Although Japan had been absorbing external cultural influences since the 7th century, especially from Korea and China, it spent many hundreds of years purposely cut off from the rest of the world. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that Japan began opening up to the outside world.
While western history records this as the “opening” of Japan, the country was “opened” in much the same way an oyster is “opened,” and for the same reasons: The Western colonial and mercantile powers wanted what Japan had, and forced it open. The conflict that arose in response to the resulting push and pull with the United States, Great Britain and even Russia forced Japan to come out of its medieval isolation and enter the modern world.
That required a virtual revolution in Japan – again, the word “restoration” sounds far more peaceful and orderly than what was a shift of power within Japanese political structure. When a group of young Japanese essentially overthrew the Tokugawa Shogunate that had run the country for nearly 300 years, they installed – restored – the Emperor as the head of the government.
Restoring the Imperial family was a way of gaining legitimacy for what was essentially a coup. The revolutionaries were young – the oldest was only 41 – and for that matter, the new Emperor himself was only 17 when he was put on the throne. Nevertheless, though it was born in conflict, the Meiji Restoration did indeed open up Japan in myriad ways, and the country developed at a furious pace. In two short decades, Japan was transformed from a closed medieval society into one of the world’s most modern nations.
The transformation was deep, comprehensive and complex, but for simplicity’s sake, here are seven ways in which the Meiji Restoration shaped modern Japan:
1 – Japan’s encounters with the colonial powers, beginning with the appearance of U.S. Commander Matthew Perry’s four gunboats in 1853 in Tokyo Bay, spurred the country to develop its military to match those of the U.S., Russia and Great Britain. Within a very short time, Japan became one of the world’s most formidable militaries – even a colonial power itself, as it embarked on its own Imperial expansion, taking for itself parts of the Korean peninsula, Manchuria and even the island of Formosa, and defeating the Russian and Chinese militaries in the process.
2 – The new Meiji government – Meiji being the name the young Emperor took, it meaning “enlightened ruler” – introduced compulsory, free education for both boys and girls, and sent students, many of them former samurai, abroad in search of education in the sciences, industry and the arts, bringing many new ideas from the United States and Western Europe into Japan.
3 – Employing those ideas, the Japanese government rapidly built infrastructure – railroads, shipyards, mines, telephones and telegraphs, electrical grids and other basics of a modern society – at a remarkably rapid pace. The country began industrializing within a couple of years of the start of the Restoration – and has, of course, never stopped.
4 – The government quickly broke down the rigid social structure of the Tokugawa Shogunate, which had split society into four separate and unchanging social classes, and allowed education and merit to determine an individual’s success. The samurai class was disarmed and essentially eliminated, though former samurai, who were well educated, were encouraged to go into business and government. After developing the above industries and many others, the government privatized industrialization by selling off many of these industries to private concerns, including many run by former samurai.
5 – With the restoration of the Imperial line, the traditional divinity of the Emperor was reasserted. The indigenous Shinto religion was elevated above Buddhism, with which it had long shared popular and official support, as a way of reinforcing the Emperor’s potency as a political and religious symbol for the still-fractious Japanese population to rally around.
6 – The Meiji government managed to eventually corral all the original daimyo – the widely distributed landowners and warlords whom the Shogunate had ruled, more than 300 of them – and combined their lands into what are now 47 separate prefectures under the central government. That restructuring included significant land reform and the redesign of the country’s entire legal system, modeled on the French and Germany systems. In that way, Japan was able to gain international legitimacy, and put itself on a more equal footing with the colonial powers.
7 – Finally, the Meiji Restoration introduced a modern constitutional government in 1889, with an elected parliament called the Diet, loosely modeled on the American and French constitutions. Only one percent of the male population could vote, as universal (male) suffrage was still a long time in coming, not being fully realized until 1925. But in a matter of a few years, Japan had utterly transformed itself, and was soon to become a major player on the world stage.