In the second half of the 19th century, Japan went through a quick series of changes that would turn it from a feudal country into a global world power. This fast progress was characterized by the return of all powers to the Emperor under the Meiji Restoration.
This period came after three centuries of complete isolation from the outside world during what was called the Edo Era. The latter was characterized by the rule of the Tokugawa clan, who led the country as dominant warlords (shoguns), while the Imperial family held symbolic and ritual power.
The Meiji Restoration would lead to the rise of the Japanese Empire. However, this evolution would not come to be without a price. And the cost of progress will not be cheaper than years of bold reforms, turmoil, and bloodshed.
The Edo Era: The Eve of the Meiji Restoration
Centuries before the Meiji Restoration, the power of the Japanese Emperors diminished in the favor of local powerful warlords called Daimyos. The latter fought mercilessly for power, pulling up and down various “Shogunates”: ruling warlord clans.
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This era would lead to the emergence of the famous Samurai class. These soldiers played a central role in Japanese society up to the 19th century due to their importance in the unstable political climate of Japan.
The Ashikaga Shogunate would collapse during the Onin War (1497-1478). This event opened the stage for the Sengoku period that would last for nearly 150 years. Commonly translated to the “Warring States Period,” those years were marked by total chaos, intrigue, and endless conflict between various warring clans.
By 1568, Oda Nabunaga, leader of the Oda clan, spectacularly unified Japan under his rule with the help of a strong alliance with the Tokugawa clan. At his death, power would pass – not without turmoil – to his subordinate Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who ruled until 1598. The latter’s heir was an infant son, who by 1600 was replaced by the leader of the Tokugawa clan, Tokugawa Ieyasu.
Ieyasu established a dynastic pattern that stabilized the country for the next two centuries. The Tokugawa clan ruled during what is known today as the Edo Era, establishing a strict social system dominated by policies of extreme isolationism towards the external world.
The Bakumatsu: Late Years of the Tokugawa Shogunate
The policies undertaken by Tokugawa Ieyasu and his descendants proved effective in quelling internal turmoil and maintaining peace with foreign nations. However, isolationism towards the external world limited the Japanese ability to trade or stay updated on the technological progress of foreign countries.
Additionally, the Tokugawa Shogunate imposed a strict social hierarchy, putting Samurais on the top and merchants on the lowest grade. The absence of conflict deeply unbalanced this structure, as the Samurais slowly abandoned their warrior ways and indulged in various mundane pleasures. Merchants, on the other side, progressively built a wealthy social class, collecting debt from low and high alike.
This meticulous order imposed by the Tokugawa clan was shaken to its core in 1853. American Commodore Matthew C. Perry came to Japan with four modern warships, urging the country to open its borders to trade or face disastrous retaliation. Five years later, the Harris Treaty was signed between the Japanese Empire and the United States of America, offering advantageous terms to American merchants in the Empire of the Rising Sun.
This event had a domino effect on the whole of Japan, as various clan heads and prominent politicians, including Samurais, realized the urgency to modernize the country. Led by Saigo Takamori, Kido Takayoshi, and other great leaders, the Satsuma-Choshu Alliance saw light. It demanded the abolition of the Shogunate and the restoration of executive powers to the Emperor. Their objective was to strengthen the Japanese Empire so that it could face the imminent colonial threats.
The collapse of the economy and foreign naval bombardments of factions resisting Western presence on Japanese markets plunged the country into one of its worst political crises since the Sengoku period, the Bakumatsu, which led progressively to the Meiji Restoration.
The Meiji Restoration and the Fall of the Shogunate
Tokugawa Yoshinobu, last shogun of the Tokugawa clan, crumbled under the continuous pressure of the Satsuma-Choshu Alliance. On the 9th of November 1867, he “put his prerogatives at the Emperor’s disposal” and resigned. The young Prince Mutsuhito became Emperor, taking up the name Meiji, and became de facto the sole ruler of Japan. On January 3rd 1868, he formally announced the restoration of all executive power in his hands and stripped Yoshinobu from all prerogatives, including the leadership of the Tokugawa clan. This was the beginning of the Meiji Restoration.
Angered by this turn of events, the Tokugawa clan gathered whatever power it had left and defied Imperial Rule from the island of Ezo (today’s Hokkaido), proclaiming its independence and beginning the Boshin War.
The Imperial Army occupied Edo, the capital of the Tokugawa clan, following the Battle of Toba-Fushimi in February 1868 and renamed it Tokyo. In 1869, more Daimyos joined the Imperial cause, returning their lands to Meiji, and tightening the noose around Yoshinobu’s neck.
The last troops loyal to the Tokugawa clan were defeated at the Battle of Hakodate in May 1868. The last resisting soldiers surrendered on the 27th of June, thus ending the Boshin War. By 1872, the remaining autonomous Daimyos all returned their powers to the Emperor. For the first time in centuries, the Japanese Empire was effectively ruled by a monarch. The Meiji Restoration achieved its first major success.
