In 2018 Japan celebrates its 150th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration, the event that opened Japan to the modern world and created a new nation. During this time Japan transformed from a closed agriculture-based feudal system to an industrialized democracy.
The year of 1858 saw the end of Samurai governance by the Tokugawa Shogunate of more than two and half centuries.1858 also marks what was outwardly a “restoration” of traditional, imperial authority, but in fact were massive modern reforms for the whole of Japanese society.
What was the turning point leading to this transformation?
Four ‘black ships’ of the US Navy led by Commodore Perry first came into the Bay of Edo (now Tokyo) in 1853 demanding the opening up of Japan for trade. When they returned with seven ships the following year, the Shogun agreed to start diplomatic relations with Western nations. Perry’s initial visit created for the Japanese establishment a stark awareness that Japan’s best means to avoid being colonized by the West was in learning from it and to become better than them. Japanese progress was swift.
The opening of two ports (Shimoda and Hakodate) to the Americans led to further contact between Japan and other nations and further awareness of the might of the Western powers. Till this time the Japanese had only had contact with the Dutch and Chinese whom they held in low esteem, and from which they did not see as a threat.
Perry was a catalyst. Japanese revolutionaries such as Yoshida Shouin from Choshu (now Yamaguchi) demanded that the shogunate westernise the country, and import Western technology, especially naval. Shouin believed that if they did not westernise, the Japanese would end up like China, a mere Western vassal state.
Why the Meiji Restoration?
Continued internal political strife between the ruling Shogunate and the many Japanese Lords made ruling the country effectively very difficult. The feudal system was decaying through corruption and ineptitude, and opposing internal factions were growing. Reinstating the Emperor would effectively relinquish Shogunate control and unify the country. The Emperor was seen as a ‘living God’ and would automatically unify the powerful Daimyos under one banner and enable a single nation to deal with outsiders.
Outside pressure from foreigners convinced the Japanese that they needed to modernize quickly. With China as a prime example Japan appreciated the scale of the threat: by the time Commodore Perry’s “black ships” sailed into Edo Bay (Tokyo Bay) Japan had already seen what China had gone through at the hands of the British during the first Opium War. Modernization was therefore seen as inevitable and was needed to adopt immediately.
Seven ways the Meiji Restoration shaped modern Japan
- Changing the government from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy with limited democracy
- Relocating the capital from Kyoto (since 794) to Tokyo; the Emperor shifting residence from an “Imperial” city to the Shogunate’s administrative capital
- Elevating the indigenous Shinto religion above Buddhism as a way of reinforcing the Emperor’s potency as a political and religious symbol of unity
- Breaking down the rigid social structure, including the samurai class being disarmed and essentially eliminated, and creating a less hierarchical system able to cope with a more modern economic base
- Applying principles of capitalism to strengthen the economy
- Building a modern education system (studying maths and science instead of focusing mainly on Confucian texts, etc)
- Using western technology to strengthen the military, manufacturing and general infrastructure
What to take from this and learn about the Japanese?
Attitudes to the outside
Japan was isolationist physically, however had already gained limited knowledge of Western power and technology through visiting Samurai to foreign powers and via Dutch contact. Prior to the Meiji Restoration the Japanese wanted to know what’s happening on the “outside” – yet keep “the outside” at arm’s length – a one way ‘street’ only.
The Japanese do tend to see foreign influence (especially into Japanese society) in terms of “what’s in it for them”, and “how to better foreigners at their own game”. The new Meiji government was highly successful at applying this principal and quickly caught up with the West’s industrialization. In a matter of a few years Japan had utterly transformed itself, and was soon to become a major player on the world stage. Japan’s new industrialisation and military prowess was proven with victory in both the first Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 and the Russo Japanese War of 1904-05. This superior belief is still a part of the Japanese general psyche, although it is now changing.
The success of the Meiji Restoration’s modernisation boils down to Japan being a homogeneous and cohesive society. This strength of the Japanese nation is still evident during the tsunami national disaster of the 11th March 2011, where society pulled together to overcome adversity. Japan’s schools and communities, its civil society, without exception, played their own role to help with the disaster relief. Neither receiving nor needing executive orders, they seemed to have a natural cohesion, throwing themselves into the relief effort in an instinctive orderly fashion.
The concept of civil society has in fact been a strong component of Japanese values for almost 400 years, dating back to the Edo Period – built on ideas stemming from community solidarity and helping each other out for the collective wellbeing.
Japanese society has always had a level of cohesion based on Samurai Bushido (similar to Western knight chivalry) and the principals of Buddhism, where every human was a reincarnated soul that deserved morality. This was not always the case given periods of severe brutality by the ruling classes, but offered the lower classes order and stability.