The , also known as the Meiji Ishin, Revolution, or Renewal, was a chain of events that led to enormous changes in Japan's political and social structure. It occurred in the latter half of the 19th century, a period that spans both the late Edo period (often called Late Tokugawa shogunate) and the beginning of the Meiji Era. Probably the most important foreign account of the events between 1862-1869 is contained in A Diplomat in Japan by Sir Ernest Satow. The restoration was a direct response to the opening of Japan by the arrival of the Black Ships of Commodore Matthew Perry and made Imperial Japan a great power.
Shortly thereafter in January 1868, the Boshin War (War of the Year of the Dragon) started with the Battle of Toba-Fushimi in which an army led by forces from Chōshū and Satsuma defeated the ex-shogun's army and forced Emperor Meiji to strip Yoshinobu of all power. On February 3rd, 1868, the Emperor made a formal declaration of the restoration of his power:
Some shogunate forces escaped to Hokkaidō, where they attempted to set up the breakaway Republic of Ezo, but this came to an early end in May 1869 with the Battle of Hakodate in Hokkaidō. The defeat of the armies of the former shogun (led by Enomoto Takeaki and Hijikata Toshizo) marked the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate; all defiance to the emperor and his rule ended.
The Meiji oligarchy that formed the government under the rule of the Emperor first introduced measures to consolidate their power against the remnants of the Edo period government, the shogunate, daimyo, and the samurai class.
In 1868, all Tokugawa lands were seized and placed under "Imperial control", thus placing them under the prerogative of the new Meiji government. In 1869, the daimyo of the Tosa, Hizen, Satsuma and Chōshū domains, who were pushing most fiercely against the shogunate, were persuaded to 'return their domains to the Emperor'. Other daimyo were subsequently persuaded to do so, thus creating, arguably for the first time, a central government in Japan which exercised direct power through the entire 'realm' (天下).
Finally, in 1871, the daimyo, past and present, were summoned before the Emperor, where it was declared that all domains were now to be returned to the Emperor. The roughly 300 domains (han) were turned into prefectures, each under the control of a state-appointed governor. By 1888, several prefectures had been merged in several steps to reduce their number to 75. The daimyo were promised 1/10 of their fiefs' income as private income. Furthermore, their debts and payments of samurai stipends were to be taken over by the state.
The oligarchs also endeavoured to abolish the four divisions of society.
Throughout Japan at the time, the samurai numbered 1.9 million. (For comparison, this was more than 10 times the size of the French privileged class before the 1789 French Revolution. Moreover, the samurai in Japan were not merely the lords, but also their higher retainers--people who actually worked.) With each samurai being paid fixed stipends, their upkeep presented a tremendous financial burden, which may have prompted the oligarchs to action. Whatever their true intentions, the oligarchs embarked on another slow and deliberate process to abolish the samurai class. First, in 1873, it was announced that the samurai stipends were to be taxed on a rolling basis. Later, in 1874, the samurai were given the option to convert their stipends into government bonds. Finally, in 1876, this commutation was made compulsory.
To reform the military, the government instituted nationwide conscription in 1873, mandating that every male would serve in the armed forces upon turning 21 for four years; followed by three more years in the reserves. One of the primary differences between the samurai and peasant class was the right to bear arms; this ancient privilege was suddenly extended to every male in the nation. However, samurai were no longer allowed to walk about town bearing a sword or weapon to show their status as in former times.
Not surprisingly, this led to a series of riots from disgruntled samurai. One of the major riots was the one led by Saigō Takamori, the Satsuma rebellion, which eventually turned into a civil war. This rebellion was, however, put down swiftly by the newly formed Imperial Japanese Army, trained in Western tactics and weapons, even though the core of the new army was the Tokyo police force, which was largely composed of former samurai. This sent a strong message to the dissenting samurai that their time was indeed up. There were fewer subsequent samurai uprisings and the distinction became all but a name as the samurai joined the new society. The ideal of samurai military spirit lived on in romanticized form and was often used as propaganda during the early 20th century wars of the Empire of Japan.
However, it is equally true that the majority of samurai were content despite having their status abolished. Many found employment in the government bureaucracy, which resembled an elite class in its own right. The samurai, being better educated than most of the population, became teachers, gun makers, government officials, or military officers. While the formal title of samurai was abolished, the elitist spirit that characterized the samurai class lived on.
The oligarchs also embarked on a series of land reforms. In particular, they legitimized the tenancy system which had been going on during the Tokugawa period. Despite the bakufu's best efforts to freeze the four classes of society in place, during their rule villagers had begun to lease land out to other farmers, becoming rich in the process. This greatly disrupted the clearly defined class system which the bakufu had envisaged, partly leading to their eventual downfall.
An ongoing debate is currently occurring between historians as to the historical legitimacy of the name "restoration," as opposed to a "coup" or "revolution." There are reasons to call it all three.
Advocates of the term "coup" would point out the fact that there was a change in only the regime, with the fighting confined to the elite, which managed to avoid being spread to the rest of society and that there was a shared sense of national mission and class values. However, this term only refers to the political leaders—not commoners. More importantly, it also does not represent the wider historical context of the period, and the various ideological struggles of the time in addition to the subsequent radical changes of society.
The direct challenge to the legitimacy of the Tokugawa Regime in 1868 identifies this event as a revolution. This term also implies an anticipation of subsequent radical changes and indicates that the regime was toppled through the combination of concerns and actions of different groups. This term is problematic because it gives the false impression that rebels had unified or coherent plans for the future and it does not account for the relatively peaceful transition or how much actually stayed the same within the country.
The events of 1868 can be viewed in terms of a restoration because the opposition made claims that the Tokugawa Shogunate had usurped the power to govern from the emperor. This claim as well as the strictly isolationist sentiments of the times is an accurate representation of the event, in some ways. The word restoration implies a focus on the elite ideological debates but does not address the regional and religious tensions of the period. It also undervalues the strategic nature of restorationist claims and gives a false impression of unity among the rebelling houses. The most detrimental implication of this term is that it offers no concrete explanation of how ordinary people came to accept the legitimacy of direct imperial rule.
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