The Early Reforms of the Japanese Empire
The defeat of the Shogunate was not the end of troubles for the reemerging Japanese Empire. After returning all Daimyo’s lands to the Imperial House, Meiji abolished the feudal Han system, replacing it with a modern prefectural administrative subdivision. This act created a rift within the Satsuma – Choshu Alliance, as the traditionalist faction represented by the Satsuma Clan opposed such drastic modernism.
Despite the various tensions, the Alliance managed to form a government operating under the Emperor unofficially called the “Genro”. The latter introduced various reforms, including the abolition of the social hierarchy and the modernization of the army. However, one of the main policies of the Oligarchy was the progressive abolition of the Samurai class.
The Samurais numbered around 1.9 million warriors in the 1870’s. All throughout the Edo period, the members of this class were paid fixed salaries that weighed highly on the finances of the new government. To remedy this situation, the Genro announced a heavy taxation on the Samurais’ incomes in 1873. Three years later, the Emperor imposed a commutation of Samurais’ pay into government bonds.
Military and social reforms were added up to the already heavy financial measures imposed on the Samurais. The right to bear arms was extended to all male citizens of Japan, despite heavy protest from Saigo Takamori and the Samurais, who were the only beneficiaries of this privilege in the old system. Additionally, the Government enforced a mandatory military service for all males above 21 years old. These changes ended up pushing the Samurai elite out of power.
The Satsuma clan led by Saigo Takamori broke away from the Alliance. On the 29th of January, 1877, the Satsuma’s gathered an army of 25,000 to 35,000 Samurais, and rose up in rebellion against the Meiji Restoration.
The Satsuma Rebellion
The collapse of the Satsuma-Choshu Alliance sent a shockwave through Japanese politics, and many high-ranking officials started questioning the ability of the government to lead the country. It was now up to the Imperial Army to defend the stability and the legitimacy of the Meiji Restoration.
On February 14th, 1877, Satsuma forces besieged Kumamoto Castle. The Samurais won minor victories on the outskirts and the surrounding fields. However, the Imperial Army under Tani Tateki held firm. The besiegers even managed to organize a successful sortie on April 8, breaking the line of Saigo’s forces and allowing much needed reinforcement and supplies to reach the castle. On April 12, a relief force led by Generals Kuroda Kiyotaka and Yamakawa Hiroshi managed to overwhelm the Satsuma forces, forcing them to retreat.
As Tateki forces were holding their ground in Kumamoto, Imperial soldiers under Generals Prince Arisugawa Taruhito and Yamagata Aritomo inflicted a severe defeat on the Satsuma at the Battle of Tabaruzaka despite suffering heavy losses. Those two catastrophic defeats broke the resolve of the Samurais, who retreated slowly towards the hill of Shiroyama, suffering major casualties at each stop.
The 24th of September, 1877, saw one of the most dramatic last stands in history. 500 Samurais loyal to Saigo Takamori took positions at Shiroyama, overlooking an army of more 30,000 Imperial soldiers and marines led by Yamagata Aritomo and Admiral Kawamura Sumiyoshi. The latter being a relative of Saigo, pleaded unsuccessfully to the leader of the rebellion to surrender.
The battle began, and despite heroic resistance, the Satsuma army was destroyed. No man survived, including Saigo Takamori himself. The Samurais disappeared from history, and the Meiji Restoration would establish the Japanese Empire as the dominant power in Eastern Asia.
The Final Acts of the Meiji Restoration and the Emergence of the Japanese Empire
Following the Satsuma rebellion, Meiji’s Government launched the latest reforms that would transform Japan into a modern Empire. By 1889, the Imperial authorities adopted a Constitution based on the Prussian model, establishing a government close to that of European nations. Thus, Japan was ruled jointly by the Emperor as Head of State and the Prime Minister as Head of Government.
In addition, the Japanese Government launched a fast industrialization program that would modernize the country and give birth to some of the most emblematic companies that still exist today. It was during this period that organizations such as Mitsubishi Motors and Mitsui Group were born.
The Army and Navy were the main benefactors of the industrial and economic reforms. By the 1890s, Japan closed the military gap with the West. The Empire adopted progressively an expansionist policy, looking to establish a permanent influence on Korea.
On the 25th of July 1894, the Japanese Empire formally declared war on China. Influence on Korea and hegemony in the Yellow Sea were the main objectives of Tokyo. In less than a year, Chinese land and naval forces suffered devastating defeats. Utterly humiliated, the Qing Dynasty lost battles in Korea, Manchuria, Taiwan, and the Yellow Sea. On the 17th of April 1895, the belligerent signed the Treaty of Shimonoseki, in which China recognized the independence of Korea, and perpetually ceded the Liadong Peninsula, Taiwan, and the Penghu Islands to Japan.
Japanese victory marked the beginning of a strongly expansionist era in the Empire’s history. In the following 50 years, Japan would go on to defy Russia, Germany, Great Britain and the United States of America for hegemony in the Pacific. In 1945, with the defeat in the Second World War, Japan underwent another major series of reform and abandoned its aggressive ways.
Emperor Meiji lived until 1912, ending with him the era of the Meiji Restoration.