In 1868 the Tokugawa shôgun ("great general"), who
ruled Japan in the feudal period, lost his power and the emperor was
restored to the supreme position. The emperor took the name Meiji ("enlightened
rule") as his reign name; this event was known as the Meiji
The Reign of the Meiji Emperor
When the Meiji emperor was restored
as head of Japan in 1868, the nation was a militarily weak country,
was primarily agricultural, and had little technological development.
It was controlled by hundreds of semi-independent feudal lords. The
Western powers — Europe and the United States — had forced Japan
to sign treaties that limited its control over its own foreign trade
and required that crimes concerning foreigners in Japan be tried not
in Japanese but in Western courts. When the Meiji period ended, with
the death of the emperor in 1912, Japan had
· a highly centralized, bureaucratic government;
· a constitution establishing an elected parliament;
· a well-developed transport and communication system;
· a highly educated population free of feudal class restrictions;
· an established and rapidly growing industrial sector based
on the latest technology; and
· a powerful army and navy.
Japan had regained complete control of its foreign trade and legal
system, and, by fighting and winning two wars (one of them against
a major European power, Russia), it had established full independence
and equality in international affairs. In a little more than a generation,
Japan had exceeded its goals, and in the process had changed its whole
society. Japan's success in modernization has created great interest
in why and how it was able to adopt Western political, social, and
economic institutions in so short a time.
One answer is found in the Meiji Restoration itself. This political
revolution "restored" the emperor to power, but he did not
rule directly. He was expected to accept the advice of the group that
had overthrown the shôgun, and it was from this group that a
small number of ambitious, able, and patriotic young men from the lower
ranks of the samurai emerged to take control and establish the new
political system. At first, their only strength was that the emperor
accepted their advice and several powerful feudal domains provided
military support. They moved quickly, however, to build their own military
and economic control. By July 1869 the feudal lords had been requested
to give up their domains, and in 1871 these domains were abolished
and transformed into prefectures of a unified central state.
The feudal lords and the samurai class were offered a yearly stipend,
which was later changed to a one-time payment in government bonds.
The samurai lost their class privileges, when the government declared
all classes to be equal. By 1876 the government banned the wearing
of the samurai's swords; the former samurai cut off their top knots
in favor of Western-style haircuts and took up jobs in business and
The armies of each domain were disbanded, and a national army based
on universal conscription was created in 1872, requiring three years'
military service from all men, samurai and commoner alike. A national
land tax system was established that required payment in money instead
of rice, which allowed the government to stabilize the national budget.
This gave the government money to spend to build up the strength of
Resistance and Rebellion Defeated
Although these changes were made
in the name of the emperor and national defense, the loss of privileges
brought some resentment and rebellion. When the top leadership left
to travel in Europe and the United States to study Western ways in
1872, conservative groups argued that Japan should reply to Korean's
refusal to revise a centuries old treaty with an invasion. This would
help patriotic samurai to regain their importance. But the new leaders
quickly returned from Europe and reestablished their control, arguing
that Japan should concentrate on its own modernization and not engage
in such foreign adventures.
For the next twenty years, in the 1870s and 1880s, the top priority
remained domestic reform aimed at changing Japan's social and economic
institutions along the lines of the model provided by the powerful
Western nations. The final blow to conservative samurai came in the
1877 Satsuma rebellion, when the government's newly drafted army, trained
in European infantry techniques and armed with modern Western guns,
defeated the last resistance of the traditional samurai warriors. With
the exception of these few samurai outbreaks, Japan's domestic transformation
proceeded with remarkable speed, energy, and the cooperation of the
people. This phenomenon is one of the major characteristics of Japan's
In an effort to unite the Japanese nation in response to
the Western challenge, the Meiji leaders created a civic ideology centered
around the emperor. Although the emperor wielded no political power,
he had long been viewed as a symbol of Japanese culture and historical
continuity. He was the head of the Shintô religion, Japan's native
religion. Among other beliefs, Shintô holds that the emperor
is descended from the sun goddess and the gods who created Japan and
therefore is semidivine. Westerners of that time knew him primarily
as a ceremonial figure. The Meiji reformers brought the emperor and
Shintô to national prominence, replacing Buddhism as the national
religion, for political and ideological reasons. By associating Shintô with
the imperial line, which reached back into legendary times, Japan had
not only the oldest ruling house in the world, but a powerful symbol
of age-old national unity.
The people seldom saw the emperor, yet they were to carry out his
orders without question, in honor to him and to the unity of the Japanese
people, which he represented. In fact, the emperor did not rule. It
was his "advisers," the small group of men who exercised
political control, that devised and carried out the reform program
in the name of the emperor.
Social and Economic Changes
The abolition of feudalism made possible
tremendous social and political changes. Millions of people were suddenly
free to choose their occupation and move about without restrictions.
By providing a new environment of political and financial security,
the government made possible investment in new industries and technologies.
The government led the way in this, building railway and shipping
lines, telegraph and telephone systems, three shipyards, ten mines,
five munitions works, and fifty-three consumer industries (making sugar,
glass, textiles, cement, chemicals, and other important products).
This was very expensive, however, and strained government finances,
so in 1880 the government decided to sell most of these industries
to private investors, thereafter encouraging such activity through
subsidies and other incentives. Some of the samurai and merchants who
built these industries established major corporate conglomerates called
zaibatsu, which controlled much of Japan's modern industrial sector.
