On February 3, 1867, sixteen-year old Mutsuhito succeeded his father, Emperor Kōmei and a new era of Meiji, meaning "enlightened rule," was proclaimed. The Meiji Restoration of 1868 ended the 265-year-old feudalistic Tokugawa shogunate.
The first reform was the promulgation of the Five Charter Oath in 1868, a general statement of the aims of the Meiji leaders to boost morale and win financial support for the new government. Its five provisions consisted of
Implicit in the Charter Oath was an end to exclusive political rule by the bakufu and a move toward more democratic participation in government. To implement the Charter Oath, an eleven-article constitution was drawn up. Besides providing for a new Council of State, legislative bodies, and systems of ranks for nobles and officials, it limited office tenure to four years, allowed public balloting, provided for a new taxation system, and ordered new local administrative rules.
The Meiji government assured the foreign powers that it would follow the old treaties negotiated by the bakufu and announced that it would act in accordance with international law. Mutsuhito, who was to reign until 1912, selected a new reign title — Meiji, or Enlightened Rule — to mark the beginning of a new era in Japanese history. To further dramatize the new order, the capital was relocated from Kyoto, where it had been situated since 794, to Tokyo (Eastern Capital), the new name for Edo. In a move critical for the consolidation of the new regime, most daimyo voluntarily surrendered their land and census records to the emperor in the Abolition of the Han system, symbolizing that the land and people were under the emperor's jurisdiction. Confirmed in their hereditary positions, the daimyo became governors, and the central government assumed their administrative expenses and paid samurai stipends. The han were replaced with prefectures in 1871, and authority continued to flow to the national government. Officials from the favored former han, such as Satsuma, Chōshū, Tosa, and Hizen, staffed the new ministries. Formerly out-of-favor court nobles and lower-ranking but more radical samurai replaced bakufu appointees, daimyo, and old court nobles as a new ruling class appeared.
In as much as the Meiji Restoration had sought to return the emperor to a preeminent position, efforts were made to establish a Shinto-oriented state much like the state of 1,000 years earlier. Since Shinto and Buddhism had molded into a syncretic belief in the last one-thousand years, a new State Shinto had to be constructed for the purpose. The Office of Shinto Worship was established, ranking even above the Council of State in importance. The kokutai ideas of the Mito school were embraced, and the divine ancestry of the imperial house was emphasized. The government supported Shinto teachers, a small but important move. Although the Office of Shinto Worship was demoted in 1872, by 1877 the Home Ministry controlled all Shinto shrines and certain Shinto sects were given state recognition. Shinto was released from Buddhist administration and its properties restored. Although Buddhism suffered from state sponsorship of Shinto, it had its own resurgence. Christianity was also legalized, and Confucianism remained an important ethical doctrine. Increasingly, however, Japanese thinkers identified with Western ideology and methods.
A major proponent of representative government was Itagaki Taisuke (1837–1919), a powerful Tosa leader who had resigned from the Council of State over the Korean affair in 1873. Itagaki sought peaceful rather than rebellious means to gain a voice in government. He started a school and a movement aimed at establishing a constitutional monarchy and a legislative assembly. Itagaki and others wrote the Tosa Memorial in 1874 criticizing the unbridled power of the oligarchy and calling for the immediate establishment of representative government.
Between 1871 and 1873, a series of land and tax laws were enacted as the basis for modern fiscal policy. Private ownership was legalized, deeds were issued, and lands were assessed at fair market value with taxes paid in cash rather than in kind as in pre-Meiji days and at slightly lower rates.
Dissatisfied with the pace of reform after having rejoined the Council of State in 1875, Itagaki organized his followers and other democratic proponents into the nationwide Aikokusha (Society of Patriots) to push for representative government in 1878. In 1881, in an action for which he is best known, Itagaki helped found the Jiyuto (Liberal Party), which favored French political doctrines.
In 1882 Okuma Shigenobu established the Rikken Kaishinto (Constitutional Progressive Party), which called for a British-style constitutional democracy. In response, government bureaucrats, local government officials, and other conservatives established the Rikken Teiseito (Imperial Rule Party), a pro-government party, in 1882. Numerous political demonstrations followed, some of them violent, resulting in further government restrictions. The restrictions hindered the political parties and led to divisions within and among them. The Jiyuto, which had opposed the Kaishinto, was disbanded in 1884, and Okuma resigned as Kaishinto president.
