Civilization and Enlightenment- The Meiji Restoration

In the waters that border China, Russia and Korea lie a series of islands that has remained independent for many centuries; despite growing interest regarding colonisation over the years. Japan no doubt was influenced by the countries that surrounded her, yet by gaining a strong sense of their successful dominance, Japan utilized this knowledge and reiterated it throughout the nation, for her own benefit. Japan managed to develop a sense of independence and separation from her neighbours during the sakoku; ‘the closed country’ (1639-1853). For two hundred years this system was maintained, and throughout this period of time Japan was isolated; no one came in (aside from a few Dutch and Chinese merchants who were allowed to visit Nagasaki) and no one went out. Japan was closed off, severed from the rest of the world; and during this sheltered period of time Japanese social, political, and economic culture was allowed to blossom. The Tokugawa/Edo Period (1603-1867) was a time of strict structure and tight regulations. During this time Tokugawa Ieyasu was pronounced Shogunate and thus, began his complete rule over the nation. Ieyasu maintained the stringent hierarchy that continued to dominate the Japan’s culture, even throughout the period of restoration. Source A- Tokugawa Nariaki, lord of Mito wrote in 1842 “Soon the whole country will naturally be united, but it is vital that in this each should preserve his proper place. The samurai show respect for his lord, the lord shows respect for the Shogun, the Shogun shows respect for the emperor”1 One can hardly call this subversive*see glossary. It is evident, by observing the thoughts of Nariaki, that he in fact wanted to preserve the government that had reigned for centuries; the one that benefitted lords like himself. Meanwhile, the anti-government feelings were growing and caused other movements such as the demand for the restoration of imperial power and anti western feelings, especially among ultraconservative samurai. Many people, however, soon recognized the big advantages of the Western nations in science and military, and favoured a complete opening to the world. Finally, also the conservatives recognized this fact after being confronted with Western warships in several incidents. In 1867-68, the Tokugawa government fell because of heavy political pressure, and the power of Emperor Meiji was restored. The social hierarchy and pecking order that

had existed in the Tokugawa period somewhat crumbled during the restoration; however conditions for women and children did not sufficiently improve over the so called period of enlightenment. This particular ladder of being was as follows- At the top was the Emperor, considered a holy existence but however divine, he was seen more as a figure head and had no proper rule over the country (most emperors lived in seclusion during their reign). The true power lay in the following hands; that of the daimyo and the Shogun, who controlled Japans military, social and political situations. These feudal lords were the backbone of Japan’s government; they were divided, and between them the nation’s matters lay in their power hungry palms. Following them were the Samurai; the nations most skilful fighting class. The samurai was a soldier raised and trained to serve Japan’s utmost needs. They made up Japan’s army and also held the title of nobility throughout society. In Source B, the typical armour of a well respected samurai is pictured. The strong hue of red mixed with the gold leaf accentuates the Samurai’s high position; the armour is as much for show as it is for protection. The attention to detail regarding how the samurai presented themselves is evident, and thus we can make an educated assumption that the samurai were held highly within Japanese civilisation. However as an age of peace settled on Japan, the need for the Samurai’s fighting abilities ceased. They were used in positions that required little or no military skill such as messengers and guards, the samurai class itself was divided into classes and the majority of them were stripped of their title. Below them came peasants, artisans and merchants. The latter was despised as a parasite living off the work of others2 they were regarded as the very scum of Japans social hierarchy. However, soon the Edo period began crumbling as the social hierarchy in turn undid itself. This first began occurring when the merchant class started to make money from small scale trade. As trade began to dominate Japan’s economy, the merchants profits rapidly increased, and their wealth and power began to overtake that of the samurai’s. The powerful fighters of Japan became dependant on the very people they once looked down upon; it was the beginning of the end for Tokugawa Japan.