The government also introduced a national educational system and a
constitution, creating an elected parliament called the Diet. They
did this to provide a good environment for national growth, win the
respect of the Westerners, and build support for the modern state.
In the Tokugawa period, popular education had spread rapidly, and in
1872 the government established a national system to educate the entire
population. By the end of the Meiji period, almost everyone attended
the free public schools for at least six years. The government closely
controlled the schools, making sure that in addition to skills like
mathematics and reading, all students studied "moral training," which
stressed the importance of their duty to the emperor, the country and
The 1889 constitution was "given" to the people by the emperor,
and only he (or his advisers) could change it. A parliament was elected
beginning in 1890, but only the wealthiest one percent of the population
could vote in elections. In 1925 this was changed to allow all men
(but not yet women) to vote.
To win the recognition of the Western powers and convince them to
change the unequal treaties the Japanese had been forced to sign in
the 1850s, Japan changed its entire legal system, adopting a new criminal
and civil code modeled after those of France and Germany. The Western
nations finally agreed to revise the treaties in 1894, acknowledging
Japan as an equal in principle, although not in international power.
International Climate: Colonialism and Expansion
In 1894 Japan fought
a war against China over its interest in Korea, which China claimed
as a vassal state. The Korean peninsula is the closest part of Asia
to Japan, less than 100 miles by sea, and the Japanese were worried
that the Russians might gain control of that weak nation. Japan won
the war and gained control over Korea and gained Taiwan as a colony.
Japan's sudden, decisive victory over China surprised the world and
worried some European powers.
At this time the European nations were beginning to claim special
rights in China — the French, with their colony in Indochina (today's
Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia), were involved in South China; the British
also claimed special rights in South China, near Hong Kong, and later
the whole Yangtze valley; and the Russians, who were building a railway
through Siberia and Manchuria, were interested in North China. After
Japan's victory over China, Japan signed a treaty with China which
gave Japan special rights on China's Liaotung peninsula, in addition
to the control of Taiwan. But Japan's victory was short lived. Within
a week, France, Russia, and Germany combined to pressure Japan to give
up rights on the Liaotung peninsula. Each of these nations then began
to force China to give it ports, naval bases, and special economic
rights, with Russia taking the same Liaotung peninsula that Japan had
been forced to return.
The Japanese government was angered by this incident and drew the
lesson that for Japan to maintain its independence and receive equal
treatment in international affairs, it was necessary to strengthen
its military even further. By 1904, when the Russians were again threatening
to establish control over Korea, Japan was much stronger. It declared
war on Russia and, using all its strength, won victory in 1905 (beginning
with a surprise naval attack on Port Arthur, which gained for Japan
the control of the China Sea). Japan thus achieved dominance over Korea
and established itself a colonial power in East Asia.
The Period 1912-1941
The Meiji reforms brought great changes both
within Japan and in Japan's place in world affairs. Japan strengthened
itself enough to remain a sovereign nation in the face of Western colonizing
powers and indeed became a colonizing power itself. During the Taishô period
(1912-1926), Japanese citizens began to ask for more voice in the government
and for more social freedoms. During this time, Japanese society and
the Japanese political system were significantly more open than they
were either before or after. The period has often been called the period
of "Taishô democracy." One explanation is that, until
World War I, Japan enjoyed record breaking economic prosperity. The
Japanese people had more money to spend, more leisure, and better education,
supplemented by the development of mass media. Increasingly they lived
in cities where they came into contact with influences from abroad
and where the traditional authority of the extended family was less
influential. Industrialization in itself undermined traditional values,
emphasizing instead efficiency, independence, materialism, and individualism.
During these years Japan saw the emergence of a "mass society" very
similar to the "Roaring 20s" in the United States. During
these years also, the Japanese people began to demand universal manhood
suffrage which they won in 1925. Political parties increased their
influence, becoming powerful enough to appoint their own prime ministers
between 1918 and 1931.
At the end of World War I, however, Japan entered a severe economic
depression. The bright, optimistic atmosphere of the Taishô period
gradually disappeared. Political party government was marred by corruption.
The government and military, consequently, grew stronger, the parliament
weaker. The advanced industrial sector became increasingly controlled
by a few giant businesses, the zaibatsu. Moreover, Japan's international
relations were disrupted by trade tensions and by growing international
disapproval of Japan's activities in China. But success in competing
with the European powers in East Asia strengthened the idea that Japan
could, and should, further expand its influence on the Asian mainland
by military force.
Japan's need for natural resources and the repeated rebuffs from the
West to Japan's attempts to expand its power in Asia paved the way
for militarists to rise to power. Insecurity in international relations
allowed a right-wing militaristic faction to control first foreign,
then domestic, policy. With the military greatly influencing the government,
Japan began an aggressive military campaign throughout Asia, and then,
in 1941, bombed Pearl Harbor.
The most important feature of the Meiji period was Japan's
struggle for recognition of its considerable achievement and for equality
with Western nations. Japan was highly successful in organizing an
industrial, capitalist state on Western models. But when Japan also
began to apply the lessons it learned from European imperialism, the
West reacted negatively. In a sense Japan's chief handicap was that
it entered into the Western dominated world order at a late stage.
Colonialism and the racist ideology that accompanied it, were too entrenched
in Western countries to allow an "upstart," nonwhite nation
to enter the race for natural resources and markets as an equal. Many
of the misunderstandings between the West and Japan stemmed from Japan's
sense of alienation from the West, which seemed to use a different
standard in dealing with European nations than it did with a rising
Asian power like Japan.