Japan from the Edo Period to the Meiji Restoration

Floats for the Kanda Festival, 1843 / Photo by Daderot, Edo-Tokyo Museum, Wikimedia Commons

Looking at Japan’s growth and change from the Early Modern to Modern worlds.

Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh / 08.17.2018
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief

The Edo Period

The Edo period (1603-1868), when Japanese society was under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate, was characterized by economic growth, strict social order, isolationist foreign policies, and stable population.

Shogun and Shogunate

Shogun was the military dictator of Japan from 1185 to 1868 (with exceptions). In most of this period, the shoguns were the de facto rulers of the country, although nominally they were appointed by the Emperor as a ceremonial formality. The shogun held almost absolute power over territories through military means. A shogun’s office or administration is the shogunate, known in Japanese as the bakufu. The shogun’s officials were collectively the bakufu and carried out the actual duties of administration, while the imperial court retained only nominal authority. In this context, the office of the shogun had a status equivalent to that of a viceroy or governor-general, but in reality shoguns dictated orders to everyone including the reigning Emperor.

Tokugawa Shogunate

During the second half of the 16th century, Japan gradually reunified under two powerful warlords, Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi. In the hope of founding a new dynasty, Hideyoshi asked his most trusted subordinates to pledge loyalty to his infant son Toyotomi Hideyori. Despite this, almost immediately after Hideyoshi’s death (1598), war broke out between Hideyori’s allies and those loyal to Tokugawa Ieyasu, a feudal lord (daimyō) and former ally of Hideyoshi. Tokugawa Ieyasu won a decisive victory at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 and although it took him three more years to consolidate his position of power over the Toyotomi clan and the daimyōs, Sekigahara is widely considered to be the unofficial beginning of the Tokugawa bakufu.

In 1603, Emperor Go-Yōzei declared Tokugawa Ieyasu shogun. Ieyasu abdicated two years later to groom his son as the second shogun of what became a long dynasty. Despite laws imposing tighter controls on the daimyōs, the latter continued to maintain a significant degree of autonomy in their domains. The central government of the shogunate in Edo, which quickly became the most populous city in the world, took counsel from a group of senior advisors known as rōjū and employed the samurai as bureaucrats. The Emperor in Kyoto was funded lavishly by the government but had no political power.

Tokugawa Ieyasu, first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate, by Kanō Tan’yū, Osaka Castle main tower: Ieyasu had a number of qualities that enabled him to rise to power. He was both careful and bold—at the right times, and in the right places. Calculating and subtle, Ieyasu switched alliances when he thought he would benefit from the change.

The period of the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate, known as the Edo period, brought 250 years of stability to Japan. The political system evolved into what historians call bakuhan, a combination of the terms bakufu and han (domains). In the bakuhan, the shogun had national authority and the daimyōs had regional authority. This represented a new unity in the feudal structure, which featured an increasingly large bureaucracy to administer the mixture of centralized and decentralized authorities.

A code of laws was established to regulate the daimyō houses. The code encompassed private conduct, marriage, dress, types of weapons, and numbers of troops allowed. It required the feudal lords to reside in Edo every other year, prohibited the construction of ocean-going ships, proscribed Christianity, restricted castles to one per domain (han) and stipulated that bakufu regulations were the national law. Although the daimyō were not taxed per se, they were regularly levied for contributions for military and logistical support and for such public works projects as castles, roads, bridges, and palaces. The various regulations and levies not only strengthened the Tokugawa but depleted the wealth of the daimyōs, thus weakening their threat to the central administration. The han, once military-centered domains, became mere local administrative units. The daimyōs did have full administrative control over their territories and their complex systems of retainers, bureaucrats, and commoners.

The Tokugawa shogunate went to great lengths to suppress social unrest. Harsh penalties, including crucifixion, beheading, and death by boiling, were decreed for even the most minor offenses, although criminals of high social class were often given the option of seppuku (“self-disembowelment”), an ancient form of suicide that became ritualized. Christianity, which was seen as a potential threat, was gradually restricted until it was completely outlawed. To prevent further foreign ideas from sowing dissent, the third Tokugawa shogun, Iemitsu, implemented the sakoku (“closed country”) isolationist policy, under which Japanese people were not allowed to travel abroad, return from overseas, or build ocean-going vessels. The only Europeans allowed on Japanese soil were the Dutch, who were granted a single trading post on the island of Dejima. China and Korea were the only other countries permitted to trade and many foreign books were banned from import.

Social Structure

Edo society had an elaborate social structure in which everyone knew their place and level of prestige. At the top were the Emperor and the court nobility, invincible in prestige but weak in power. Next came the shogun, daimyōs, and layers of feudal lords, whose rank was indicated by their closeness to the Tokugawa. The daimyōs comprised about 250 local lords of local han with annual outputs of 50,000 or more bushels of rice.

The Tokugawa government adapted a social order called “the four divisions of society” (shinōkōshō  or mibunsei) that stabilized the country. This system was based on the ideas of Confucianism that spread to Japan from China. Society was composed of samurai, farming peasants, artisans, and merchants. Samurai were placed at the top because they started an order and set a high moral example for others to follow. The system was meant to reinforce their position of power in society by justifying their ruling status. Peasants came second because they produced the most important commodity, food. According to Confucian philosophy, society could not survive without agriculture. Third were artisans because they produced nonessential goods. Merchants were at the bottom of the social order because they generated wealth without producing any goods. As this indicates, the classes were not arranged by wealth or capital but by what philosophers described as their moral purity. In actuality, shinōkōshō does not accurately describe Tokugawa society as many were excluded from this simplified division (e.g., soldiers, clergy, service providers like cleaners, etc.).

The individual had no legal rights in Tokugawa Japan. The family was the smallest legal entity and the maintenance of family status and privileges was of great importance at all levels of society.

Terakoya, private educational school (here specifically for girls) by Issunshi Hanasato

The first terakoya made their appearance at the beginning of the 17th century, as a development from educational facilities founded in Buddhist temples. Before the Edo period, public educational institutions were dedicated to the children of samurai and ruling families, thus the rise of the merchant class in the middle of the Edo period boosted the popularity of terakoya. They were common in large cities as Edo and Osaka, as well as in rural and coastal regions.

Economic Development

The Edo period witnessed the growth of a vital commercial sector, burgeoning urban centers, relatively well-educated elite, sophisticated government bureaucracy, productive agriculture, highly developed financial and marketing systems, and a national infrastructure of roads. Economic development included urbanization, increased shipping of commodities, a significant expansion of domestic and initially foreign commerce, and a diffusion of trade and handicraft industries. The construction trades flourished, along with banking facilities and merchant associations.

By the mid-18th century, Edo had a population of more than one million, and Osaka and Kyoto each had more than 400,000 inhabitants. Many other castle towns grew as well. Japan had almost zero population growth between the 1720s and 1820s. This is often attributed to lower birth rates in response to widespread famine, but some historians have presented different theories, such as a high rate of infanticide as a means to artificially control population.

Rice was the base of the economy. About 80% of the people were rice farmers. Rice production increased steadily, but population remained stable, so prosperity increased. Improved technology helped farmers control the all-important flow of irrigation to their paddies. Large-scale rice markets developed, centered on Edo and Ōsaka. The daimyōs collected the taxes from the peasants in the form of rice. Taxes were high, about 40% of the harvest. In the cities and towns, guilds of merchants and artisans met the growing demand for goods and services. The merchants, though low in status, prospered, especially those with official patronage. They invented credit instruments to transfer money, currency came into common use, and the strengthening credit market encouraged entrepreneurship.

