The Unification and Modernisation of Japan after 1867

Text and Web-site by James Bowen, Convener, Pacific War Historical Society. Web-site established May 2002 and last updated 14 May 2010.

The Meiji Restoration 1868

After the restoration of the emperor, his imperial government was heavily influenced by the same able and ambitious young samurai of modest rank from the western clans, and in particular, from Choshu and Satsuma, who had engineered the overthrow of the shogun. These western clan advisers now persuaded Emperor Mutsuhito to issue an imperial oath in 1868. This oath contained a very basic charter of rights and principles for the future government of Japan under the emperor and an executive council headed by imperial princes, court nobles, and daimyo clan lords. However, the real power still remained in the hands of the emperor's young western clan samurai advisers. Emperor Mutsuhito adopted the reign-name Meiji (meaning enlightened government) and ruled in that name from 1868 to 1912. The restoration of the emperor as sole ruler of a unified Japan came to be known as the Meiji Restoration.



The Emperor Meiji Mutsuhito 1867-1912

A program of radical social reform

Emperor Meiji's samurai advisers from the western clans believed that abolition of feudalism, clans and rigid class distinctions was an essential first step in their plan to produce a united and powerful Japan under the sole rule of the emperor.

The abolition of the Samurai class 1869

The removal of the rigid and elitist class system imposed on the Japanese people by the military shoguns would mean abolishing the privileged status of the samurai who numbered about two million. In 1869, a start to class reform was made by abolishing the old class hierarchy, including the samurai class, and replacing it with a new three level class order comprising, in descending order of status, court nobles and former daimyo lords (the peers or kazoku), former samurai (now shizoku), and the commoners, who were all lumped together as heimin.

The Meiji reformers appreciated that this dramatic change would produce resentment from many samurai, but they did not appreciate the level of hostility that would be produced by their reforms, and the impact that disgruntled former samurai would have on Japan's government and foreign policy over the following decades.

The abolition of feudalism and clans 1871

In 1869, the reformers persuaded the daimyo of the Choshu, Satsuma, and other western clans to return their feudal lands to the emperor. These western daimyo were then ordered by Emperor Meiji to take up residence at Tokyo, where he had moved his court, and to place their samurai warriors under his command. The other daimyo then agreed to surrender their feudal lands to the emperor, who appointed the former daimyo as administrative governors of the lands they had formerly ruled. The rice farmers would henceforth pay their taxes directly to the central government rather than to their samurai feudal lords. The former daimyo received substantial pensions to compensate them for the loss of income from their feudal lands, and they were also relieved of the burden of supporting their samurai followers.

In 1871, Emperor Meiji issued a decree abolishing both feudalism and clans. The daimyo-governors were gradually eased out of their administrative roles, but they would eventually be rewarded in 1884 for the loss of these functions and their feudal lands with titles in a new Western-style peerage. By this means, the great feudal clan lords of Japan were deprived of the independence and power which stood in the way of centralised government from Tokyo.

The Samurai response to abolition of their privileged status

The abolition of feudalism in 1871 produced hardship for many former samurai. Their incomes from their former feudal lords, already small, were converted to even smaller annual government pensions which reduced many to poverty. To compensate them for loss of income, the male samurai were told that they could lay aside the badge of their class, the two swords, and take up commerce or finance in addition to administrative functions.

Although primarily a warrior class, many samurai had to learn administrative skills in order to govern effectively their feudal estates, the provinces, and ultimately, the whole nation of Japan. Many former samurai adapted well to these changes and became leaders in various spheres of modern life in Japan, including the post-restoration imperial government, the military, commerce and industry.

However, many samurai were angered by the reforms which had abolished their warrior occupation, cut their incomes, and removed their elite status and privileges. The proposal that they give up bearing arms and engage in despised business activities was bewildering to samurai warriors accustomed to living as soldiers by the code of bushido. There was no place for many of them as soldiers in the new national conscript army established by Emperor Meiji in 1873 because it was composed largely of common people. The samurai of the western Saga clan demanded a foreign war to provide them with military employment. This demand was rejected by the new imperial government.

Some angry samurai actually took up arms against the imperial government. Rebellions occurred in the western clan regions of Choshu and Satsuma. Samurai warriors from these clans felt a particularly keen sense of betrayal because their clans had initiated the movement for restoration of the Emperor. The most serious of the rebellions was led by Saigo Takamori of the Satsuma clan and lasted for six months. All of these rebellions were suppressed by the Emperor's new conscript army, which was better armed than the samurai and had been trained by Prussian military advisers.

The disgruntled samurai who resisted or refused to make adjustments to changing social conditions, and preferred the life of the warrior to peaceful pursuits, would provide a reservoir of militarism that would fuel Japan's subsequent military aggression in East Asia.