Government leaders, long preoccupied with violent threats to stability and the serious leadership split over the Korean affair, generally agreed that constitutional government should someday be established. The Chōshū leader Kido Takayoshi had favored a constitutional form of government since before 1874, and several proposals for constitutional guarantees had been drafted. The oligarchy, however, while acknowledging the realities of political pressure, was determined to keep control. Thus, modest steps were taken.
The Osaka Conference in 1875 resulted in the reorganization of government with an independent judiciary and an appointed Council of Elders (Genronin) tasked with reviewing proposals for a legislature. The emperor declared that "constitutional government shall be established in gradual stages" as he ordered the Council of Elders to draft a constitution.
Three years later, the Conference of Prefectural Governors established elected prefectural assemblies. Although limited in their authority, these assemblies represented a move in the direction of representative government at the national level, and by 1880 assemblies also had been formed in villages and towns. In 1880 delegates from twenty-four prefectures held a national convention to establish the Kokkai Kisei Domei (League for Establishing a National Assembly).
Although the government was not opposed to parliamentary rule, confronted with the drive for "people's rights," it continued to try to control the political situation. New laws in 1875 prohibited press criticism of the government or discussion of national laws. The Public Assembly Law (1880) severely limited public gatherings by disallowing attendance by civil servants and requiring police permission for all meetings.
Within the ruling circle, however, and despite the conservative approach of the leadership, Okuma continued as a lone advocate of British-style government, a government with political parties and a cabinet organized by the majority party, answerable to the national assembly. He called for elections to be held by 1882 and for a national assembly to be convened by 1883; in doing so, he precipitated a political crisis that ended with an 1881 imperial rescript declaring the establishment of a national assembly in 1890 and dismissing Okuma.
Rejecting the British model, Iwakura and other conservatives borrowed heavily from the Prussian constitutional system. One of the Meiji oligarchy, Ito Hirobumi (1841–1909), a Chōshū native long involved in government affairs, was charged with drafting Japan's constitution. He led a Constitutional Study Mission abroad in 1882, spending most of his time in Germany. He rejected the United States Constitution as "too liberal" and the British system as too unwieldy and having a parliament with too much control over the monarchy; the French and Spanish models were rejected as tending toward despotism.
Ito was put in charge of the new Bureau for Investigation of Constitutional Systems in 1884, and the Council of State was replaced in 1885 with a cabinet headed by Ito as prime minister. The positions of chancellor, minister of the left, and minister of the right, which had existed since the 7th century as advisory positions to the emperor, were all abolished. In their place, the Privy Council was established in 1888 to evaluate the forthcoming constitution and to advise the emperor.
To further strengthen the authority of the state, the Supreme War Council was established under the leadership of Yamagata Aritomo (1838–1922), a Chōshū native who has been credited with the founding of the modern Japanese army and was to become the first constitutional prime minister. The Supreme War Council developed a German-style general staff system with a chief of staff who had direct access to the emperor and who could operate independently of the army minister and civilian officials.
When finally granted by the emperor as a sign of his sharing his authority and giving rights and liberties to his subjects, the 1889 Constitution of the Empire of Japan (the Meiji Constitution) provided for the Imperial Diet (Teikoku Gikai), composed of a popularly elected House of Representatives with a very limited franchise of male citizens who were over 25 years of age and paid 15 yen in national taxes, about 1 % of the population, and the House of Peers, composed of nobility and imperial appointees; and a cabinet responsible to the emperor and independent of the legislature. The Diet could approve government legislation and initiate laws, make representations to the government, and submit petitions to the emperor. Nevertheless, in spite of these institutional changes, sovereignty still resided in the emperor on the basis of his divine ancestry.
The new constitution specified a form of government that was still authoritarian in character, with the emperor holding the ultimate power and only minimal concessions made to popular rights and parliamentary mechanisms. Party participation was recognized as part of the political process. The Meiji Constitution was to last as the fundamental law until 1947.
