Meiji period

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Statue of Emperor Meiji at Naminoue Shrine in Okinawa, identified as kokka (国家), or, "The State."
  • Dates: 1868-1912
  • Other Names: 近代 (kindai)
  • Japanese: 明治時代 (Meiji jidai)

The Meiji period, spanning the years from 1868 to 1912, saw dramatic changes in myriad aspects of politics, economy, culture, and society, and marked the emergence of the modern nation-state of Japan.

The period, which began with the overthrow of the Tokugawa shogunate and establishment of a new Imperial government in the Meiji Restoration of 1868, ended with the death of the Meiji Emperor in 1912, marking the beginning of the Taishô period, under his successor, the Taishô Emperor.

This was a bright time for Japan, with countless developments worthy of celebration, in terms of economics, technology, and infrastructure, as well as in cultural fields, as Japan burst onto the world scene demanding to be recognized as a modern country, and as a world power. From electricity and railroads to oil paintings and novels, from newspapers and photographs to red brick buildings and top hats, from popular elections to public education, the Meiji period represents perhaps the most rapid and successful national modernization effort in the world.

However, Japan also began along the path of ultranationalism and imperialism in the Meiji period, annexing Ezo (Hokkaidô) in 1869, the Ryûkyû Islands in 1879, Taiwan in 1895, and Korea in 1905-1910. While there is an argument to be made for the potential of Meiji Japan to have developed into a more peaceful liberal democracy, and while historians do continue to debate regarding the character and significance of the short-lived Taisho Democracy of the 1910s-20s, there are also strong connections to be drawn between the political structure and nationalist rhetoric of the Meiji period, and the ultra-nationalism, militarism, and imperialism of the 1930s-1940s.



Following the Meiji Restoration which overthrew the Tokugawa shogunate, a new Imperial government under the Meiji Emperor was established, patterned after the constitutional monarchies and democracies of the West. After much consideration and debate, a Constitution was written up, and promulgated in 1889.

That said, though the history of this period is often, necessarily, simplified, the Meiji government did not, in fact, have a set plan from the beginning, which they then smoothly laid out step-by-step, addressing all the key problems in good order and good time. Quite to the contrary, during that time from 1868 until the promulgation of the Constitution in 1889, things were quite unstable. There was much disagreement within the government, and without. The Restoration could have fallen apart, or gone in a dramatically different direction, at any of numerous points. One such threat came from violent rebellions by former samurai (shizoku) who rose up against the government in Fukuoka, Kumamoto, Hagi, and Kagoshima in the 1870s. These rebellions were mostly spurred by the dismantling of samurai privileges, and their successful suppression by the Imperial Japanese Army was an important step in the cementing of the new government's authority.

The Imperial Japanese Army emerged from the implementation of a new system of military conscription in 1872-1873, following the abolition of the samurai class in 1871. This was the first citizen army in Japan, and the first in service of the modern Japanese nation-state.[1] It was originally based chiefly on a French model, but was reorganized in 1878 with inspiration from Prussian practices. The Imperial Japanese Navy was established concurrently, based largely on the model of the British Royal Navy.[2]

The feudal domains (han) were abolished in 1871, and the provinces reorganized into prefectures; though the precise names and borders of the prefectures fluctuated for some time, by the late 1880s they had settled down into the 47 prefectures which remain today. This came after Chôshû, Satsuma, Tosa, and Kumamoto (Higo) petitioned the government in 1869/1 to return their fiefs to the Emperor. As the remainder of the former daimyô gave back their lands to the Imperial institution, the central government also took control of most of the country's castles. Many were demolished at this time. Some were turned over to governmental or military purposes. Many former daimyô clans relocated to secondary residences, turning these into primary family mansions; the Hotta mansion which survives in Sakura, Chiba prefecture, and the Shimazu clan's Iso mansion at Sengan'en in Kagoshima are examples of this. Many domain mansions in Edo, Kyoto, and Osaka, though not seized by the government, were abandoned or sold. The existence of so many large compounds, now able to be turned over to other purposes, proved a boon to the development of these modern cities, as many were converted into public schools, government buildings, public parks, and the like.

