Meiji Restoration: Causes & Effects

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  • 0:04 The Shogunate Before
  • 0:59 Major Causes
  • 2:18 Major Achievements
  • 3:33 Effects
  • 5:28 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erin Carroll

Erin has taught English and History. She has a bachelor's degree in History, and a master's degree in International Relations

The Meiji Restoration transformed Japan into something new: a modern nation-state. We'll look closely at the causes, the major accomplishments, and the effects of the Meiji Restoration.

The Shogunate Before

From 1603 to 1868 Japan was a feudal society with a hierarchy of lords, samurai, and peasants. A military dictator, or shogun, ruled over everyone. The shogun was a member of the Tokugawa clan, so this time was known as the Tokugawa shogunate. Although Japan also had an emperor hanging around, the emperor had little to no power. The nation was closed off to foreigners.

But in 1867, the 15th Tokugawa shogun resigned, and by 1868, the Meiji Restoration had begun. It was led by young samurai who saw the need for change. The emperor was reinstated as sovereign, and he took the name Meiji. 'Restoration' sounds like you're going back, making things look how they used to look. You know, like old cars polished and souped-up to look like new again. However, the Meiji Restoration was a total reinvention of Japan.

The Major Causes

There were three main causes of the Meiji Restoration:

First, internal problems in Japan made ruling the country too difficult. The feudal system was decaying, and factions were growing. Reinstating the emperor legitimized the movement by connecting it to an old tradition that encouraged everyone to unify.

Second, outside pressure from foreigners convinced the Japanese that they needed to modernize quickly. Japan watched China get pummeled and humiliated by the British for trying to prevent the Brits from selling opium. Then, in 1853, United States commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay with four war ships and massive guns. He demanded that Japan open itself up for international trade. The Japanese had no weapons to match the American firepower, so they had to agree with Perry's demand.

Japan and its people did not like this feeling of helplessness. They saw that they needed to strengthen themselves to stand up to the Western powers - and with China humiliated, there was an opportunity to become the new big dog in Asia.

Third, Japan started building kokutai, which means national essence. The idea of nationalism and the nation-state was growing. A nation-state is a country where the population shares a common national and cultural identity. It's easy to assume that nation-states have always existed, but they didn't really until the 19th century.

Major Achievements

The Meiji Restoration completely transformed Japan by modernizing the country. First, the capital was moved from Kyoto to Edo, which became known as Tokyo. Then, the leaders of the restoration really went to work.

They were able to create a centralized and bureaucratic government that created the Meiji Constitution in 1889. The constitution was presented as a gift from the emperor, and it created a two-house parliament called the Imperial Diet. Eligible Japanese voters elected the members of the Diet. This made the Japanese government look a little bit like a Western-style government.

The feudal system was swept away, along with its strict class system. At the same time, universal education was introduced to Japan. Schooling combined Western ideas with Japanese culture. So all of a sudden, Japan had a highly educated population with more social mobility.

The national army was created in 1871, and universal conscription meant that every Japanese man needed to serve in the military. Japan also built a strong navy. Finally, industrialization became a major focus after seeing Commodore Perry's powerful ships and weapons. Japan created an efficient rail system, improved communications technology, and started mechanizing industry.

Effects of the Meiji Restoration

The Meiji period lasted until 1912 and catapulted Japan into the modern era. Japan was able to walk a fine line between Western ideas and influences and traditional Japanese ideas to create a unique Japanese national identity. Japan became a modern nation-state.

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