Meiji Period In Japans History (1868-1912)

The Meiji period is one of Japan’s most fascinating periods, running from 1868 to 1912 under the rule of Emperor Meiji.

The Meiji period begins in 1868 at the end of the Tokugawa period. The imperial status was returned to Meiji and his seat was moved to Tokyo from Kyoto, making this his capital. The rule under Meiji makes up the first half of the Japanese Empire when there was a significant shift in how Japan presented itself in the world.

 Meiji Shrine located in Shibuya, Tokyo

Before the dawn of the Meiji period, Japan was an island at major risk of colonization and domination by the West. However, under Meiji Japan came into its own and began to be recognized as a force to be recognized. The country quickly became modernized and industrialized. 

These major changes not only affected the perception of Japan around the world but were also the root cause of big changes within the country itself in aspects such as social structures, its economy, and even its politics.

Meiji Shrine Imperial Crest Design On A Lantern (the chrysanthemum flower)

For this reason, Meiji’s rule caused some of the biggest changes in Japan’s history.

Imperial restoration

The beginning of the Imperial restoration began in 1868 with the Fall of Edo, marking the end of Tokugawa rule. Not only was this the beginning of a new period, but also a new government. With the introduction of this new period, the people in power sought to win over the country by implementing much-needed changes.

Tokugawa Ieyasu founder and first shōgun of the Tokugawa shogunate of Japan, ruling Japan from 1603 until the Meiji Restoration in 1868

One of their first amendments was made to help bring in financial support. It consisted of five separate elements:

  1. Important issues to be resolved by public discussion
  2. Both upper and lower classes to involved in state affairs
  3. Lower classes be allowed to pursue their passions
  4. Justice to be restored by abolishing evil laws
  5. A worldwide quest for knowledge
Meiji Shrine is the Shinto shrine that is dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shoken

Despite this new rule, the government still had to adhere to previously agreed international laws, somewhat restricting them in their freedom. However, the Meiji government’s name, Meiji meaning enlightenment, was an indication of their desire to do better for the countries people.

Politics

The Meiji period was the start of many reforms in Japan, covering a wide range of different areas. Such examples were the tax and land laws which decreed that private ownership of land was legal and deeds were given to those in possession of the land. The value of the lands was decided in a fair manner and taxes were to be collected in cash.

In a bid to follow Western, specifically British, government structure, the Meiji rule sought to establish a constitutional government. However, following a series of protests it was declared that such a government would be established in stages rather than all at once. 

Statues of three samurai who were prominent in the Meiji Restoration, Sakamoto Ryoma, Takechi Hanpeita, and Nakaoka Shintaro

Society

Another big change for the Japanese people came in the form of new ranks. Throughout this period there were five additional ranks introduced into the social system.

With this new system approximately 500 people, previously ranked as old nobility and samurai were sorted into this new peerage called the Kazoku. 

There were five different titles in the Kazoku:

  • Prince
  • Marquis
  • Count
  • Viscount
  • Baron

These titles were offered to those who had been of service to the Emperor.

This new Westernized face of Japan distanced the country from its Asian neighbors, namely Korea and China who were still considered to be unmodernized. This led to calls for Japan to ally itself with the West and forgo its Asian roots. Many essays were written on the topic, highlighting the wondrous changes that occurred under Meiji rule.

Economy

Japan’s industrial revolution occurred in this period, starting around 1870, and was kickstarted by the government in a bid to revolutionize itself in line with the West. As preparation for this development, new roads and railways were constructed as well as an education system comparable with that in the West. 

In 1877 the Bank of Japan used collected tax money to invest in factories to continue this growth rate in the country’s industrialization. This resulted in textiles becoming the first modern industry in Japan, with yarn exports increasing to 176 million yen from 12 million yen.

Portrait from an antique Yen note

To help the country grow as quickly as possible the government employed more than 3000 foreign experts in all specialized areas. This would ensure that the country was developing correctly, it was mimicking the West, and that it could train its own people.

Regarding financial matters, the Meiji government introduced new tax laws, a new form of the yen, and stock exchanges. In such a short period of time, Japanese society was well and truly reformed in line with Western ideals.

Conclusion

Although the Meiji rule was relatively short in the grand scheme of Japan’s history it certainly had one of the biggest impacts in almost every aspect. It was a turning point in cultural, financial, and social history with a deliberate and significant shift away from the traditional and established ways toward a Westernized, modernized way of life.

These changes were met with some unrest and resulted in protests but overall the government was well-aware and was very conscious of keeping the people happy. The new way of life helped the country to become a real contender in the modern world, including increasing its exports to bring in more income.

Meiji Era In Detail Via Wikipedia

An antique train on display from the early 20th century near Mount Fuji

By trusting in foreign experts rather than attempting to educate its own people, Japan quickly industrialized, and with every aspect covered, including railways, factories, and tax laws, the country was radically changed over such a short period of time.

Meiji Era Theme Park Meiji Mura Official Website

Virtual Tour Of A Meiji Era Theme Park

MT Lee
My fascination with Japan began several years back at a roadside bonsai stand while on vacation. I became more interested in the where and why's more than the trees themselves. My love of Bonsai led me to further research my interest in the gardens where they originated from and the places and people that surrounded those little trees. My curiosity was well rewarded upon visiting Saitama where the National Bonsai Museum was located and Omiya Village the bonsai mecca for lovers of this ancient art form. Exploring many towns and villages and even making my way to Japan's furthest southern prefecture of Okinawa. I hope to share my love of this wonderful and exotic place with all those who want to know more about Japan.