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Civilization and Enlightenment- The Meiji Restoration

In the waters that border China, Russia and Korea lie a series of islands that has
remained independent for many centuries; despite growing interest regarding
colonisation over the years. Japan no doubt was influenced by the countries that
surrounded her, yet by gaining a strong sense of their successful dominance, Japan
utilized this knowledge and reiterated it throughout the nation, for her own benefit.
Japan managed to develop a sense of independence and separation from her
neighbours during the sakoku; ‘the closed country’ (1639-1853). For two hundred
years this system was maintained, and throughout this period of time Japan was
isolated; no one came in (aside from a few Dutch and Chinese merchants who were
allowed to visit Nagasaki) and no one went out. Japan was closed off, severed from
the rest of the world; and during this sheltered period of time Japanese social,
political, and economic culture was allowed to blossom.

The Tokugawa/Edo Period (1603-1867) was a time of strict structure and tight
regulations. During this time Tokugawa Ieyasu was pronounced Shogunate and thus,
began his complete rule over the nation. Ieyasu maintained the stringent hierarchy that
continued to dominate the Japan’s culture, even throughout the period of restoration.
Source A- Tokugawa Nariaki, lord of Mito wrote in 1842
“Soon the whole country will naturally be united, but it is vital that in this each
should preserve his proper place. The samurai show respect for his lord, the lord
shows respect for the Shogun, the Shogun shows respect for the emperor”1
One can hardly call this subversive*see glossary. It is evident, by observing the thoughts of
Nariaki, that he in fact wanted to preserve the government that had reigned for
centuries; the one that benefitted lords like himself. Meanwhile, the anti-government
feelings were growing and caused other movements such as the demand for the
restoration of imperial power and anti western feelings, especially among ultra-
conservative samurai. Many people, however, soon recognized the big advantages of
the Western nations in science and military, and favoured a complete opening to the
world. Finally, also the conservatives recognized this fact after being confronted with
Western warships in several incidents.

In 1867-68, the Tokugawa government fell because of heavy political pressure, and
the power of Emperor Meiji was restored. The social hierarchy and pecking order that
had existed in the Tokugawa period somewhat crumbled during the restoration;
however conditions for women and children did not sufficiently improve over the so
called period of enlightenment.

This particular ladder of being was as follows- At the top was the Emperor,
considered a holy existence but however divine, he was seen more as a figure head
and had no proper rule over the country (most emperors lived in seclusion during their
reign). The true power lay in the following hands; that of the daimyo and the Shogun,
who controlled Japans military, social and political situations. These feudal lords were
the backbone of Japan’s government; they were divided, and between them the
nation’s matters lay in their power hungry palms.

Following them were the Samurai; the nations most skilful fighting class. The samurai
was a soldier raised and trained to serve Japan’s utmost needs. They made up Japan’s
army and also held the title of nobility throughout society. In Source B, the typical
armour of a well respected samurai is pictured. The strong hue of red mixed with the
gold leaf accentuates the Samurai’s high position; the armour is as much for show as
it is for protection. The attention to detail regarding how the samurai presented
themselves is evident, and thus we can make an educated assumption that the samurai
were held highly within Japanese civilisation.
However as an age of peace settled on Japan, the need for the Samurai’s fighting
abilities ceased. They were used in positions that required little or no military skill
such as messengers and guards, the samurai class itself was divided into classes and
the majority of them were stripped of their title.

Below them came peasants, artisans and merchants. The latter was despised as a
parasite living off the work of others2 they were regarded as the very scum of Japans
social hierarchy.
However, soon the Edo period began crumbling as the social hierarchy in turn undid
itself. This first began occurring when the merchant class started to make money from
small scale trade. As trade began to dominate Japan’s economy, the merchants profits
rapidly increased, and their wealth and power began to overtake that of the samurai’s.
The powerful fighters of Japan became dependant on the very people they once
looked down upon; it was the beginning of the end for Tokugawa Japan.
The merchant was still looked upon as undeserving of the fortune he acquired. Many
people regarded them as cunning thieves, who made profit from others work.