It was during the Edo period that Japan developed an advanced forest management policy. Increased demand for timber resources for construction, shipbuilding, and fuel had led to widespread deforestation, which resulted in forest fires, floods, and soil erosion. In response, the shogun, beginning around 1666, instituted a policy to reduced logging and increased the planting of trees. The policy mandated that only the shogun and daimyōs could authorize the use of wood. By the 18th century, Japan had developed detailed scientific knowledge about silviculture and plantation forestry.

Isolationism in the Edo Period

The isolationist policy of the Tofugawa shogunate known as sakoku tightly controlled Japanese trade and foreign influences for over 200 years, ending with the Perry Expedition that forced Japan to open its market to European imperial powers.


Sakoku was the foreign relations policy of Japan under which severe restrictions were placed on the entry of foreigners to Japan and Japanese people were forbidden to leave the country without special permission, on penalty of death if they returned. The policy was enacted by the Tokugawa shogunate under Tokugawa Iemitsu, the third shogun  of the Tokugawa dynasty, through a number of edicts and policies from 1633–39. It largely remained officially in effect until 1866, although the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry in the 1850s began the opening of Japan to Western trade, eroding its enforcement.

Historians have argued that the sakoku policy was established to remove the colonial and religious influence of Spain and Portugal, perceived as posing a threat to the stability of the shogunate and to peace in the archipelago. Some scholars, however, have challenged this view as only a partial explanation. Another important factor behind sakoku was the Tokugawa government’s desire to acquire sufficient control over Japan’s foreign policy to guarantee peace and maintain Tokugawa supremacy over other powerful lords in the country.

Japan was not completely isolated under the sakoku policy, but strict regulations were applied to commerce and foreign relations by the shogunate and certain feudal domains (han). The policy stated that the only European influence permitted was the Dutch factory at Dejima in Nagasaki. Trade with China was also handled at Nagasaki. Trade with Korea was limited to the Tsushima Domain. Trade with the Ainu people was limited to the Matsumae Domain in Hokkaidō and trade with the Ryūkyū Kingdom took place in Satsuma Domain. Apart from these direct commercial contacts in peripheral provinces, trading countries sent regular missions to the shogun in Edo and Osaka Castle. Due to the necessity for Japanese subjects to travel to and from these trading posts, this trade resembled outgoing trade, with Japanese subjects making regular contact with foreign traders in essentially extraterritorial land. Trade with Chinese and Dutch traders in Nagasaki took place on an island called Dejima, separated from the city by a small strait. Foreigners could not enter Japan from Dejima, nor could Japanese enter Dejima, without special permissions or authority.

Western Challenges to Japanese Isolationism

The growing commerce between America and China, the presence of American whalers in waters off Japan, and the increasing monopolization of potential coaling stations by the British and French in Asia were all contributing factors in the decision by U.S. President Millard Fillmore to dispatch an expedition to Japan. The Americans were also driven by the idea that Western civilization and Christianity would benefit and thus should be imposed on Asian nations, which were seen as “backwards.” By the early 19th century, the Japanese policy of isolation was increasingly challenged. In 1844, King William II of the Netherlands sent a letter urging Japan to end the isolation policy on its own before change would be forced from the outside. Between 1790 and 1853, at least 27 U.S. ships (including three warships) visited Japan, only to be turned away. There were increasing sightings and incursions of foreign ships in Japanese waters and leading to debate in Japan on how to meet this potential threat to Japan’s economic and political sovereignty.

In 1851, U.S. Secretary of State Daniel Webster drafted a letter addressed to the “Japanese Emperor” with assurances that the planned expedition under the authority of Commodore John H. Aulick had no religious purpose, but was only to request “friendship and commerce” and supplies of coal needed by ships en route to China. The letter also boasted of American expansion across the North American continent and the technical prowess of the country. It was signed by President Fillmore. However, Aulick became involved in a diplomatic row with a Brazilian diplomat and quarrels with the captain of his flagship and was relieved of his command before he could undertake the expedition. His replacement, Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry (1794–1858) was a senior-ranking officer in the United States Navy and had extensive diplomatic experience.

Perry Expedition

In 1852, Perry was assigned a mission to force the opening of Japanese ports to American trade, through the use of gunboat diplomacy if necessary. On November 24, 1852, Perry embarked from Norfolk, Virginia, in pursuit of a Japanese trade treaty. On his way, he met with American-born Sinologist Samuel Wells Williams, who provided Chinese language translations of his official letters, and with the Dutch-born American diplomat, Anton L. C. Portman, who translated his official letters into the Dutch language. Perry finally reached Uraga at the entrance to Edo Bay in Japan on July 8, 1853. His actions at this crucial juncture were shaped by a careful study of Japan’s previous contacts with Western ships and what he knew about the Japanese hierarchical culture. As he arrived, Perry ordered his ships to steam past Japanese lines towards the capital of Edo and turn their guns towards the town of Uraga. He refused Japanese demands to leave or to proceed to Nagasaki, the only Japanese port open to foreigners.

Matthew Calbraith Perry, photo by Mathew Brady, ca. 1856-58.: When Perry returned to the United States in 1855, Congress voted to grant him a reward of $20,000 (USD $514,000 in 2017) in appreciation of his work in Japan. He used part of this money to prepare and publish a report on the expedition in three volumes, titled Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan.

Perry attempted to intimidate the Japanese by presenting them a white flag and a letter, which said that if they chose to fight, the Americans would destroy them. He also fired blank shots from his 73 cannons, which he claimed was in celebration of the American Independence Day. Perry’s ships were equipped with new Paixhans shell guns, cannons capable of wreaking explosive destruction with every shell. He also ordered his ship boats to commence survey operations of the coastline and surrounding waters over the objections of local officials.

In the meantime, the Japanese government was paralyzed by the illness of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyoshi and political indecision on how to handle the unprecedented threat to the nation’s capital. On July 11, the chief senior councilor (rōjū) Abe Masahiro decided that simply accepting a letter from the Americans would not constitute a violation of Japanese sovereignty and Perry was asked to move his fleet slightly southwest to the beach at Kurihama, where he was allowed to land. After presenting the letter to attending delegates, Perry departed for Hong Kong, promising to return the following year for the Japanese reply.

Perry returned on February 13, 1854, after only half a year rather than the full year promised, with ten ships and 1,600 men. Both actions were calculated to put even more pressure on the Japanese. After initial resistance, Perry was permitted to land at Kanagawa, where after month-long negotiations the Convention of Kanagawa was signed on March 31, 1854. Signed under the threat of force, the convention effectively meant the end of Japan’s 220-year-old policy of national seclusion by opening the ports of Shimoda and Hakodate to American vessels. It also ensured the safety of American castaways and established the position of an American consul in Japan.


In the short-term, both sides were satisfied with the agreement. Perry had achieved his primary objective of breaking Japan’s sakoku policy and setting the grounds for protection of American citizens and an eventual commercial agreement. The Tokugawa shogunate could point out that the treaty was not actually signed by the Shogun or any of his rōjū, and by the agreement made, had at least temporarily averted the possibility of immediate military confrontation.