In the early years of constitutional government, the strengths and weaknesses of the Meiji Constitution were revealed. A small clique of Satsuma and Chōshū elite continued to rule Japan, becoming institutionalized as an extraconstitutional body of genro (elder statesmen). Collectively, the genro made decisions reserved for the emperor, and the genro, not the emperor, controlled the government politically.
Throughout the period, however, political problems were usually solved through compromise, and political parties gradually increased their power over the government and held an ever larger role in the political process as a result. Between 1891 and 1895, Ito served as prime minister with a cabinet composed mostly of genro who wanted to establish a government party to control the House of Representatives. Although not fully realized, the trend toward party politics was well established.
It was at this time that the Ee ja nai ka movement, a spontaneous outbreak of ecstatic behaviour, took place.
In 1885, the intellectual Yukichi Fukuzawa wrote the influential essay Leaving Asia, arguing that Japan should orient itself at the "civilized countries of the West", leaving behind the "hopelessly backward" Asian neighbors, namely Korea and China. This essay certainly contributed to the economic and technological rise of Japan in the Meiji period but it may also have laid the foundations for later Japanese colonialism in the region.
Hand in hand, the zaibatsu and government guided the nation, borrowing technology from the West. Japan gradually took control of much of Asia's market for manufactured goods, beginning with textiles. The economic structure became very mercantilistic, importing raw materials and exporting finished products — a reflection of Japan's relative poverty in raw materials.
Japan emerged from the Tokugawa-Meiji transition as the first Asian industrialized nation. Domestic commercial activities and limited foreign trade had met the demands for material culture in the Tokugawa period, but the modernized Meiji era had radically different requirements. From the onset, the Meiji rulers embraced the concept of a market economy and adopted British and North American forms of free enterprise capitalism. The private sector — in a nation blessed with an abundance of aggressive entrepreneurs — welcomed such change.
Economic reforms included a unified modern currency based on the yen, banking, commercial and tax laws, stock exchanges, and a communications network. Establishment of a modern institutional framework conducive to an advanced capitalist economy took time but was completed by the 1890s. By this time, the government had largely relinquished direct control of the modernization process, primarily for budgetary reasons.
Many of the former daimyo, whose pensions had been paid in a lump sum, benefited greatly through investments they made in emerging industries. Those who had been informally involved in foreign trade before the Meiji Restoration also flourished. Old bakufu-serving firms that clung to their traditional ways failed in the new business environment.
The government was initially involved in economic modernization, providing a number of "model factories" to facilitate the transition to the modern period. After the first twenty years of the Meiji period, the industrial economy expanded rapidly until about 1920 with inputs of advanced Western technology and large private investments. Stimulated by wars and through cautious economic planning, Japan emerged from World War I as a major industrial nation.
Undeterred by opposition, the Meiji leaders continued to modernize the nation through government-sponsored telegraph cable links to all major Japanese cities and the Asian mainland and construction of railroads, shipyards, munitions factories, mines, textile manufacturing facilities, factories, and experimental agriculture stations. Much concerned about national security, the leaders made significant efforts at military modernization, which included establishing a small standing army, a large reserve system, and compulsory militia service for all men. Foreign military systems were studied, foreign advisers, especially French ones, were brought in, and Japanese cadets sent abroad to European and United States military and naval schools.
In 1872, Yamagata Aritomo and Saigo Tsugumichi, both new field marshals, founded the Corps of the Imperial Guards. This corps was composed of the warrior classes from the Tosa, Satsuma, and Chusho clans (GlobalSecurity.org, 2008). Also, in the same year, the hyobusho (war office) was replaced with a War Department and a Naval Department. The shogun class suffered great disappointment the following years, when in January the Conscription Law of 1873 was passed. This law required every able bodied male Japanese citizen, regardless of class, to serve a mandatory term of three years with the first reserves and two additional years with the second reserves (GlobalSecurity.org, 2008). This monumental law, signifying the beginning of the end for the shogun class, initially met resistance from both the peasant and warrior alike. The peasant class interpreted the term for military service, ketsu-eki (blood tax) literally, and attempted to avoid service by any means necessary. Avoidance methods included maiming, self-mutilation, and local uprisings (Kublin, 1949, p 32). The samurai were generally resentful of the new, western-style military and at first, refused to stand in formation with the lowly peasant class (GlobalSecurity.org, 2008).