In Source C, a quote from a translated Japanese newspaper, Yomiuri (4/08/1857). The

merchant is depicted as being sly in his transaction.
“When a Japanese manufacturer was asked by his assistant, "What is the best
language in which to do business?" the man responded: "My customer's language”3
This yet again, backs up the claim that although Japan’s merchants had risen from the
bottom, society did not regard them with high nobility or power, but simply as a lowly
peasant who had grown wealthy overnight. However, this source cannot be entirely
reliable as it is evidently biased towards to the merchant class, communicating
obvious distain for their “undeserving” accumulation of wealth. By looking into this
source, it is clear that a majority Japanese were not in favour of the sudden boom in
merchant wealth; they were considered parasitic.

By 1853, after many unsuccessful attempts to abolish sakoku, the barrier was finally
beginning to dissolve. Not only from the Western attempts to gain access but also
from within the nation itself. Although Japan had managed to suppress interested
nations, she knew a time would come when her gates would be knocked down. Over
the years, many countries had sought to make contact with Japanese society, yet every
one had been unsuccessful. That was, until July 8th 1853 when Commodore M.C.
Perry directed a fleet of ships from the USA right into Edo bay, demanding that Japan
open their ports to the America, Japan promptly refused. And although Perry sailed
away empty handed, he intended to return.
During this time Japan was on the tip of everyone’s tongue, “Would Perry
successfully crack the unbreakable lock?” It seemed that everyone was getting
involved with the matter; Source D- the October 1852 Edinburgh Review wrote that
“The compulsory seclusion of the Japanese is a wrong not only to themselves, but to
the civilized world…The Japanese undoubtedly have an exclusive right to possession
of their territory; but they must not abuse that right to the extent of debarring all
other nations from a participation in its richness and virtues. The only secure title to
property, whether it be a hovel or an empire, is that the exclusive possession of one is
for the benefit of all”4
This source is interesting to look at, as it shows how much the West disliked Japans
seclusion. It was clear that the West had one thing in mind, to make profit from Japans
prosperity, and in return they would help modernise the traditional nation, to almost
everyone it was apparent that the closed door must be opened or it would be broken
down. On March 31st 1854 Perry did return, this time with seven ships, intent on
forcing the Shogun to sign the "Treaty of Peace and Amity", a treaty to establish
formal diplomatic relations between Japan and the United States.
Within five years, Japan had signed similar treaties with other western countries,
Japan was now officially open to the world, and interest grew more than ever.

The Meiji Restoration of 1868 saw Japan end its isolation; it was a time when the
once traditional culture began to absorb the modern customs and technologies of
Europe and America. In 1867 the entire Tokugawa government collapsed and was
swept aside for a new system of Imperial rule. Under Emperor Meiji, Japan began
their rapid ascent towards world power status. It was then, that a new and more
sophisticated slogan was developed- fukoku-kyohei [rich country, strong army]. The
refurbishment of Japan’s political system was a welcome change to that of the
Tokugawa reign- In 1881 the Emperor announced that a national assembly or form of
parliament would commence. With this in place, a cabinet system followed soon after,
and in 1889 the Emperor announced the official constitution; based on the German
model of democracy. Source E is a painting which portrays the exact moment in
which the Emperor announced the Meiji Constitution. In examining this
representation, it is noticed that all the people inside the hall are dressed in Western
style garments; this shows evidence towards the fact that Japan had been truly
overcome by Western influence- even to the point of fashion. It is clear that although
the nation wanted to maintain their independence, the West was having increased
sway on the new Japan.

