining a voice in government. He started a school and a movement aimed at establishing a constitutional monarchy and a legislative assembly. In 1844, Itagaki and others wrote the Tosa Memorial criticizing the unbridled power of the oligarchy and calling for the immediate establishment of representative government.

Dissatisfied with the pace of reform after having rejoined the Council of State in 1875, Itagaki organized his followers and other democratic proponents into the nationwide Aikokusha (Society of Patriots) to push for representative government in 1878. In 1881, in the action for which he is best known, Itagaki helped found the Jiyuto (Liberal Party), which favored French political doctrines.

Responding to pressure, the government issued a statement in 1881 promising a constitution by 1890. In 1882 Okuma Shigenobu established the Rikken Kaishinto (Constitutional Progressive Party), which called for a British-style constitutional democracy. In response, government bureaucrats, local government officials, and other conservatives established the Rikken Teiseito (Imperial Rule Party), a pro-government party, in 1882. Numerous political demonstrations followed, some of them violent, resulting in further government restrictions. The restrictions hindered the political parties and led to divisions within and among them. The Jiyuto, which had opposed the Kaishinto, was disbanded in 1884, and Okuma resigned as Kaishinto president.

Government leaders, long preoccupied with violent threats to stability and the serious leadership split over the Korean affair, generally agreed that constitutional government should someday be established. The Chōshū leader Kido Takayoshi had favored a constitutional form of government since before 1874, and several proposals for constitutional guarantees had been drafted. The oligarchy, however, while acknowledging the realities of political pressure, was determined to keep control and took only modest steps.

The Osaka Conference in 1875 resulted in the reorganization of government with an independent judiciary and an appointed Council of Elders (Genronin) responsible for reviewing proposals for a legislature. The emperor declared that "constitutional government shall be established in gradual stages" as he ordered the Council of Elders to draft a constitution.

Three years later, the Conference of Prefectural Governors established elected prefectural assemblies. Although limited in their authority, these assemblies represented a move in the direction of representative government at the national level, and by 1880 assemblies also had been formed in villages and towns. In 1880, delegates from twenty-four prefectures held a national convention to establish the Kokkai Kisei Domei (League for Establishing a National Assembly).

Although the government was not opposed to parliamentary rule, confronted with the drive for "people's rights," it continued to try to control the political situation. New laws in 1875 prohibited criticism of the government or discussion of national laws by the press. The Public Assembly Law of 1880 severely limited public gatherings by forbidding attendance by civil servants and requiring police permission for all meetings.

Within the ruling circle, Okuma continued as a lone advocate of British-style government, with political parties and a cabinet organized by the majority party, answerable to the national assembly. He called for elections to be held by 1882 and for a national assembly to be convened by 1883. His actions precipitated a political crisis that ended with an 1881 imperial rescript declaring the establishment of a national assembly in 1890 and dismissing Okuma.

Iwakura Tomomi and other conservatives rejected the British model and borrowed heavily from the Prussian constitutional system. One of the Meiji oligarchy, Ito Hirobumi (1841 -1909), a Chōshū native long involved in government affairs, was charged with drafting Japan's constitution. He led a Constitutional Study Mission abroad in 1882, and spent most of his time in Germany. He rejected the United States Constitution as "too liberal" and the British system as too unwieldy and giving parliament too much control over the monarchy; the French and Spanish models were rejected as tending toward despotism.

Ito was put in charge of the new Bureau for Investigation of Constitutional Systems in 1884, and the Council of State was replaced in 1885 with a cabinet headed by Ito as prime minister. In 1886 work on the constitution began. The positions of chancellor, minister of the left, and minister of the right, which had existed since the seventh century as advisory positions to the emperor, were all abolished. In their place, the Privy Council was established in 1888 to evaluate the forthcoming constitution and to advise the emperor.

To further strengthen the authority of the state, a Supreme War Council was established under the leadership of Yamagata Aritomo (1838 -1922), a Chōshū native who has been credited with the founding of the modern Japanese army and was to become the first constitutional prime minister. The Supreme War Council developed a German-style general staff system with a chief of staff who had direct access to the emperor and who could operate independently of the army minister and civilian officials.