Japanese 1854 print relating Perry’s visit

After the signing of the convention, the Americans presented the Japanese with a miniature steam locomotive, a telegraph apparatus, various agricultural tools, and small arms as well as 100 gallons of whiskey, clocks, stoves, and books about the United States. The Japanese responded with gold-lacquered furniture and boxes, bronze ornaments, porcelain goblets, and upon learning of Perry’s personal hobby, a collection of seashells.

Externally, the treaty led to the United States-Japan Treaty of Amity and Commerce, the Harris Treaty of 1858, which allowed the establishment of foreign concessions, extraterritoriality for foreigners, and minimal import taxes for foreign goods. The Kanagawa Convention was also followed by similar agreements with the United Kingdom (Anglo-Japanese Friendship Treaty, 1854), the Russians (Treaty of Shimoda, 1855), and the French (Treaty of Amity and Commerce between France and Japan, 1858).

Internally, the treaty had far-reaching consequences. Decisions to suspend previous restrictions on military activities led to re-armament by many domains and further weakened the position of the Shogun. Debate over foreign policy and popular outrage over perceived appeasement to the foreign powers was a catalyst for the sonnō jōi movement (the movement to overthrow the Tokugawa shogunate) and a shift in political power from Edo back to the Imperial Court in Kyoto. The opposition of Emperor Kōmei to the treaties further lent support to the tōbaku (overthrow the Shogunate) movement, and eventually to the Meiji Restoration.

Art and Culture in the Edo Period

The Edo period witnessed the energetic growth of intellectual and artistic trends, including the development of sciences shaped by both Western and national influences, the emergence of new schools of art, and the rise of new literary genres fueled by the rising literacy rate among urban populations.

Intellectual Trends

During the Edo period, the Japanese studied Western sciences and techniques (called rangaku, “Dutch studies”) through the information and books received from Dutch traders in Dejima. The main areas of study included geography, medicine, natural sciences, astronomy, art, languages, physical sciences such as the study of electrical phenomena, and mechanical sciences as exemplified by the development of Japanese clockwatches, or wadokei, inspired by Western techniques.

The flourishing of neo-Confucianism was the major intellectual development of the Tokugawa period. Confucian studies had long been kept active in Japan by Buddhist clerics, but during the Tokugawa period, Confucianism emerged from Buddhist religious control. Neo-Confucianism was an attempt to create a more rationalist and secular form of Confucianism by rejecting superstitious and mystical elements of  Taoism  and Buddhism that earlier influenced Confucianism. Although the neo-Confucianists were critical of Taoism and Buddhism, the new philosophy borrowed terms and concepts from both. However, unlike the Buddhists and Taoists, who saw  metaphysics  as a catalyst for spiritual development, religious enlightenment, and immortality, the Neo-Confucianists used metaphysics as a guide for developing a rationalist ethical philosophy. Although this system of thought was not new during the Edo period, its major tenets,  including a secular view of man and society, ethical humanism, rationalism, and historical perspective of neo-Confucian doctrine, grew in popularity.

By the mid-17th century, Neo-Confucianism was Japan’s dominant legal philosophy and contributed directly to the development of the kokugaku, a school of Japanese philology and philosophy that originated during the Tokugawa period. Kokugaku scholars worked to refocus Japanese scholarship away from the then-dominant study of Chinese, Confucian, and Buddhist texts in favor of research into the early Japanese classics. The Kokugaku school held that the Japanese national character was naturally pure and would reveal its splendor once the foreign (Chinese) influences were removed. The “Chinese heart” was different from the “true heart” or “Japanese heart.” This true Japanese spirit needed to be revealed by removing a thousand years of Chinese learning. Kokugaku contributed to the emperor-centered nationalism of modern Japan and the revival of Shinto as a national creed in the 18th and 19th centuries. Some purists in the kokugaku movement, such as Motoori Norinaga, even criticized the Confucian and Buddhist influences—in effect, foreign influences—for contaminating Japan’s ancient ways.

Members of the samurai class adhered to their ways of life (a code of conduct known as bushido) with a renewed interest in Japanese history and in cultivation of the practices of Confucian scholar-administrators. Another special way of life—chōnindō—also emerged. Chōnindō (“the way of the townspeople”) was a distinct culture that arose in cities such as Osaka, Kyoto, and Edo. It encouraged aspiration to bushido qualities—diligence, honesty, honor, loyalty, and frugality—while blending Shinto, Neo-Confucian, and Buddhist beliefs. Study of mathematics, astronomy, cartography, engineering, and medicine were also encouraged. Emphasis was placed on quality of workmanship, especially in the arts.

Cultural Trends and Japanese Social Order

Advanced studies and growing applications of neo-Confucianism contributed to the transition of the social and political order from feudal norms to class- and large-group-oriented practices. The rule of the people or Confucian man was gradually replaced by the rule of law. New laws were developed and new administrative devices were instituted. A new theory of government and a new vision of society emerged to justify more comprehensive governance by the shogunate. Each person had a distinct place in society and was expected to work to fulfill his or her mission in life. The people were ruled with benevolence. Government was all-powerful but responsible and humane. Although the class system was influenced by neo-Confucianism, it was not identical to it. Whereas soldiers and clergy were at the bottom of the hierarchy in the Chinese model, in Japan, some members of these classes constituted the ruling elite.

For the first time, urban populations had the means and leisure time to support new mass culture. Their search for enjoyment became known as ukiyo (the floating world), an ideal world of fashion, popular entertainment, and the discovery of aesthetic qualities in objects and actions of everyday life. This increasing interest in pursuing recreational activities developed an array of new industries, many found in an area known as Yoshiwara. The region was better known for being the center of Edo’s developing sense of elegance and refinement. This center of pleasure and luxury became a destination for the elite and wealthy merchants who wished to flaunt their fortune. For many who inhabited and worked in this region, maintaining the illusion of grandeur was the only way of supporting their businesses.

Yoshiwara was home to many girls and women who provided services to lure guests into returning. These included dancing, singing, playing an instrument, gossiping, or providing companionship, which usually meant prostitution. Girls were often indentured to the brothels by their parents between the ages of seven and 12. Some would become an apprentice to a high ranking courtesan. When the girl was old enough and had completed her training, she would become a courtesan herself and work her way up the ranks. The young women often had a contract to the brothel for five to ten years, but massive debt sometimes kept them there for life. The alleged cost of living at Yoshiwara perpetuated the cycle of abuse as women were forced to pay the cost of rent, clothing, make-up, gifts, and even their work contract. One way a woman could get out of Yoshiwara was for a rich man to buy her contract from the brothel and keep her as his personal wife or concubine. Another was if she managed to be successful to buy her own freedom. This did not occur very often. Many women died of sexually transmitted diseases or from failed abortions before completing their contracts. A significant number served out their contracts and married a client, went into other employment (including other forms of prostitution), or returned to their family homes.

Prostitutes on display in Yoshiwara during the Meiji period (the period following the Edo period in the Japanese history), possibly by Kusakabe Kimbei.

The area was damaged by an extensive fire in 1913, then nearly wiped out by an earthquake in 1923. It remained in business, however, until prostitution was outlawed by the Japanese government in 1958 after World War II.

