Japan’s Meiji Restoration

After two-and-a-half centuries of increasingly ineffective shogunal rule, the emperor of Japan was restored to power by committed politicians and lower-ranking samurai who feared encroachment by the Western powers if Japan’s government were to become too weak. The Meiji emperor instituted a policy of Westernization that allowed Japan to rise to become a world power in the next century.

Summary of Event

While the Japanese imperial line could be traced back to quasi-historical times as early as the fifth or sixth century, military dictators, or shoguns, held most political power in Japan from 1192 until 1867. These regents supposedly ruled in the name of the emperor, but in reality an emperor usually had little control over a shogun. The power of the shogunate reached its apogee once the various feudal domains of the country were unified in 1600, ending almost one hundred years of civil war. This unification was completed by the Tokugawa family, which dominated the Japanese government for the next 250 years, supplying the nation with fifteen hereditary shoguns beginning in 1603. Until the nineteenth century, these shoguns kept control over the several hundred vassal warlords (daimyos) and their domains, ruling from the eastern city of Edo (modern day Tokyo Tokyo ), while the imperial court continued its rituals and ceremonies from the southern city of Kyōto, the ancient capital. Japan;Meiji era
Meiji Restoration (1868)
[kw]Japan’s Meiji Restoration (Jan. 3, 1868)
[kw]Meiji Restoration, Japan’s (Jan. 3, 1868)
[kw]Restoration, Japan’s Meiji (Jan. 3, 1868)
Japan;Meiji era
Meiji Restoration (1868)
[g]Japan;Jan. 3, 1868: Japan’s Meiji Restoration[4140]
[c]Government and politics;Jan. 3, 1868: Japan’s Meiji Restoration[4140]
Tokugawa Yoshinobu
Ii Naosuke
Sakamoto Ryōma
Saigō Takamori
Kido Takayoshi
Ōkubo Toshimichi

The emperor Mutsuhito around 1904.

(Library of Congress)

Ironically, in some ways the Tokugawa shoguns were undermined by their own success. The centuries of peace they brought about sapped the military vigor of the ruthless samurai warriors who had unified Japan. The Tokugawa gradually became more proficient as administrators than as fighters, and by the early nineteenth century signs of weakness were beginning to show. Droughts, Droughts;Japanese famines, Famines;Japanese and other natural disasters wreaked havoc with the nation’s economy, and the Tokugawa shoguns could do little to help. Peasants starved, and many samurai were dismissed by their warlords, as the central government tried to squeeze more tribute from the local domains. Many of these young disgruntled samurai became the vanguard of the Meiji revolution that was to come.

The immediate cause of the Tokugawa government’s collapse, however, was the increasing presence of Westerners in the islands. In 1853, Commodore Matthew C. Perry Perry, Matthew C. and his squadron of U.S. Navy Navy, U.S.;and Japan[Japan] steamships forced their way into Edo Bay, demanding trade and other privileges. Other Western powers followed, and the country flew into a panic. Having seen what happened to China and other Asian countries after concessions had been extracted from them, samurai from three distant domains—Satsuma, Chōshū, and Tosa—began to consider the overthrow of the Tokugawa shogun and the restoration of the emperor to true power. The phrase sonnō jōi—“revere the Emperor, expel the barbarians”—became a nationalist rallying cry.

The shogun asked Ii Naosuke Ii Naosuke , a loyal vassal, to quell dissent in the ranks and negotiate more favorable treaties with the Westerners. Although he was initially successful, Ii’s assassination in 1860 encouraged other patriots and idealistic young samurai to further action. While most warlords stood on the sidelines to see how the situation would be resolved, Chōshū forces rebelled and tried to take the emperor’s palace by force. Saigō Takamori Saigō Takamori negotiated a settlement between the Chōshū domain and the shogun, but it was clear that a revolution was coming. With Saigō andŌkubo Toshimichi Ōkubo Toshimichi acting for Satsuma, Kido Takayoshi acting for Chōshū, and Sakamoto Sakamoto Ryōma Ryōma acting for Tosa, a strong if cautious and ambivalent alliance between these domains was struck. (History remembers Saigō, Kido, andŌkubo as the Three Heroes of the Meiji Restoration.)