A number of the chief government officials took part in a two-year mission led by Iwakura Tomomi in 1871-1873, in which they toured the United States and a number of European countries, in order to learn about Western modes of government, industry, and education, among other fields, and to consider which to potentially implement in Japan.[3]

"Battle before Kumamoto castle," by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 1877, depicting one key battle of the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion. Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The abolition of the domains had numerous political repercussions, but in terms of foreign relations, one of the most major was that this also severed the traditional relationship between the Joseon Dynasty Korean royal court, and the samurai clan of Tsushima. For centuries, the Korean king had considered the Sô his vassal, and all formal diplomatic and trade relations between Korea and Japan were handled via the Sô. The toppling of the Tokugawa order, removing the Sô from their domain of Tsushima, also removed them, unilaterally, from their vassalage to the Korean king. The Korean court protested against this by refusing to engage in formal relations with the Meiji government. Japanese frustrations at attempting to re-establish relations culminated in a 1873 debate known as the Seikanron (lit. "debate on invading Korea"). Saigô Takamori, among others, took a militarist view, and sought to launch a punitive mission, militarily invading the peninsula in order to punish the Koreans for daring to be so stubborn. This debate ultimately ended with the anti-invasion faction winning out, and Saigô angrily quitting the government, to return to Kagoshima, where he would later lead a rebellion against the very same government he had helped to establish.

Saigô's 1877 Satsuma Rebellion was only one of a number of shizoku rebellions which took place in the mid-1870s, but it was the largest, and ultimately the most decisive. With the abolition of the samurai class and the domain system, former samurai (shizoku) lost their regular stipends, the traditional avenues of government service, and their elite status overall. Many felt a deep sense of grievance, feeling they had contributed to effecting the Restoration far more so than any other group (certainly more so than the commoners), and yet were being treated by the new government as if they had no special purpose, and no future.[4] Traditionally, samurai had gained prestige and reputation through military exploits; they were rewarded by their lords for accomplishments on the battlefield, or in the Edo period, for accomplishments in feudal service. The decision to not invade Korea, and to not stand up against Russia militarily in Sakhalin, was seen by many former samurai as the nail in the coffin of this avenue of earning prestige, and personal success, leaving many former samurai feeling they were simply being left to fend for themselves, and that everything they stood for was not only being ignored by the new government, but actively disparaged, or dismantled.

Saigô thus led some 15,000 former samurai in violently protesting the loss of their samurai privileges in 1877.[5] Their defeat by the Imperial Japanese Army marked the end of any major violent opposition to the new political order, mirroring in a sense the 1615 siege of Osaka, and/or 1637-1638 Shimabara Rebellion, which similarly marked the last serious armed opposition to Tokugawa hegemony, some 250 years earlier.

The Korea issue which sparked Saigô's departure from the government would remain a key element of geopolitical tensions for Japan for nearly the entire remainder of the Meiji period. As the Western powers continued to expand their colonial holdings around the world, Japanese leaders worried that the British, French, or Russians would colonize Korea, thus not only denying Japan access to trade with Korea, but also placing Western imperialist armies (with Korea as base) far too close to Japan for comfort. After the government decided in 1873 against a full invasion of Korea, they then successfully put pressure on the Joseon court in 1876 to conclude a formal, modern-style, treaty with Japan. This 1876 Treaty of Ganghwa linked Japan and Korea within a modern/Western mode of international relations, as mutually independent, sovereign, nation-states, essentially severing, or at least ignoring, Korea's status as a tributary state under Chinese suzerainty. Just as Korea had been angered at the removal of its vassal, the Sô clan, the Qing Dynasty was now angered at this affront to their suzerain-tributary relationship with Korea. Tensions between China, Russia, Japan, and the Western powers over securing a sphere of influence in Korea were a key factor in causing the Sino-Japanese War. This ultimately led too to the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, which ended in a Japanese victory, and Japanese acquisition of Korea as a colony.