Meiji Constitution

When the emperor finally granted it, the 1889 Constitution of the Empire of Japan (the Meiji Constitution) provided for the Imperial Diet (Teikoku Gikai), composed of a House of Representatives to be elected by a very limited franchise of male citizens who were over 25 years of age and paid 15 yen in national taxes (about 1 percent of the population); a House of Peers composed of nobility and imperial appointees; and a cabinet responsible to the emperor and independent of the legislature. The first Diet was convened the following year, 1890. The Diet could approve government legislation and initiate laws, make representations to the government, and submit petitions to the emperor. In spite of these institutional changes, sovereignty still resided in the emperor on the basis of his divine ancestry.

The new constitution specified a form of government that was still authoritarian in character, with the emperor holding the ultimate power and only minimal concessions made to popular rights and parliamentary mechanisms. Party participation was recognized as part of the political process. The Meiji Constitution remained the fundamental law until 1947.

In the early years of constitutional government, the strengths and weaknesses of the Meiji Constitution were revealed. A small clique of Satsuma and Chōshū elite continued to rule Japan, becoming institutionalized as an extraconstitutional body of genro (elder statesmen). Collectively, the genro made decisions reserved for the emperor, and the genro, not the emperor, controlled the government politically.

Throughout the period, however, political problems were usually solved through compromise, and political parties gradually increased their power over the government and held an ever larger role in the political process as a result. Between 1891 and 1895, Ito served as prime minister with a cabinet composed mostly of genro who wanted to establish a government party to control the House of Representatives. Although not fully realized, the trend toward party politics was well established.

Culture and Society

One of the first acts of the Meiji government was to establish new ranks for the nobility. Five-hundred persons from the old court nobility, former daimyo, and samurai who had provided valuable service to the emperor were organized in five ranks: prince, marquis, count, viscount, and baron.

It was at this time that the Ee ja nai ka movement, a spontaneous outbreak of ecstatic behaviour, took place. From June 1867 to May 1868, a complex of carnival-like religious celebrations and communal activities occurred in many parts of Japan. In West Japan, it appeared at first in the form of dancing festivals, often related to public works, rain magic, or dances for the dead. When sacred amulets were said to have fallen from heaven, thanksgiving celebrations for these amulets were added that could last for several days. Gifts were exchanged, and youth groups organized mass dances including the wearing of costumes. To express their gratitude towards the gods or buddhas who had given them the amulets, many people went on pilgrimages to local or regional sanctuaries. The term ee ja nai ka ("Ain't it great!") was a refrain in popular songs performed during these activities.

In 1885, the intellectual Yukichi Fukuzawa wrote the influential essay Datsu-A Ron (Leaving Asia), arguing that Japan should orient itself toward the "civilized countries of the West," leaving behind its "hopelessly backward" Asian neighbors, Korea and China. This essay contributed to the economic and technological rise of Japan in the Meiji period, but it may also have laid the foundations for later Japanese colonialism in the region. Under the banner of “Civilization and Enlightenment” (bunmei kaika) Western culture, from current intellectual trends to clothing and architecture, was widely promoted. This tendency was checked in the 1880s by the emergence of a renewed appreciation of traditional Japanese values. The educational system, for example, though influenced by Western theory and practice, stressed the traditional values of samurai loyalty and social harmony. In art and literature, Western styles were first imitated, then synthesized with Japanese traditions to produce a uniquely Japanese style.


Although agriculture remained the mainstay of the Japanese economy, industrialization was the primary goal of the Meiji government, which directed the development of transportation, communications and strategic industries. The first railroad was completed in 1872; by 1890 there were more than 1,400 miles (2,250 km) of rail. By 1880, all the major cities were linked by telegraph. Private industries were given financial support by the government and aided by the institution of a European-style banking system in 1882. The process of modernization was closely monitored and heavily subsidized by the Meiji government, which enhanced the power of the great zaibatsu firms such as Mitsui and Mitsubishi. The zaibatsu and government collaborated in guiding national industrial development, borrowing technology from the West. Beginning with textiles, Japan gradually took control of much of Asia's market for manufactured goods. The economic structure of Japan became mercantilistic, importing raw materials and exporting finished products.