Arts and Literature

Music, popular stories, kabuki and bunraku (puppet theater), poetry, literature, and art all flourished during the Edo period.

Around 1661, painted hanging scrolls known as Portraits of Kanbun Beauties gained popularity. The paintings of the Kanbun era (1661–73), most of which are anonymous, marked the beginnings of a new style of painting and printmaking known as ukiyo-e. The paintings of Iwasa Matabei (1578–1650) are seen by some scholars as evidence that Matabei he was the genre’s founder. In response to the increasing demand for ukiyo-e works, Hishikawa Moronobu (1618–1694) produced the first ukiyo-e woodblock prints. By 1672, Moronobu was so successful that he began to sign his work—the first of the book illustrators to do so. He was a prolific illustrator who worked in a wide variety of genres and developed an influential style of portraying female beauties. Most significantly, he began to produce illustrations, not just for books, but as single-sheet images which could stand alone or be used as part of a series. The Hishikawa school attracted a large number of followers.

Suzuki Harunobu produced the first full-color nishiki-e prints in 1765, a form that has become synonymous with ukiyo-e. The genre peaked in technique towards the end of the century with the works of such artists as Kiyonaga and Utamaro. As the Edo period came to an end, a great diversity of topics proliferated: warriors, nature, folklore, and the landscapes of Hokusai and Hiroshige. The genre declined throughout the rest of the century in the face of modernization that saw ukiyo-e as both old-fashioned and laborious to produce compared to Western technologies. Ukiyo-e was a primary part of the wave of Japanism that swept Western art in the late 19th century.

Katsushika Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa, 1831 (from Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji)

This one of the best-known works of Japanese art represents ukiyo-e. Although it is often used in tsunami literature, there is no reason to suspect that Hokusai intended it to be interpreted in that way. The waves in this work are sometimes mistakenly referred to as tsunami but they are more accurately called okinami, great off-shore waves.

Due in large part to the rise of the working and middle classes in the new capital of Edo (modern Tokyo), forms of popular drama developed which would later evolve into kabuki. The jōruri and kabuki dramatist Chikamatsu Monzaemon became popular at the end of the 17th century and is known as Japan’s Shakespeare. Many genres of literature made their début during the Edo Period, helped by a rising literacy rate among the growing population of townspeople and the development of lending libraries. Although there was a minor Western influence trickling into the country from the Dutch settlement at Nagasaki, it was the importation of Chinese vernacular fiction that proved the greatest outside influence on the development of early modern Japanese fiction. Ihara Saikaku is credited for the birth of modern Japanese novel, mixing vernacular dialogue into his humorous and cautionary tales of the pleasure quarters. Jippensha Ikku wrote Tōkaidōchū Hizakurige, a mix of travelogue and comedy. Tsuga Teisho, Takebe Ayatari, and Okajima Kanzan were instrumental in developing the yomihon, historical romances almost entirely in prose, influenced by Chinese vernacular. Other genres included horror, crime stories, morality stories, comedy, and pornography—often accompanied by colorful woodcut prints.

During the Tokugawa period, as in earlier periods, scholarly work continued to be published in Chinese, considered the language of the learned much as Latin was in Europe.

The Meiji Restoration

The Meiji Restoration was a chain of events, triggered by an internal crisis and strong anti-Western sentiments, that ended the Edo period and thus the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate and restored practical imperial rule to Japan in 1868 under Emperor Meiji.


Bakumatsu refers to the final years of the Edo period when the Tokugawa shogunate ended. Between 1853 and 1867, Japan ended its isolationist foreign policy known as sakoku and changed from a feudal Tokugawa shogunate to the pre-modern empire of the Meiji government. The major ideological-political divide during this period was between the pro-imperial nationalists called ishin shishi and the shogunate forces, which included the elite shinsengumi swordsmen. Although these two groups were the most visible powers, many other factions attempted to use the chaos of Bakumatsu to seize personal power. There were two other main driving forces for dissent: growing resentment among outside feudal lords and growing anti-western sentiment following the arrival of Matthew C. Perry and the resulting end of isolationism. The feudal lords fought against Tokugawa forces at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 and had from that point on been excluded permanently from all powerful positions within the shogunate. The anti-Western sentiment was often expressed in the phrase sonnō jōi, or “revere the Emperor, expel the barbarians.”

During the last years of the Bakumatsu, the shogunate took strong measures to try to reassert its dominance, although its involvement with modernization and foreign powers made it a target of anti-Western sentiment throughout the country. Naval students were sent to study in Western schools for several years, starting a tradition of foreign-educated future leaders. By the end of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1868, the Japanese navy of the shogun already possessed eight western-style steam warships. A French Military Mission to Japan (1867) was established to help modernize the shogunate armies. Japan sent a delegation to and participated in the 1867 World Fair in Paris.

Tokugawa Yoshinobu (informally known as Keiki) reluctantly became head of the Tokugawa house and shogun following the unexpected death of Tokugawa Iemochi in 1866. In 1867, Emperor Kōmei died and was succeeded by his second son, Mutsuhito, as Emperor Meiji. Tokugawa Yoshinobu tried to reorganize the government under the Emperor while preserving the shogun’s leadership role, a system known as kōbu gattai. Fearing the growing power of the Satsuma and Chōshū feudal domains, other domains called for returning the shogun’s political power to the emperor and a council chaired by the former Tokugawa shogun. With the threat of an imminent Satsuma-Chōshū led military action, Yoshinobu moved pre-emptively by surrendering some of his previous authority.

Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the last shogun, in French military uniform, c. 1867

Tokugawa Yoshinobu took over the position of shogun at the time of massive turmoil. The opening of Japan to uncontrolled foreign trade brought massive economic instability. While some entrepreneurs prospered, many others went bankrupt. Unemployment and inflation rose. Coincidentally, major famines increased the price of food drastically. Incidents occurred between brash foreigners, qualified as “the scum of the earth” by a contemporary diplomat, and the Japanese.

Boshin War

After Keiki temporarily avoided the growing conflict, anti-shogunal forces instigated widespread turmoil in the streets of Edo using groups of masterless samurais known as rōnins. Satsuma and Chōshū forces then moved on Kyoto in force, pressuring the Imperial Court for a conclusive edict demolishing the shogunate. Following a conference of feudal domains (daimyōs), the Imperial Court issued such an edict, removing the power of the shogunate in 1867. The Satsuma, Chōshū, and other domain leaders and radical courtiers, rebelled, seized the imperial palace, and announced their own restoration on January 3, 1868. Keiki nominally accepted the plan, retiring from the Imperial Court to Osaka at the same time as resigning as shogun. Fearing a feigned concession of the shogunal power to consolidate power, the dispute continued until culminating in a military confrontation between Tokugawa and allied domains with Satsuma, Tosa, and Chōshū forces in Fushimi and Toba. With battle turning toward anti-shogunal forces, Keiki then quit Osaka for Edo, essentially ending both the power of the Tokugawa and the shogunate that had ruled Japan for over 250 years.

A teenage Emperor Meiji with foreign representatives at the end of the Boshin War

The Meiji Restoration and the resultant modernization of Japan influenced Japanese self-identity with respect to its Asian neighbors, as Japan became the first Asian state to modernize based on the European model, replacing the traditional Confucian hierarchical order that persisted previously under a dominant China with one based on modernity.

