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Why the Meiji Restoration Was Pivotal for Japan

Meiji Japan was not a liberal paradise. But the country in 1900 was notably freer, more industrialized and prosperous, and substantially more modern than it had been just three decades earlier.

By guest author Lawrence W. Reed
March 5, 2024

Isolation, feudalism, and military dictatorship governed the Asian nation of Japan from 1603 until 1868. Known as the period of the Tokugawa Shogunate, its dissolution was hastened by the stunning appearance of Commodore Matthew Perry’s flotilla of American warships in 1853. He demanded that the Japanese government in Tokyo allow its citizens to trade with Western merchants.

Perry, a native of Rhode Island, is often presented in textbooks as the Pacific vanguard of American imperialism, a disturber of the peace who threatened the Japanese way of life. There is some truth to that, but it’s not as negative as it appears on the surface. Many Japanese welcomed contact with America and other Western trading nations. They saw Perry’s arrival as liberating. Every year, the event is celebrated at festivals in both Newport, Rhode Island, and in Shimoda, Japan, as the beginning of a long friendship interrupted only by the tragedy of World War II.

Traditionalists and nationalists in Japan, of course, resented Western intrusion. Their views would later justify a military build-up to ensure the country’s sovereignty and to thwart the “unequal treaties” Westerners imposed on the country. That build-up would eventually fuel Japanese ambitions for imperialist adventures abroad.

In the 15 years that followed Perry’s venture, the grip of the military dictatorship in Tokyo declined. Civil war erupted. When the smoke cleared in the first few days of January 1868, the shogunate was gone and a coup d’etat ushered in a new era of dramatic change. We call it the Reform Period, or the era of the Meiji Restoration.

That seminal event brought 14-year-old Mutsuhito to the throne, known as Emperor Meiji (a term meaning “enlightened rule”). He reigned for the next 44 years. His tenure proved to be perhaps the most consequential of Japan’s 122 emperors to that time. The country transformed itself from feudal isolation to a freer economy: engaged with the world and more tolerant at home.

In 1867, Japan was a closed country with both feet firmly planted in the past. A half-century later, it was a major world power. This remarkable transition begins with the Meiji Restoration. Let’s look at its reforms that remade the nation.

For centuries, Japan’s emperor possessed little power. His was a largely ceremonial post, with real authority resting in the hands of a shogun or, before that, multiple warlords. The immediate effect of the Meiji Restoration was to put the emperor back on the throne as the nation’s supreme governor.

In April 1868, the new regime issued the “Charter Oath,” outlining the ways Japan’s political and economic life would be reformed. It called for representative assemblies, an end to “evil” practices of the past such as class discrimination and restrictions on choice of employment, and an openness to foreign cultures and technologies.

After mopping up the rebellious remnants of the old shogunate, Emperor Meiji settled into his role as supreme spiritual leader of the Japanese, leaving his ministers to govern the country in his name. One of them, Mori Arinori, played a key role in liberalizing Japan. I regard Arinori as “the Tocqueville of Japan” for his extensive travels and keen observations about America.

The Meiji administration inherited the immediate challenge of a raging price inflation brought on by the previous government’s debasement of coinage. The oval-shaped koban, once almost pure gold, was so debauched that merchants preferred to use old counterfeits of it instead of the newer, debased issues. In 1871, the New Currency Act was passed which introduced the yen as the country’s medium of exchange and tied it firmly to gold. Silver served as subsidiary coinage.

A sounder currency brought stability to the monetary system and helped build the foundation for remarkable economic progress. Other important reforms also boosted growth and confidence in a new Japan. Bureaucratic barriers to commerce were streamlined, and an independent judiciary established. Citizens were granted freedom of movement within the country.

The new openness to the world resulted in Japanese studying abroad and foreigners investing in Japan. British capital, for instance, helped the Japanese build important railway lines between Tokyo and Kyoto and from those cities to major ports in the 1870s. The new environment encouraged the Japanese people themselves to save and invest as well.

For centuries, the warrior class (the samurai) were renowned for their skill, discipline, and courage in battle. They could also be brutal and loyal to powerful, local landowners. Numbering nearly two million by the late 1860s, the samurai represented competing power centers to the Meiji government. To ensure that the country wouldn’t disintegrate into chaos or military rule, the emperor took the extraordinary step of abolishing the samurai by edict. Some were incorporated into the new national army, while others found employment in business and various professions. Carrying a samurai sword was officially banned in 1876.

In 1889, the Meiji Constitution took effect. It created a legislature called the Imperial Diet, consisting of a House of Representatives and a House of Peers (similar to Britain’s House of Lords). Political parties emerged, though the ultimate supremacy of the emperor, at least on paper, was not seriously questioned. This nonetheless was Japan’s first experience with popularly elected representatives. The Constitution lasted until 1947, when American occupation led to a new one devised under the supervision of General Douglas MacArthur.

Modernization in this era of reform produced Western-style laws governing taxation, banking, and commerce. The old feudal order dissolved into a largely market economy, private property, and the rise of Japanese entrepreneurship. Communications throughout Japan were updated. Stock exchanges materialized. By century’s end, Japan was a unified powerhouse—able to decisively defeat powerful adversaries like China (1894) and Russia (1905) in war.

Meiji Japan was not a liberal paradise. The government tolerated only token criticism. What the Imperial Diet could actually enact was restricted by the Emperor and his ministers. Education, though far more widely available, was controlled by the government. Compulsory military service was introduced. Voting for public offices was limited to a tiny portion of the population, mostly the wealthy. Taxes were high, in part because the government spent heavily on infrastructure and the military.

But the country in 1900 was notably freer, more industrialized and prosperous, and substantially more modern than it had been just three decades earlier. Even a little freedom goes a long way to unleash the creative energies of people.

Emperor Meiji died in 1912, ending the era named for him. His successor, Emperor Taisho, presided over an increasingly expansionist foreign policy. With the European powers busy at war from 1914 to 1918, Japan began making resource and territorial demands on China and the Pacific. In that regard, the Japanese emulated some of the imperialist practices of Germany and Britain in the region—a policy that would eventually lead to war with America.

With ominous implications, the Meiji Period’s nascent measures toward democratic institutions were nipped in the bud as the military’s influence grew in the 1930s. You know what happened next.

In his definitive volume on the era, W. G. Beasley describes the Meiji Restoration as “the historical starting point for the modernization of Japan.” Underscoring the rapidity of the change, Beasley notes that “Japan was able within a generation to claim a place among the powerful and ‘enlightened’ countries of the world.”

To understand modern Japan, one cannot ignore the era that made modernization possible, the Meiji Restoration of 1868-1912.

The Meiji Restoration and History of Japan’s Rapid Modernization (video) by the Pacific War Channel

15 Important Periods in Japanese History by Ava Sato

The Meiji Restoration by W. G. Beasley

The Meiji Restoration and Modernization by Columbia University’s Asia for Educators

This piece was originally posted on FEE.org, you can find the original here.