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The period from 1868 until 1912 in Japan is called the Meiji era - after the name chosen by the young prince Mutsuhito, when he followed his father to the throne. Meiji means in Japanese 'the enlightened rule'. During the Meiji period Japan underwent a stunning development from a medieval society to a leading economic and military power in Asia.
First Publication: July 2005
Latest Update: April 2013
A 10 minute introduction to the Meiji Restoration. Thanks to IceCreamPiano for sharing this with us.
After the death of Emperor Komei in January 1867, his son, prince Mutsuhito, then only 15 years old, ascended to the throne as Emperor Meiji. It was a time of great turmoil in Japan. The Tokugawa shoguns who had ruled and isolated the country from any contacts with the outer world, was in its final days. The decline was a result of both the incapability for reforms and outer pressure by Western nations, mainly by the U.S.A., to open the country to trade with Western countries.
Powerful clans from the South of Japan - Satsuma, Choshu and others - finally toppled the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate. The last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, resigned and handed power over to the young emperor. The institution of the Japanese emperor had lost control over Japan some 800 years ago. Hence historians speak of Meiji Restoration.
In May 1868, some two thousand adherents of the old Tokugawa shogunate tried an uprise, but were defeated in a bloody battle at the site of today's Ueno park in Tokyo. In November 1868, the young emperor moved his official residence from Kyoto, where his ancestor had been kept for centuries like in a golden cage, to Tokyo, the new name for the old shogun capital Edo.
Emperor Meiji never had any real power, which remained in the hands of a few mighty family clans. Today you would call them the oligarchs. But the Emperor was the perfect figure head for Japan's period of the 'great leap forward' from 1868 until his death in 1912.
A characterization of the personality of Emperor Meiji is difficult. Although the emperor made many official trips to the provinces, he was carefully shielded off from the public. In 1869, the then 17 year old emperor married 19 year old Ichijo Haruko. The emperor will have one son, Prince Yoshihito (later Emperor Taisho), an offspring from a liaison with a court concubine. The marriage with Haruko remained childless.
The Emperor gave strong signals to support the westernization and the military build-up of Japan. But in later years he also became an advocate for traditional Japanese values and customs, warning not to throw the cultural heritage of Japan completely over board.
The Meiji era was a period of radical reforms and strong emotions. The slogan of the opponents of the old Tokugawa shogunate was:
"Respect the emperor and expel the barbarians."
Soon after Emperor Meiji had ascended to the throne, the old battle cry was replaced by the new slogan:
"Civilization and Enlightenment."
The Japanese had experienced the superiority of Western arms and technology. The reform concept was a simple one: Let's shape society, economy, military and the infrastructure after Western patterns without any compromises.
The 'great leap forward' was a systematic, state-guided act of strength. Thousands of well-paid Western foreigners were called into the country to assist as instructors, engineers, doctors, consultants or university teachers. At the same time thousands of Japanese students were sent to Europe and the U.S.A. to learn at Western universities. The arts were, by the way, not exempt from this 'Learn from the West' movement.
Groups of high-ranking Japanese politicians and others were sent abroad on fact-finding missions with the goal to study the West - the best known being the Iwakura mission that went on a world tour from Yokohama harbor on December 23, 1871 and returned on September 13, 1873. They had visited the U.S.A., all major European and on the way home, several Asian countries.
Although the primary goal of the Iwakura mission - the renegotiating of the Treaty of Kanagawa with the U.S. and similar treaties with other Western powers, had failed, the mission had an important impact on the modernization of Japan.
The traditional military system in old Japan, was the hereditary class system of the samurai warriors. The affiliation to the samurai class was defined by birth. The samurai, estimated at about 8% of the total population, had far-reaching privileges - among others free rice contributions by the class of farmers.
In 1873 the samurai system was replaced by compulsory military service after Western pattern. The new army was trained by French, and later by Prussian instructors. Their first test came in the successful defeat of a rebellion of former samurai in 1876/1877 under the leadership of Saigo Takamori.
The draftees, well equipped with modern Western arms, and outnumbering the samurai rebels, pushed them back to their last stand on a hill near Kagoshima in Satsuma province. On September 24, 1877 the last samurai, including their leader Saigo Takamori committed seppuku - suicide the samurai way.
In the coming years, the Japanese army proved its superiority in two major wars, the Sino-Japanese war of 1894/1895 against China, and the Russo-Japanese war of 1904/1905 against Russia. The latter culminated in a sea battle against the Russian Baltic fleet, which was destroyed.
After these two wars, Japan had visibly emerged as the dominating new power in Asia - much to the concerns of the Americans, British and other European powers like Germany, Russia and France. Although curbed by Western powers, Japan had gained new territories: Korea, which was formally annexed in 1910, and Taiwan.
Before the Meiji period, the Japanese society was a strict class system. Nobody could escape from the class into which he was born - a completely inflexible society. And while the upper classes were educated in such elevated fields like Chinese literature, the common people were illiterate. The Meiji reforms were radical. Here are only a few to be mentioned:
The most visible changes were those in architecture, transportation, clothes (Western fashion) and in the ugly appearance of factories, roads and power poles in the course of the quick industrialization of the country.
The traditional view of Japanese cities like Tokyo was soon changed by the appearance of modern Western stone buildings - banks, department stores and government sites. The majority of the Japanese people changed their outfit from the traditional kimono to Western clothes. The textile industry - comparable to the situation in today's China - was the first industry to boom.
The quick economic development was based both on large private enterprises owned by Japanese family clans for centuries like the Mitsui, Mitsubishi or Sumitomo, and on entrepreneurial operations owned and managed by the Japanese government. The oligarch families like the Mitsui and Mitsubishi cooperated closely with the government and vice versa. It was basically the same pattern that the world experienced during the economic boom in Japan after world war II.
Author: Dieter Wanczura
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