- November 25 2015
Japanese History In Manga ~Meiji Restoration (3) Modernism Cracked The Door ~
After 250 years of the Tokugawa Shogunate, Japan embarked on a new government structure in which the Emperor, previously an entity independent of politics, began to rule as a constitutional monarch.
During this transition, there was a deep conflict of opinion that caused bloody battles. People feared falling into the orbit of the Great Western powers and grew frustrated with the transition.
At that time, almost all of Africa, South America, and the Pacific were under varying degrees of Western control or influence and part of Japan’s political class was suspicious of Meiji’s motives. Japan was filled with a sense of danger and decided to become a modern country in an effort to head off outside intervention.
The newborn government made sweeping changes and an unprecedented reformation of Japan.
Capital Relocation To Tokyo
Shoguns traditionally lived in Edo (Tokyo) while the Emperors resided in Kyoto. The Shogun actively ruled whereas the Emperor had some authority, but was mostly seen as being above politics. However, sovereignty was returned to the Emperor and he entered Edo Castle, embarking on a new government structure in which the Emperor would reign over an elected Diet for the first time in Japanese history. Also at this time, Edo’s name was changed to Tokyo and it became Japan’s capital.
The castle has been called The Imperial Palace since this event. Edo Castle remains the residence of the Emperor and Empress to this day. The palace includes their residence and other buildings for special occasions, etc. A part of palace is opened to public and it is now a popular sighseeing area in Tokyo.
The first thing the new government did was to adapt ideas from Western Countries. Tomomi Iwakura, one of the key people in building the new government structure, Hirobumi Ito, who was destined to become Japan’s first Prime Minister, and other distinguished people journeyed throughout Europe and North America for 2 years, and visited Western colonies in Asia towards the end.
It was very rare for important government officials to leave the country for extended periods of time, but it was because they strongly believed that learning Western civilization, culture, beliefs, and politics was integral to Japan becoming a modern nation. Iwakura Mission had 107 people in this group, and a central part of the effort to make Japan a modern country after their return.
Build A Strong Economic Foundation And Encouragement Of New Industry
While Iwakura Mission was out of the country, the new government took an another baby step.
Japanese class system was divided into Samurai, farmers, carpenters, merchant, etc., but the government decided to terminate that system. However, Shizoku (former Samurai families), Kuge (court nobles), and Daimyo-ke (feudal loads’ families) maintained an elevated social status. These upper class families received remuneration, land, and some other privileges.
Another component of the reforms was the return of land back to the government. The government ruled that the feudal lord’s domain system was abolished and a prefectural system (federalism) was introduced instead, called Haihan-Chiken. Over 270 domains were now 47 prefectures after the change.
Japan’s currency changed to the Yen and the government established the Bank of Japan. A postal system was introduced, a rail network was built, and distribution system began to flow… Japanese infrastructure was established quickly during this time.
The Japanese government encouraged development in industries that would be amenable to export in the future. At the time, many foreign engineers were invited by the government to teach their skills and people studied under their direction while the government built factories to replicate these learned techniques.
One of the factories was in Gunma Prefecture, called “Tomioka Silk Mill.” It was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2014 due to its historical importance in Japan. Dedicated working women spread the factory’s organizational concepts after working in the mill, and it certainly took a leading role in the development of modern Japanese industry at the time.
Life Under The Policy Of Incresing Wealth And Military Power
Economic development wasn’t only Meiji reform. Another thing they tried to do was establish themselves militarily in order to head off domination by the Western powers. The government created a conscription system that built a modern military force.
At the same time, the government introduced compulsory primary education for children to modernize the populace. During the Tokugawa Shogunate’s reign, the education system was farmed out to each domain, so education level depended on region, class, and gender, but the new government sorted out a nationally unified education system. People in government saw that Western countries had strong education systems and pushed to have both boys and girls educated equally. Due to the new system’s introduction, every child in every class could get the same education.
People’s lives were in big transition, too. The symbolic change was mens’ hair style. Chonmage, mens’ Japanese traditional hair style was eliminated in the Meiji era. Many people hesitated to cut their hair short, but when Emperor Meiji revealed his new appearance with short hair to public, it eliminated the taboo.
Hair style aside, Western modernism penetrated into architecture, attire, and so on. In particular, food culture had changed remarkablly. Before modernism cracked the door open, a meat diet was prohibited in Japan due to influence by Buddhism. But by this time, eating meat was symbolic of a modern diet. Coffee, beer, wine, and bread...many things were introduced to Japan through Meiji for the first time in its history.
Increased Dissatisfaction Against The New Structure And Satsuma Rebellion
Quick change always brings conflict, which is natural. The huge waves of reformation in Japan hit Shizoku (former Samurais and their families) especially hard. The termination of class divisions took away their honor and most people were imposed to pay taxes and follow conscription policy that negatively affected their quality of life. People grew frustrated and thought the new government was autocratic.
Meanwhile, Takamori Saigo disagreed with the Iwakura Mission and decided to leave the government, and returned to his hometown Kagoshima Prefecture.
Saigo opened a private school there, held meetings with other Shizoku, and taught Western education and military affairs. He had had a strong personal magnetism even before he left the town, and many dissatisfied Shizoku came to him, and the group became strong. The government couldn’t ingore them and acknowledged the group as a danger.
The government banned Shizoku from carrying Katana (a sword), and stopped paying them remuneration. These were the decisive events. Frustrated Shizoku had risen up against the government in an event called the Satsuma Revellion (also known as Seinan Senso or “southwestern war.”)
The government had a tough time against Saigo and his warriors. Saigo had a brilliant ability to lead, but the goddes of victory was with the new Meiji government. At the end of the rebellion, Saigo decided to cut his stomach open (a traditional Samurai death) as the last Samurai.
A Hollywood movie Last Samurai is mostly fiction, but its background takes place during this time in Japanese history. The movie is about struggles of Samurai and the end of the era.
This was the first battle of the Meiji government, and accordingly, this war taught it so much and contributed to its military expansion.
Freedom And People’s Right Movement, And New Constitution
The Last Samurais lost the battle, but people still had frustrations with the government. They wanted to get involved with politics, and still thought the government did not truly confront the needs of the people. People started holding meetings and discussed how to bring make heartfelt voices heard.
At last, the Meiji government decided to open the Diet and build the constitution. The Meiji Constitution was based on the Constitution of German Empire. German structure was under the Kaiser just like the Meiji government tried to do under the Japanese Emperor. Meiji Constitution was written and the Emperor gave it to his people. Also, the government gave the right to vote to people after the people’s rights and freedom movement grew larger.
The new government started taking baby steps to be a modern country with a constitution and a legislature before the rest of Asia.
Summary Of Meiji Restoration
That is how Japanese Meiji Restoration went in the era. People made a mockery of Japan as an island country with an introverted personality and in a permanent state of Galapagos Syndrome.
However, Japanese people absorbed so much so quickly from Western countries since the American Navy Commander Matthew Perry came to Japan with huge warships (Perry Expedition) and fully opened the Japanese door to the rest of the world (only few places and countries were opened for trading with Japan during the Tokugawa Shogunate). The eagerness to be a modern country may have averted the colonizationfate that met most other Asian countries who encountered the West. Both sides, win or lose, were deeply concerned about Japan’s future. And both sides still havea great deal of respect from Japanese people today.
The word Wakon-Yosai started spreading in this time. Wakon-Yosai means adopting Western arts while valuing Japanese traditional spirits and combine them nicely to develop. Don’t you think this one word very well explains Japanese culture today?
After the huge transition in the Meiji Restoration, Japan experienced the Japan-Sino War and the Japan-Russo War which expanded the militarism and the imperialism that led Japan into the Great East Asian War (as known as the Pacific War or World War II). There is no “if” in history, but history would be written differently if there wasn’t so much arrogance following the huge success of Meiji Restoration. Had Japan simply pursued what they wanted economically and politically, Japan would have attained top tier status peacefully.
The three articles explained the end of Sakoku (the national isolation), the beginning of the new government, and the Meiji Restoration. Stay tuned for more series on Japanese Manga history!