The technological and industrial transformation of Meiji Japan

Emperor Meiji's advisers believed that the strength of Western nations depended on constitutional government for national unity, on industrialisation for material strength, and on a powerful and well-trained military for national security. Knowledge concerning these matters was to be found in Western countries, and to this end, a large number of Japanese government officials, under the leadership of Iwakura Tomomi, were sent to the United States and Europe in 1871 to gather knowledge.

Most Japanese took to Western technology with enthusiasm. Between 1868 and 1885, Japan acquired postal services, a telegraph system, railways, banks, and steam-powered overseas shipping lines.

However, the need to defend Japan against the possible use of force by foreign powers was uppermost in the minds of the advisers who controlled the Meiji imperial government. The inability of the powerful Satsuma and Choshu clans to match foreign technology in their military confrontations with foreign naval squadrons impressed the Meiji imperial government with the urgent need for Japan to acquire the means to defend itself. A high priority was given to establishment of industries necessary to equip modern navies and armies. Although hard-pressed for the necessary finance, the imperial government undertook as government initiatives the establishment of these strategic defence industries and a modern communications infrastructure.

The broader industrialisation of Japan during the reign of Emperor Meiji was undertaken by the imperial government in partnership with four great merchant families, called the zaibatsu, which had close ties to the imperial government and shared its vision for Japan. The zaibatsu families were Mitsui, Mitsubishi, Sumitomo and Yasuda, and they grew immensely wealthy and powerful in finance, commerce and industry during the process of modernising Japan. It will be recalled that the Mitsui and Sumitomo families were two of the merchant families which helped to finance the overthrow of the shogun and restoration of the emperor. The House of Mitsubishi was founded by a former western clan Tosa samurai with close links to the imperial government.

The zaibatsu families would be rewarded by a grateful imperial government with political power and commercial privileges. Many of the government-initiated heavy manufacturing industries were later sold to zaibatsu families at generous prices, and the government maintained only indirect control over defence-related industries.

The use of religion and education to encourage nationalism and implant traditional values

Emperor Meiji's young samurai advisers believed that the people of Japan needed a sense of national identity to replace clan loyalties and build national unity. Although willing to adopt Western technology to create a powerful modern Japan, the emperor's advisers did not intend to import Western political notions such as democracy, or basic human rights such as equality of the individual and freedom of speech. They decided to draw on traditional values from an ancient and, in part, mythical Japan to give Japanese society cohesion, and through which Japanese would be able to express shared beliefs.

The emperor's advisers saw the emperor as a logical focal point for achieving national unity. The centralised government of Japan would be carried on in the name of the emperor who would be worshipped as a descendant of the sun goddess, Amaterasu, one of the supreme deities of the ancient Japanese Shinto religion. The emperor would appear to be all-powerful, but they intended that real power would reside in them as advisers to the throne.

To this end, they decided to re-establish and revitalise the ancient Shinto religion with its gods and goddesses as the official religion of Japan. Three tenets of Shinto were especially relevant to the aims of the emperor's advisers. Shinto held the emperor to be divine because he was deemed to be a descendent of the sun goddess. This provided justification for requiring the emperor to be worshipped and obeyed. Japan was not just a populated geographical feature in the Pacific Ocean, but a land and people created by the sun goddess, and accordingly, specially favoured by the ancient gods. Finally, Japan was possessed of a divine mission to extend its rule and enlightenment to less fortunate races.

It will be apparent that Shinto was strongly nationalist in character. Combined with traditional Japanese militarism, it was a dangerous cocktail with a strong potential for encouraging fanaticism and support for war as a means to secure what were perceived by the emperor's advisers to be Japan's national interests.

Modern systems of communication and education, employing measures such as censorship, propaganda, and thought control would be used to counter Western concepts such as democracy, equality, independence, and freedom of speech. The same methods would be used to reinforce traditional Japanese values such as loyalty to superiors, obedience to authority, acceptance of inequality, selflessness, and self-discipline. Education would be one of the most effective mechanisms utilised by the Meiji reformers to achieve their aims.

Imperial Japanese education encouraged reverence for the emperor and patriotism

Universal education was introduced during the Meiji era, and the samurai code of the warrior was adapted to educational philosophy. The new education required that children be taught reverence for, and unquestioning loyalty to, Emperor Meiji and, of course, to his imperial government. The rigid, regimented curriculum followed the authoritarian Prussian education model at all levels of Japanese education, and was designed to foster national unification, and obedient, respectful, and patriotic students. It was also intended to produce a high level of literacy and knowledge of science, and to infuse children with traditional morality and virtue. Imperial Japanese education did not encourage freedom of thought and conscience, and followed this pattern until 1945.

As Japan's foreign policy became more aggressive during the first decades of the twentieth century, Japanese national thinking became increasingly militaristic and education took on an intensely nationalistic character which was designed to support Japan's military aggression in East Asia.