The 1873 debate over invading Korea came during a decade in which Japan faced territorial and border concerns on nearly every front. In 1871, a group of Miyako Islanders, returning home after a tribute mission to Shuri (capital, on Okinawa Island, of the Ryûkyû Kingdom), were thrown off-course by a storm, and were killed by Taiwanese aborigines. As the Meiji government demanded reparations from the Qing Court, this quickly developed into a major diplomatic incident, throwing into question Chinese and Japanese claims to Taiwan and the Ryûkyû Islands. The following year, Japan strengthened its position in the Ryukyus by declaring the Kingdom abolished, and absorbing it into the realm as Ryûkyû han, with the former king, Shô Tai, as its lord. The Seikanron, as already discussed, took place the year after that (1873), and in 1874 Saigô Tsugumichi led a punitive military campaign against the aboriginal Paiwan, or Botan, people in Taiwan. In 1875, Ryûkyû sent a tribute mission to Beijing, as it had done for centuries. Tensions between China and Japan grew quite heated, culminating ultimately in 1879, when Japan unilaterally - and over Beijing's explicit objections - abolished the Ryûkyû Kingdom (now Ryûkyû han) entirely, annexing its territory as Okinawa prefecture, and appointing a governor, while the former king was to report to Tokyo and join the new peerage alongside (other) former daimyô. That same year, Ulysses S. Grant, having already completed his term as President of the United States in 1877, came to China and Japan as part of a private world tour vacation. The young Meiji Emperor reportedly eagerly asked Grant for advice on numerous aspects of how to build a modern, economically strong, and constitutionally democratic country. But Grant also served as mediator in this conflict over the Ryukyus, meeting with both Chinese and Japanese officials, and ultimately securing a settlement in 1880 in which Japan would recognize Chinese sovereignty over the Miyako Islands and everything to their south, in exchange for China granting Japan "most favored nation" status. The Chinese initially agreed, but ultimately refused to sign, and so all of the Ryukyus, from the Amami and Tokara Islands in the north (already annexed into Satsuma/Kagoshima territory centuries earlier) to Yonaguni Island in the south, remained Japanese territory. Tensions over Taiwan (and spheres of influence in Korea) were allayed for a time, but would later come to war with China in 1894-1895; Japanese victory in that war made Taiwan a Japanese colony.

Meanwhile, in the north, the 1855 Treaty of Shimoda had already established formal national boundaries between Japanese and Russian territory in the Kuril Islands; this was the first treaty to formally establish any Japanese national borders. However, this Treaty left the status of Sakhalin undetermined, and this continued to be a point of dispute between the two countries. The Meiji government formally annexed the island of Ezo in 1869, renaming it Hokkaidô, and asked the US to arbitrate the dispute over Sakhalin; however, Russia refused to have any third-party mediator. In 1872, both Russia and Japan refused to sell (their claims to) the island to the other. Finally, an agreement was reached in 1875 in which Japan renounced its claims to Sakhalin in exchange for Russia's recognition of the Kurils as Japanese territory. In the end, though Korea, Ryûkyû, and Sakhalin & the Kurils brought considerable diplomatic tensions over the course of the 1870s, all of these disputes were ultimately resolved (for the time being, as of 1879) with a minimum of outright fighting.[6] Only in the 1890s-1910s (and later, in the 1930s-40s) would Imperial Japan become embroiled in outright wars.

The 1880s saw the further development of Japan's formal diplomatic ties with other nations around the world. The Meiji government continued to honor treaties signed by the shogunate in the 1850s, and foreign communities, including formal consuls and delegations, continued on in Kobe, Yokohama, Hakodate, and a few other port cities. The Emperor received former US President Grant in 1879, as mentioned above, and in 1881, he received King Kalakaua of Hawaii, and Princes Albert and George of the United Kingdom as formal state guests, the first foreign royals to visit Japan in such a capacity.[7] Through meetings with these and other heads of state, Meiji Japan began actively developing diplomatic ties with other countries.