Meiji Restoration

The fall of Edo in 1868 marked the end of the Tokugawa shogunate, and a new era, Meiji, was proclaimed. The first reform was the promulgation of the 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 main provisions included the establishment of assemblies, the involvement of all classes in carrying out state affairs, the revocation of class restrictions on employment, the introduction of “the “just laws of nature,” and seeking international expertise to strengthen the foundations of imperial rule. Implicit in the Charter Oath was an end to exclusive political rule by the bakufu (a shogun’s direct administration including officers), and a move toward more democratic participation in government. To implement the Charter Oath, a short-lived constitution was drawn up in 1868. 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 daimyōs voluntarily surrendered their land and census records to the Emperor in the abolition of the han (feudal domain) system, symbolizing that the land and people were under the Emperor’s jurisdiction. Confirmed in their hereditary positions, the feudal lords 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 old court nobles and lower-ranking but more radical samurai became a new ruling class.

The Meiji Constitution

The Meiji Constitution, proclaimed in 1889 and enacted in 1890, established mixed constitutional and absolute monarchy, creating tensions between democratic and authoritarian tendencies with the emperor as head of state and the prime minister as head of government.

New Imperial Government

After the Meiji restoration, the leaders of the samurai who overthrew the Tokugawa shogunate had no clear agenda or pre-developed plan on how to run Japan. Immediately after the resignation of Tokugawa Yoshinobu in 1867, with no official centralized government, the country was a collection of largely semi-independent feudal domains (the han system), held together by the military strength of the Satchō Alliance (military alliance between the feudal domains of Satsuma and Chōshū formed in 1866 to combine their efforts to restore Imperial rule) and the prestige of the Imperial Court. In 1868, with the outcome of the Boshin War still uncertain, the new Meiji government summoned delegates from all of the domains to Kyoto to establish a provisional consultative national assembly. The Charter Oath was promulgated, in which Emperor Meiji set out the broad general outlines for Japan’s development and modernization. The same year, administrative code known as Seitaisho was promulgated to establish the new administrative basis for the Meiji government. It was a mixture of western concepts such as division of powers and a revival of ancient Japanese structures of bureaucracy.

Centralization: Abolition of Han System

In 1869, the central government led by Ōkubo Toshimichi of Satsuma felt strong enough to effect centralization. After merging the armies of Satsuma and Chōshū into a combined force, Ōkubo and Kido Takayoshi convinced the feudal lords (daimyō) of Satsuma, Chōshū, Hizen. and Tosa to surrender their domains to the emperor. Other daimyō were forced to do the same and all were reappointed as governors to their respective domains, now treated as sub-divisions of the central government. In 1871, Ōkubo and several other leaders held a secret meeting and decided to completely abolish the han domains. Eventually, all of the ex-daimyō were summoned to the Emperor, who issued a decree converting the domains to prefectures headed by a bureaucratic appointee from the central government. The daimyō were generously pensioned into retirement and their castles became the local administrative centers for the central government. By the end of 1871, Japan was a fully centralized state. The transition was made gradually to avoid disruption to the lives of the common people and outbreaks of resistance or violence. The central government absorbed all of the debts and obligations of the domains and many former officials found new employment with the central government.

In 1871, the central government supported the creation of consultative assemblies at the town, village, and county levels. The membership of the prefectural assemblies was drawn from these local assemblies. As the local assemblies only had the power of debate and not legislation, they provided an important safety valve without the ability to challenge the authority of the central government.


Prior to the Meiji Restoration, Japan had no written constitution, and the idea of one became a subject of heated debate. The conservative Meiji oligarchy viewed anything resembling democracy or republicanism with suspicion, favoring a gradual approach. The Freedom and People’s Rights Movement demanded the immediate establishment of an elected national assembly and the promulgation of a constitution. In 1881, Itō Hirobumi was appointed to chair a government bureau to research various forms of constitutional government and in 1882, Itō led an overseas mission to observe and study various systems first-hand. The United States Constitution was rejected as too liberal. The French and Spanish models were rejected as tending toward despotism. The Reichstag and legal structures of the German Empire, particularly that of Prussia, proved to be of the most interest to the Constitutional Study Mission. Influence was also drawn from the British Westminster system, although it was considered being unwieldy and granting too much power to Parliament.

The Council of State was replaced in 1885 with a cabinet headed by Itō as Prime Minister. The draft committee included Japanese officials along with a number of foreign advisers, in particular some German legal scholars. The central issue was the balance between sovereignty vested in the person of the Emperor and an elected representative legislature with powers that would limit or restrict the power of the sovereign. The final version, drafted without public debate, was submitted to Emperor Meiji in 1888.

Meiji Constitution promulgation by Toyohara Chikanobu, undated.

The Meiji Constitution consists of 76 articles in seven chapters, amounting to around 2,500 words. It is also usually reproduced with its Preamble, the Imperial Oath Sworn in the Sanctuary in the Imperial Palace, and the Imperial Rescript on the Promulgation of the Constitution, which come to nearly another 1,000 words.

The new constitution was promulgated by Emperor Meiji on February 11 (the National Foundation Day of Japan in 660 BC), 1889, but came into effect in 1890. The first National Diet of Japan, a new representative assembly, convened on the day the Meiji Constitution came into force. The organizational structure of the Diet reflected both Prussian and British influences, most notably in the inclusion of the House of Representatives as the lower house and the House of Peers as the upper house. The second chapter of the constitution, detailing the rights of citizens, bore a resemblance to similar articles in both European and North American constitutions of the day.

The Meiji Constitution established clear limits on the power of the executive branch and the Emperor. It also created an independent judiciary. Civil rights and civil liberties were guaranteed, although in many cases they were subject to limitation by law. Unlike its modern successor, the Meiji Constitution was founded on the principle that sovereignty resided in person of the emperor, by virtue of his divine ancestry “unbroken for ages eternal,” rather than in the people. The emperor had the right to exercise executive authority and to appoint and dismiss all government officials. He also had the sole rights to declare war, make peace, conclude treaties, dissolve the lower house of Diet, and issue Imperial ordinances in place of laws when the Diet was not in session. Most importantly, command over the Imperial Japanese Army and Imperial Japanese Navy was directly held by the Emperor and not the Diet. Cabinet consisted of Ministers of State who answered to the Emperor rather than the Diet. The Privy Council, an advisory council to the Emperor of Japan, was also established. Not mentioned in the Constitution were the genrō, an inner circle of advisers to the Emperor, who wielded considerable influence.

The Emperor meets with his Privy Councilors, ukiyo-e woodblock prints by Yōshū Chikanobu, 1888.

The Privy Council consisted of a chairman, a vice chairman (non-voting), 12 (later expanded to 24) councilors, a chief secretary, and three additional secretaries. All privy councilors were appointed by the emperor for life, on the advice of the prime minister and the cabinet. In addition to the 24 voting privy counselors, the prime minister and the other ministers of state were ex officio members of the council.

The Meiji Constitution was ambiguous in wording and in many places self-contradictory. The leaders of the government and the political parties were left to interpret whether the Meiji Constitution could be used to justify authoritarian or liberal-democratic rule. It was the struggle between these tendencies that dominated the government of the Empire of Japan. Following Japan’s defeat in World War II, the Meiji Constitution was replaced by a new document, the postwar Constitution of Japan. This document—officially an amendment to the Meiji Constitution—replaced imperial rule with a form of Western-style liberal democracy.

