Meiji Restoration

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The Meiji Restoration (明治維新), also known as the Meiji Ishin, Revolution, or Renewal, was a chain of events that led to enormous changes in Japan's political and social structure. It occurred during a three-year period from 1866 to 1869 that traversed the end of the Edo period (often called Late Tokugawa shogunate) and beginning of the Meiji Era. Probably the most important foreign account of the events of 1862-1869 is contained in A Diplomat in Japan by Sir Ernest Satow. The restoration was a direct response to the opening of Japan by the arrival of the Black Ships of United States Navy Commodore Matthew C. Perry. There are several opinions concerning the event and the year that marked the beginning of the Meiji Restoration. On October 23, 1868 the era was changed to “Meiji,” but in general the term “Meiji Restoration” refers to the series of reformations that took place after the return of political power to the Emperor by the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1867 and the restoration of Imperial rule. Several events have been designated as the end of the Meiji Restoration, including the Satsuma Rebellion (Seinan Sensō) in 1877, the opening of the Diet in 1885, or the official promulgation of the constitution in 1889.

Historical Background

In 1866, during the late Tokugawa shogunate, Saigo Takamori, the leader of the Satsuma domain, and Kido Takayoshi, the leader of the Choshu domain, formed the Sat-cho Alliance. These two leaders, who both supported the Emperor of Japan, were brought together by Sakamoto Ryoma for the purpose of challenging the ruling Tokugawa Shogunate (bakufu) and restoring the emperor to power. Although the two domains had a common goal, they had a traditional hatred of each other stemming from several regional conflicts. The formation of the Sat-cho Alliance marks the beginning of the Meiji Restoration.

The Tokugawa Shogunate came to an official end on November 9, 1867, when the fifteenth Tokugawa Shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu "put his prerogatives at the emperor's disposal" and then resigned his position ten days later. This was effectively the "restoration" (Taisei Hōkan) of imperial rule, although Yoshinobu retained considerable power. In January 1868, the Boshin War (War of the Year of the Dragon), a civil war, began with the Battle of Toba Fushimi, in which an army led by forces from Choshu and Satsuma defeated the ex-shogun's army and forced the emperor to strip Yoshinobu of all power. Some remnants of the Shogunate forces escaped to north Honshu and later to Hokkaido, where they attempted to set up the breakaway Republic of Ezo, but this came to an early end in May, 1869, with the siege of Hakodate, Hokkaido. The defeat of the armies of the former shogun (led by Hijikata Toshizo) marked the end of the Meiji Restoration; all defiance to the emperor and his rule ended.

Though the leaders of the Meiji Restoration, as this revolution came to be known, acted in the name of restoring imperial rule, political power simply moved from the Tokugawa Shogun to an oligarchy consisting of themselves, mostly from the Satsuma Province (Okubo Toshimichi and Saigo Takamori), and the Choshu province (Ito Hirobumi, Yamagata Aritomo, and Kido Koin). Their concept of imperial rule was the ancient model, with the emperor performing high priestly duties, while his ministers governed the nation in his name.


These were the leaders in the Meiji Restoration when the Japanese emperors retook power from the Tokugawa shoguns. Some of them went on to become Prime Minister of Japan.

  • Okubo Toshimichi (大久保 利通) (1830-1878)
  • Kido Takayoshi (木戸 孝允) (1833-1877)
  • Saigo Takamori(西郷 隆盛) (1827-1877)
  • Iwakura Tomomi |岩倉 具視) (1825-1883)
  • Ito Hirobumi (伊藤 博文) (1841-1909)
  • Kuroda Kiyotaka (黒田 清隆) (1840-1900)
  • Matsukata Masayoshi (松方 正義) (1835-1924)
  • Oyama Iwao (大山 巌) (1842-1916)
  • Saigo Tsugumichi (西郷 従道) (1843-1902)
  • Yamagata Aritomo (山県 有朋) (1838-1922)
  • Inoue Kaoru]](井上馨) (1835-1915)
  • Saionji Kinmochi (西園寺 公望) (1849-1940)