An ukiyo-e woodblock print triptych by Toyohara Chikanobu depicting the promulgation of the Meiji Constitution in a formal ceremony which took place in the Throne Room of the Tokyo Imperial Palace.

Returning to the history of domestic matters, the Emperor declared in 1881 that he would establish a national legislature in 1889. After much discussion and debate, the first Japanese Constitution was promulgated on February 11, 1889. The promulgation was accompanied by extensive ceremonies, beginning with very private rites performed by the Emperor alone deep within the palace, ostensibly continuing an ancient tradition, followed by a modern/Western-style political ceremony in which the Constitution was formally promulgated with many government officials and journalists in attendance; this was then followed in turn by a public procession and celebration in the streets of Tokyo. All three combined, as reported in newspapers, participated in by the public, and otherwise noted as a national holiday and significant historical moment, have been described as "Japan's first modern national ceremony." Fashioned after modern state ceremonies in the West, this displayed to the Japanese people and the world that Japan was a modern country, and it served as precedent and model for many national ceremonies later in the Meiji period, all the way down to the 1940s.[8]

Under this Constitution, which remained in force until 1945, the Emperor wielded ultimate sovereignty, and all political power and land ownership stemmed from him. The Emperor had the power to declare war, conclude treaties, make policy in a wide range of fields, to dissolve the legislature and call for new elections, and to veto the decisions of the legislature at his discretion. The Privy Council and Cabinet ministers, a group which included many genrô ("senior statesmen," chiefly the architects of the Restoration and of the Constitution), were thus able to rule as oligarchs, making many decisions themselves, and simply seeking the Emperor's official approval. The only power reserved exclusively to the legislature was the power to approve the annual government budget; however, even this power was weakened by stipulations that if the legislature failed to approve a new budget, the current year's budget would simply be re-adopted for the next year.[9] The Imperial family themselves were not bound or governed by the terms of the Constitution, but rather by a separate document, the Imperial House Law.[10]

Based on borrowings from Prussian, British, and US forms of government, the Constitution created a national imperial government with the Emperor at the top, and a bicameral legislature called the Imperial Diet. The Upper House, the House of Peers, consisted of members of the newly formed hereditary aristocracy, most of whom were former daimyô or court nobles. The Lower House, the House of Representatives, was popularly elected, with the first elections being held in 1890. Initially, however, as in many Western countries, suffrage was limited to wealthy landowners, who it was believed could be trusted to be well-informed enough, politically engaged enough, to vote responsibly. In the first set of elections, some 450,000 men, or 1.1% of the total Japanese population, were eligible to vote. Universal male suffrage would not be extended in Japan until 1925, and women's suffrage not until 1946.[9]

For the first five years or so, The Jiyûtô ("Freedom Party") and Kaishintô ("Progressive Party"), both of which were opposed to the basic structure of the government, won the majority of seats in the Diet time and again. Members of the genrô ("senior statesmen," incl. some of the architects of the Restoration, and of the Constitution), or other arms of the Imperial institution had to intervene a number of times in order to end deadlocked situations, and to get a government budget passed. The Diet was dissolved, and new elections called, several times. As in many other aspects of Meiji politics and culture, the Japanese victory in the Sino-Japanese War of 1895 brought a shift towards greater patriotic unity and support for the government.[9]

By 1899, the treaty ports system was terminated, and treaty revision finally attained. With the Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1902, Japan even more fully joined the ranks of the world powers. There remained, however, some continuing sense of inequality, however, which would later grow and contribute to the rise of militarism and ultranationalism in the 1930s-40s.