Japan’s Industrial Revolution

The rapid industrialization of Japan during the Meiji period resulted from a carefully engineered transfer of Western technology, modernization trends, and education led by the government in partnership with the private sector.

Iwakura Mission

The Industrial Revolution in Japan began about 1870 as Meiji period leaders decided to catch up with the West. In 1871, a group of Japanese statesmen and scholars known as the Iwakura Mission embarked upon a voyage across Europe and the United States. The aim of the mission was threefold: to gain recognition for the newly reinstated imperial dynasty under the Emperor Meiji, to begin preliminary renegotiation of the unequal treaties with the dominant world powers, and to explore modern Western industrial, political, military, and educational systems and structures.

The mission was named after and headed by Iwakura Tomomi in the role of extraordinary and plenipotentiary ambassador, assisted by four vice-ambassadors. It also included a number of administrators and scholars, totaling 48 people. In addition to the mission staff, about 53 students and attendants joined. Several students were left behind to complete their education in the foreign countries, including five young women who stayed in the United States.

Leaders of the Iwakura Mission photographed in London in 1872: Kido Takayoshi, Yamaguchi Masuka, Iwakura Tomomi, Itō Hirobumi, Ōkubo Toshimichi

The mission is the most well-known and possibly most significant in terms of its impact on the modernization of Japan after a long period of isolation from the West. It was first proposed by the influential Dutch missionary and engineer Guido Verbeck, based to some degree on the model of the Grand Embassy of Peter I.

Of the initial goals of the mission, the aim of revision of the unequal treaties was not achieved, prolonging the mission by almost four months but also impressing the importance of the second goal on its members. The attempts to negotiate new treaties under better conditions with the foreign governments led to criticism that members of the mission were attempting to go beyond the mandate set by the Japanese government. The missionaries were nonetheless impressed by industrial modernization in America and Europe and the tour provided them with a strong impetus to lead similar modernization initiatives.

Industrialization in Japan

Japan’s Industrial Revolution first appeared in textiles, including cotton and especially silk, traditionally made in home workshops in rural areas. By the 1890s, Japanese textiles dominated the home markets and competed successfully with British products in China and India. Japanese shippers competed with European traders to carry these goods across Asia and even in Europe. As in the West, the textile mills employed mainly women, half of them younger than age 20. They were sent by and gave their wages to their fathers. Japan largely skipped water power and moved straight to steam-powered mills, which were more productive. That in turn created a demand for coal.

To promote industrialization, the government decided that while it should help private business to allocate resources and to plan, the private sector was best equipped to stimulate economic growth. The greatest role of government was to help provide the economic conditions in which business could flourish. In the early Meiji period, the government built factories and shipyards that were sold to entrepreneurs at a fraction of their values. Many of these businesses grew rapidly into larger conglomerates. Government emerged as chief promoter of private enterprise, enacting a series of pro-business policies. The government also provided infrastructure, building railroads, improving roads, and inaugurating a land reform program to prepare the country for further development.

Social Changes

Important social changes supported by the government also fueled industrialization. One of the biggest economic impacts of the period was the end of the feudal system. With a relatively loose social structure, the Japanese were able to advance through the ranks of society more easily than before by inventing and selling their own wares. The Japanese people also now had the ability to become more educated. The Meiji period leaders inaugurated a new Western-based education system for all young people, sent thousands of students to the United States and Europe, and hired more than 3,000 Westerners to teach modern science, mathematics, technology, and foreign languages in Japan. With a more educated population, Japan’s industrial sector grew significantly.

The first Japanese study-abroad female students to the United States, sponsored by the Meiji Government. From left: Shigeko Nagai (age 10), Teiko Ueda (16), Ryōko Yoshimasu (16), Umeko Tsuda (1864–1929, age 9 in the picture), and Sutematsu Yamakawa (1860–1919, age 12 in the picture).

Tsuda Umeko, who left Japan to study in the US at the age of 7, returned to Japan in 1900 and founded Tsuda College. It remains one of the most prestigious women’s institutes of higher education in Japan. Although Tsuda strongly desired social reform for women, she did not advocate feminist values and opposed the women’s suffrage movement. Her activities were based on her philosophy that education should focus on developing individual intelligence and personality.

Government vs. Private Sector

The government initially was involved in economic modernization, providing a number of “model factories” to facilitate the transition to the modern period. 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.

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 with an abundance of aggressive entrepreneurs—welcomed such change. Hand in hand, industrial and financial business conglomerates known as zaibatsu and government guided the nation, borrowing technology from the West. Many of the former feudal lords, 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 firms that clung to their traditional ways failed in the new business environment.

After the first twenty years of the Meiji period, the industrial economy expanded rapidly with inputs of advanced Western technology and large private investments. Implementing the Western ideal of capitalism into the development of technology and applying it to their military helped make Japan into both a militaristic and economic powerhouse by the beginning of the 20th century. Stimulated by wars and through cautious economic planning, Japan emerged from World War I as a major industrial nation. Japan gradually took control of much of Asia’s market for manufactured goods. The economic structure became very mercantilistic, importing raw materials and exporting finished products—a reflection of Japan’s relative poverty in raw materials.


The phenomenal industrial growth sparked rapid urbanization. The proportion of the population working in agriculture shrank from 75 percent in 1872 to 50 percent by 1920. Japan enjoyed solid economic growth during the Meiji period and most people lived longer and healthier lives. The population rose from 34 million in 1872 to 52 million in 1915. Like in other rapidly industrializing countries, poor working conditions in factories led to growing labor unrest, and many workers and intellectuals came to embrace socialist ideas. The Meiji government responded with harsh suppression of dissent. Radical socialists plotted to assassinate the Emperor in the High Treason Incident of 1910, after which the Tokkō secret police force was established to root out left-wing agitators. The government also introduced social legislation in 1911, setting maximum work hours and a minimum age for employment.

Japanese Militarization

The modernization of the Japanese military during the Meiji period was a response to the growing presence and threat of Western colonial powers. It followed Western European military models, ending the centuries-long dominance of the samurai class.

Meiji Militarization Efforts

In 1854, after Admiral Matthew C. Perry forced the signing of the Treaty of Kanagawa, Japanese elites concluded that they needed to modernize the state’s military capacities or risk further coercion from Western powers. The Tokugawa shogunate did not officially share this point of view, and not until the beginning of the Meiji Era in 1868 did the Japanese government begin to modernize the military.

In 1868, the Japanese government established the Tokyo Arsenal, in which small arms and associated ammunition were developed and manufactured. In 1870, another arsenal opened in Osaka. At that site, machine guns and ammunition were produced and four gunpowder facilities were opened. Also in 1868, Masujiro Omura established Japan’s first military academy in Kyoto. Under the new Meiji government, Omura, regarded today as the father of the modern Japanese army, was appointed to the post equivalent to vice minister of war. He was tasked with the creation of a national army along western lines and sought to introduce conscription and military training for commoners, rather than rely on a hereditary feudal force. He also strongly supported the abolition of the han system (feudal domains) and with it the numerous private armies maintained by the feudal lords, which he considered a drain on resources and a potential threat to security. Omura faced opposition from many of his peers, including most conservative samurai who saw his ideas on modernizing and reforming the Japanese military as too radical, ending not only the livelihood of thousands of samurai but also their privileged position in society. In 1869, a group of ex-samurai assassinated Omura.

