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) 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 Shogun resigned and handed duties and prerogatives over to The Emperor. It was not a peaceful transition, as the Shogunate's supporters and those of the Emperor struggled for dominance. The infamous Shinsengumi were formed by the Shogunate during this time. The Boshin War began in 1868, when The Remnant of the Shogunate (including the last remaining members of the aforementioned Shinsengumi) made a last ditch effort to create a republic in modern-day Hokkaido and fought with the Emperor's forces as a result. With the final defeat of the Shogunate forces, Japan was reunited under Imperial rule.
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 but rather had to be proposed by the Government (a feature derived directly from the constitution of the German Empire), 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 (now known as Taiwan) 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), Imperial Germany, Victorian Britain (Great Britain, first three quarters), and The Edwardian Era (Great Britain, last quarter).
Works set in this time period include:
- 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. To give a few examples, Kid-Appeal Character Yahiko and his friend Tsubame struggle with chains to the past early on (Yahiko tries to act like a traditional samurai, while Tsubame initially serves the descendent of a samurai family her own family served for generations). In addition, Saito Hajime (formerly of The Shinsengumi) views the police force he now works with as successors to his fallen comrades due to the Shinsengumi's original job of protecting the peace and so is somewhat displeased when someone goes around gleefully slaughtering them.
- Gintama takes place during the same period as the restoration, but with aliens as the foreigners and the shogunate actually winning the war.
- Laughing Under the Clouds is set during this era, however the focus is less on politics and more on the supernatural.
- While most of Ooku: The Inner Chambers takes place in the Jidai Geki, Volume 13 starts to slide into the early parts of the Meiji Restoration, namely, Commodore Perry appears to force open the ports.
- Golden Kamuy takes place during the final years of the Meiji Period, with a significant portion of the cast being veterans of the Russo-Japanese War.
- The Abrafaxe spend the arc from Mosaik No. 323 to 343 in Japan in the year 1872. There they meet the Prussian engineer Heinrich von Himmelgut (on a mission to help build Japanese railways), who falls in love with Toshiko, the daughter of a former samurai.
- The Last Samurai takes place in a somewhat skewed version of the Satsuma Rebellion and Boshin War events.
- The Rurouni Kenshin films of 2012 and 2014 (Rurouni Kenshin, Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno and Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends) serve as adaptations and relatively-more realistic takes on the era than the manga and anime.
- 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.
- The NHK drama Saka no Ue no Kumo (Clouds over the Slope), an adaptation of Shiba Ryotaro's novel of the same name, covers the lives of the Akiyama brothers from 1868 to the end of the Russo-Japanese War.
- NHK's "Taiga drama" series have, in many years, chosen to portray either the lives of the major players of the period, or make an ensemble storyline. Those within this period are:
- Ryōma ga Yuku (竜馬がゆく, 1968), one of the first about the foremost Restoration revolutionary Sakamoto Ryoma
- Katsu Kaishū (勝海舟, 1974), about the eponymous Edo and Meiji period modernizer
- Kashin (花神, 1977), about Omura Masujiro, a Restoration samurai who was eventually credited as the "Father of the Modern Japanese Army".
- Tobu ga Gotoku (翔ぶが如く, 1990), about the ill-fated Saigo Takamori, Meiji statesman and leader of the Satsuma Rebellion
- Tokugawa Yoshinobu (徳川慶喜, 1998), about the last Tokugawa Shogun, who was deposed by the Restoration
- Shinsengumi! (新撰組!, 2004), an ensemble story about the leaders of the titular organization
- Atsuhime (篤姫, 2008), about the Lady Tenshoin, a Satsuma princess who married into the Tokugawa Shogunate, and had to traverse her Conflicting Loyalty between her family and her domain.
- Ryōmaden (龍馬伝, 2010), an updated, modernized retelling of the story of Sakamoto Ryōma, with the impoverished ronin-turned-Mitsubishi founder Iwasaki Yataro serving as Deuteragonist.note
- Yae no Sakura (八重の桜, 2013), about Yamamoto Yaeko, a woman from the Shogunate-loyalist Aizu domain ravaged by the Meiji revolutionaries, who had to deal with rebuilding her life amidst modernization and changing societal norms.
- Hana Moyu (花燃ゆ, 2015), about Sugi Fumi, the younger sister of Yoshida Shoin, the initial intellectual genius of the Restoration—and how she had to deal and protect his students as they join the fray of the Revolution.
- Segodon (西郷どん, 2018), an updated, modernized retelling of Saigo Takamori's life story. Coincidentally, the same actor who portrayed Saigo in Tobu ga Gotoku serves as the series' narrator.
- Total War: Shogun 2: Its expansion Fall of the Samurai takes place in this period.
- Victoria 2 covers the time period during which the Meiji Restoration took place. Japan can choose to enact a political decision that models the Restoration by allowing the nation to adopt Western policies more quickly. The Boshin War is not specifically modeled by the game, but general uprisings can occur among more conservative populations if the Restoration occurs too soon.
- Dai Gyakuten Saiban: Naruhodou Ryuunosuke no Bouken, a Meiji-era spinoff of the Ace Attorney series, starring Phoenix Wright's (Ryuuichi Naruhodou) Identical Grandfather Ryuunosuke Naruhodou. The game is described as taking place in a time where the profession of a "defense attorney" is still a fresh one in Japanese society. While the game's first case takes place in Meiji-era Japan, the rest of the game takes place in Victorian London, where Ryuunosuke meets, among other characters, the famed Sherlock Holmes.
- The Nasuverse Mobile Phone Game Fate/Grand Order has hosted three (as of 2018) GUDAGUDA events—two of which directly involved the backdrop of the Meiji Restoration and a few of its major characters (such as Shinsengumi captains Okita and Hijikata, as well as Restoration rebels Sakamoto and Okada). Surprisingly for a gag sub-event, they treat the conflict of the time period quite respectfully—or as respectfully as something stuffed with Anachronism Stew can get.