The Meiji period, also known as the Meiji era (明治時代 Meiji Jidai), is a Japanese era which extended from 1868 until 1912. This period represents the first half of the Empire of Japan. This era saw the industrialisation of Japan, and it’s swift rise to the world stage. It saw a change in the culture of Japan, which adopted more western ideas. The Meiji era is the first era of Japanese history to see the rule of an emperor, since the Kenmu Restoration.
Political situation in Japan:
A major proponent of representative government was Itagaki Taisuke (1837–1919), a powerful Tosa leader who had resigned from the Council of State over the Korean affair in 1873. Itagaki sought peaceful rather than rebellious means to gain a voice in government. He started a school and a movement aimed at establishing a constitutional monarchy and a legislative assembly. Such movements were called The Freedom and People’s Rights Movement. Itagaki and others wrote the Tosa Memorial in 1874 criticizing the unbridled power of the oligarchy and calling for the immediate establishment of representative government.
Between 1871 and 1873, a series of land and tax laws were enacted as the basis for modern fiscal policy. Private ownership was legalized, deeds were issued, and lands were assessed at fair market value with taxes paid in cash rather than in kind as in pre-Meiji days and at slightly lower rates.
Dissatisfied with the pace of reform after having rejoined the Council of State in 1875, Itagaki organized his followers and other democratic proponents into the nationwide Aikokusha (Society of Patriots) to push for representative government in 1878. In 1881, in an action for which he is best known, Itagaki helped found the Jiyuto (Liberal Party), which favored French political doctrines. In 1882 Okuma Shigenobu established the Rikken Kaishintō (Constitutional Progressive Party), which called for a British-style constitutional democracy. In response, government bureaucrats, local government officials, and other conservatives established the Rikken Teiseitō (Imperial Rule Party), a pro-government party, in 1882. Numerous political demonstrations followed, some of them violent, resulting in further government restrictions. The restrictions hindered the political parties and led to divisions within and among them. The Jiyuto, which had opposed the Kaishinto, was disbanded in 1884, and Okuma resigned as Kaishinto president. Government leaders, long preoccupied with violent threats to stability and the serious leadership split over the Korean affair, generally agreed that constitutional government should someday be established. The Chōshū leader Kido Takayoshi had favored a constitutional form of government since before 1874, and several proposals for constitutional guarantees had been drafted. The oligarchy, however, while acknowledging the realities of political pressure, was determined to keep control. Thus, modest steps were taken.
The Osaka Conference in 1875 resulted in the reorganization of government with an independent judiciary and an appointed Chamber of Elders (Genrōin) tasked with reviewing proposals for a legislature. The emperor declared that “constitutional government shall be established in gradual stages” as he ordered the Council of Elders to draft a constitution.
Three years later, the Conference of Prefectural Governors established elected prefectural assemblies. Although limited in their authority, these assemblies represented a move in the direction of representative government at the national level, and by 1880 assemblies also had been formed in villages and towns. In 1880 delegates from twenty-four prefectures held a national convention to establish the Kokkai Kisei Domei (League for Establishing a National Assembly).
Although the government was not opposed to parliamentary rule, confronted with the drive for “people’s rights,” it continued to try to control the political situation. New laws in 1875 prohibited press criticism of the government or discussion of national laws. The Public Assembly Law (1880) severely limited public gatherings by disallowing attendance by civil servants and requiring police permission for all meetings.
Within the ruling circle, however, and despite the conservative approach of the leadership, Okuma continued as a lone advocate of British-style government, a government with political parties and a cabinet organized by the majority party, answerable to the national assembly. He called for elections to be held by 1882 and for a national assembly to be convened by 1883; in doing so, he precipitated a political crisis that ended with an 1881 imperial rescript declaring the establishment of a national assembly in 1890 and dismissing Okuma.
Rejecting the British model, Iwakura and other conservatives borrowed heavily from the Prussian constitutional system. One of the Meiji oligarchy, Ito Hirobumi (1841–1909), a Chōshū native long involved in government affairs, was charged with drafting Japan’s constitution. He led a Constitutional Study Mission abroad in 1882, spending most of his time in Germany. He rejected the United States Constitution as “too liberal” and the British system as too unwieldy and having a parliament with too much control over the monarchy; the French and Spanish models were rejected as tending toward despotism.
