Meiji Restoration (1868-1912)

The Meiji Restoration brought enormous changes in Japan’s structure. It eliminated the Tokugawa Shogunate, which allowed the emperor to regain full power, and transformed Japan from a feudal system to a modern state. The new era established the Meiji Constitution, which created a new structure for the government and laws, reformed the military and education system, experienced westernization and was the catalyst towards industrialization. However, it cannot be completely considered as a revolution. Although there were changes in the nature of Japan’s economic and social system, and some aspects proved itself to be a complete transformation, a few were still practiced traditionally, mainly the political structure.

Also, a revolution is defined as ‘a quick and complete overthrow or repudiation of an established government or political system through replacement by the people governed’, and although there were major changes, it was by no means a quick and complete change.

It is without a doubt that the new government created by the Meiji constitution of 1889, a Prussian like constitution, appeared to have had drastic changes.

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Their aim was to build Japan into ‘A Rich Country, A Strong Army’ and achieve national unity, and westernization was inevitable since westernization presented itself a universal path of progress. To introduce a new and centralized government authority, known as the Prefecture System, the Meiji Government abolished the Han system in 1871. Undoubtedly, there were obvious transformations. The new government was now based on a national assembly, an appointive Council of Advisors (Sangi), and eight Ministries: Civil Affair/Home Ministry, Foreign Affairs, Finance, War, Imperial Household, Justice, Public Works and Education.

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The emperor was the central symbol of the political system, for example being able to exercise all executive authority, being in supreme command of the navy and army and the right to suspend temporarily the Diet ( the bicameral legislature), unlike before.

He was the only one who could make amendments to the constitution, dissolve the Lower House and present ordinances when the Diet is not present in the session. The imperial government now consisted of Genro (elder statesmen), Military Boards, War and Navy ministers, Prime Minister, Cabinet, Privy Council and the Diet. The Lower house of the legislature was elected by males paying taxes of 15 yen or mor, which was only around 5 percent of the male population, and the Upper house was to serve as a check on the Lower House The decision-making in the government was restricted to a closed oligarchy of around 20 individuals from Satsuma, Chōshū, Tosa, Hizen clans and from the Imperial Court .

However, political power was simply seen as being changed from the Tokugawa Shogun to an oligarchy consisting of themselves and the transformation proved itself slow as they spent a lot of time getting consensus on what type of constitution they wanted. Some rejected democracy, others disputed about which type of western constitution to follow. This illustrated their belief in the more traditional practice of imperial rule, whereby the emperor performs his high priestly duties and his ministers govern the nation in his name, and was just their intention of restoring the ancient administration of Japan, which was a restoration, not a complete change.

Education was another element that witnessed great modification, but was not a complete change. Unlike before, the new Meiji government stressed the need for universal public education to spread western and modern ideas. The Ministry of Education was established in 1871, and the school system began to be based on the American structure, with a utilitarian system, and with a centrally controlled school administration similar to the French one. However, the early educational system met many oppositions and a new curriculum was established which emphasized conservative, traditional ideals more reflective of Japanese values. Confucian principles were stressed, especially those relating to the hierarchical nature of human relations, service to the Meiji state, the pursuit of learning, and morality, which proved that they still kept the guiding philosophy of the Tokugawa era.

The Meiji era also promoted women’s education through a separate girl’s system, unlike in the Tokugawa era, where girls were usually educated informally at home. The curriculum was based centrally on moral education, mathematics, reading and writing, composition, Japanese calligraphy, Japanese history, geography, science, drawing, singing, and physical education, which was a mix of the new and the old. Though this showed westernization in the education system, the process was also very slow in pace because there were many changes made throughout the Meiji era such as the change from an American model to a Prussian one, and the constant centralizing and decentralizing of the administration of education.

Industrialization is also another factor that can be considered a break from the past, but was not a straight line development. The industries in Japan were intoxicated with western thought as Story puts it ‘the entire apparatus of Western material civilization seemed to find some reproduction, some kind of echo, in Japan’ free from the Tokugawa beliefs. The Meiji government adopted a policy that stated she will develop Industries herself. It developed modern communications, constructed railways, established telegraphs, shipbuilding yards, gun-powder and munition factories, and artillery works and even created a Ministry of Industry in 1870 and a Department of Agriculture and Commerce in 1881. In addition silk-reeling plants, glass and chemical manufacturing plants, a cement works, a cotton-spinning factory and a sugar factory were established. In 1882, the first Japanese central bank (state bank) was created, through which the government regulated industrial growth. Through tariffs, tax policy and big quasi-public banks, the government set up indirect control over the economy.

