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Meiji Restoration: Definition & Timeline

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Japan as we know it today can largely trace its origins to a specific era in its history. In this lesson, we'll talk about the Meiji Restoration and see how it changed Japan.

The Meiji Restoration (1868-1912)

The Japanese emperor belongs to the oldest unbroken line of hereditary monarchs in the world, which is pretty cool. However, the amount of power the emperor actually had across the years changed dramatically. One emperor to see a substantial amount of change during his reign was Emperor Meiji (r.1867-1912). Under Emperor Meiji and his advisors, the traditional systems of power that had overshadowed the emperor were toppled, and Japan entered a new era of industrialization, modernization, and yes, restoration.

Emperor Meiji
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Background

In the 19th century, Japan's emperor had very little influence or control of any kind. All political power was realistically held by the shogun, a warlord, military advisor, and de facto ruler of Japan. At the time, the shogun belonged to the powerful Tokugawa family, so we call this period the Tokugawa shogunate.

In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry used America's superior naval weapons to force the shogun to let Japanese merchants trade with American ships, thus giving Western powers lots of control over the Japanese economy. To the various feudal lords of Japan, the shogun became seen as a weak figure, incapable of protecting Japan from foreigners. Two provincial leaders took this especially seriously: Kido Takayoshi and Saigo Takamori. Together, they formed the Satsuma-Choshu Alliance, dedicated to removing the shogun from power and restoring the rightful place of Emperor Komei. However, when Komei died in 1867, their loyalty passed onto his son, Emperor Meiji. Soon, the pressure from the Satsuma-Chosu Alliance, supported by several groups of samurai and court officials, forced the resignation of the shogun, effectively ending the Tokugawa shogunate in November of 1867. A series of battles between the former shogun's forces and those of the alliance confirmed the end of the era.

Kido Takayoshi
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The Charter Oath

Emperor Meiji came into power with the goal of restoring imperial authority and, even more importantly, modernizing and industrializing Japan so that it could compete economically and militarily with Europe and the United States. The plan for a new, modernized Japan was outlined in the Charter Oath, issued by Emperor Meiji in 1868. The Charter Oath effectively dissolved Japan's traditional feudal structure and removed class restrictions barring peasants from determining their own professions. The goal was to give them the chance to move to Japan's cities, which Meiji planned on turning into major industrial centers.

Implementing the Charter Oath

The Charter Oath is generally seen as the formal start of the Meiji Restoration, the period of nationalism and modernization corresponding to Meiji's reign. Even before the Tokugawa Shogunate, the Japanese emperor was more of a cultural figure than a political one, so Emperor Meiji himself would only marginally be in charge of these changes. Instead, most of Japan's modernization and industrialization procedures would be carried out by the leading members of the Satsuma-Choshu Alliance, which had helped end the Tokugawa Shogunate. These men would become the new de facto leaders of Japan, supported enthusiastically by Emperor Meiji.

In practical terms, the first focus of the Meiji Restoration was economic reform. The government consolidated national debts, thus ending the feudal systems of tax payment and effectively ending the samurai as an independently wealthy class. This opened up Japan to new economic systems, but implementing them would be expensive. While the government attempted to control many industries, they soon had to turn them over to private families who put their wealth into industrializing individual sectors of the economy. This program, called the zaibatsu system, helped Japanese industries grow rapidly in size and scale, encouraged the development of industrial infrastructure across Japan, and introduced a capitalist-style market economy to the nation. The zaibatsu is also the origin of some of Japan's most powerful private corporations, such as Mitsubishi.

Other developments came in the form of the military. Japan realized that its military could not stand up to the industrialized forces of the West, and so great efforts were made to develop technologically modern weapons and military techniques. This came together very quickly, and the world was shocked when Japan invaded Korea in 1894 and rapidly defeated China for control of Taiwan. In 1904, Japan declared war on Russia over the fate of Korea, and again hastily won that war by 1905. Japan established firm control over Korea, marking its rise as a true empire in the Western sense of that word.

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