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Useful Notes: Meiji Restoration
The contrast between that which preceded the funeral car and that which came after it was striking indeed. Before it went old Japan; after it came new Japan. New Japan quickly separated to left and right and seated itself in the pavilions on either side. But old Japan had passed by and disappeared, and we could only hear now and again the distant wail of the reed pipes. After that the long rites began.
The New York Times, "The Funeral Ceremonies of Meiji Tenno", October 13th 1912

Before the 1870s, Japan was ruled by the Shogun, a military ruler, for all intents and purposes.

In 1854 that began to change when Commodore Matthew Perry note  of the U.S. Navy pulled into a harbor in Shimoda and used Gunboat Diplomacy to open Japan into trading with the outside world. This opened up all kinds of turmoil within the various clans. In 1866, the Satsuma and Choshu domains (nursing a 250-year old grudge over their defeats against Tokugawa Ieyasu in the Sengoku Period) allied and built the foundation of the Meiji restoration, challenging the Tokugawa clan to restore power to the emperor. The previous Emperor passed away in 1867, allowing Meiji (Mutsuhito) to take the throne.

The Meiji restoration officially began when the shogunate resigned and handed duties and prerogatives over to The Emperor. The Boshin War began in 1868, when The Remnant of the Shogunate made a last ditch effort to create a republic in modern-day Hokkaido and fought with the Emperor's forces as a result.

The Meiji period covers the entire reign of Emperor Meiji from the Restoration in 1867 to 1912, when Meiji was succeeded by his son Taishō (Yoshihito). The Meiji period saw Japan's adoption of a Western-style constitutional monarchy, modeled primarily on that of Imperial Germany. Nominally, the Emperor had a great deal of authority, but in reality power lay with the genro, a group of aristocrats who ran the ministries and had brought about the Restoration in the first place. The genro established a Western-style title system, merging the Japanese nobility, which had previously been bifurcated into Imperial Court nobles (kuge) and feudal lords (daimyō), into a single class (kazoku), whose members sat as the upper house of the new Imperial Diet, the House of Peers. The lower house, the House of Representatives, had rather stringent age and property requirements for voting during the Meiji era, and its powers were limited. The Imperial Prime Minister and Government were theoretically appointed by the Emperor, but Emperor Meiji seems to have decided that for his own sake it would be better to allow the genro to decide who would take office when (a wise choice, seeing what happened to Wilhelm II in Germany). More significantly, although all bills had to get the assent of both houses of the Diet, they could not originate in the Diet (the Government had to propose them), and they also had to have the assent of the Emperor. All in all, it's not clear how much influence Emperor Meiji had; he was a very private man and seems to have been a rather gentle-tempered sort of fellow (one of the few glimpses into his personality is a short poem that seems to mark him as, if not a pacifist, then certainly someone who disliked fighting and war), and he certainly never used his powers directly without his advisors' say-so. Still, it's entirely possible that he exerted subtler influence on policy; this is, after all, Japan, where deals done quietly in a back room are the norm.

The period saw rapid industrialization in Japan, with urbanization (and its problems) to match. Most of the zaibatsu were founded during this time (although two of the largest, Mitsui and Sumitomo, dated back to the 17th century, and the actual term was not widely used until after World War I), with both the long-suppressed merchant class and noble and ex-samurai families trying their hands at commerce and building industrial empires.

Japan's political empire has its origin here, as well: the new Japanese industries, hungry for resources and markets, saw the government snapping up Pacific islands such as Okinawa and Formosa and, by winning the First Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War, carving out spheres of influence in nearby China. Japan's first large-scale colony was established when Korea became a Japanese "protectorate" in 1905, becoming annexed in 1910.

The Meiji reforms were promoted with a number of slogans that could be written with four kanji:
  • Fukoku kyōhei (富国強兵) — "rich country, strong military"
  • Shokusan kōgyō (殖産興業) — "increase production, promote industry"
  • Bunmei kaika (文明開化) — "civilization and enlightenment"
  • Wakon yōsai (和魂洋才) — "Japanese spirit, Western learning"

For roughly equivalent time periods, see The Gilded Age (United States), Victorian Britain (Great Britain, first three quarters), and The Edwardian Era (Great Britain, last quarter)


Works set in this time period include:

    open/close all folders 

    Anime and Manga 
  • Rurouni Kenshin begins in the eleventh year of the Meiji period (1879) and among other things deals with ex-samurai trying to find their new place in the world in the period.
  • Gintama takes place during the same period as the restoration, but with aliens as the foreigners and the shogunate actually winning the war.

    Film 
  • The Last Samurai takes place in a somewhat skewed version of the Satsuma Rebellion and Boshin War events.

    Literature 
  • Blossoms and Shadows is a dramatization of the beginning of the Meiji Restoration through the eyes of a fictional young woman tending the wounded. Many parts of the book are about the "Village School Under the Pine" and its students, which played a significant part in fomenting dissent against the Tokugawa government.

    Live Action TV 
  • The NHK drama Saka no Ue no Kumo (Clouds over the Slope) covers the lives of the Akiyama brothers from 1868 to the end of the Russo-Japanese War.

    Video Games 

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