In order to create a social structure fit to absorb such modern technologies (railways,
telegraph, postal system etc) that the period of enlightenment was to bring, the Meiji
government granted re-organised the previous class and status system. However the
industrialism wasn’t ideal for everyone; many farmers, women and children suffered
due to the new laws regarding rice crops. Farmers were not allowed to keep their own
crops, they were forced to sell the rice and buy cheaper more staple foods such as
millet, wheat, rye. Twice a year, a farmer and his family was allowed to indulge in
rice. In 1881, Mitsubishi bought the largest coal mine in Japan, the Takashima mine
on the island of Kyushu. Takashima became the showpiece among Mitsubishi's
growing collection of mines during the 1880s. It was worked by prison labourers,
men, women and children. Due to the extreme heat in the mines, the workers were
nearly naked and exposed to dangerous fumes. The workers who tried to escape were
captured and killed. When Cholera broke out, the miners who had contracted the
disease were burnt in the mines dead or alive; this treatment gained the Takashima
mine a reputation in Japan for ruthless treatment of workers.
Meanwhile, the government had turned a blind eye to the exploitation of workers in
mines and textile mills, and began focussing on completely rebuilding a nation, fit to
succeed within the modern world. This included the system of universal primary
education which was instituted in 1872; this was the first time in which a nation had
made it compulsory for children to receive schooling. As one may gather, this
operation was such a success that soon the Western countries adopted it.
Not only did the children of the ‘enlightened era’ receive the benefit of basic
education, the once oppressed adult generation of the Tokugawa were also allowed to
join school classes. Source F shows a painting depicting the insides of a normal
Japanese school house (approx. 1880). By studying the picture at close detail, one can
find that the students are a mix of children and adults- Therefore reinstating the fact
that Japan wished for all its’ population to receive sufficient education. This was a
high priority as Japan now recognised that in order to progress forward education was
the key.
Therefore Japan set up a government funded scheme that sent Japanese students to
study overseas; mainly Europe and America, in an attempt to gain increased Western
knowledge to bring back to Japan.

While the people of Japan were being educated, their wealth and economy was also
reaping the benefits of the Meiji restoration. Like many other aspects of traditional
Japan, their economy had experienced a constructive transformation. 1871 saw the
complicated currency replaced with the simple ¥en. Two years later and Japan had
introduced a land tax (as means of capital for modernisation), this they saw as a safer
approach than overseas loans. It was not only the large shifts in society that positively
effected the population and economy; it was as much achieved by the developments
of small convenient innovations. Source G- an extract from The Economic
Development of Japan (1955) elaborates on this point
The rickshaw and the bicycle; the rodent-proof warehouse; elementary sanitation;
better seeds and more fertilizer; the kerosene and then the electric lamp; a simple
power loom; the gas engine in the fishing boats; the divorce of personal from
business accounts; the principle of limited liability”5
Source G emphasises how these subtle developments had strong impact on the
economy; it allowed Japan to progress further than had ever been imagined. Through
such unspectacular changes national wealth began climbing. This in turn, brought
Japan the power to initiate profitable large scale projects, such as the major railway
running from Edo.

This vast influx of western culture and ideals impacted many aspects of Japanese life;
Japan had modernised to the extent of the West; however they had achieved this in a
fraction of the time. Thus deeming the Meiji period a time of extreme national change
and social reform. A vital aspect for developing modern Japan’s identity.

1,776 words by Asha Forsyth 2009

*subversive (adjective)
Designed to overthrow government
Intended or likely to undermine or overthrow a government or other constitution
- Encarta Dictionary-:English (U.K.)

Source A- Quoted in S. Toyama, Meiji ishin [The Meiji Restoration], Tokyo
Text- Japan in the nineteenth century pg 81
Source C- The Yomiuri, 4/08/1857 retrieved via http://www.internationalnewspaperarchive.com
Source D- Edinburgh Review, October 1852.
Source G- W.W. Lockwood, The Economic Development of Japan, pg 584



- W.G. Beasley, The Modern History of Japan, Lowe & Brydone (Printers) Ltd.,
London 1963
- Yutaka Tazawa, Japan’s Cultural History- A Perspective, Ministry of Foreign
Affairs, Japan 1973
- W.W. Lockwood, The Economic Development of Japan. Growth and Structural
Change, Princeton 1955
- C.D. Sheldon, Rise of the Merchant Class in Tokugawa Japan 1600-1868,
Locust Valley, NY, 1958


- ‘Newspaper Archive’, http://www.newspaperarchive.com,

(collected 17/6/2009)
- ‘Commodore Perry and the opening of Japan’,
(collected 18/6/2009
- ‘The Meiji Restoration and Modernization’,
(collected 18/6/2009)

Sources (not mentioned above)

-Source B
Red-laced armour, with helmet and shoulder pieces.
Kamakura Period, 14th century.

-Source E
Artist’s rendition of the Japanese Imperial Court (1889), as the Emperor
announces the Meiji Constitution.

-Source F
Painting of a Japanese school during the Meiji Restoration, (approx 1880’s)

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