The Meiji Restoration and its Consequences: 150 Years On

Written by Travis Aaroe


True isolation was not possible for any country during the age of imperialism, although few tried harder than Japan under Shogunate rule. Ever since the decisive Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 which heralded the Tokugawa clan’s dominion over the country, Japan had been artificially cut off from the outer world under the ‘Sakoku’ policy of national seclusion. While it is true that Japan had become a more urbanized and commercialised society over the course of Tokugawa rule (much to the chagrin of the traditional Samurai warrior elite), the country that Commodore Perry’s ‘black ships’ found in 1853 was remarkably similar to Japan on the eve of Sekigahara – feudal, pre-industrial and suspicious.

    The country’s early encounters with the West were mostly benign; a minor trading relationship with the Dutch had existed since the mid-1600s and there was a moderate level of interest amongst Japanese elites in Western science and technology, known as ‘Rangaku’ (‘Dutch Studies’). By the nineteenth century, these contacts became more ominous – and then morphed into an existential threat to the Japanese nation. In the late-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the eastward-bound Russian Empire aggressively probed the northern islands of Japan, although their many requests for commerce were refused. Furthermore, in 1808 the British HMS Phaeton arrived in Nagasaki, fired warning shots at local vessels, and demanded supplies under threat of bombardment. These small incidents, although worrisome for the Tokugawa Shogunate, paled in comparison to the traumatic encounters with the West a few decades later. First was the humiliation of the regional hegemon – China – after the Opium Wars of the mid-1800s. These conflicts resulted in a series of unequal treaties with various Western powers which imposed treaty ports, extraterritoriality for Westerners, fixed tariffs on Western goods, and the ceding of Hong Kong to the British Empire. The Netherlands unsubtly warned the Shogunate in 1844 that continued isolationism might subject Japan to a similar fate. Second, much closer to home was the arrival of Commodore Perry and his fleet of American gunboats in 1853. The Tokugawa government, facing modern steamships with Renaissance-era weaponry, had no choice but to submit to the demands of the United States. The Convention of Kanagawa in 1854 and the Harris Treaty in 1858 opened six ports to American trade, granted extraterritoriality to American citizens on Japanese soil, set fixed low tariffs on American goods, and obliged the Japanese government to rescue shipwrecked American sailors. During the negotiation of the treaties, the Tokugawa regime took the unprecedented step of consulting with the Emperor, who had acted largely as a figurehead for centuries, as well as the daimyo (vassal lords) on Japanese policy towards the foreigners.

    Japan had been shaken from its long slumber, and it awoke to a dangerous new world. Inchoate rage at the erosion of the nation’s sovereignty ran high in the post-treaty years and was often expressed through political violence: Ii Naosuke, the Chief Minister of the Shogunate who had signed the Harris Treaty, was cut down by a group of radical samurai in 1860, and in 1863 the daimyo of the Choshu domain launched an abortive attack on the USS Wyoming in the Shimonoseki Straits. Amongst much of the nation’s elites, colonial status and the destruction of Japan’s unique culture through Christianisation seemed imminent.

    Amongst those serious about averting national catastrophe, two currents of reformist thought came to the fore. One was Japanese nativism, whose proponents argued that national salvation would come from intense devotion towards Japan’s divine Emperor and a return to the ancient culture of the Japanese ‘Yamato’ race – for example by revering the country’s native Shinto religion over imported Buddhism. Nativism eventually crystallised into the ‘sonno joi’ (‘Revere the Emperor, Expel the Barbarians’) movement, a cause whose adherents were dubbed ‘shishi’ – disaffected daimyo and young lower-ranked samurai who often attacked Tokugawa officials and foreigners in the name of the Emperor. To the nativist supporters of Imperial rather than the Shogunal rule, the Imperial household (which took a harder line than the Shogunate against the foreigners) acted as an allegory for the national cause. The other major school of thought was the ‘realists’ – who claimed that the rapid modernisation of Japan along Western lines would allow it to deter predatorial behaviour from the European powers. Many of this ilk began to travel to Western countries and became acquainted with their culture and technological progress, and soon concluded that any return to isolation was doomed to fail.