In terms of commerce, industry, and infrastructure, the country modernized perhaps more quickly than any country ever has. Railroads, electricity, gaslamps, steamships, and countless other technological advances which began to be introduced in the Bakumatsu era spread, quickly becoming ubiquitous. Banks, factories, import-export companies, and the first zaibatsu and keiretsu conglomerates, among other sorts of modern corporate businesses abounded, and Japan quickly became a competitive force on the world stage. Modern technologies for factory mass production became widespread, particularly for the production of textiles. For the entire Meiji period, textiles accounted for roughly half of all of Japan's exports.[11]

The government was wary of the dangers of foreign investment (which could lead to a country becoming rather dependent on, or even controlled in significant ways by, foreign corporations), and so did little to encourage foreign investment, though they did permit it. Many in the government were further concerned that individual Japanese merchants might not possess the initiative or the knowledge to start and run Western-style modern industrial operations. Thus, direct government involvement was extensive.[12]

The government hired some 3,000 foreigners to serve as advisors and teachers in guiding these infrastructure efforts, and in teaching the first generation of Japanese experts at the newly established Imperial universities. The majority by far were experts in engineering and architecture, and were employed by the Ministry of Education.[13] Numerous iconic new modern buildings were constructed at this time, combining modern Western style, methods, and materials with Japanese traditional elements. Government invested heavily in some two dozen industries, including silk and cotton, mining, shipyards, engineering, arms production, glass, sugar, and even beer brewing.[12]

Still the government encouraged private entrepreneurship as well, through nationalist slogans such as bunmei kaika (文明開化, "civilization and enlightenment"), fukoku kyôhei (富国強兵, "prosperous country, strong military"), wakon yôsai (和魂洋才, "Japanese spirit, Western technique"), and shokusan kôgyô (殖産興業, promotion of industry). The government also explicitly encouraged the formation of joint-stock companies, backed by private investors, a model that was quite powerful in the West. And individual entrepreneurs indeed did drive much of the major economic, financial, and industrial changes of the period. The most prominent and influential entrepreneurs included many of the former merchant class (such as the founders of Mitsukoshi, Takashimaya, etc.), and also many of the former samurai class; for example, the Shimazu clan shifted their family wealth into the Shimazu Corporation, and low-ranking samurai Iwasaki Yatarô founded Mitsubishi.

Most of the factories, mills, and so forth begun by the government did poorly, and were sold off in the 1880s to private businessmen for rather low amounts. However, this should likely not be seen as a failure, but rather as a phenomenon which contributed importantly to the initial development of "modern" industry in Japan, both by having the government start these industries to begin with, and by having the government then provide low entry costs for aspiring entrepreneurs (or, established ones seeking to expand). Historian Andrew Gordon has identified this process, the well-considered decisions of Meiji oligarchs that government should take an active role in encouraging and supporting industry, as the foundation for Japan's continued dedication to that economic policy attitude through the 20th century to the present.[14]

Meanwhile, the government began printing & minting new currency in 1868, establishing the yen as the new Japanese currency in 1871, and establishing the Bank of Japan in 1882.[15] The first telegraph lines were laid beginning in 1869, and a postal system based on the British model was established in 1871.[12] The first rail lines in the country were opened in 1872, linking Yokohama, Shinbashi, and Shinagawa. An express line linking the capital with Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe in the west, opened in 1896. Samurai and others were encouraged to invest in the railroads, and did so. By 1890, some 1400 miles of railroad had been laid; at that time, the government owned and operated roughly 40% of the lines, while private railroad companies ran the rest.[12]

As for government revenues, in its very first years the Meiji government had to rely only on the agricultural base of the former Tokugawa lands, and on loans from Osaka-based merchants. With the abolition of the domains in 1871, however, they were able to put into place a new nationwide tax system. Samurai stipends proved a considerable burden upon the young state, amounting to as much as half of the national budget. These were soon phased out, however, despite violent opposition. Ôkubo Toshimichi led the introduction, beginning in 1873, of a new system of land taxes, which was accompanied by widespread land reform. Whereas taxes had previously been paid by villages, and in kind, with little true legal system for land ownership, the government now undertook a massive, nationwide, land survey, in which title deeds were issued, officially and legally identifying individuals as the owners of each given area of land, and then holding that individual (not the communal village) responsible for paying taxes based on the assessed productive value of his land. Whereas previously it was samurai authorities who gained or lost real value as the price of rice rose or fell (the amount of rice being paid, e.g. X number of koku per village, being fixed), under this new tax system individual taxpayers had to pay more or less tax to make up for shifts in the market.[16]


