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Japan was a proud and feudal country for many centuries, until confrontation with powerful western countries. After that, Japanese people understood they had to undergo a profound renovation of their culture in order not to succumb before the West.
For a long time, the actual ruler of the country was the shogun (the head of the army): with the Meiji restoration, the Emperor took back all power. This was the first step towards a series of reforms aimed to modernize the entire country, develop its economy, and create the Japan we know today.
Read our brief article below to learn more about the Meiji Restoration and its fundamental role in the history of Japan.
Emperor Meiji (also known as Meiji the Great) was the 122nd Emperor of Japan. When he was born, Japan was still isolated from other countries, had not realized much industrial development, and was still in a feudal system dominated by the Tokugawa shogunate and the daimyōs (feudal lords).
Meiji ascended the throne in 1867, while the shogun struggled to maintain power, and some rebels wanted to restore imperial rule. Meiji was still young and had to rule over a country going through intense political difficulties.
In 1853, American Commodore Matthew C. Perry landed in Japan asking for the opening of commercial routes, and threatening the country with heavy repercussions if it did not comply. Japan was appalled by its own technological weakness in comparison with the West, and decided to act in order to avoid being dominated by western countries.
For many leaders, the only way to do this was to restore imperial power, strengthen the country, and put an end to the sakoku era – a policy of isolation that prescribed the death penalty for all foreigners entering or all Japanese leaving the country.
The Tokugawa shogunate had been founded during the 17th century. At first its main goal was to reestablish order in a chaotic country. The shogunate came to an end in 1867, when Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the 15th shogun, handed in his resignation to the Emperor.
In 1868, the Boshin War (War of the Year of the Dragon) started with a battle in which the armies of the Chōshū and Satsuma clans defeated the shogunate troops. After this debacle, the Emperor stripped Yoshinobu of all power, and on January 3, 1868, Emperor Meiji declared the full restoration of imperial power.
Tokugawa’s land came under imperial control and split into three types: urban prefectures, rural prefectures, and domains. The daimyo returned their domains to the Emperor, and thus, for the first time, Japan was controlled by a centralized government.
Some shogunate forces, however, fled to Hokkaidō, where they tried to set up the Republic of Ezo. The Emperor didn’t wait long before confronting and defeating those forces in the Battle of Hakodate. With this last defeat, the Tokugawa shogunate was officially brought to an end.
An alliance between two clans, Satsuma and Chōshū, was behind the grandiose plan of ending the current shogunate and restoring imperial power. The two clan leaders supported Emperor Kōmei (Emperor Meiji’s father) and wanted to fight against the Tokugawa shogunate. When Emperor Kōmei died, in 1867, his son became the new Emperor, and Japan became a market economy.
The first action undertaken by the alliance was to move the capital from Kyoto to Edo (later renamed Tokyo). By 1871, the feudal regime was dismantled and substituted by a prefectural system. A national army was formed, and in 1873 universal conscription and universal education were introduced.
These changes, however, began to face some opposition by samurai and peasants, who organized numerous rebellions against the government. The government responded by sending in the army.
At the same time, the people, influenced by western ideas, called for the creation of a constitution, which was finally promulgated in 1889. The Meiji Constitution established a bicameral parliament, with 2% of the population allowed to vote.
This new period of peace was perfect for introducing the economic and social changes desired by the new centralized government. Japan’s economy was still dependent on agriculture, and industrialization was the most important goal of the government.
The modernization began with the construction of railroads: the first was built in 1872, and in less than 20 years the country had more than 2,000 km of rail, and telegraph lines connected the major cities.
However, these efforts towards modernization required the help of science and technology from the West: a vast process of westernization thus began, with western ideas, clothing, and architecture promoted strongly under the banner of “Civilization and Enlightenment”.
During the 1880s, traditional Japanese values benefited from a renewed appreciation. The government decided to create a universal education system heavily influenced by western theories; however, it also emphasized traditional values like samurai loyalty and social harmony. In 1890, the Imperial Rescript of Education was ratified and such teachings became enshrined in the system.
Traditional values made their comeback also in art and culture: at the beginning, the general tendency was to imitate western artists; but, with time, Japanese artists developed a unique and complex blend of tastes.
The Meiji government achieved its goal in less than 40 years, re-creating Japan as one of the strongest countries on the international stage. The country was on track to become a modern industrialized state, and victories against China in 1895 and Russia in 1905 earned Japan more respect in the western world.
Emperor Meiji died in 1912, but his legacy survived with the work of many leaders under the new regime of the Taishō emperor.
Nowadays, in Tokyo, it is possible to admire a beautiful witness to the respect in which Emperor Meiji is held by Japanese people: the Meiji Jingu Shrine, dedicated to the Emperor and his wife, Empress Shōken (even though the actual grave of the Emperor is located in Kyoto).
When the Emperor died in 1912, the Japanese parliament wanted to celebrate the important role he had played during the restoration. The chosen location was a garden in Tokyo loved by both the Emperor and his wife.
A shrine began to be constructed in 1915, and was completed in 1921. The original building, however, was destroyed during WWII, and the present building was constructed in 1958. The forest around the shrine covers an area of 170 acres, with 365 different species of tree donated from people from all over the country.
There are two main areas: the naien (inner precinct), with a treasure museum housing articles which belonged to the Emperor and Empress; and the gaien (outer precinct) with the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery, housing 80 murals depicting the life of the couple.
Japanese people visit the shrine to relax and pay homage during New Year, and Shinto weddings are celebrated in a building inside the gaien.
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