The Meiji restoration refers to the re-emergence of an emperor in Japan. This change in power came after the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate, which was caused by the uprising of a group of Samurai who were pro-modernization in Japan. This group, known as the ‘oligarchy’, had seen the modern ‘black ships’ of Commander Perry, who came from America seeking trade relations with Japan. The oligarchy became convinced that they would have to let the West infiltrate their society in order to avoid the fate China had seen under the hands of imperialism. The oligarchy saw the need for Japan to learn from the West and gain enough knowledge to be able to remain independent. They overthrew the Shogun and elected a new emperor, an emperor for all of Japan. ‘Meiji’, meaning “enlightened ruler”, was the sixteen-year-old boy they chose for this position. He was small, young and naïve, the perfect puppet for the oligarchy to exercise their power through. He ruled for forty-four years but Meiji was merely a symbol of power for a new, united Japan, rather than an actual head of state.
The Meiji restoration effected Japan profoundly. Every facet of Japanese life was altered in some way, from economics to education. Japan was now united under one rule, the population, however, was divided. The majority of the people understood Japan’s need to modernize but there were also groups of nationalists, working underground, against the Westerners. The Samurai too, were disgruntled with the breaking down of the class system. They had been in a position of power for so long that they were not prepared to become a working part of society. Samurai’s had been given everything all their lives on a silver platter, now, they were forced to work for their own food, money etc. Many Samurai committed suicide because they could not cope with these new pressures that they faced. This abolition of feudalism resulted in a controlled taxation system. Farmers were taxed three per cent of theirs lands value, regardless of the income earned from it, which ensured a steady income for the government even whilst the price of rice was fluctuating.
This new taxation system and control over Japan’s income was essential for Japan to achieve one of its main goals – modern armed forces. In 1878 General Yamagata returned from Europe, where he had been sent to study their armies, and reorganized Japan’s army in the image of the Germans. Otto Von Bismarck, the German Chancellor became Japan’s mentor because of his brutal yet powerful leadership skills. The sons of the village people were forced to join the army when the Samurais lost their exclusive right to bear arms, anyone could now use a weapon. The boys were trained as officers, infantry, artillery and engineers. Japan began to export silk and made a large profit doing so. This money was spent buying and building warships and factories. A saying emerged from Japan, “Rich nation, strong military.” This showed Japan’s determination to be a powerful country, both economically and militarily.
Japan’s society was also changed because of its advances in industry and technology. Japan realized that to be any sort of formidable power they needed to have western firepower. Guns and other similar items went into production. In the late nineteenth century Japan began to develop other manufacturing industries. Wool and cotton mills were opened by the government and were run by Westernized model factories. Soon many more industries began to develop as the raw materials needed were imported into Japan. The government, which had setup and financed these factories, sold them off the private companies, which developed into financial empires known as Zaibatsu. The most famous of these Zaibatsu was Mitsubishi. The Zaibatsu formed an alliance with the government and were often quite influential on government policies.
Japan was given a model train by some Westerners, fifty years later (1872) Japan a locomotive system of it’s own. This is definitive of the rate at which Japan modernized. It took Japan just forty years to develop into an independent, self sufficient, part of world-wide economic trade, whilst it had taken the USA over one hundred and fifty years. Along with this new railway line Japan setup other forms of communication systems. A modern postal system came into operation in 1868 and was followed by a telegraph system in 1871.
Education in Japan also changed drastically. The first and foremost difference was that schools became compulsory for children- through to University students. The government had realized that for Japan to be a powerful country in the future it’s children needed to be educated in the ways of the Western world. Education became highly centralized and aimed to give every Japanese the skills they would need to operate efficient services in the army, navy and in the factories. More teachers were trained and more schools were opened. They taught of three basic ideas – the Shinto religion, reverence for the Emperor and respect for elders.
The social life of the Japanese aristocrats also changed. Japan had fallen in love with the West and everything new or in the latest fashion was of Western influence. Western clothing, hairstyles, even dancing were all seen as supremely wonderful and they were adopted rapidly throughout society. New inventions from the West were also brought over, the most life changing of these for the Japanese was the clock. Until then the Japanese had been using the sun to tell the time of day with. This invention was therefore welcomed with great haste into their lives.
Japan’s society was forever changed because of the Meiji restoration. Every aspect of the Japanese way of life was altered, usually for the best. Japan’s economic, political, military and educational systems were all turned upside down. The social life of the Japanese was changed with all the new Western fashions and inventions. Modernization had cost Japan a lot of money and very hard work. It had however cost China more not to modernize. Japan had made the right decision.