It took the re-establishment of ancient Imperial Power for Japan to modernise
The Meiji Restoration was originally brought about by ancient clan loyalties to the Emperor Komei and a hatred of the ruling Tokugawa Shogunate. Choshu (now Yamaguchi) was one of three clans that were instrumental in bringing down the Tokugawa (1604 – 1867) that had governed Japan’s closed agriculture-based feudal system for nearly 300 years. Together with Satsuma (now Kagoshima) and Tosa (now Kochi) clans, they were responsible for a general uprising movement across the country.
Epicentre of Revolution
Hagi in Yamaguchi prefecture (on the western tip of Japan’s main island of Honshu) was the epicentre of the Meiji Restoration movement. It is also the birthplace of Matsushita Village Private School where the philosopher and teacher Yoshida Shoin taught his Imperial patriotism with immense energy and his certainty that if Japan did not swiftly modernise it would become a vassal state of the West.
He had a strong belief that Japan would succeed by learning Western technology rather than emotionally striking out against the foreign powers and their unequal treaties with Japan. As a result of Shoin’s teachings and influence, most of the more than 50 students he taught threw themselves into revolutionary activities. Shoin supported restoring power to the Emperor, who over 700 years had become purely a figurehead and who had progressively lost religious power due to the rise of Buddhism and the corresponding decline of Shintoism (where the Emperor was seen as a God). By restoring the Meiji Emperor to a position of power through elevating the Shinto religion Japan would be unified and the Shogunate immobilised.
In 1867 Yoshinobu TOKUGAWA, the 15th shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the last shogun, returned political power back to the Emperor (an event known as Taisei Hokan) as a last-ditch measure to save his political career. He hoped and planned to be on top of the would-be coalition government composed of feudal lords. Moreover, the Tokugawa family remained a prominent force in the evolving political order, a prospect hard-liners from Satsuma and Choshu found intolerable.
Satsuma and Choshu anti-shogunate alliance, however, revived the Great Council of State (dajokan) System, established a new government headed by the Emperor with the Decree for the Restoration of Imperial Rule, and forcibly excluded Tokugawa from it. After various skirmishes and small battles between pro-Tokugawa and pro-Imperial forces the Meiji Restoration process was completed and the Emperor was elevated to the head of state for legitimacy and as a unifying symbol of the new regime.
Several of Shoin’s students became central figures in the new Meiji government that established Japan as a modern nation-state. The Meiji government was formed and run by young samurais from strong clans in Western Japan (especially Satsuma, Choshu, Tosa, Hizen) and a few influential nobles from throughout the remainder of the country. The Meiji government had a very clear and determined policy objective: rapid Westernization and modernization of Japan.
Well worth a visit: Matsushita Village School and Hagi castle town are now registered as World Heritage sites. Both were pivotal in the formation of “Meiji Japan”.
Beat the West at its own game
Most people forget that the Meiji Restoration started as an anti-western movement. In fact, the above-mentioned anti-Shogunate alliance of the Choshu and Satsuma was initially under the motto of: “尊皇攘夷” or “Revere the Emperor, Expel the Barbarians”.
The key is how an anti-foreigner, anti-West regressive political movement did a complete reversal of ideology seemingly overnight. The answer lies with the incredible genius and foresight of a few men: Omura Masujiro, Yamagata Aritomo, and Saigo Takamori (and yes, two of these guys actually appear in the movie The Last Samurai). Omura, in particular, recognized that following the defeat of the Shogunate there had to be a strengthening of Japan as a whole if it was to modernise. He and his followers pressed for a modern parliament rather than an all-powerful imperial court as many had wanted.
At first, the biggest external challenge for the new government was to avoid being colonized by the West. This fear, however, soon subsided in the early Meiji period as Japan began to aggressively absorb Western systems and technology while retaining national unity and identity. For the rest of Meiji and beyond, the top national priority was to catch up with the West in every aspect of civilization, i.e., to become a “first-class nation,” as quickly as possible.
From Ancient to Modern – History Repeats
Simonoseki in Yamaguchi Prefecture is an historical city of natural beauty and culture that lies besides the Kanmon Strait, a narrow body of water that separates the western edge of Honshu, Japan’s main island, from the northern tip of the island of Kyushu. It is here that two of Japan’s key historical events took place. This Strait not only delineates two of Japan’s key islands but separates ancient Japan, from the medieval, and the Medieval Japan from Japan’s modern era:
- The sea “battle of Genpei Dannoura” in 1185 triggering the transition to Japan’s samurai warrior society
- The “Shimonoseki Campaign” in 1863 and 1864, being the turning point for end of the samurai warrior era and the beginning of modernization of the country
The Heike clan lost the Battle of Dannoura and was destroyed, whilst the Genji clan was victorious and founded the first shogunate. It was also the moment when the era moved from ancient to medieval times, from ‘samurai’ administrators to ‘samurai’ warriors, to a more aggressive and warlike society than previous. This era of warrior samurai lasted for nearly 700 years until the end of the Tokugawa shogunate.
Coincidently the catalyst for the Meiji Restoration mirrored that the change of power in the 12th Century with another form of aggression occurring in the Kanmon Strait – an action by the Choshu clan in 1863 against a foreign vessel. The vessel was badly damaged and this unprovoked attack created significant foreign protest and the following year, 1864, a multi-national flotilla defeated the Choshu clan’s revolutionary force. This Choshu failure highlighted to the entire country the inadequacy of Japan’s naval and military capabilities and the significant need for Japan to modernise.
The Choshu had held a 200 year-old grudge with the Tokugawa Shogunate as they had supported the other side, the Toyotomi Shogun, and lost in the Sekigahara war of 1603. By 1863 Emperor Komei had become anti-western, believing that foreigners created disharmony for the nation. This was in contrast to the Tokugawa Shogun’s position of wishing to maintain power by seceding to foreign demands of treaties and trading rights. With the Emperor’s decree ‘to expel the barbarians” the revolutionaries within the Choshu Clan unilaterally attacked Western shipping as highlighted above, and set off the series of events leading to all out civil war and the fall of the ruling Shogunate.
History repeats…. When we look back on the history that the Straits have watched over, that feeling comes closer to our heart.
Well worth a visit: The Kanmon Bridge is at the narrowest spot in the Kanmon Straits between Honshu and Kyushu, where the two historical battles occurred.