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 266-year old grudge over their defeats against Tokugawa Ieyasu in the Battle of Sekigahara)note allied (through the auspices of maverick Rōnin Sakamoto Ryōma) 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. This is of course, The Theme Park Version, the reality is far more complex. note
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). Meiji's great personal charisma made him nonetheless a powerful influence on the genro, but his son Taishō was largely just a figurehead.
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 deals heavily with ex-samurai trying to find their new place in the world in the period. Some examples from the main and supporting cast:
- Kenshin himself is a former assassin and terrorist for the victorious revolutionaries, now Walking the Earth to atone for the blood he's spilled.
- Kaoru struggles to keep her dojo financially solvent in an era where swordplay has mostly been reduced to a sport. Additionally her father, the founder of the Kamiya Kasshin Style, died fighting as a conscript in the Satsuma Rebellion two years earlier.
- Sanosuke fought in a pro-Imperial militia only to have his commander betrayed and beheaded by the Meiji government when they became politically inconvenient.
- 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 descendant of a samurai family her own family served for generations).
- Saitou 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.
- Many of the major antagonists are former samurai or other people with similar axes to grind against the Meiji reforms: for example, Udo Jin-e and Shishio Makoto were fellow former pro-Imperial assassins like Kenshin who turned against the revolution, Isurugi Raijuta seeks to revitalize traditional Japanese swordsmanship from its reduction to a sport, and Yuukyuuzan Anji is a former Buddhist monk whose temple was burned along with orphans he'd taken in as a result of the Meiji government's efforts to make Shintoism the state religion.
- 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 Ōoku: The Inner Chambers takes place in the Jidaigeki, Volume 13 starts to slide into the early parts of the Meiji Restoration, namely, Commodore Perry appears to force open the ports. Volume 18 is specifically when Meiji assumes the throne and the Tokugawa Shogunate is abolished. The final volume consists of the last remaining Tokugawas negotiating for a peaceful transfer of Edo Castle, and the epilogue takes place four years into the Meiji era.
- 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.
- Yugiri from Zombie Land Saga was born (and died) during the Meiji restoration, and season 2 features a two-part episode set during this period showing the events leading up to her death, "The Saga Incident".
- The epilogue chapter of Blade of the Immortal takes place in the Meiji Period after a century-long Time Skip. The immortal Manji is still around and takes up with one of Rin Asano's grandchildren.
- 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.
- Eijanaika shows the chaos and disorder that breaks out in a crime-ridden Tokyo slum as the shogunate collapses.
- The Last Samurai takes place in a somewhat skewed version of the Satsuma Rebellion and Boshin War events.
- The Rurouni Kenshin films released between 2012 and 2021 (Rurouni Kenshin, Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno, Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends, Rurouni Kenshin: The Final and Rurouni Kenshin: The Beginning) serve as adaptations and relatively-more realistic takes on the era than the manga and anime.
- When the Last Sword Is Drawn follows Yoshimura Kanichiro, a poor samurai and Master Swordsman who joins the Shinsengumi shortly before the Boshin War.
- 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.
- Though its culture comes from many sources, from a political standpoint the planet Grayson from Honor Harrington is a futuristic mirror of Meiji-era Japan. The Graysons spent centuries developing on a hostile world in isolation from the rest of the galaxy, without most of the cool sci-fi technology other human societies take for granted. When they eventually fall into Manticore's sphere of influence, the explosion of economic opportunities they bring result in rapid modernization and a resultant upheaval of their traditional values, which many Grayson conservatives have a difficult time accepting. If all of this wasn't enough of a hint, this period of their history is named the Mayhew Restoration, after the Grayson Head of State who spearheaded the reforms.
- 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 Ryōma (portrayed by Kinya Kitaoji)
- Katsu Kaishū (勝海舟, 1974), about the eponymous Edo and Meiji period modernizer (portrayed both by Tetsuya Watari and Hiroki Matsukata)
- Kashin (花神, 1977), about Omura Masujiro, a Restoration samurai who was eventually credited as the "Father of the Modern Japanese Army" (portrayed by Nakamura Umenosuke IV).