Private companies that bought government industries known as zaibatsu (financial combines) boosted a wide range of economic activities such as banking and insurance. Private investments in textile industries were great and progressed fast and were even exported towards the end of the 19th century. Foreign loans were paid off and there were no further loans from foreigners. Since both domestic and foreign trade increased under industrialization, foreign economic exploitation were able to come to a halt, in contrast with their situation in the Tokugawa period, where they were victims of the western exploitation. Industrialization also demolished Japan’s traditional agricultural economy, where the local economically self sufficient society was substituted by increased agricultural commercialization and specialization. In spite of this, the development was relatively slow and successes tend to fluctuate and it was only after the Russo-Japanese War that Japan was able to enter a period of sustained industrial growth.

With such immense changes within the surface, it was without a doubt that that there was a great transformation for some of the populace. The standard of living in society improved and industrialization ameliorated the economic conditions of most people .A new social hierarchy was built and the country was rearranged into: nobles (kazoku), former samurai (shizoku and sotsu), farmers, merchants and artisans (heimin), and outcasts as ordinary citizens. However, the Samurai stilled experienced economic hardships, as they did in the Tokugawa period, and the change brought by the restoration proved revolutionary for them.

They lost their privileges, such as superior education, possession of bureaucratic office, stipends and sword bearing, which ultimately led to many revolts, one of which was led by Saigo Takamori, after the Korean controversy. Minor peasants also continued to suffer after the Tokugawa period, due to industrialization, and it can be seen that the government sacrificed their social needs to speed Japan’s national integration and capital accumulation, which did not prove a complete transformation for them.

Of course, there are many aspects in the Meiji restoration that can be considered a complete change, one of which was the military structure. It is evident Japan’s needs to enhance their military prowess was reflected by their military modernization and westernization. They altered the military structure to the extent that they established a small standing army, a large reserve system, and compulsory militia service for men, also known as conscription, which angered many samurai.

Foreign military systems were studied by cadets, foreign advisers were brought in, and many cadets were sent to Europe and the United states to study in their naval and military schools. They even carried out a policy called ‘Arming the Nation’ with the objective of foreign expansion. The Sino-Japanese war, 1894-1895, and the Russo-Japanese war, 1904-1905, which Japan received both victories, proved a break from the past for Japan. Before, its ruthless administration of the Tokugawa military administration combined with the rigid seclusion of the country, isolated Japan from westernization, but after the Meiji restoration, they were able to absorb western ideas, create a strong military and witness their rise to international power.

Legal reforms also proved itself to be another aspect that was a complete change. It was carried out with an intention to gain respectability and equality with the West. A series of new laws aiming to abolish extra-territoniality of the unequal treaties, such as the Criminal Code (1882), Civil Code (1898), and the Commercial Code (1899). Other changes in the judicial system also included the abolition of torture, the establishment of a trained judiciary, and the setting up of regulations of evidence and procedure for the courts. These achievements, along with Japan’s victory in the Sino-Japanese War 1895, allowed the obliteration of extraterritoriality in the late 1890s with the western states, and allowed Japan free from western burden which they had in the past.

In addition this change also influenced Japan’s modern bureaucracy. The oligarchs had put more attention on permanent civil service and in the late 1980s, under the advice of Yamagata Aritomoto, an examination system for government office was established, which only the elite could have succeeded in passing. This also showed a great modification within the government because during the Tokugawa period, samurais could depend on favoritism and influential friends in the government for an advancement in government service, which proved itself futile during the Meiji period.

In addition, other minor reforms were made which changed both Japan’s society and ideology. These included religious reforms which lifted the ban on Christianity and encouraged Shintoism, with the old traditional Buddhism still very popular. The constitution itself allowed the populace to have freedom of movement, freedom of speech, assembly and association, privacy of correspondence, private property and the rights to not have one’s house searched or entered. Others newly established right, although less conditional, include right to trial before a judge, freedom of religion (“within limits not prejudicial to peace and order, and not antagonistic to their duties as subjects”) and the right to petition governmentIn conclusion the period after the Meiji restoration cannot be constituted as a revolution, primarily because of its slow process.

It is indeed that Japan experienced vast changes due to westernization and industrialization, which shaped their education, military and political structure. However, as mentioned before, a revolution is a quick and complete change, and the process of transformation was not at all rapid. The political changes took years to complete, and there were frequent alterations in the education system. It was only after the Russo-Japanese war that Japan’s economic activities were able to stabilize and the change they sought for, such as the abolishment of extra-territoniality and unequal treaties, took almost forty years. In addition, Japan’s transformation, although large, was not entire. There were still a mixture of traditional element in their political structure, and their education system was not completely westernized, with a blend of traditional Japanese values. Society continued to be marked by the juxtaposition of the old and the new,


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Meiji Restoration (1868-1912). (2016, Jul 30). Retrieved from

Meiji Restoration (1868-1912)

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