Ito was put in charge of the new Bureau for Investigation of Constitutional Systems in 1884, and the Council of State was replaced in 1885 with a cabinet headed by Ito as prime minister. The positions of chancellor, minister of the left, and minister of the right, which had existed since the 7th century as advisory positions to the emperor, were all abolished. In their place, the Privy Council was established in 1888 to evaluate the forthcoming constitution and to advise the emperor.
To further strengthen the authority of the state, the Supreme War Council was established under the leadership of Yamagata Aritomo (1838–1922), a Chōshū native who has been credited with the founding of the modern Japanese army and was to become the first constitutional prime minister. The Supreme War Council developed a German-style general staff system with a chief of staff who had direct access to the emperor and who could operate independently of the army minister and civilian officials.
When finally granted by the emperor as a sign of his sharing his authority and giving rights and liberties to his subjects, the 1889 Constitution of the Empire of Japan (the Meiji Constitution) provided for the Imperial Diet (Teikoku Gikai), composed of a popularly elected House of Representatives with a very limited franchise of male citizens who were over 25 years of age and paid 15 yen in national taxes, about 1 % of the population, and the House of Peers, composed of nobility and imperial appointees; and a cabinet responsible to the emperor and independent of the legislature. The Diet could approve government legislation and initiate laws, make representations to the government, and submit petitions to the emperor. Nevertheless, in spite of these institutional changes, sovereignty still resided in the emperor on the basis of his divine ancestry.
The new constitution specified a form of government that was still authoritarian in character, with the emperor holding the ultimate power and only minimal concessions made to popular rights and parliamentary mechanisms. Party participation was recognized as part of the political process. The Meiji Constitution was to last as the fundamental law until 1947.
In the early years of constitutional government, the strengths and weaknesses of the Meiji Constitution were revealed. A small clique of Satsuma and Chōshū elite continued to rule Japan, becoming institutionalized as an extra-constitutional body of genro (elder statesmen). Collectively, the genro made decisions reserved for the emperor, and the genro, not the emperor, controlled the government politically.
Throughout the period, however, political problems were usually solved through compromise, and political parties gradually increased their power over the government and held an ever larger role in the political process as a result. Between 1891 and 1895, Ito served as prime minister with a cabinet composed mostly of genro who wanted to establish a government party to control the House of Representatives. Although not fully realized, the trend toward party politics was well established.
On its return, one of the first acts of the government was to establish new ranks for the nobility. Five hundred people from the old court nobility, former daimyo, and samurai who had provided valuable service to the emperor were organized in five ranks: prince, marquis, count, viscount, and baron. It was at this time that the Ee ja nai ka movement, a spontaneous outbreak of ecstatic behaviour, took place. In 1885, the intellectual Yukichi Fukuzawa wrote the influential essay Leaving Asia, arguing that Japan should orient itself at the “civilized countries of the West”, leaving behind the “hopelessly backward” Asian neighbors, namely Korea and China. This essay certainly contributed to the economic and technological rise of Japan in the Meiji period but it may also have laid the foundations for later Japanese colonialism in the region.
The Industrial Revolution in Japan occurred during Meiji period. There were at least two reasons for the speed of Japan’s modernization: the employment of over 3,000 foreign experts (called o-yatoi gaikokujin or ‘hired foreigners’) in a variety of specialist fields such as teaching English, science, engineering, the army and navy etc.; and the dispatch of many Japanese students overseas to Europe and America, based on the fifth and last article of the Charter Oath of 1868: ‘Knowledge shall be sought throughout the world so as to strengthen the foundations of Imperial rule.’ This process of modernization was closely monitored and heavily subsidized by the Meiji government, enhancing the power of the great zaibatsu firms such as Mitsui and Mitsubishi.
Hand in hand, the zaibatsu and government guided the nation, borrowing technology from the West. Japan gradually took control of much of Asia’s market for manufactured goods, beginning with textiles. The economic structure became very mercantilistic, importing raw materials and exporting finished products — a reflection of Japan’s relative poverty in raw materials. Japan emerged from the Tokugawa-Tennō (Keiō-Meiji) transition in 1868 as the first Asian industrialized nation. Domestic commercial activities and limited foreign trade had met the demands for material culture until the Keiō period, but the modernized Meiji period had radically different requirements. 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.
