The Meiji Period of Restoration – Japanese History Paper
The Meiji period brought about the rapid modernization of Japanese politics, culture, and foreign relations which resulted in Japan’s attaining the status of the leading
country in Asia and a world economic and political power. However, looking back on the Meiji Restoration, it becomes unclear as to whether it was a smooth transition, or a dramatic breaking point in Japanese history. (In order to determine the significance of the Meiji Restoration, an examination of the proceeding system of governance, culture and foreign relations is necessary.) The first part of this essay will discuss the Tokugawa period; the second will examine the Meiji Restoration. The last will analyze the Restoration itself and the changes that were made politically, culturally, and in foreign relations and conclusions on the nature of the Restoration will be drawn based on the given information.
The political structure of the Tokugawa period was quite simple. At the head of the government was the Shogun, who was the main executive power. Under the shogun were the daimyo, who were very similar to governors. There were three “sections” of daimyo, family of the Tokugawa were called Shinpan, allies were called fudai, and enemies of the Tokugawa were called tozama. The last level of government was the samurai, who were leading men in the society who were traditionally military fighters, but formed the main bureaucracy of the Tokugawa government. This form of government is commonly referred to as the bakuhan, and shaped the culture of Japan during the Tokugawa Period. It should be noted that the Tokugawa government was quite strict. In his journals, Perry noted this and wrote, “It is evident that nothing but the fear of punishment deterred them from entering into free intercourse with us, but they were closely watched; and it may be inferred that he higher class would be equally inclined to greater intimacy if they in their turn were not also watched.” (Commodore Perry’s Journal, pg 180)
The culture of Tokugawa Japan was very different from the culture after the Meiji Restoration. The Japanese were a proud people, and regarded their nation very highly. However, the people were very traditional, and really knew little about change and participation in the government. In the Tokugawa Period, social class was very important, and was determined by a person’s heredity. There were four main social groups: samurai, farmers, merchants, and artisans. Outside of these four main classes, there were other people in society, such as priests, imperial workers, and sex workers. The largest group was the farmers, who made up about 80 percent of the population. Most Japanese people lived in the country, with only 5-6 percent living on the larger cities.
Besides the confines of heredity, the culture of Tokugawa was lively. The people did not concern themselves in politics, so in their free time, there was art and music, plays and religions parties, entertainment, and the Licensed Quarters for the adventurous. Buddhism was the prominent religion. Inside of their circumscribed world, the people enjoyed considerable autonomy as long as they paid their taxes. Women had their place in the culture; they were very important in the home and to their husbands and were generally treated with respect. They were not on the same level as the men however. Overall, Tokugawa culture created a peaceful Japan. The people were content, the government was stable, the economy was strong, and these aspects led to a positive culture in Japan, at least till the early 1800’s.
The last aspect of the Tokugawa Period related to politics, government, and culture: foreign relations. The government in Japan, before 1850, had no desire to interact with any foreign countries. This isolationist policy was called Sakoku. The reasons for this policy are unclear, but Japan clearly did not want to have anything to do with the world. The Tokugawa government did not attempt to have relationships with any surrounding nations, and discouraged other Asian nations from interacting with Japan. This policy of the government was enforced from the top down. When foreigners, such as the Dutch, came to Japan, the people were forbidden to interact with them. This was because the government resented having the Dutch, or any other foreign power, in their country. So, during the Tokugawa period, Japan strove to be isolated from the World, both politically and culturally.
In the mid 1800’s, the rule of the Tokugawa started to crumble. The political structure was growing weak and outdated, as was Japan’s social structure, and its foreign relations. In 1868, the Tokugawa rule officially collapsed and the Meiji took over power. The Meiji Restoration was headed by discontented samurai who were not satisfied with their position under the Tokugawa. After studying the politics, culture, and foreign relations of the Tokugawa period, these same aspects of the Meiji Period need to be examined to determine the whether the Meiji Restoration was a dramatic break point, or merely a transition.
