What Is the Significance of the Meiji Restoration?

The Meiji Restoration, which occurred in Japan in 1868, was significant because it shifted political power from the shogun to the emperor, a shift which helped Japan modernize swiftly. This swift modernization allowed Japan to become an economic and military rival of the Western colonial powers.

The roots of the Meiji Restoration lay in the social changes taking place in Japan and the world at large in the 18th and 19th centuries. The shoguns, who ruled Japan in the name of the emperor while retaining all true political power for themselves, tried to limit foreign influence by keeping Europeans out of their society. As Japanese merchants began to take part in the surging global trade of those centuries, they began to grow in political influence at the expense of the shogun, daimyo (lords) and samurai, whose wealth and power derived from the agricultural sector.

This political structure created a tense situation that came to a crisis point when Commodore Matthew Perry's American fleet docked in Tokyo and forced the Japanese government to open the country to foreign trade. Shocked at the power of the American ships, Japanese elites conspired to get rid of the shogunate and to ensconce the emperor at the center of a Western-looking, modernizing regime. Within a few years, the regime had dismantled the entire Japanese feudal system, reformed the monetary and tax systems and conscripted a national army. The government also began an aggressive industrialization campaign.

Though these changes sparked some resistance, the Meiji Restoration successfully transformed Japan from a traditionalistic, agricultural patchwork of relatively independent fiefs to a unified industrial state within 40 years. This established the country as a rival to the European powers, and Japan began to create its own colonies by the end of the 19th century.