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.
Many of the former daimyo, 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 bakufu-serving firms that clung to their traditional ways failed in the new business environment.
The government was initially involved in economic modernization, providing a number of “model factories” to facilitate the transition to the modern period. After the first twenty years of the Meiji period, the industrial economy expanded rapidly until about 1920 with inputs of advanced Western technology and large private investments. Stimulated by wars and through cautious economic planning, Japan emerged from World War I as a major industrial nation.
Undeterred by opposition, the Meiji leaders continued to modernize the nation through government-sponsored telegraph cable links to all major Japanese cities and the Asian mainland and construction of railroads, shipyards, munitions factories, mines, textile manufacturing facilities, factories, and experimental agriculture stations. Greatly concerned about national security, the leaders made significant efforts at military modernization, which included establishing a small standing army, a large reserve system, and compulsory militia service for all men. Foreign military systems were studied, foreign advisers, especially French ones, were brought in, and Japanese cadets sent abroad to Europe and the United States to attend military and naval schools.
Early Meiji period 1868-1877
In 1854, after Admiral Matthew C. Perry forced the signing of the Treaty of Kanagawa, Japan began to realize it must modernize its military to prevent further intimidation from western powers (Gordon, 2000). However, the Tokugawa shogunate did not officially share this point of view as evidenced by the imprisonment of the Governor of Nagasaki, Shanan Takushima for voicing his views of military reform and weapons modernization (GlobalSecurity.org, 2008).
It wasn’t until the beginning of the Meiji Era in 1868 that the Japanese government began taking modernization seriously. In 1868, the Japanese government established the Tokyo Arsenal. This arsenal was responsible for the development and manufacture of small arms and associated ammunition (GlobalSecurity.org, 2008). The same year, Masujiro Omura established Japan’s first ever military academy in Kyoto. Omura further proposed military billets be filled by all classes of people including farmers and merchants. The shogun class, not happy with Omura’s views on conscription, assassinated him the following year (Shinsengumihq.com, n.d.). In 1870, Japan expanded its military production base by opening another arsenal in Osaka. The Osaka Arsenal was responsible for the production of machine guns and ammunition (National Diet Library, 2008). Also, four gunpowder facilities were also opened at this site. Japan’s production capacity gradually improved.
In 1872, Yamagata Aritomo and Saigo Tsugumichi, both new field marshals, founded the Corps of the Imperial Guards. This corps was composed of the warrior classes from the Tosa, Satsuma, and Chusho clans (GlobalSecurity.org, 2008). Also, in the same year, the hyobusho (war office) was replaced with a War Department and a Naval Department. The samurai class suffered great disappointment the following years, when in January the Conscription Law of 1873 was passed. This law required 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 (GlobalSecurity.org, 2008). This monumental law, signifying the beginning of the end for the samurai class, initially met resistance from both the peasant and warrior alike. The peasant class interpreted the term for military service, ketsu-eki (blood tax) literally, and attempted to avoid service by any means necessary. Avoidance methods included maiming, self-mutilation, and local uprisings (Kublin, 1949, p 32). The samurai were generally resentful of the new, western-style military and at first, refused to stand in formation with the lowly peasant class (GlobalSecurity.org, 2008).
In conjunction with the new conscription law, the Japanese government began modeling their ground forces after the French military. Indeed, the new Japanese army utilized the same rank structure as the French (Kublin, 1949, p 31). The enlisted corps ranks were: private, noncommissioned officers, and officers. The private classes were: joto-hei or upper soldier, itto-sottsu or first-class soldier, and nito-sotsu or second-class soldier. The noncommissioned officer class ranks were: gocho or corporal, gunso or sergeant, socho or sergeant major, and tokumu-socho or special sergeant major. Finally, the officer class is made up of: shoi or second lieutenant, chui or first lieutenant, tai or captain, shosa or major, chusa or lieutenant colonel, taisa or colonel, shosho or major general, chujo or lieutenant general, taisho or general, and gensui or field marshal (GlobalSecurity.org, 2008). The French government also contributed greatly to the training of Japanese officers. Many were employed at the military academy in Kyoto, and many more still were feverishly translating French field manuals for use in the Japanese ranks (GlobalSecuirty.org, 2008).