The first changes made were in the political structure and government. The Meiji decided that the politically fragmented system of the daimyo had to be completely overhauled. So immediately (after coming into power) in 1868, prefectures were established to replace the daimyo. The main goal in establishing the prefects was (to create) a national and bureaucratic state. All of the leaders of the prefects would report directly to the emperor in Tokyo, and would collect taxes to pay the samurai and the central government. These prefects extended the power and reach of the central government. A Genroin (senate) was also established. The second major political change was the rise of the emperor. In Tokugawa Japan, the emperor was more of a figurehead, but under the Meiji, the emperor held extensive executive power. The rise of the emperor gave the government legitimacy in the eyes of the people. The creation of this new bureaucratic state was a very important step in the history of modern Japan. The Meiji leaders inherited and modified the Tokugawa bureaucratic rule of the samurai. The (final) success of the Meiji Restoration of the government came in 1889 when a Constitution was written and ratified. The Constitution gave Japanese people rights they didn’t have before. In Chapter II of the Constitution I has laws such as, “No Japanese subject shall be arrested…unless according the law.” (Meiji Constitution, Chapter II, Article 23) There were more laws that protected the people, this (being but) is only one example. Japan was now under an ordered and stable rule, one that was modern and centralized with the holy emperor at its head.
The culture of Japan also underwent major changes during the Meiji Restoration. The first, and most significant change that was made was the abolishment of the class system in Japan. With the abolishment of the class system, the Japanese emphasis on heredity was destroyed. Ones family line no longer determined what social class they would belong too, but rather, social standing was determined by ambition, education, and wealth. So, personal ability became extremely important for the first time.
The second significant change in culture related to the emperor. With the rise of the prestige and importance of the emperor and empress, Japan’s culture changed to one (of) loyal to the royal family. Nationalism grew exponentially among the common people, who now had someone to look (up) to in their government. Shinmin No Michi wrote, “The Imperial family is the fountain source of the Japanese nation, and the national and private lives issue from this.” (Sources of Japanese Traditions, pg. 1001) Popular rights and freedoms also became very important. Under Tokugawa rule, individuals did not have very much personal freedom, but under the Meiji, commoners had freedom.
The third significant cultural change was a move away from traditionalism and into modernity. During the Tokugawa period, the people thought little of change and progress, but the Meiji Restoration changed that completely. Once the rigid social structures were abolished, the people before to flex their cultural muscles. They moved into the large cities where they enjoyed markets and shopping. Cafes appeared that offered good food, conversation, and also the Jokyu (modern prostitute). These were a classier alterative to the relatively poor Licensed Quarter. After the change in culture and government came significant changes to foreign relations we well
Previously, Japan had been very isolated. But after the Meiji restoration, Japan became more and more exposed to Western culture, and realized that it was falling behind the world. So, Japan began taking huge steps to learn about the West. The most important was the Iwakura Embassy (1871-1873). In this, the Japanese reformed treaties it held with other countries, and also sent people to other countries to study them in detail and report back to Japan. Basically, Japan opened itself up to the influence of the world, everything from fashion to government and imperialism.
Based on (a careful analysis of )this information on Japan before the Meiji Restoration (Tokugawa Rule) and after, the answer to the question of whether it was a “dramatic break point’ in Japanese history is no. (Not sure if this is the conclusion that you are supporting. All of your example and analysis show a significant contrast between the Tokugawa Rule and the Meiji rule. If all of these differences and contrast are true then the conclusion should be, yes, this was a breakpoint in Japanese history. ) History shows the Tokugawa rule set many of the foundations needed by the Meiji for their Restoration. Tokugawa politics were becoming outdated and ineffective, the culture was suppressive and not malleable, and Japan could not remain isolated from the world for very long in the dramatic global changes in the mid-1850’s. Japan was ripe for change, and it seems that the Meiji Restoration should be called a dramatic change, and not a breaking point in the history of Japan. The reasons the Restoration was so sudden was because Japan had held off on change for many years during the Tokugawa rule. And when it collapsed and the Meiji took over, Japan was ready for something new. The Meiji Restoration would not have been so easy had Japan not been ready for significant changes in their government, culture, and foreign relations. So, based on the facts given, the Meiji Restoration was not a break in Japanese culture, but merely a culmination of circumstances that warranted and encouraged drastic changes in Japan in 1868 and the years following.