When the Emperor Meiji assumed all the powers of state, he ordered the formation of Imperial Guard to protect himself, the Japanese imperial family, and their properties. In 1867, the Imperial Guard was formed from loyal retainers and former samurai. This unit would go on to form the nucleus of the new Imperial Japanese Army. By the 1870s the Imperial Guard, which had been organized and trained along French military lines, consisted of 12,000 officers and men. In 1873, the Conscription Law was passed, requiring 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. This monumental law, signifying the beginning of the end for the samurai class, initially met resistance from both the peasants and warriors. The peasant class interpreted the term for military service, ketsu-eki (blood tax), literally and attempted to avoid service by any means necessary, including maiming, self-mutilation, and local uprisings. The samurai were generally resentful of the new, western-style military and at first refused to stand in formation with the lowly peasant class. The Conscription Law was also a method of social control, placing the unruly samurai class back into their roles as warriors. The Meiji Restoration initially caused dissent among the samurai class and the conscription system was a way of stabilizing that dissent. Some of the samurai, more disgruntled than the others, formed pockets of resistance to circumvent the mandatory military service. Many committed self-mutilation or openly rebelled.

Reception by the Meiji Emperor of the Second French Military Mission to Japan, 1872, from a drawing by Deschamps, Le Monde Illustre, February 1, 1873.: The task of the mission was to help reorganize the Imperial Japanese Army and establish the first draft law, enacted in 1873. The law established military service for all males for a duration of three years, with additional years in the reserve.

The law also allowed the military to educate the enlisted, providing opportunities for both basic (e.g., learning how to read) and advanced education and career advancement. The government realized that an educated soldier could be a more productive member of society, and education was seen as a path to the advancement of the state. Military service also required a medical examination. Those unable to pass the exam were sent back to their families. While there was no material penalty for failing the exam, the practice created a division between those able to serve the country and those who were not. The latter were often marginalized by society.

In conjunction with the new law, the Japanese government began modeling their ground forces after the French military, and the new Japanese army used the same rank structure as the French. The French government contributed substantially to the training of Japanese officers. Many were employed at the military academy in Kyoto and many more were feverishly translating French field manuals for use in the Japanese ranks.

End of the Samurai Class

An imperial rescript of 1882 called for unquestioning loyalty to the emperor by the new armed forces and asserted that commands from superior officers were equivalent to commands from the emperor himself. Thenceforth, the military existed in an intimate and privileged relationship with the imperial institution. Top-ranking military leaders were given direct access to the emperor and the authority to transmit his pronouncements directly to the troops. The sympathetic relationship between conscripts and officers, particularly junior officers who were drawn mostly from the peasantry, tended to bring the military closer to the people. In time, most people came to look for guidance in national matters from military commanders rather than from political leaders.

Despite the Conscription Law of 1873 and other reforms and progress, the new Japanese army was still untested. In 1871, a Ryukyuan ship was shipwrecked on Taiwan and the crew was massacred. In 1874, using the incident as a pretext, Japan launched a military expedition to Taiwan to assert their claims to the Ryukyu Islands. The expedition featured the first instance of the Japanese military ignoring the orders of the civilian government as the expedition set sail after being ordered to postpone.

At home, the decisive test for the new army came in 1877 when Saigō Takamori led the Satsuma Rebellion,  the last rebellion of the samurai. Its name comes from Satsuma Domain, which became home to unemployed samurai after military reforms rendered their status increasingly obsolete. Kumamoto castle was the site of the first major engagement when garrisoned forces fired on Saigō’s army as they attempted to force their way into the castle. Two days later, Saigō’s rebels, while attempting to block a mountain pass, encountered advanced elements of the national army en route to reinforce Kumamoto castle. After a short battle, both sides withdrew to reconstitute their forces. A few weeks later the national army engaged Saigō’s rebels in a frontal assault at what now is called the Battle of Tabaruzuka. During this eight-day battle, Saigō’s nearly 10,000-strong army battled hand-to-hand the equally matched national army. Both sides suffered nearly 4,000 casualties. Due to conscription, however, the Japanese army was able to reconstitute its forces, while Saigō’s was not. Later, forces loyal to the emperor broke through rebel lines and managed to end the siege on Kumamoto castle after 54 days. Saigō’s troops fled north and were pursued by the national army. The national army caught up with Saigō at Mt. Enodake. Saigō’s army was outnumbered seven-to-one, prompting a mass surrender of many samurai. The rebellion ended following the final engagement with Imperial forces, which resulted in the deaths of the remaining 40 samurai including Saigō, who was honorably beheaded by his retainer after suffering a fatal bullet wound. The national army’s victory validated the the modernization of the Japanese army and ended the era of the samurai.

Imperial Japanese Army officers of the Kumamoto garrison, who resisted Saigō Takamori’s siege, 1877

Financially, crushing the Satsuma Rebellion cost the government greatly, forcing Japan off the gold standard and causing the government to print paper currency. The rebellion also effectively ended the samurai class, as the new Imperial Japanese Army built of conscripts without regard to social class had proven itself in battle.

Foreign Policy in the Meiji Period

Victories over China and Russia, alliance with Britain, and annexation of Korea allowed Japan of the Meiji pioerd to become a leader in East Asia and a highly respected military power among the most influential countries in the world.

Goals of Meiji Foreign Policy

Meiji Japan’s foreign policy was shaped at the outset by the need to reconcile its Asian identity with desire for status and security in an international order dominated by the West. The principal foreign policy goals of the Meiji period (1868–1912) were to protect the integrity and independence of Japan against Western domination and win equal status with the leading nations of the West by reversing the unequal treaties. Because fear of Western military power was the chief concern for the Meiji leaders, their highest priority was building up the military, an important objective of which was to gain the respect of the Western powers and achieve equal status in the international community.

Japan’s unequal status was symbolized by the treaties imposed when the country was first forcefully opened to foreign influences. The treaties were objectionable to the Japanese not only because they imposed low fixed tariffs on foreign imports and thus handicapped domestic industries, but also because their provisions gave a virtual monopoly of external trade to foreigners and granted extraterritorial status to foreign nationals in Japan, exempting them from Japanese jurisdiction and placing Japan in the inferior category of nations incapable of determining their own laws. Many of the social and institutional reforms of the Meiji period were designed to remove the stigma of backwardness and inferiority represented by the unequal treaties, and a major task of Meiji diplomacy was to press for the revision of the treaties.

Overseas Expansion

The newly created military was used to extend Japanese power overseas as many leaders believed that national security depended on expansion and not merely a strong defense. In 1873 and 1874, friction came about between China and Japan over Taiwan, particularly when the Japanese launched a punitive expedition into Taiwan in the wake of the killing of several Okinawans by Taiwanese aborigines. Later, after Japan’s victory in the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894–95, the peace treaty ceded the island to Japan. The Japanese realized that its home islands could only support a limited resource base and hoped that Taiwan, with its fertile farmlands, would make up the shortage. By 1905, Taiwan was producing significant amounts of rice and sugar. Perhaps more importantly, Japan gained enormous prestige by being the first non-Western country to operate a modern colony. To maintain order, Japan installed a police state.

