Meiji Restoration: Modern East Asia #5

The Meiji Restoration (1869-1912) was a successful process of modernization and industrialization in late 19th century Japan. Named after the Meiji Emperor, the period began with his successful consolidation of power during the Boshin War. The Restoration allowed Japan to enter the world stage as a legitimate power and set stage for its later imperialistic ambitions.

The Meiji Oligarchy

During the Boshin War, the shogun was overthrown and replaced by the Emperor. Although the Emperor was supposedly the head of state, however, once again the true power was in the hands of someone else: the Meiji oligarchy. The Meiji oligarchy consisted of only about twenty people, made up of the leaders of the Boshin War. The government was made up of a Council of Advisors and several executive Ministries. This new government set out to modernize Japan. They hired hundreds of Western advisors to the government who helped Japan adopt Western ideals, culture and technology until 1899.

Political and Class Reform

The Meiji oligarchy first worked to destroy the class system in Japan. The new government seized lands that were either directly controlled by the shogun or by loyal daimyo, and reorganized those territories into prefectures. This comprised of about a quarter of Japan’s territory. In 1869, the rest of the domains were turned into prefectures.

The prefectures of 1871 Japan.

The daimyo became governors of their former domains and still enjoyed extra rights such as keeping an amount of the tax revenues for themselves, but in 1871 the government took this privilege away from them and instead gave them government bonds. The prefectures were redrawn as well. In 1873 the Japanese government initiated a sweeping land reform. Private land ownership was implemented in Japan for the first time, and land taxes were to be paid in cash, unlike the rice that daimyo had to pay to the shogun. The land tax rate was around 3%. Although the Japanese government was able to collect a good amount of tax revenue, this tax rate was very burdensome for farmers. By the year 1900, about 40% of Japan’s farmers had been forced to become tenants for wealthy landlords.

They also took on the samurai. Now that the daimyo were gone and the samurai had nobody to serve, they were rewarded with stipends in 1873, replaced by bonds in 1876. But the government took more deliberate steps to completely get rid of the samurai class; for example, all men received the right to bear arms, therefore removing the primary difference between samurai and commoners. However, the samurai were still able to join the government as military leaders, and these people became the leaders of Japanese military reform.

Samurai rebels of the Satsuma Rebellion surrender to the Japanese Imperial Army.

Throughout the 1860s and 70s, the Japanese military changed drastically, adopting Western weapons and technology. Through the Tokyo and Osaka Arsenals, the quality of Japanese weaponry improved dramatically. In 1873, conscription for Japanese men above the age of 21 became required, making 4 years of military service compulsory.

The new Japanese Imperial Army was put to test in 1877, when a sect of angry unemployed samurai revolted in Satsuma. They were crushed by the Japanese army, proving their new strength. Every rebel was either killed or captured. This put a complete end to the samurai class.

Learning from the West

The diplomatic Iwakura Mission.

While Japan self-strengthened, they also focused on foreign affairs. Although Japan had decided that they could not beat the West and thus had to join them, they wanted to join them as equals. From 1871 to 1873, a team of Japanese diplomats, including future Prime Minister Ito Hirobumi, traveled around the world in the Iwakura Mission, hoping to renegotiate the terms of their previous Unequal Treaties. They traveled to the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Russia, Germany, and other European countries, but no useful diplomatic results were made.

However, the members of the Iwakura Mission did bring back various Western technologies and ideas, which the Japanese quickly adopted. A national, compulsory education system was introduced, built after the German model. Japanese companies began to import Western technology and begin their own businesses. Japan’s industrial sector grew surprisingly rapidly, contributing to the fast growth of cities. From 1873 to 1886, Tokyo’s population increased from 595,000 to 1,212,000. Capitalism grew in the country as Japanese entrepreneurs began to invest, an effort which the Japanese government often supported financially in order to encourage economic growth. Ships, tea, silk, and weapons among others were produced.

Industry and Economy

Coal production also became significant. By 1875 Japan was producing 0.6 metric tons of coal, and that number was doubled ten years later. The coal was put to use by building steamships and railroads. By 1883, Japan had laid 240 miles of railroad tracks. The Japanese government built a network of roads and telegraphs, which, by 1880, connected all major Japanese cities.

Japan also underwent currency reform. During the Shogunate era, each domain had their own currency. In 1871, the Japanese government tried to unify the currency into the Japanese yen. However, the prefectures kept printing their own money in private banks, causing confusion. In 1881, the Bank of Japan was founded, which was granted monopoly on providing money supply by the government in 1884, solving the issue with currency confusion.

The Meiji Constitution

But in its modernization efforts, there was still something that Japan was missing: democracy. By the 1880s, the Japanese people were calling out for democracy and the removal of the Meiji oligarchy. The Freedom and People’s Rights Movement led the effort, demanding the creation of an elected legislature, the revision of Unequal Treaties, the institution of civil rights, and the reduction in taxes. And they succeeded in 1889; sort of.

The Meiji Constitution of 1889 made the Empire of Japan a constitutional monarchy that was based on the German model, which still kept the Emperor as the head of state with actual power, though separation of power was implemented. The Emperor had supreme command of the military and could appoint the members of the cabinet, the head of which was the Prime Minister. The Emperor could also appoint judges in courts. A Parliament was created as a bicameral legislature; the upper house, the House of Peers, was made up of members of the Imperial family, and they were appointed and dismissed by the Emperor. The lower house, the House of Representatives, which the Emperor could dissolve, was elected by limited male suffrage. Essentially, the Emperor had control over all three branches of government. Theoretically, the Emperor could only act upon cabinet approval, but the Emperor was the one who appointed members of the cabinet in the first place.

The New Japan

A fully industrialized Tokyo in 1905.

The new Constitution also gave citizens new responsibilities and rights. They were required to uphold the Constitution, pay taxes, and serve in the military if needed. Their rights included freedom of movement, protection from the searching of their residence, privacy of correspondence, right to private property, freedom of speech, assembly, petition, and association, right to be appointed to public offices, due process, a judge trial, and freedom of religion. However, the right to vote was limited to male landowners, therefore alienating the 30% of tenants in the country as well as about half of the entire population — women.

Although Japanese citizens had now gained many of the rights that can be seen in the U.S. Bill of Rights, the political process was still far from democratic and the government was still controlled by an oligarchy. Nonetheless, in the short time between 1868 and 1890, Japan rapidly modernized, their population increasing by roughly ten million people.  Japan managed to become economically independent, exporting textiles all around the world and competing with Europe for shipping. With a booming industry and economy, Japan successfully transformed itself from a rural, feudal nation to an industrialized, modern one in just two decades.

But other countries were not so lucky. Just across the sea from Japan, a nation was struggling to keep up with the West — that less fortunate neighbor was Korea. To learn about the situation in contemporary Korea, please go to this page. Thanks for reading.