The merchant was still looked upon as undeserving of the fortune he acquired. Many people regarded them as cunning thieves, who made profit from others work. In Source C, a quote from a translated Japanese newspaper, Yomiuri (4/08/1857). The merchant is depicted as being sly in his transaction. “When a Japanese manufacturer was asked by his assistant, "What is the best language in which to do business?" the man responded: "My customer's language”3 This yet again, backs up the claim that although Japan’s merchants had risen from the bottom, society did not regard them with high nobility or power, but simply as a lowly peasant who had grown wealthy overnight. However, this source cannot be entirely reliable as it is evidently biased towards to the merchant class, communicating obvious distain for their “undeserving” accumulation of wealth. By looking into this source, it is clear that a majority Japanese were not in favour of the sudden boom in merchant wealth; they were considered parasitic. By 1853, after many unsuccessful attempts to abolish sakoku, the barrier was finally beginning to dissolve. Not only from the Western attempts to gain access but also from within the nation itself. Although Japan had managed to suppress interested nations, she knew a time would come when her gates would be knocked down. Over the years, many countries had sought to make contact with Japanese society, yet every one had been unsuccessful. That was, until July 8th 1853 when Commodore M.C. Perry directed a fleet of ships from the USA right into Edo bay, demanding that Japan open their ports to the America, Japan promptly refused. And although Perry sailed away empty handed, he intended to return. During this time Japan was on the tip of everyone’s tongue, “Would Perry successfully crack the unbreakable lock?” It seemed that everyone was getting involved with the matter; Source D- the October 1852 Edinburgh Review wrote that “The compulsory seclusion of the Japanese is a wrong not only to themselves, but to the civilized world…The Japanese undoubtedly have an exclusive right to possession of their territory; but they must not abuse that right to the extent of debarring all other nations from a participation in its richness and virtues. The only secure title to property, whether it be a hovel or an empire, is that the exclusive possession of one is for the benefit of all”4 This source is interesting to look at, as it shows how much the West disliked Japans seclusion. It was clear that the West had one thing in mind, to make profit from Japans

prosperity, and in return they would help modernise the traditional nation, to almost everyone it was apparent that the closed door must be opened or it would be broken down. On March 31st 1854 Perry did return, this time with seven ships, intent on forcing the Shogun to sign the "Treaty of Peace and Amity", a treaty to establish formal diplomatic relations between Japan and the United States. Within five years, Japan had signed similar treaties with other western countries, Japan was now officially open to the world, and interest grew more than ever. The Meiji Restoration of 1868 saw Japan end its isolation; it was a time when the once traditional culture began to absorb the modern customs and technologies of Europe and America. In 1867 the entire Tokugawa government collapsed and was swept aside for a new system of Imperial rule. Under Emperor Meiji, Japan began their rapid ascent towards world power status. It was then, that a new and more sophisticated slogan was developed- fukoku-kyohei [rich country, strong army]. The refurbishment of Japan’s political system was a welcome change to that of the Tokugawa reign- In 1881 the Emperor announced that a national assembly or form of parliament would commence. With this in place, a cabinet system followed soon after, and in 1889 the Emperor announced the official constitution; based on the German model of democracy. Source E is a painting which portrays the exact moment in which the Emperor announced the Meiji Constitution. In examining this representation, it is noticed that all the people inside the hall are dressed in Western style garments; this shows evidence towards the fact that Japan had been truly overcome by Western influence- even to the point of fashion. It is clear that although the nation wanted to maintain their independence, the West was having increased sway on the new Japan. In order to create a social structure fit to absorb such modern technologies (railways, telegraph, postal system etc) that the period of enlightenment was to bring, the Meiji government granted re-organised the previous class and status system. However the industrialism wasn’t ideal for everyone; many farmers, women and children suffered due to the new laws regarding rice crops. Farmers were not allowed to keep their own crops, they were forced to sell the rice and buy cheaper more staple foods such as millet, wheat, rye. Twice a year, a farmer and his family was allowed to indulge in rice. In 1881, Mitsubishi bought the largest coal mine in Japan, the Takashima mine on the island of Kyushu. Takashima became the showpiece among Mitsubishi's

