Historians have divided Japan’s long and complicated history into a series of phases known as eras. The Meiji era is a relatively recent snapshot of a time when Japan emerged as an industrial and political powerhouse that was ready to participate in the modernity of the 20th century.
The Meiji era transformed Japan from a largely decentralized and feudal society into the dynamic and modern nation that we recognize today.
This article provides a summary of this fascinating period that will explore this fascinating time in Japan’s history and entry into the 20th century.
What is the Meiji era?
The Meiji era (明治, Meiji) ran from October 23, 1868, to July 30, 1912. Broadly speaking, it was a revolutionary time for the people of Japan.
When the era started, Japan was largely controlled by the militaristic shōgun (将軍). These were the autocratic military rulers who had ruled the country on behalf of the largely ceremonial emperor for the past 700 years.
When the era finished, Japan had undergone an industrial transformation, built thousands of miles of railroads and roads, and welcomed Western advisors and educators.
And it had embraced the market economy and free-market capitalism.
The era completely redefined Japanese society, its political systems, the economy, military structures, and the way in which the country interacted with other nations. It was a complete transformation.
Where does the Meiji Era sit in the chronology of Japanese history?
The Meiji era is the first period in what historians call ‘Modern Japan’. It sits as follows within Japanese historical chronology:
- Prehistoric and ancient Japan
- Classical Japan (538 – 1185)
- Feudal Japan (1185 – 1600)
- Early modern Japan: Edo period (1600 – 1868)
- Modern Japan (1868 – present)
- Meiji era (1868 – 1912)
- Taishō period (1912 – 1926)
- Shōwa period (1926 – 1989)
- Heisei period (1989 – 2019)
- Reiwa period (2019 – present)
What happened during the Meiji era and why was this important?
The impetus for the reforms of the Meiji era came from the emperor of the time, Mutsuhito (睦仁), who today is known as Emperor Meiji (明治天皇) according to Japanese imperial custom.
He was only 14 years old when, on the death of his father Emperor Komei, he succeeded the Chrysanthemum Throne as the 122nd emperor of Japan.
Thanks to his role in ushering in what is known as the Meiji Restoration, Emperor Meiji’s influence on the course of modern Japanese history is unsurpassed.
What was the industrialization of the Meiji Restoration?
As part of the Meiji Restoration, Emperor Meiji promoted and allowed reforms that were designed to industrialize the nation which had stagnated under centuries of shōgun law, isolationist policies, and distrust of outsiders.
The Japanese leaders of the time were also very fearful that European powers like Britain and France might try to colonize the nation as they had with parts of India, Southeast Asia, and Hong Kong.
Rapid modernization and industrialization would make it much easier to defend their territory and even deter outside forces, who could see that Japan would put up a substantial fight if they tried to conquer them or invade.
What events played a key role in the industrialization that characterized the Meiji Restoration?
- In 1867-8, the emperor regained real control over Japan when shōgun Tokugawa Yoshinobu (徳川 慶喜) resigned and the Meiji era was officially proclaimed.
- In 1871, the Meiji government centralized political power by removing the ancient domain system and replacing them with prefectures that were subordinate to the central government. This meant that the government now had the power to start implementing reforms.
- Between 1871 and 1873, eminent statesmen and scholars traveled to the United States and Europe as part of the Iwakura Mission (岩倉使節団). The mission’s main aim was to study modern western styles of political rule, educational systems, military styles, and technological industry, which were then brought back to Japan.
- The Meiji government encouraged free-market capitalism. The first step was to remove the ancient feudal web of internal checkpoints, post stations, and merchant guilds to make trade easier and more flexible.
- This made it easier to develop much needed-infrastructure such as the first telegraph line which was installed between Tokyo and Yokohama in 1869 and expanded to include Nagasaki and Shanghai in 1874. Japan also imported its first telephones in 1877, the same year it allowed international mail to enter and exit the nation.
- In 1872, Japan’s first rail service opened, running between Tokyo and Yokohama. By 1874, there was a new line linking Kobe and Osaka and, later, Kyoto. With limited natural resources, Japan relied heavily on European assistance for engineering know-how, train cars, and the money to pay for it.
- During the preceding Edo period, Japanese education was at the forefront of systems throughout the world. Published literature flourished, samurai studied at elite schools and many commoners learned to read at local temple schools called terakoya. With the Meiji Restoration, the level of education improved even further when thousands of students were sent overseas to study in Europe and the United States.
- The Meiji government encouraged educated westerners known as ‘hired foreigners’ (O-yatoi gaikokujin) to come to Japan and teach modern schools of thought in engineering, science, mathematics, agriculture, and foreign languages.
- The Meiji government invested in improving existing roads and building new ones. This made the movement of goods and people as efficient as possible.
- Reforms involved developing a uniform currency based on the yen, modern banking systems, participatory tax systems, and a stock exchange.
- The Meiji government promoted private enterprises like Mitsubishi, Mitsui, and Ono to compete with international companies, and they set up light industry factories and agriculture. Some of these included the Shinagawa Glass Factory, Aichi Spinning Mill, Fukagawa Cement Works, Sapporo Brewery, and the Tomioka Silk Mill.
- With foreign capital and know-how, the cotton and silk industries were soon thriving, spinning 24 hours per day, seven days a week, and exporting their goods for profit.
What were the consequences of Japan’s Meiji era industrialization?
Japan’s reforms meant that it was the first industrialized nation in Asia. It had wrestled control of much of Asia’s mercantile market by expertly importing raw materials and exporting finished goods that were the envy of the world.