The Meiji Restoration
The following essay discusses the Meiji Era and its definitive effect on Japan and its course of history. It seeks to investigate the historical background of the Tokugawa period that precipitated the Meiji restoration. It will also outline the features of the restoration that could place it on the pedestal of ‘revolution’ and how the restoration retained a traditional element.
The history of Tokugawa depicts a society that was unwittingly responsible for its destruction. Urbanization and proliferate commercialization provided unparalleled amount of wealth for the limited amount of elites. However, in its wake it left a trajectory of increasing corruption. Inevitably, the Tokugawa era faced a horde of setbacks. The abundant gold that fueled the riches dwindled rather swiftly (Lu, 1997). Further, they lacked proper control over their territory and taxation. Frequent peasant uprisings and urban riots compounded social unrest, causing more problems for Tokugawa government. The merchants prospered by taking advantage of the daimyo and the samurai. The samurai sought to disrupt the status quo.
A two-pronged strategy emerged. The strategy encompassed two major reforms: the Kansei reforms (1787-1793) and the Tempo reforms (1841-1843). The Kansei reforms were stifled and could not make it past the tenure of ‘roju’ Matsudaira Sadanobu. The Tempo reforms were snuffed out by the abrupt eviction of its focal instigator, Mizuno Tadakuni, from office (Lu, 1997). However, they managed to have an effect nevertheless. They inspired the samurai to the pursuit of military arts and austerity for all classes of people. Farmers found themselves quarantined in their villages. Trade associations disbanded arbitrarily. Prices of certain goods were reduced compulsorily. The bakufu endeavored to exhort direct control over commercial activities. Unfortunately for them, their attempts were botched. The concerted power wielded by the Osaka and Edo merchants was an irrepressible force. Also, the efforts to fuse private domains and lands in the Osaka and Edo sphere and place them in the tenryo failed as well. The Tokugawa retainers and peasants objected. They would have been the biggest losers if these measures came in effect. The failure of the Tempo reforms illuminated the intrinsic weakness of the bakufu as the ruling power.
At its tail end, the Tokugawa bakufu was plagued by ineffective leadership at its summit, evidenced in the person of the shogun (Lu, 1997). Inevitable succession clashes divided the daimyo into two belligerent factions. Then Commodore Perry forced a door into Japan, revealing an underbelly the bakufu and the samurai were oblivious to. Japan immediately became stratified into the camps of joi (eject the barbarians) and kaikoku (open the country). External and internal problems gave the avenue for the opportunistic tozama han to contest the sovereignty of the bakufu. They contested and later supplanted the power of the bakufu (Lu, 1997). They were able to achieve this by employing the samurai as their ‘shibboleth’ Sonno Joi (Respect the Emperor and Eject the Barbarians). The point was not to revolt against the feudal system but to revitalize the old systems and institutions.
The samurai was the cement that held the Tokugawa society together. Ironically, two and a half centuries of peace made the samurai somewhat soft. They had become accustomed to lavish lifestyles in castles and grown attached to the finer things in life. They ignored their military prerogative and sunk deeper into their comfort zones. Inadvertently, this triggered a whirlpool of corruption (Lu, 1997). Economic conditions in the daimyo deteriorated and increased unbearable taxes on the peasants went unabated. This, in turn, has triggered some social uprisings, leaving Japan even more vulnerable. Japan’s vulnerability was soon underscored by the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry at Edo Bay.
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The West proceeded to demonstrate their Navy superiority to Japan. Japan could not protect itself. It could neither defend its coast, nor its maritime food supply that fed a million people in Edo (Lu, 1997). The Japanese people had to wake up to the reality. They had to focus on the external enemy, regardless of their internal turmoils. Japan renewed her vintage samurai warrior spirit and formed an unforgettable mantra (sonno joi) (Lu, 1997). As a consequence of Perry’s arrival, the Choshu and the Satsuma allied to exile the Tokugawa shogunate. Moreover, administrative power was handed to the Emperor Meiji. Thus, the Meiji era was born. Its ripple effect was a chain of events that history calls the ‘Meiji Restoration.’