Despite the Conscription Law of 1873, and all the reforms and progress, the new Japanese army was still untested. That all changed in 1877, when Takamori Saigo, led the last rebellion of the samurai in Kyushu (GlobalSecurity.org, 2008). In February 1877, Saigo left Kagoshima with a small contingent of soldiers on a journey to Tokyo. Kumamoto castle was the site of the first major engagement as garrisoned forces fired on Saigo’s army as they attempted to force their way into the castle (Rickman, 2003, p 46). Rather than leave an enemy behind him, Saigo laid siege to the castle. Two days later, Saigo’s rebels, while attempting to block a mountain pass encountered advanced elements of the national army enroute to reinforce Kumamoto castle. After a short battle, both sides withdrew to reconstitute their forces (p 46). A few weeks later the national army engaged Saigo’s rebels in a frontal assault at what is now called the Battle of Tabaruzuka (p 47). During this eight day battle, Saigo’s nearly ten thousand strong army battled hand-to-hand the equally matched national army. Both sides suffered nearly four thousand casualties during this engagement (p 47). Due to conscription however, the Japanese army was able to reconstitute its forces while Saigo’s was not. Later, forces loyal to the Emperor broke through rebel lines and managed to end the siege on Kumamoto castle after fifty-four days (p 47). Saigo’s troops fled north, pursued by the national army. The national army caught up with Saigo at Mt. Enodake. Saigo’s army was outnumbered seven to one prompting a mass surrender of many samurai (p 48). The remaining five hundred samurai loyal to Saigo escaped, travelling south to Kagoshima. The rebellion ended on September 24, 1877 following the final engagement with Imperial forces which resulted in deaths of the remaining forty samurai and Takamori Saigo himself, who, having suffered a fatal bullet wound in the abdomen, was honourably beheaded by his retainer (p 49). The army’s victory validated the current course of the modernization of the Japanese army as well as ended the era of the samurai.
When United States Navy ended Japan’s sakoku policy, and thus its isolation, the latter found itself defenseless against military pressures and economic exploitation by the Western powers. For Japan to emerge from the feudal period, it had to avoid the colonial fate of other Asian countries by establishing genuine national independence and equality.
Following her defeat of China in Korea in the Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895), Japan broke through as an international power with a victory against Russia in Manchuria (north-eastern China) in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905. Allied with Britain since the Anglo-Japanese Alliance signed in London on January 30, 1902, Japan joined the Allies in World War I, seizing German-held territory in China and the Pacific in the process, but otherwise remained largely out of the conflict.
After the war, a weakened Europe left a greater share in international markets for Japan, which emerged greatly strengthened. Japanese competition made great inroads into hitherto European-dominated markets in Asia, not only in China, but even in European colonies like India and Indonesia, reflecting the development of the Meiji era.
First Sino-Japanese War
The first Sino-Japanese War was waged from 1895-1896. Japan and China fought over Korea. Japan won, and China gave up Korea, Taiwan, and Lushun (also known as Port Arthur) in the Treaty of Shimonoseki.
After the war, Russia, Germany, and France stepped in and pressured Japan to return Lushun to China. China then leased Lushun to Russia for cheap.
The Russo–Japanese War( 日露戦争, Nichi-Ro Sensō) was waged from the 10th February 1904 to the 5th September 1905. The significance of this war is that it was Japan’s first war with a European power. The Result was that Japan had won. This had far reaching consequences in world history. It proved to many Russian revolutionaries that the Tsarist government was weak and so needed to be overthrown. The tactics of the war would introduce the generals of the first world war. In a campaign where Japan was constantly on the offensive, although they suffered massive losses, they still managed to catch much territory. This proved that if morale was high among troops even the strongest of defences could be overcome. In Japan it was a reason for to the rise of militarism as it proved Japan could beat a major world power. Another reason for the rise of militarism was the fact that Japan felt it had not gained enough territory from the peace agreements.
Declaration of War
The War began with the Battle of Port Arthur, when the Japanese navy, under the command of Admiral Togo Heihachiro, attacked Russian ships at Port Arthur(Modern Day Lüshun), without a declaration of war. It was Japan’s first real battle with Europeans, and convinced them that a surprise attack without a declaration of war was the best style of attack.
