OPINION: The significance of the Meiji Restoration

The Meiji Restoration was a significant turning point in Japanese history because it led to revolutionary changes in Japan’s economic and political structures.

Commodore Matthew Perry’s arrival at Edo Bay (Tokyo was once named Edo) in 1853 demonstrated to Japan the superior military power of the West. Japan’s coast was not protected nor did the nation possess a navy capable of defending their marine food supply which helped feed Edo’s one million people.

The Japanese reacted to their vulnerability by renewing the old spirit of the samurai warrior code, and championing the slogan sonno joi, “revere the emperor, expel the barbarians.” As a result of Perry’s arrival, Japan was headed in a new direction despite political turmoil and national disorganization. The Choshu and Satsuma daimyo (a feudal lord)allied together to remove the Tokugawa shogunate (the government of a shogun, who is a dictator ruler over daimyo) and instead restored power to the imperial emperor Meiji, thus this time period in Japan is known as the Meiji Restoration.

The Meiji government discovered that if Japan were to protect its national sovereignty, it needed to change its direction by abandoning feudalism and uniting the daimyo under a central government. In addition, Japan decided to adopt the political and economic structures, social customs, and technology of the Western powers.

The Meiji government believed that through Westernization they could modernize their economy, build their military, and be equal counterparts to the U.S., Great Britain, Russia, among others. Thus Perry and the showing of American military might was the spark that pivoted Japanese history in the new direction of modernization through Westernization.

With a new direction chartered towards to modernization the Japanese began a series of transformations in the areas of economics and politics. The economic transformations were born from the Japanese slogan, fukoku kyohei, meaning “Enrich the country, strengthen the military.”

If the Japanese were to modernize their military it needed to start with the industrialization of their economy. The Japanese government improved the infrastructure by building railways, telegraph lines, and shipping routes between domestic port cities.

Furthermore, the government played a strong role in establishing and propping up heavy industries such as textiles, coal mining, iron and steel works, and cement and brick plants. Canons and other armaments were produced from the forged iron which contributed to modernizing the military.

All these economic improvements demonstrate the dynamic change under the Meiji reign. However, change was not limited to the Japanese economy, for the political sphere was undergoing renovation too.

Students who had gone abroad on the Iwakura Mission returned in 1871 and brought with them new ideas on economics and politics. New Japanese political structures were derived from the Iwakura mission and later helped shape the government during the Meiji era.

The new ideas on government led to the Osaka agreement which outlined the establishment of a Supreme Court and Senate, although this provision was unsuccessful. However, the Osaka agreement was successful in establishing elected assemblies of tax-paying men who gathered to discuss financial issues. This is an important change because it was the first example of a popularly elected assembly in the East.

Another political transformation in Japan was the authorization of the Meiji Constitution. The constitution made provisions for a bicameral parliament (having two legislative houses) —the Diet (upper chamber) and the House of Peers (lower chamber). Also, the constitution included the right to speech, religion, and publication, an offspring of the First Amendment in the U.S. Constitution.

The political transformations in Japan are clear borrowings from the Western world. While the Japanese mixed Western institutions and philosophy with Eastern thinking, they laid the groundwork for the political institutions of the Meiji emperor and parliamentary bodies. The new emphasis on the Meiji emperor and introduction of Western government is a complete divergence from the uji, bakufu, and daimyo governing systems.

The next aspect in determining a turning point is the significance of the change. It is clear that Japan’s new direction towards Westernization brought about lasting changes. For example, the economic and military development in Japan allowed the island nation to emerge victorious in the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese Wars. This is important to note because it established in the early 20th century Japan’s military power and imperialistic capabilities.

With a modernized military, increasing political unity, and national pride, the Japanese emerged as the new non-Western imperialist power with territorial claims in China and Korea. History would later see the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and during World War II the invasion of the Philippines, Indochina, and various Pacific Islands.

Therefore, Japan’s dominance during the 20th century can be attributed to the turning point of the Meiji Restoration where Japan changed courses towards modernization through Westernization. If Japan had not modernized, its imperialist ambitions would have proved difficult with an agrarian economy, obsolete military technology, and political infighting. Had it not been for Perry’s arrival the Japanese would not have felt as pressured to prevent themselves from succumbing to Western powers like their neighbor China had, although this was a smaller contributing pressure.

The Meiji Restoration ranks as one of the most significant turning points in Japanese history because it elevated Japan to arguably the most powerful Asian power. Without the spark of Perry’s arrival and the push for Westernization there would not have been any pressure to modernize and the Tokugawa shogunate would have continued to reign.

For those who would argue the Meiji Restoration was insignificant in Japanese history will need to realize the far-reaching impacts this period had not only on Japan in the late 19th century, but also the Meiji influence on present-day Japan. As it turns out, the rush to modernize for purposes of self-preservation and sovereignty proved beneficial to the short and long-term future of Japan, for now we see this once backward country leading the forefront of technology, science, and economics.


What are your thoughts or questions about the Meiji Restoration or Era?