growing collection of mines during the 1880s. It was worked by prison labourers, men, women and children. Due to the extreme heat in the mines, the workers were nearly naked and exposed to dangerous fumes. The workers who tried to escape were captured and killed. When Cholera broke out, the miners who had contracted the disease were burnt in the mines dead or alive; this treatment gained the Takashima mine a reputation in Japan for ruthless treatment of workers. Meanwhile, the government had turned a blind eye to the exploitation of workers in mines and textile mills, and began focussing on completely rebuilding a nation, fit to succeed within the modern world. This included the system of universal primary education which was instituted in 1872; this was the first time in which a nation had made it compulsory for children to receive schooling. As one may gather, this operation was such a success that soon the Western countries adopted it. Not only did the children of the ‘enlightened era’ receive the benefit of basic education, the once oppressed adult generation of the Tokugawa were also allowed to join school classes. Source F shows a painting depicting the insides of a normal Japanese school house (approx. 1880). By studying the picture at close detail, one can find that the students are a mix of children and adults- Therefore reinstating the fact that Japan wished for all its’ population to receive sufficient education. This was a high priority as Japan now recognised that in order to progress forward education was the key. Therefore Japan set up a government funded scheme that sent Japanese students to study overseas; mainly Europe and America, in an attempt to gain increased Western knowledge to bring back to Japan. While the people of Japan were being educated, their wealth and economy was also reaping the benefits of the Meiji restoration. Like many other aspects of traditional Japan, their economy had experienced a constructive transformation. 1871 saw the complicated currency replaced with the simple ¥en. Two years later and Japan had introduced a land tax (as means of capital for modernisation), this they saw as a safer approach than overseas loans. It was not only the large shifts in society that positively effected the population and economy; it was as much achieved by the developments of small convenient innovations. Source G- an extract from The Economic Development of Japan (1955) elaborates on this point The rickshaw and the bicycle; the rodent-proof warehouse; elementary sanitation; better seeds and more fertilizer; the kerosene and then the electric lamp; a simple

power loom; the gas engine in the fishing boats; the divorce of personal from business accounts; the principle of limited liability”5 Source G emphasises how these subtle developments had strong impact on the economy; it allowed Japan to progress further than had ever been imagined. Through such unspectacular changes national wealth began climbing. This in turn, brought Japan the power to initiate profitable large scale projects, such as the major railway running from Edo. This vast influx of western culture and ideals impacted many aspects of Japanese life; Japan had modernised to the extent of the West; however they had achieved this in a fraction of the time. Thus deeming the Meiji period a time of extreme national change and social reform. A vital aspect for developing modern Japan’s identity. 1,776 words by Asha Forsyth 2009

*subversive (adjective) Designed to overthrow government Intended or likely to undermine or overthrow a government or other constitution
- Encarta Dictionary-:English (U.K.)


Source A- Quoted in S. Toyama, Meiji ishin [The Meiji Restoration], Tokyo 1951 2. Text- Japan in the nineteenth century pg 81 3. Source C- The Yomiuri, 4/08/1857 retrieved via 4. Source D- Edinburgh Review, October 1852. 5. Source G- W.W. Lockwood, The Economic Development of Japan, pg 584

Books - W.G. Beasley, The Modern History of Japan, Lowe & Brydone (Printers) Ltd., London 1963 - Yutaka Tazawa, Japan’s Cultural History- A Perspective, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan 1973 - W.W. Lockwood, The Economic Development of Japan. Growth and Structural Change, Princeton 1955 - C.D. Sheldon, Rise of the Merchant Class in Tokugawa Japan 1600-1868, Locust Valley, NY, 1958 Websites ‘Newspaper Archive’,, (collected 17/6/2009) ‘Commodore Perry and the opening of Japan’, (collected 18/6/2009 ‘The Meiji Restoration and Modernization’, (collected 18/6/2009)

Sources (not mentioned above)
-Source B Red-laced armour, with helmet and shoulder pieces. Kamakura Period, 14th century. -Source E Artist’s rendition of the Japanese Imperial Court (1889), as the Emperor announces the Meiji Constitution. -Source F Painting of a Japanese school during the Meiji Restoration, (approx 1880’s)

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