In conjunction with the new conscription law, the Japanese government began modeling their ground forces after the French military. Indeed, the new Japanese army utilized the same rank structure as the French (Kublin, 1949, p 31). The enlisted corps ranks were: private, noncommissioned officers, and officers. The private classes were: jolo-hei or upper soldier, itto-sottsu or first-class soldier, and nito-sotsu or second-class soldier. The noncommissioned officer class ranks were: gocho or corporal, gunso or sergeant, socho or sergeant major, and tokumu-socho or special sergeant major. Finally, the officer class is made up of: shoi or second lieutenant, chui or first lieutenant, tai or captain, shosa or major, chusa or lieutenant colonel, taisa or colonel, shosho or major general, chujo or lieutenant general, taisho or general, and gensui or field marshal (GlobalSecurity.org, 2008). The French government also contributed greatly to the training of Japanese officers. Many were employed at the military academy in Kyoto, and many more still were feverishly translating French field manuals for use in the Japanese ranks (GlobalSecuirty.org, 2008).
Despite the Conscription Law of 1873, and all the reforms and progress, the new Japanese army was still untested. That all changed in 1877, when Takamori Saigo, led the last rebellion of the samurai in Kyushu (GlobalSecurity.org, 2008). In February 1877, Saigo left Kagoshima with a small contingent of soldiers on a journey to Tokyo. Kumamoto castle was the site of the first major engagement as garrisoned forces fired on Saigo’s army as they attempted to force their way into the castle (Rickman, 2003, p 46). Rather than leave an enemy behind him, Saigo laid siege to the castle. Two days later, Saigo’s rebels, while attempting to block a mountain pass encountered advanced elements of the national army enroute to reinforce Kumamoto castle. After a short battle, both sides withdrew to reconstitute their forces (p 46). A few weeks later the national army engaged Saigo’s rebels in a frontal assault at what is now called the Battle of Tabaruzuka (p 47). During this eight day battle, Saigo’s nearly ten thousand strong army battled hand-to-hand the equally matched national army. Both sides suffered nearly four thousand casualties during this engagement (p 47). Due to conscription however, the Japanese army was able to reconstitute its forces while Saigo’s was not. Later, forces loyal to the Emperor broke through rebel lines and managed to end the siege on Kumamoto castle after fifty-four days (p 47). Saigo’s troops fled north, pursued by the national army. The national army caught up with Saigo at Mt. Edodake. Saigo’s army was outnumbered seven to one prompting a mass surrender of many samurai (p 48). The remaining five hundred samurai loyal to Saigo escaped, travelling south to Kagoshima. The rebellion ended on September 24, 1877 following with the death of the remaining forty samurai and the beheading of Takamori Saigo (p 49). The army’s victory validated the current course of the modernization of the Japanese army as well as ended the era of the samurai
When United States Navy ended Japan's sakoku policy, and thus its isolation, the latter found itself defenseless against military pressures and economic exploitation by the Western powers. For Japan to emerge from the feudal period, it had to avoid the colonial fate of other Asian countries by establishing genuine national independence and equality.
Following her defeat of China in Korea in the Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895), Japan broke through as an international power with a victory against Russia in Manchuria (north-eastern China) in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905. Allied with Britain since the Anglo-Japanese Alliance signed in London on January 30, 1902, Japan joined the Allies in World War I, seizing German-held territory in China and the Pacific in the process, but otherwise remained largely out of the conflict.
After the war, a weakened Europe left a greater share in international markets to the U.S. and Japan, which emerged greatly strengthened. Japanese competition made great inroads into hitherto European-dominated markets in Asia, not only in China, but even in European colonies like India and Indonesia, reflecting the development of the Meiji era.
Kublin, H. (1949, November). The "modern" army of early meiji japan. The Far East Quarterly, [9(1)], 20-41.
Rickman, J. (2003).Sunset of the samurai. Military History. August, 42-49.