    As the 1860s wore on, the Shogunal government attempted to chart a course between these two opinions, and as a result alienated almost all reform-minded Japanese. Although the Tokugawa made repeated efforts to renegotiate the treaties imposed on the country by Western powers, none succeeded – partly because of the perennial attacks on Europeans in Japanese territory by radical shishi samurai. On the other hand, the Shogunate frustrated or ignored the Imperial Court’s anti-foreigner policies, such as Emperor Komei’s 1863 ‘Order to Expel the Barbarians’, knowing full well that Japan was in no position to militarily resist the Europeans. The Tokugawa’s foreign policy destroyed the tentative political partnership it had forged with the Imperial Court in the wake of the unequal treaties – the Emperor and the pro-Imperial nativists who had gathered in his court at Kyoto interpreted the Shogunate’s failure to roll back the treaties as chronic incompetence, and its reluctance to expel the foreigners as treachery. Meanwhile, although the Tokugawa attempted a certain degree of industrial and military modernisation with French aid, the pace of such reforms was far below what was desired by the ‘realist’ school – and indeed would pale in comparison to the rapid transformation of Japan under the future Meiji regime. The Tokugawa’s failure to win over either the nativists or the ‘realists’, along with the continued existential crisis over foreign relations, eventually caused these two intellectual currents to combine in opposition to the established feudal order. A coherent plan of action for the pro-Imperial faction, beyond crazed and futile attacks on Europeans, thus began to take form: the Shogunate would be toppled with the aid of Western armaments and replaced by a European-style aristocratic government with the Emperor as its ceremonial head. This would be followed by a breakneck modernisation of Japan’s governance, society, economy, and military – which would allow it to defend itself from colonisation and cultural destruction by foreigners. This new doctrine of modernisation in service of the nativist cause was neatly encapsulated in the popular pro-Imperial phrase ‘Wakon-yosai’, or ‘Japanese spirit, Western techniques’.

    The Imperialists’ chance soon came. After a brief period of renewed Shogunal authority in 1863-4 following its suppression of several poorly-planned pro-Imperial risings, the Tokugawa botched a punitive expedition launched against the militant anti-Shogunal Choshu domain in 1865. The Choshu forces, aided by the purchase of 7,000 modern rifles, repulsed the invasion – a humiliation which the Shogunate could not recover from. With the Tokugawa on the ropes, the Imperial faction made its bid for power. The last Shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, was persuaded to resign his post and dissolve his office by the moderate leaders of the Tosa domain in November 1867. However, the rulers of the Satsuma and Choshu domains were suspicious of the still-substantial power of the Tokugawa clan and moved against them with force of arms. These two clans had spent centuries in disfavour after fighting on the losing side at Sekigahara and were thus all too happy to lead the anti-Tokugawa vanguard.

    The resulting conflict, the Boshin War, proved anticlimactic. After a decisive (though relatively bloodless) engagement at Toba-Fushimi in January 1868, the Tokugawa folded, and their armies melted away. By 1869, the last holdouts of the old order in the North had been mopped up. Regime change in Japan was cemented in April of 1868 by the ‘Charter Oath’ signed by the young Emperor Meiji upon his ascension to the throne – which called for constitutional government and unity in pursuit of the national cause.

    The Meiji Restoration had not been a genuine revolution, but rather an inter-elite conflict akin to England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688. Post-Restoration Japan, at least until the advent of mass-suffrage democracy in 1925, was politically dominated by aristocrats hailing from the pro-Imperial domains of Satsuma, Choshu, and Tosa. Indeed, the framers of the Meiji constitution envisioned Japanese governance as a harmonious system where a virtuous and unified aristocracy would rule in concert with Japan’s burgeoning bureaucracy – with deliberative assemblies acting as a forum to voice the opinions of the wider public.

    Nevertheless, the modernizing policies of the new regime would prove transformative. The new government ended centuries of feudalism through its abolition of the domain system and eventually the samurai class itself. Western dress soon became popular amongst political and business elites, and Japan’s first Diet (parliament) was opened in 1890. The new government’s social and educational policy, designed to foster national unity, amounted to the wholesale importing of nativist thought into civil society. State Shinto was promoted at the expense of foreign Buddhism, and the new education system combined a modern curriculum with the inculcating of fervent loyalty to the Emperor and the Japanese nation, and obedience to the State and the social order. Every facet of Japanese society – religion, social organisations, education and local government, were imbued with a new nationalism centred on Imperial worship. Economic modernisation was rapid, aided by protectionism, high literacy rates, and abundant native capital – by 1877 every major Japanese city was connected by telegraph and by 1900 5,000 miles of railway track had been laid. Furthermore, the Meiji period saw the rise of ‘zaibatsu’ – large vertically-integrated conglomerates that engaged in everything from mining to shipbuilding and banking. Military modernisation to defend Japanese sovereignty was also deemed a priority – a modern conscript army along German lines was rapidly created along with a British-inspired navy.

    Despite the fanatical nativist rhetoric of the Restoration, the foreign policy of the Meiji regime was prudent and restrained – seeking friendly relations with Western powers and a negotiated end to the unequal treaties. However, this caution did not prevent Japanese imperial adventures in the region – an opportunistic conflict with the sclerotic Chinese Qing Dynasty in 1893 gave it the island of Taiwan and a client regime in Korea as its spoils of war. The crowning achievement of Meiji modernisation was victory over Russia in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War – where the modernised Japanese navy blew apart the Russian Baltic Fleet at the Battle of Tsushima. With the decisive defeat of a Western power at its hands, Japan had now unquestionably joined the ranks of the great powers as the first non-Western industrial nation. The project of national reform and renewal, dreamt up during the country’s traumatic collision with the age of Imperialism, had succeeded in under fifty years.