The Meiji government discovered that if Japan were to stand a chance in guaranteeing its sovereignty, it needed to abandon feudalism and embrace a central government. Further, Japan would have to mimic its political, military and economic structures from those of the West. Moreover, Japan would have to learn Western technologies (Lu, 1997). Perry, with his show of Western power, inadvertently drove Japan into the turning point of modernization. Under the slogan fukoku kyohei (National Wealth and Military Strength) and flourishing industries and start-up businesses, Japan rose to become a military power by 1905 (Lewis, 1996). The country needed to industrialize their economy if they were to modernize their military. Japan started by improving its infrastructure. Telegraph lines, railways, as well as new shipping routes to domestic port cities began slowly emerging. Additionally, Japan created and established some crucial industries such as coal, mining, textiles, steel, and cement plants. From a political perspective, members of the government traveled abroad on an ambitious mission. They were to learn everything about the Western governments, technologies, customs and their economies. The government also hired experts from the Western countries and sent young samurai to study overseas. The idea was to amplify their knowledge of Western industrial techniques and processes. As a direct result, new political and economic structures got their attention from the Iwakura mission. The German model stood out among others. (Lewis, 1996). In 1889, the Meiji Constitution was formulated. Like the example that is was based on, the German system, the constitution decreed autocratic power to the Emperor. Voting rights were severely limited. However, a very Western-style bureaucratic system was created and crafted to supervise the navy, army, and education system. Western technologies were favored in the modernization of the military, effectively making the samurai obsolete.
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The Meiji restoration is a revolution in every sense of the word. In a three year period (1866-1869) the Tokugawa shogunate was completely replaced by the Meiji Era. The established feudal system was disposed in favor of a central government, resulting in a complete transformation of Japan’s political, economic and social structures. The endorsement of the Meiji Constitution made provisions for a bicameral parliament. The constitution legally destroyed the classes or the caste system (Lu, 1997). However, Japan’s political arena retained its air of tradition by mixing the Western ideals and its institutions with local philosophy and mentality. Their modernized military may have replaced the samurai customs, but the ideals of military prowess had their roots in very traditional samurai, warriors who had won their country for Tokugawa Ieyasu. The newly created military had a similar mission. They were to win their country back from the influence of the West (Lu, 1997). Furthermore, the class system persisted in the background of the society.
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Despite the reforms that the constitution had striven to instigate, there was still a sharp distinction between the elite and the laymen. Literacy increased and many women in Japan could finally enjoy what was before exclusive to men (Lewis, 1996). However, women still occupied primarily secondary roles in the society. In an austere case in 1898, Japanese women were prohibited from political involvement and were legally considered minors.
From the economic point of view, milestones were achieved in the efforts of industrialization. New industries were created. Transportation and communication sectors received a new breath of life, with new railways being built and telegraph lines created. Industrialization was apparent on all fronts. However, even from the economic viewpoint, traditionalism was still present. The economy remained largely dependent on the agriculture (Lu, 1997).Traditional Japanese values were also conveyed in the new system of education. Despite the fact that it was influenced by the Western practices and theory, the education system stressed on the values of samurai loyalty and benefits of social harmony. Art and literature at first tried to imitate the Western style, but later a blend of Western and the traditional Japanese styles was actualized.
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The Meiji restoration rightfully deserves a status of a ‘revolution’, solely based on the significance of change that it stimulated. The economic and military development of Japan allowed it to become a victorious power in the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars (Lewis, 1996). These wars cemented Japan’s place as an island nation with imperialistic ambitions and military power to reckon with. Japan developed into an eastern imperial power, with the ability to lay claim to territories of China and Korea.
The Meiji Restoration remains one of the most significant turning points in all of Japan’s history. It raised Japan to the most powerful nation in Asia. In 1894, it could negate the unequal treaties that granted the foreign powers certain benefits. These excesses were primarily judicial powers and economic privileges. The West was forced to renegotiate (Lu, 1997). Thus, the Meiji restoration achieved its primary purpose. Japan was well on its way to forcing the western influence out of its territories. As a result, Japan gathered a lot of respect from the Western world and appeared for the first time as a major world power.