The samurai class was abolished along with the system of feudal domains (han) in 1871. Former samurai were now termed shizoku or sotsu depending on their previous rank, and the wearing of swords in public was banned in 1876. Former daimyô, along with court aristocrats, Ryukyuan royalty, and a few others became a new European-style aristocracy, called the kazoku. But for all categories of peasants and commoners, status categories and legal divisions were eliminated, with the vast majority of the population becoming heimin ("regular citizens"), and all sumptuary regulations and other restrictions on hairstyle, fashion, and so forth, were eliminated as well, with a few gender-related exceptions. Restrictions on occupations were similarly lifted. While the outcaste groups known as eta and hinin were officially abolished, those people, now under the term burakumin, continued to suffer from discrimination.[17]

The government implemented a system of nationwide public education which gradually came into fruition over the course of the period, based on a combination of Western knowledge (e.g. sciences, geography, economics) and Neo-Confucian moral education. A national curriculum was aimed at suppressing regional difference and creating a unified, national, "Japanese" culture. The Ministry of Education began efforts in 1872 to establish schools across the country; in addition to this, a significant portion of the education budget in the first decades of the Meiji period was devoted to bringing in foreign teachers, and to funding students to study overseas. Building schools, training and hiring (native Japanese) teachers, and so forth took some time, and as late as 1902, the country was still only partially on the way to the goals that had been set in 1872, in terms of the number of schools in operation. As for the content and character of the national curriculum, 1890 was a turning point in this as in many things. The Imperial Rescript on Education issued that year is a short document which declared a set of nationalist core principles, and which served from that point forward as the foundation of a curriculum of moral education emphasizing filial piety, nationalist zeal or patriotism, reverence for the Emperor, and personal sacrifice for the sake of the nation.[18]

With the "opening" of Japan, many foreigners came to live in Japan, either temporarily or permanently, and a Japanese Nationality Law was passed in 1899 establishing for the first time national, official, legal stipulations for how one could become a naturalized citizen (or, rather, Imperial subject), and what precisely that meant, legally, in terms of rights, obligations to the state, etc. Japanese began to travel and settle overseas in the Meiji period as well. With the exception of vibrant but short-lived communities in Southeast Asia in the 1590s-1660s, this represents the first development of any significant overseas diasporic Japanese community. By the end of the period, in 1912, significant Japanese (and Okinawan) communities existed in a number of areas across Europe, North and South America, and Hawaii, as well as in Japan's newly acquired colonies of Hokkaidô, Okinawa, Taiwan, and Korea.

Similarly, a 1897 Civil Code, in addition to its many other stipulations, established formal legal definitions of marriage, legal procedures for divorce, and so forth, bringing Japanese definitions and practices closer to being in-line with Western "modern" practices. Marriage became a legal procedure for the first time, and was formally recognized by the government in ways it was not previously.[19]

The 1872 Prostitute Emancipation Act freed prostitutes and geisha from their contracts of indentured servitude, though prostitution itself was not yet outlawed. This freed many women, and introduced the concept of "liberation," and debate over the issue, into public discourse, but ultimately did not effect a sea-change, as the government returned several years later to recognizing such contracts once again. Further, many women, despite being freed from their contracts, had no other home, no other job, and/or no other employable skills to fall back on, and so many became waitresses, inn hostesses, bathhouse staff, or the like, continuing to sell sex, albeit under the thin veil of nominally more above-board practices.[20]


Everyday culture changed dramatically, from food to fashion to architecture, as Western styles were adopted. Much was retained, of course, or evolved into new modern forms without being discarded entirely; still, modernity came quickly, especially in the big cities, in these respects.