Effects of the Meiji Restoration

The Meiji Restoration was a catalyst for the industrialization of Japan that led to the rise of the island nation as a military power by 1905, under the slogan of "National Wealth and Military Strength" (fukoku kyohei], 富国強兵) and “Flourishing Industries and Start Up Businesses”(殖産興業)。

The Meiji oligarchy that formed the government under the rule of the Emperor first introduced measures to consolidate their power against the remnants of the Edo period government, the shogunate, daimyo and the samurai class. In 1868, the Emperor took all land from the Tokugawa and put it under his own control. In 1869, the daimyo of the Tosa Han, Hizen Han, Satsuma Han and Choshu Han domains, who were most fiercely opposing the shogunate, were persuaded to return their domains to the Emperor. Other daimyo were subsequently persuaded to do so. Finally, in 1871, the daimyo, past and present, were summoned before the Emperor, where it was declared that all domains were now to be returned to the Emperor. The roughly three hundred domains (han) were turned into prefectures, each under the control of a state-appointed governor. Until 1888, numerous prefectures were merged in several steps to reduce their number to 75. The daimyo were promised 1/10 of their fiefs' income as private income. Furthermore, their debts and payments of samurai stipends were to be taken over by the state.

The oligarchs also endeavored to abolish the four divisions of society. Throughout Japan at the time, the samurai numbered 1.9 million. (For comparison, this was more than 10 times the size of the French privileged class before the 1789 French Revolution; although the samurai in Japan included not merely the lords, but also the higher retainers, who actually performed labor). The fixed stipends paid to each samurai presented a tremendous financial burden on the government, which may have prompted the oligarchs to action. Whatever their true intentions, the oligarchs embarked on another slow and deliberate process to abolish the samurai class. First, in 1873, it was announced that the samurai stipends were to be taxed on a rolling basis. Later, in 1874, the samurai were given the option to convert their stipends into government bonds. Finally, in 1876, this commutation was made compulsory.

To reform the military, the government instituted nation-wide conscription in 1873, mandating that every male serve in the armed forces for three years upon turning 21. One of the primary differences between the samurai and peasant class was the right to bear arms; this ancient privilege was suddenly extended to every male in the nation. This led to a series of riots by disgruntled samurai. One of the major riots was the one led by Saigo Takamori, the Satsuma rebellion, which eventually turned into a civil war. This rebellion was, however, put down swiftly by the newly formed imperial army, trained in Western tactics and weapons. The core of the new army was the Tokyo Police force, which was formed largely of former samurai. This sent a strong message to the dissenting samurai. There were fewer subsequent samurai uprisings and the distinction became all but a name as the samurai joined the new society. The ideal of samurai military spirit lived on in a romanticized form and was often used as propaganda for Imperial Japan's wars during the early twentieth century.

The majority of samurai were content despite having their status abolished. Many found employment in the government bureaucracy, which resembled an elite class in its own right. The samurai, being better educated than most of the population, became teachers, government officials or military officers. The formal title of samurai was abolished, but the elitist spirit which characterized the samurai class lived on even beyond the 1870s.

The oligarchs also embarked on a series of land reforms. In particular, they legitimized the tenancy system which had been established during the Tokugawa period. Despite the bakufu's efforts to cement the four classes of society in place, during their rule villagers had begun to lease land out to other farmers, becoming rich in the process. This disrupted the clearly defined class system which the bakufu had envisaged, and became a partial cause of their eventual downfall.

Political Reformation

The Central Administration

The Meiji Restoration was perfunctorily the revival of a system of centralized government based on the “ritsuryo” legal code of the Nara (710-794) and Heian (794-1185) periods. As the Tokugawa shogunate collapsed, the new Meiji government urgently needed to centralize administrative power. Although some official terms were adopted from the “ritsuryo” legal code, the actual form of the new government was different.