The Korean Peninsula, a strategically located feature critical to the defense of the Japanese archipelago, occupied Japan’s attention in the 19th century. Earlier tension over Korea had been settled temporarily through the Japan–Korea Treaty of 1876, which opened Korean ports to Japan, and through the Tianjin Convention in 1885, which provided for the removal from Korea of both Chinese and Japanese troops sent to support contending factions in the Korean court. In effect, the convention made Korea a co-protectorate of Beijing and Tokyo at a time when Russian, British, and American interests in the peninsula were also increasing.

Signing of the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki: The Triple Intervention triggered by signing the Treaty of Shimonoseki is regarded by many Japanese historians as a crucial turning point in Japanese foreign affairs. The nationalist, expansionist, and militant elements began to join ranks and steer Japan from a foreign policy based mainly on economic hegemony toward outright imperialism.

In 1894, China and Japan went to war over Korea in the First Sino-Japanese War. After nine months of fighting, a cease-fire was called and peace talks were held. The eventual Treaty of Shimonoseki accomplished several things: recognition of Korean independence, cessation of Korean tribute to China, a 200 million tael (Chinese ounces of silver, the equivalent in 1895 of US$150 million) indemnity to Korea from China, cession of Taiwan, the Penghu Islands, and the Liaodong Peninsula to Japan, and opening of Chang Jiang (Yangtze River) ports to Japanese trade. It also assured Japanese rights to engage in industrial enterprises in China. Ironically, a decade after the Treaty of Shimonoseki forced China to recognize Korean independence, Japan, in the wake of the Russo-Japanese War, effectively forced Korea to sign the Eulsa Protective Treaty, which made it a protectorate of Japan. In 1910, Korea was formally annexed to the Japanese empire, beginning a period of Japanese colonial rule of Korea that would not end until 1945.

Western Response

Immediately after the terms of the treaty became public, Russia—with its own designs and sphere of influence in China—expressed concern about Japanese acquisition of the Liaodong Peninsula and the possible impact of the terms of the treaty on the stability of China. Russia persuaded France and Germany to apply diplomatic pressure on Japan for return of the territory to China in exchange for a larger indemnity (Triple Intervention). Threatened with a tripartite naval maneuver in Korean waters, Japan decided to give back Liaodong in return for a larger indemnity from China. Russia moved to fill the void by securing from China a 25-year lease of Dalian (Dairen in Japanese, also known as Port Arthur) and rights to the South Manchurian Railway Company, a semi-official Japanese company, to construct a railroad. Russia also wanted to lease more Manchurian territory, and although Japan was loath to confront Russia over this issue, it did move to use Korea as a bargaining point. Japan would recognize Russian leaseholds in southern Manchuria if Russia would leave Korean affairs to Japan. The Russians only agreed not to impede the work of Japanese advisers in Korea, but Japan was able to use diplomatic initiatives to keep Russia from leasing Korean territory in 1899. At the same time, Japan was able to wrest a concession from China that the coastal areas of Fujian Province, across the strait from Taiwan, were within Japan’s sphere of influence and could not be leased to other powers.

Japan also succeeded in attracting a Western ally to its cause. Japan and Britain, both of whom wanted to keep Russia out of Manchuria, signed the Anglo-Japanese Treaty of Alliance in 1902, which was in effect until in 1921 when the two signed the Four Power Treaty on Insular Possessions, which took effect in 1923. The British recognized Japanese interests in Korea and assured Japan they would remain neutral in case of a Russo-Japanese war but would become more actively involved if another power (an allusion to France) entered the war as a Russian ally. In the face of this joint threat, Russia became more conciliatory toward Japan and agreed to withdraw its troops from Manchuria in 1903. The new balance of power in Korea favored Japan and allowed Britain to concentrate its interests elsewhere in Asia. Hence, Tokyo moved to gain influence over Korean banks, opened its own financial institutions in Korea, and began constructing railroads and obstructing Russian and French undertakings on the peninsula.

A scan of a cartoon from The New Punch Library, Vol. 1, p. 44, published in London in 1932 (first published in 1905).: The cartoon (1905), accompanied by a quote from Rudyard Kipling, that appeared in the British press after the Anglo-Japanese alliance was renewed in 1905 demonstrates that the British public saw the alliance as an equal treaty between two powers.

In response to the alliance, Russia sought to form alliances with France and Germany, which Germany declined. In 1902, a mutual pact was signed between France and Russia. China and the United States were strongly opposed to the alliance. Nevertheless, the nature of the Anglo-Japanese alliance meant that France was unable to come to Russia’s aid in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904, as this would mean war with Britain.

Russo-Japanese War

When Russia failed to withdraw its troops from Manchuria by an appointed date, Japan issued a protest. Russia replied that it would agree to a partition of Korea at the 39th parallel, with a Japanese sphere to the south and a neutral zone to the north, but Manchuria was to be outside Japan’s sphere and Russia would not guarantee the evacuation of its troops. The Russo-Japanese War broke out in 1904 with Japanese surprise attacks on Russian warships at Dalian and Chemulpo (in Korea, now called Incheon). Despite tremendous loss of life on both sides, the Japanese won a series of land battles and then decisively defeated Russia’s Baltic Sea Fleet (renamed the Second Pacific Squadron) at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905. At an American-mediated peace conference in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Russia acknowledged Japan’s paramount interests in Korea and agreed to avoid “military measures” in Manchuria and Korea. Both sides agreed to evacuate Manchuria, except for the Guandong Territory (a leasehold on the Liaodong Peninsula) and restore the occupied areas to China. Russia transferred its lease on Dalian and adjacent territories and railroads to Japan, ceded the southern half of Sakhalin to Japan, and granted Japan fishing rights in the Sea of Okhotsk and the Bering Sea.

Relations with the U.S.

In the late 19th century, the opening of sugar plantations in the kingdom of Hawaii led to the immigration of many Japanese. Hawaii became part of the U.S. in 1898, and the Japanese have been the largest element of the population ever since. However, there was friction over control of Hawaii and the Philippines. The two nations cooperated with the European powers in suppressing the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900, but the U.S. was increasingly troubled by Japan’s denial of the Open Door Policy that would ensure that all nations could do business with China equally. President Theodore Roosevelt played a major role in negotiating an end to the war between Russia and Japan in 1905-6.

Anti-Japanese sentiment, especially on the West Coast, soured relations in the 1907–1924 (beyond the Meiji period). Washington did not want to anger Japan by passing legislation that would bar Japanese immigration to the U.S. as had been done with Chinese immigration. Instead, there was an informal Gentlemen’s Agreement  of 1907 between the U.S. and Japan whereby Japan made sure there was very little or no movement to the U.S. The agreement also rescinded the segregation order of the San Francisco School Board in California, which had humiliated and angered the Japanese. It remained in effect until 1924 when Congress forbade all immigration from Japan.

The adoption of the 1907 Agreement spurred the arrival of “picture brides” — marriages of convenience made at a distance through photographs. By establishing marital bonds at a distance, women seeking to emigrate to the United States were able to gain a passport, while Japanese workers in America were able to gain a mate of their own nationality. Because of this loophole, which helped close the gender gap within the community from a ratio of 7 men to every woman in 1910 to less than 2 to 1 by 1920, the Japanese American population continued to grow despite the Agreement’s limits on immigration.

Provided by Boundless, published by Lumen Learning under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.



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