At the same time, the death of the childless shogun placed the Tokugawa order of succession into question. The appointment of Tokugawa Tokugawa Yoshinobu Yoshinobu as shogun precipitated action, as it was thought that his support by Westerners would make him too powerful to overthrow later. When Yoshinobu proved unwilling or unable to expel the Westerners—as was demanded of him by the emperor and other warlords—the rebellious domains issued an ultimatum, ordering his resignation. The shogun complied, resigning in November, 1867. On January 3, 1868, Satsuma forces stormed the imperial palace in Kyōto and declared that the fifteen-year-old emperor, Mutsuhito Mutsuhito , was restored to power. The young emperor issued an edict supporting their action after the fact and chose as his imperial name Meiji, or “enlightened rule.” While the civil war did not actually end until June 27, 1869, when forces loyal to the shogun in the northern island of Hokkaido finally surrendered, it was clear by early 1868 that power had shifted and the shogunate had collapsed.

The decade after the reinstatement of imperial rule was one of drastic change and social experiment. Almost overnight, centuries-old institutions were torn down in an attempt instantly to modernize Japan. It was believed, ironically, that a modernized Japan would be less vulnerable to Western encroachment. Many momentous changes took place as a result. Feudalism was abolished, altering both Japan’s system of government and its basic social structure. There had been four social classes officially established in Tokugawa Japan: samurai warriors, farmers, artisans, and merchants, as well as nobles and a small group of social outcastes. These distinctions were abolished, and the 6 percent of the population that had been samurai lost both their swords and their privileges.

The feudal domains were eliminated—as were their daimyos. The domains became prefectures, administratively similar to states or provinces in the West. With the disappearance of the feudal domains, however, the central government needed a new source of income, so a new system of taxation was devised. Land values were assessed, and a national land tax of 3 percent was implemented.

Once the samurai were eliminated, it became necessary to find a new way to defend the country. Universal military conscription Conscription;Japanese was therefore established, as was compulsory education designed to provide both warriors and workers with necessary skills and talents. Finally, the new government pledged to learn from the world, especially the West. Several missions were sent abroad, and foreign experts from many technical fields and the humanities began to be imported. The distinctions between what was “modern” and what was “Western”—though sometimes contentiously debated—were often ignored in the race to make Japan as strong a power as possible in the shortest period of time.


In a sense, the name Meiji Restoration is misleading, as the emperor reigned more than he ruled. True power lay in the strong executive branch and in the fledging houses of the new imperial diet. Still, with the power to make important political appointments and to oversee the military, the emperor was more than just the symbolic figurehead he had been in Tokugawa Japan.

While the Meiji Restoration eliminated some of the gross inequities of the old feudal system, the rapid modernization it instituted was not without cost. Many farmers suffered because of the new tax code and the loss of manpower due to the draft. Instant industrialization caused the same urban and social problems that plagued Europe and America, only more quickly. Some important early revolutionary leaders—such as Saigō Takamori Saigō—became disenchanted with the new Meiji government and withdrew their support or openly rebelled. Still, with the restoration of imperial rule, the system of governing by shoguns and warlords was eliminated. This made possible the reforms necessary for Japan to become a major international economic and military power. By the time the Meiji period ended just before World War I, Japan was indeed a world power.

Further Reading

  • Akamatsu, Paul. Meiji, 1868: Revolution and Counter-revolution in Japan. New York: Harper & Row, 1972. An older but detailed account, covering the whole set of changes in government, from the Tokugawa reforms in the 1840’s to the last civil uprising in 1877.
  • Jansen, Marius. The Making of Modern Japan. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. Perhaps the best single-volume history of modern Japan by one of the period’s most knowledgeable American historians. Jansen gives a very detailed but understandable explanation of how the imperial restoration occurred.
  • _______. Sakamoto Ryōma and the Meiji Restoration. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1961. A classic study of the mind-set of the pro-imperial reformers and their world.
  • Keene, Donald. Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. An exhaustive biography, using official Japanese records, of the young emperor who was restored to power, written by America’s premier specialist on Japanese literature.
  • Ravina, Mark. The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigō Takamori. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, 2004. A biography of one of the most colorful characters of the restoration, on whom the Tom Cruise movie of the same name is (very) loosely based.
  • Walthall, Anne. The Weak Body of a Useless Woman: Matsuo Taseko and the Meiji Restoration. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. A rare glimpse of the revolution through the eyes of a peasant woman, who was enshrined as the exemplar “good wife and wise woman” by later nationalists.
  • Wilson, George. Patriots and Redeemers in Japan: Motives in the Meiji Restoration. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992. Wilson takes the view that the restoration was a redemptive millenarian social movement as much as a political power struggle.

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