    However, the romantic nativism which had sparked the Meiji Restoration would prove the undoing of the new Japanese Empire. Decades of government policy designed to foster unity under the banner of nativism had bred a new ultra-nationalist generation of Japanese, who revered their Emperor as a living God. This social development coincided with the 1925 ‘General Election Law’ – which enfranchised all adult men over 25. With the advent of mass politics, aristocratic government could not last, and the fanaticism of the Japanese public meant that their prudence and caution in foreign affairs did not long survive their political eclipse. Despite the nation’s remarkable progress, the West refused to recognise Japan as a genuinely equal partner: its contribution to the Allied cause in WWI went mostly unrewarded, and a ‘racial equality clause’ proposed by Japan at the Treaty of Versailles was rejected. These slights enraged and embittered the Japanese public, fanning the flames of nationalism.

    The fateful moment came in 1931 when the Army, without orders from the civilian government, invaded Manchuria. Given the choice between parliamentary government and the national cause, the Japanese people, who contrasted the supposed factionalism of civilian politics with the patriotism of the military, chose the latter by supporting the invasion with enthusiasm. The Meiji Restoration had elevated the ‘apolitical’ national cause above all other values – including constitutionalism, so it was unsurprising that parliamentary governance collapsed after its first attempt to rein in the forces of expansionist nationalism. Civilian politics thus gave way to the rule of the generals. Their cause was simple: the supremacy of the ‘Yamato’ race everywhere. It was a cause that would lead Japanese arms to Nanjing where 300,000 civilians were slaughtered; to the Malay Peninsula where the great citadel of the British Empire, Singapore, was stormed; to a surprise attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941, which brought about the entry of the United States into the Second World War. At its heart, the new militarist regime resembled the worst of the Shishi – those wild samurai street brawlers and assassins whose dominant emotion was unfocused rage and xenophobia. Its policy was unhinged and unserious in equal measure – the overextended Japanese Empire could not possibly hope to triumph over Britain, China, and the United States simultaneously – a reality which Japan’s most famous wartime admiral, Isoroku Yamamoto, privately acknowledged. It was never enough. Despite the Japanese government’s relentless war of conquest in China in the 1930s, radical elements in the army were still unconvinced of their devotion to the Emperor and the national cause – and saw treachery wherever they looked. They struck in February of 1936. A group of young officers occupied government buildings in Tokyo and assassinated several elder statesmen, demanding the absolute personal rule of the Emperor, and the purging of ‘traitors’ within the government. The coup was defeated, but its paranoid aftermath only increased the military’s stranglehold on politics.

    Eventually, the limits of Japanese power caught up with the limitless ambition of the national cause, and the war effort disintegrated. The cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were levelled by nuclear weaponry, and the sacred islands of Japan were – for the first time in their history – occupied by a foreign power.

    How then should we judge the Meiji Restoration? It is likely that without the regime change and subsequent modernization that the Meiji government brought, Japan would have suffered a similar fate to China – surely an undesirable outcome given the latter’s tortured history in the 19th and 20th centuries. However, the radical nativism present at the genesis of the Meiji state, coupled with the onset of mass-suffrage democracy, would produce a frenzied nationalism that led the nation to ruin and subjugation in 1945 – which was ironically the very fate the pro-Imperial faction sought to avoid by overthrowing the Shogunate. As a result of American occupation, Japan has been deprived of much of its freedom of action – under the terms of Japan’s postwar constitution drafted in 1947 by General Douglas MacArthur’s occupation government and reformist Japanese politicians, Japan is unable to wage aggressive war or maintain armed forces beyond a relatively modest ‘Self-Defence Force’. This tenet of the constitution has been the source of intense debate in Japan ever since – with many increasingly vocal conservatives arguing that it is based on an unfair perception of Imperial Japan’s foreign and military policy. The Meiji Restoration fast-tracked Japanese modernisation in order to champion the national cause, but it was the national cause itself that eventually deprived Japan of many of the features of a sovereign nation and cost the lives of millions. Thus, when we examine the legacy of the Restoration, we are at once confronted with the shadows of Nanjing, the kamikaze, and atomic destruction – rendering all its triumphs as ultimately pyrrhic.



Jensen, Marius P (eds.), The Cambridge History of Japan Volume 5: The Nineteenth Century, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989)

Jensen, Marius P, The Making of Modern Japan, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002)

Mishra, Pankraj, From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia, (London: Penguin, 2013)

Pyle, Kenneth B, The Making of Modern Japan, (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1996)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: