The Meiji period is one of the four periods in modern Japanese history which was symbolized by the most radical changes in all spheres of public life, namely political, social, and economic. The modernization invoked by the Meiji restoration was so considerable that it is reasonable to call the latter a revolution. In fact, this period, namely 1868-1890 (the early Meiji period) or up to 1912 when Emperor Meiji died, marked the crucial point when Japan turned the orientation of its development to the Western world. From then on, Japanese society grew more mobile, while the politics and economy rapidly developed and strived for international level.
To start with, Tokugawa conditions preceded the modernization processes in the times of samurai, geisha, and ninja. Tokugawa Japan was the country of shogun and feudal society that completely lacked any foreign interrelations. Over two and a half centuries of such conditions, the outstanding transformation took place that was provoked by the Meiji restoration of the second half of the nineteenth century. Starting from 1830s, problems and tensions in the Tokugawa regime began, which later developed into its final collapse. The crisis was multifaceted and had numerous characteristics such as bureaucracy, corruption, economic distress, dissatisfaction, financial difficulties and hardships accompanied by inefficient reforms. Finally, inadequate political institutions posed a foreign threat to the country. As a result, Tempo reforms came to an ignominious end, and the shogunate was criticized for military unpreparedness. In July 1853, the threat from the West realized itself in the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry and the Squadron of the U. S. Navy.
In such conditions, the feudal order and the military government of Shogun were overthrown by leaders of restoration, namely young middle-ranking samurai. Apparently, they strived for radical modernization, and their slogan was “wealthy country and strong arms” (fukoku-kyōhei). In fact, their principal goal was to enrich the country, strengthen the army, and make their nation strong, powerful, and equal to all western countries. Some historians explain the revolutionary motives of samurai Meiji leaders by their low social positions, while others believe that the reason is in their nationalist consciousness. In other words, they raised the question of whether the Meiji Restoration must be considered a social revolution or a nationalist revolution. It is worth noting that the direction and objectives of Japan’s modernization as well as the evaluation of the effects of the implemented radical changes are dependent on the answer to this question. It is hard to underestimate the significance of the impact produced by the Meiji government because the traces of its influence can be found even in the present-day Japan. All in all, though the new leaders of the nation were not sure or consistent in the manner of measures and reforms, the Meiji Restoration was “the departure point of modern Japan.”
In spite of controversy in the evaluations of the changes and movements initiated by the Meiji government, it goes without saying that they shaped the national history and became the key to the understanding of modern Japan. The first goal of the new regime was to topple the feudal system. In fact, that was proclaimed in the Charter Oath in 1868 in Tokyo (then Edo). Thus, by 1871, almost all feudal domains together with feudal class privileges were abolished. Instead, a prefecture system was established. The new government was an example of a collective leadership or oligarchy and comprised no more than two dozen persons responsible for the decision-making process in the country. It is worth noting that they were representatives of different political opinions and ideologies. However, all were characterized by common han origins and a Neo-Confucian education. Moreover, everyone had experience in government administration, military, and foreign affairs with the West. After the formation of the government, almost at once three of them became the top leaders, namely Okubo Toshimichi, Kido Takayoshi, and Saigo Takamori. To a great degree, these creative and powerful leaders contributed to the revolutionary change, which occurred during the described period and involved violence, struggle, and blood. The revolutionary steps undertaken by the restoration leaders were frequently met with opposition and rebellions.
Considerable changes produced by the Meiji government spread to all spheres of nation’s life. First of all, a national army was formed in 1868 and then legally reinforced in 1873. Afterward, the leaders implemented policies aimed at unifying the monetary and tax systems. For instance, in 1873, an agricultural tax reform was introduced. Most importantly, liberal western ideas and right movements raised the question of the necessity to create a constitutional government. Gradually, an introduced Cabinet system presented the constitution in 1889. However, the radical change of the Restoration is not limited to the political sphere. Economic and social changes had not less important consequences. The process of industrialization led to the development of strategic branches, transportation, and communications. Modernization of economy promoted considerable borrowings from the Western culture. The motto “Civilization and Enlightenment” (bunmei kaika) meant the spread of western borrowings in the fields of science, technology, architecture as well as western manners in eating, clothing, and even morals. Samurai changed their feudal hairstyle into the modern western style, and there was a special name given to a new style, namely zangiri-head. Moreover, modern men started dressing in western style, especially while negotiating with foreigners. Furthermore, Japanese cuisine started using meat and invented new dishes with slices of beef, though earlier, people had not eaten it for centuries.
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Thus, the Meiji transformation brought unparalleled in history changes in the political structure of the country, and its policies were directed to the Western world, which spread their influence over all spheres of life. All in all, one can confidently state that the Meiji restoration became a turning point in the transformation of Japan into a modern industrial country with a high rank among the world’s powers.
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