The Siege of Port Arthur
Defeat of Russia
The Russian Pacific fleet was holed up in Port Arthur so the Russians decided to reinforce their fleet with their Baltic fleet. They sent round their fleet to the Pacific however as it passed Tsushima the fleet was decisively defeated by the Japanese Navy.
The Russians were defeated, causing Japanese might to be recognized by the international community. However, this put an already financially sapped Japan into even greater debt.
On July 30, 1912, the Meiji Emperor died and Crown Prince Yoshihito became the new emperor of Japan and succeeded to the throne, beginning the Taishō period. The end of the Meiji period was marked by huge government domestic and overseas investments and defense programs, nearly exhausted credit, and a lack of foreign reserves to pay debts.
The influence of western culture experienced in the Meiji period continued. Kobayashi Kiyochika adopted western painting styles while continuing to work in ukiyo-e. Okakura Kakuzō kept an interest in traditional Japanese painting. Mori Ōgai and Natsume Sōseki studied in the West and introduced a more modern view of human life.
The events flowing from the Meiji Restoration in 1868 had seen not only the fulfillment of many domestic and foreign economic and political objectives—without Japan suffering the colonial fate of other Asian nations—but also a new intellectual ferment, in a time when there was worldwide interest in socialism and an urban proletariat was developing. Universal male suffrage, social welfare, workers’ rights, and nonviolent protests were ideals of the early leftist movement. Government suppression of leftist activities, however, led to more radical leftist action and even more suppression, resulting in the dissolution of the Japan Socialist Party (日本社会党 Nihon Shakaitō) only a year after its 1906 founding and the general failure of the socialist movement. The beginning of the Taishō period was marked by the Taishō political crisis in 1912–13 that interrupted the earlier politics of compromise. When Saionji Kinmochi tried to cut the military budget, the army minister resigned, bringing down the Rikken Seiyūkai cabinet. Both Yamagata Aritomo and Saionji refused to resume office, and the genrō were unable to find a solution. Public outrage over the military manipulation of the cabinet and the recall of Katsura Tarō for a third term led to still more demands for an end to genrō politics. Despite old guard opposition, the conservative forces formed a party of their own in 1913, the Rikken Dōshikai, a party that won a majority in the House over the Seiyūkai in late 1914.
On February 12, 1913 Yamamoto Gonnohyōe succeeded Katsura as prime minister. In April 1914, Ōkuma Shigenobu replaced Yamamoto.
Summary of Emperor Meiji
Born: 1852 & Died: 1912
Other Names: 睦仁 (Mutsuhito)
Japanese: 明治天皇 (Meiji tennou)
The Meiji Emperor was the great-grandfather of the current Emperor of Japan. Following the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1868, he was the first Emperor since Emperor Go-Daigo in the 1330s to rule the country in the absence of a shogunate; he was also the last Emperor to reign in Kyoto, doing so briefly before the move to Tokyo.
Emperor Meiji, known by his personal name Mutsuhito during his life, was the son of Emperor Kômei and Nakayama Yoshiko, an imperial concubine. His wife, Ichijô Haruko, came to be known as Empress Dowager Shôken.
His reign, known as the Meiji period (1867-1912), was marked by dramatic, rapid modernization and Westernization, as the country industrialized, militarized, began colonial/imperial expansion, instituted a system of rule based around a constitutional/parliamentary monarchy, nationwide public education, and a myriad of other reforms and developments.
Among the many other significant events of his reign, the emperor received numerous foreign heads of state, royals, and other dignitaries who came to Japan on formal and informal visits, including US President Ulysses S. Grant, King Kalakaua of Hawaii, Tsarevitch Nicholas II of Russia, and a number of British royals, among others. The emperor never learned to speak any English, and is said to have never been able to relax in conversation with foreigners, showing little personality and instead playing the part of Imperial host.
Emperor Meiji died in 1912, and was succeeded by his son, the Taishô Emperor. He was entombed at the former site of Fushimi castle, a short distance from the grave of Emperor Kammu; thus, the first and last emperors to reign in Heian-kyô (Kyoto) are buried nearby one another.
The Japanese actor Shichinosuke Nakamura as Emperor Meiji in the Tom Cruise film The Last Samurai.