After the declaration of the Restoration of Imperial Reign, the abolitions of the shogunate, kampaku and regency took place. Upper (Gitei and Sanyo) and lower (Sanji and Koshi) legislative bodies were created under the Emperor, but because Emperor Meiji was still very young, a political system was needed to assist him. The new Meiji government experimented with several reforms and finally, in 1885, adopted a cabinet system of government.

Kido Takayoshi had been insistent on setting up a legislative branch of the government from the first year of Meiji, but opposition made it necessary to wait until the system of public government offices had been reformed, and until a certain level of national education and cultural understanding had been achieved. Okubo Toshimichi maintained a system of political reform centered upon the bureaucrats of the former Satsuma – Chosu domains. As the reformations matured and the Movement for Civic Rights and Freedom rose during the 1880s, several steps such as “the order of setting up an assembly by Emperor Meiji” in 1881, were taken by Ito Hirubumi and others, to enact the constitution in earnest. A privy council (a body that advises a nation’s head of state) was established for deliberation of the constitution. Finally, in 1889 the Meiji Constitution was promulgated, and the next year the Diet was opened. Okubo Toshimichi and others wanted to move the capital to Osaka, but as Emperor Meiji Edo several times, eventually Edo was changed to Tokyo and became the new capital.

Local Administration

The new Meiji government had been maintaining in principle the former feudal domain systems until the first year of Meiji, but the new centralized government needed strong control over local administrations in order to advance the construction of the modern nation and advance the goal of "National Wealth and Military Strength." In the second year of Meiji (1869), the daimyo (feudal lords) returned their domains and the people living in them to the Emperor. In the fourth year of Meiji (1871), clans (domains) were abolished and prefectures established. A political system in which the central government dispatched governors to each prefectures, was established. Resistance among the formal feudal lords was tempered by treating them as kazoku (special class), which guaranteed their status and their possessions.

Economic, Social and Diplomatic Changes

The political transformations of the Meiji period were mirrored by economic and social changes. The economy remained dependent on agriculture, but the government directed the development of strategic industries, transportation and communication. The first railroad was completed in 1872, and by 1890 there were more than 1,400 miles (2,250 kilometers) of railroad. All major cities were linked by telegraph by 1880. The government gave financial support to private companies and instituted a European-style banking system in 1882. Western science and technology were imported, and a program of “Civilization and Enlightenment” (bunmei kaika) promoted Western culture, clothing, architecture and intellectual trends. In the 1880s, a renewed appreciation of traditional Japanese values slowed this trend. An educational system was developed which, though it made use of Western theory and practice, stressed traditional samurai loyalty and social harmony. Art and literature turned from outright imitation of the West to a synthesis of Japanese and Western influences.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the goals of the Meiji Restoration had been largely accomplished, and Japan was becoming a modern, industrial nation. Unequal treaties that had granted foreign powers extraterritoriality and judicial privileges were revised in 1894. The Anglo-Japanese alliance of 1902, and Japan’s victory in the Sino-Japanese War (1895) and the Russo-Japanese War (1905) gave Japan new international status as a major world power.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Akamatsu, Paul. Meiji 1868: Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Japan. translated by Miriam Kochan. New York: Harper & Row, 1972. ISBN 0060100443 ISBN 9780060100445
  • Beasley, W. G. The Rise of Modern Japan: Political, Economic and Social Change Since 1850. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.
  • 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
  • Murphey, Rhoads. East Asia: A New History. New York: Addison Wesley Longman, 1997. ISBN 0673993507 ISBN 9780673993502
  • Satow, Sir Ernest Mason. A Diplomat in Japan. Ams Press, Inc., 1988 ISBN 4925080288
  • Wall, Rachel F. Japan's Century: An Interpretation of Japanese History since the Eighteen-fifties. London: The Historical Association, 1971.


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