Meiji Restoration, Constitution, and the Meiji Era

Meiji Constitution promulgation
Meiji Constitution promulgation

In December 1867 the 15th and last shogun (military leader) of the Tokugawa dynasty (1603–1867), Yoshinobu, surrendered his power to Emperor Meiji, which means “enlightened government.” The event is called the Meiji Restoration.

In 1868 Meiji took a charter oath that would create a modernized state when several important feudal lords (daimyo) surrendered their lands to the emperor. The process was completed in 1871 when all feudal holdings were confiscated from their traditional landowners, and Japan was divided into prefectures, still the main organizational departments of Japan today.

When Meiji became emperor, he inherited a state that had been severely handicapped in its development by the Tokugawa Shogunate, which closed Japan to foreign influence. Emperor Meiji and his supporters had to move swiftly to modernize his empire and, above all, its armed forces.

The treaty of 1858, which was negotiated with the United States’s first envoy to Japan, Townsend Harris, included a clause: “The Japanese Government may purchase or construct in the United States ships-of-war, steamers, merchant ships, whale ships, cannon, munitions of war, and arms of all kinds, and any other things it may require. It shall have the right to engage in the United States scientific, naval and military men, artisans of all kind, and mariners to enter into its service.”

In his search for military and naval modernization, Meiji looked also toward western Europe. A delegation was sent to study the armed forces of Europe and initially felt that the French represented the best model for Japan’s army and that Britain would furnish the naval model since the British navy had reigned supreme since Admiral Horatio Nelson’s defeat of Napoleon I’s fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

The Meiji government thus went to Britain to purchase Japan’s warships. May of the early Imperial Japanese battleships came from British shipyards. Japan’s army, however, shifted to the German model when the French army was decisively defeated by Prussian forces in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.

In 1873 Emperor Meiji introduced universal conscription to the armed forces, to bring Japan in line with German and other European practices. This ended the centuries-long samurai monopoly of armed military service.

Such drastic changes, however, resulted in discontent. In 1877 some early supporters launched the Satsuma Rebellion, which failed in the face of the discipline and modern weaponry of the new army.

Meiji pursued reforms throughout the government. In 1885 Meiji adopted a cabinet system loosely based on the cabinets under the U.S. president and the British prime minister. In 1889 a constitution was promulgated for Japan with a bicameral legislature.

The upper house, or House of Peers, resembed the British House of Lords, while the lower house, or Diet, would be elected by adult males who paid a certain sum in taxes.

In order to create the modernized state Meiji and his advisers realized that a comprehensive system of education was essential. In 1871 a ministry of education was created to carry out a far-reaching system of educational reforms. It created universal education for both boys and girls and modern universities and vocational colleges.

Industrialization was a primary goal of the Meiji government because it was the way that Japan could quickly take its place among the Great Powers. The government undertook major infrastructural building and also encouraged modernizing traditional industries.

The textile industry was a prime example. It benefited from having a considerable labor pool available for industry. Many of the textile millworkers were girls from peasant families who could find no work for them on their agricultural lands.

Japanese economic development followed that of other industrializing countries. As manufactured goods became a larger part of the economy of the country, the share of agriculture declined, reflecting the draw which the burgeoning factories had upon Japan’s laboring population.

While the first 20 years of Emperor Meiji’s reign were devoted to development at home, the last 20 years were involved with foreign adventurism. In 1894–95, Japan joined the ranks of those countries seeking to benefit from the weakness of neighboring China.

One result of victory in the Sino-Japanese War was its annexation of the island of Taiwan (Formosa). It also contributed forces to the multinational army that rescued foreigners trapped in Beijing (Peking) during the Boxer Rebellion.

In 1902 Japan and Great Britain formed an alliance (Anglo-Japanese Alliance) to counter the threat posed by Russia toward British India and the Far East, especially Japanese interests in Korea. In February 1904 Japan attacked and inflicted a series of stunning defeats on the Russian army and navy in the Russo-Japanese War. A peace treaty was mediated by U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in September 1905 whereby Russia conceded to Japan’s domination of Korea. In 1910 Japan annexed Korea and would rule it until 1945.