- Tobu ga Gotoku (翔ぶが如く, 1990), about the ill-fated Saigo Takamori (portrayed by Toshiyuki Nishida), Meiji statesman and leader of the Satsuma Rebellion, as well as Okubo Toshimichi (portrayed by Takeshi Kaga), fellow Satsuma-born statesman and leader of the Meiji government.
- Tokugawa Yoshinobu (徳川慶喜, 1998), about the last Tokugawa Shogun (portrayed by Masahiro Motoki), who was deposed by the Restoration.
- Shinsengumi! (新撰組!, 2004), an ensemble story about the leaders of the titular organization. The cast is headlined by Shingo Katori of SMAP (portraying Kondo Isami), Koji Yamamoto (portraying Hijikata Toshizo) and Tatsuya Fujiwara (portraying Okita Soji)
- Atsuhime (篤姫, 2008), about the Lady Tenshō-in (portrayed by Aoi Miyazaki), a Satsuma princess who married into the Tokugawa Shogunate, and had to traverse her Conflicting Loyalty between her family and her domain. The second Taiga drama to have a page here on TV Tropes.
- Ryōmaden (龍馬伝, 2010), an updated, modernized retelling of the story of Sakamoto Ryōma (portrayed by Masaharu Fukuyama), with the impoverished ronin-turned-Mitsubishi founder Iwasaki Yataro (portrayed by Teruyuki Kagawa) serving as Deuteragonist.note
- Yae no Sakura (八重の桜, 2013), about Yamamoto Yaeko (portrayed by Haruka Ayase), 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 (portrayed by Mao Inoue), 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 (portrayed by Ryohei Suzuki). Coincidentally, Toshiyuki Nishida (Saigo in Tobu ga Gotoku) serves as the series' narrator. Ken Watanabe also plays a supporting role as Saigo's lord, Shimazu Nariakira.
- Seiten wo Tsuke (青天を衝け, 2021), about Shibusawa Eiichi (portrayed by Ryo Yoshizawanote , a former farm-boy who rose to being a retainer of the Tokugawa, and then becoming Minister of Finance for the Meiji government. His subsequent life being involved in the creation and normalization of modern business practices gave him the label of "Father of Japanese Capitalism".
- Sabaton's song "Shiroyama" is about the Last Stand of Saigou Takamori and his samurai at the end of the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion.
- Age of Empires III: The Asian Dynasties features the Meiji Restoration as an age-up alternative for the Japanese. It costs less than the usual age-up to Imperial Age, but it requires the construction of a Consulate, picking up Japanese Isolationism, and gathering enough Export to invest into the age-up. Plus, it doesn't offer real advantages or bonuses.
- 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.
- The Nasuverse Mobile Phone Game Fate/Grand Order has hosted six (as of February 2021) 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.
- The Toukiden series is set in a warped world where different eras of Japanese history form "Ages" the player can explore. The time of the Meiji Restoration is referred to as the "Age of Chaos," and a number of figures from the era are present as Mitama, spirits consumed by oni that the player can liberate and use as allies. The opening of Toukiden 2 establishes that the Awakening that warped the world took place in this period, with Western-style homes and ships seen in Yokohama before the cataclysm.
- In the Assassin's Creed series, the Meiji Restoration was stated to be a Staged Populist Uprising by the Templars to bring down the Assassin-backed Tokugawa Shogunate via enforcing western ideals and culture (including Capitalism) on Japan, with Emperor Meiji being a mere Puppet King.
- The Great Ace Attorney, a Meiji-era spin-off duology of the Ace Attorney series, starring Phoenix Wright's (Ryuuichi Naruhodou) Identical Grandfather Ryunosuke Naruhodo. The games take place in a time where the profession of a "defense attorney" is still a fresh one in Japanese society. Each games' first case take place in Meiji-era Japan, while the rest of the duology takes place in Victorian London, where Ryunosuke meets, among other characters, the famed Sherlock Holmes (or rather, Herlock Sholmes). Despite this, the themes of globalization, industralization and relationships between both empires play a prominent role throughout the entire story.
- As seen in the title, the female protagonist of Meiji Tokyo Renka, Mei Ayazuki, gets transported back to the Meiji era and the entire plot is set during that period.