In a short time Japan made remarkable progress toward becoming a world power. One reason for the speed of Japan's modernization was the employment of over 3,000 foreign experts (o-yatoi gaikokujin or 'hired foreigners') in a variety of specialist fields such as science, engineering, the military and teaching English. Many Japanese students were sent to study overseas in Europe and America, based on the fifth and last article of the Five Charter Oath of 1868: 'Knowledge shall be sought throughout the world so as to strengthen the foundations of Imperial rule'.

Japan emerged from the Tokugawa-Meiji transition as the first Asian industrialized nation. The Meiji rulers embraced the concept of a market economy and adopted British and North American forms of free enterprise capitalism, a change welcomed by the private sector. Economic reforms included a unified modern currency based on the yen, banking, commercial and tax laws, stock exchanges, and a communications network. Establishment of a modern institutional framework conducive to an advanced capitalist economy took time but was completed by the 1890s.

Many of the former daimyo, whose pensions had been paid in a lump sum, benefited greatly through investments they made in emerging industries. Those who had been informally involved in foreign trade before the Meiji Restoration also flourished. Old firms from the bakufu era that clung to their traditional ways failed in the new business environment.

The government was initially involved in economic modernization, subsidizing construction of railroads, shipyards, munitions factories, mines, textile manufacturing facilities, factories, and experimental agriculture stations and providing a number of "model factories" to facilitate the transition to the modern period. By 1890, the government had largely relinquished direct control of the modernization process, primarily for budgetary reasons. After the first twenty years of the Meiji period, the industrial economy expanded rapidly until about 1920 with inputs of advanced Western technology and large private investments. Stimulated by wars and through cautious economic planning, Japan emerged from World War I as a major industrial nation.


Concerned about national security, the leaders made significant efforts at military modernization, which included establishing a small standing army, a large reserve system, and compulsory militia service for all men. Foreign military systems were studied, foreign advisers were brought in, and Japanese cadets sent abroad to European and United States military and naval schools.

Foreign relations

When United States Navy ended Japan's sakoku policy of national isolation, Japan found itself defenseless against military pressures and economic exploitation by the Western powers. In order for Japan to avoid the fate of other Asian countries, which had been colonized by foreign powers, it was necessary to emerge from feudalism and establish genuine national independence and equality.

By the early twentieth century, the goals of the Meiji Restoration had been largely accomplished. The unequal treaties that had granted foreign powers judicial and economic privileges through extraterritoriality were revised in 1894. Following her defeat of China in Korea in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), Japan gained respect as an international power with a victory against Russia in Manchuria (north-eastern China) in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 – 1905. Allied with Britain through the Anglo-Japanese Alliance signed in London on January 30, 1902, Japan joined the Allies in World War I, seizing German-held territory in China and the Pacific but otherwise remaining largely out of the conflict.

After the war, a weakened Europe left a greater share in international markets to the United States and Japan, which had profited by becoming a supplier of war materials to Europe. Japanese competition made inroads into previously European-dominated markets in Asia, not only in China, but in European colonies like India and Indonesia.

The Meiji period ended with the death of the emperor Meiji on July 30, 1912, when Emperor Taishō took the throne, beginning the Taishō Period.

See also


  • Beasley, W. G. The Rise of Modern Japan: Political, Economic and Social Change Since 1850. St. Martin's Press, New York 1995.
  • Murphey, Rhoads. East Asia: A New History. Addison Wesley Longman, New York 1997. ISBN 0673993507 ISBN 9780673993502
  • Satow, Sir Ernest Mason. A Diplomat in Japan.Ams Press, Inc., 1988. ISBN 4925080288
  • Akamatsu, Paul. Meiji 1868: Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Japan. Trans. Miriam Kochan. New York: Harper & Row, 1972. ISBN 0060100443 ISBN 9780060100445
  • Beasley, W. G. The Meiji Restoration. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1972. ISBN 0804708150 ISBN 9780804708159
  • Craig, Albert M. Chōshū in the Meiji Restoration. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961. ISBN 0674128508 ISBN 9780674128507
  • Jansen, Marius B. and Gilbert Rozman (eds.). Japan in Transition: From Tokugawa to Meiji. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986. ISBN 0691102457 ISBN 9780691102450
  • Jansen, Marius B. The Making of Modern Japan. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000. ISBN 0674003349 ISBN 9780674003347
  • Wall, Rachel F. Japan's Century: An Interpretation of Japanese History since the Eighteen-fifties. London: The Historical Association, 1971.

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