A national culture was born for the first time. Public education, nationwide newspapers, and the abolition of the feudal system & centralization of government under Tokyo, along with numerous other factors fueled the development of a single national culture. Regional culture was celebrated, but it was also suppressed. The government promoted, as it still does today, the distinctive sights and scenery of each region, and regional products (meibutsu, e.g. Aomori apples and Kagawa udon). But, it also promoted the idea that provincial dialects, and many other aspects of regional culture, were backwards, and un-modern. Through a singular nationwide public education curriculum and other methods, the government encouraged the development of a singular, modern, national culture and identity. That said, while conventional understandings frequently link this to the emergence, too, of a notion of Japan as ethnically homogeneous, Eiji Ôguma has demonstrated that the singular dominance of this idea was actually a postwar development, and that in fact a number of different notions about Japanese multi-racial identity came in and out of currency over the course of the Meiji period through the early 1940s, alongside ideas of homogeneity. One such notion, drawing upon broader Western or global notions at the time regarding race, was that the Japanese people had mixed with many other peoples over the course of history, thus developing better racial traits (through mixing with a larger gene pool, in contrast to inbreeding).[21]

In response to this emphasis on a singular national culture, however, a number of scholars, writers, and artists perceived the loss of regional folk traditions as an existential threat to Japanese identity. They argued that Japanese identity was grounded fundamentally in folk traditions, including especially folk arts (mingei) such as pottery and textiles, and that this was being actively destroyed by the nationalization and modernization efforts; as Japan modernized, they found in Hokkaidô, Okinawa, Korea, and Taiwan what they claimed was an earlier, truer form of Japanese culture, which was being lost and which needed to be recovered. While their efforts certainly did serve to revive or preserve many folk traditions which might otherwise have been lost, it is important to note that the Mingei movement was not in fact rescuing these traditions as they truly had been in ages past, but rather was re-inventing, re-conceptualizing these arts; the Mingei vision of Japanese culture, history, and identity was an invented tradition[22] no less so than the more official and mainstream efforts to promote National arts.

Through participation in World's Fairs, the establishment of Imperial (National) Museums in the 1880s, the establishment of a system of National Treasures, and the promotion of particular art forms, among other means, the government worked to prove to the Japanese people, and to the world, that Japan was modern, civilized, and possessed just as worthy a tradition and history as any other great nation. Many new art forms, such as Nihonga (neo-traditional painting) and yôga (Western-style oil painting), the novel & other forms of "modern" literature, and new forms of theatre, were born out of this, while many older art forms, such as Noh, kabuki, shamisen and other forms of traditional music, Japanese dance, and tea ceremony, were formalized or re-invented as "national traditions." Others, such as ukiyo-e, simply continued along, changing and developing but not being re-conceptualized entirely. Artists such as Kobayashi Kiyochika designed ukiyo-e propaganda prints which served to report on national events, such as the promulgation of the Constitution, and the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese Wars. By the end of the period, however, ukiyo-e had fallen away, and had been replaced by modern print forms such as shin hanga ("new prints") and sôsaku hanga ("creative prints"). Photography, postcards, newspapers, and a variety of other modern arts & cultural forms also developed and became widespread in the Meiji period.

Numerous Westerners visited Japan in the Bakumatsu and Meiji eras. Among many other activities, many of them collected Japanese art, bringing large collections back to the West, where they introduced Western audiences to Japanese art. Many museum collections got their start at this time, through the donation or sale of the private collections of people like William Sturgis Bigelow, Charles Lang Freer, and Ernest Fenollosa, and through figures like Okakura Kakuzô pioneering curatorial positions, and giving lectures and demonstrations. Japanese art began to be sold in the West as well; Hayashi Tadamasa, for example, was a prominent art dealer in Paris in the 1880s through 1905, and the importation of Japanese art, especially ukiyo-e, spurred the japonisme movement, becoming profoundly influential upon Impressionism and other major art trends in the West. Figures such as Fenollosa and Okakura also played significant roles in shaping Japanese modern art, through encouragement of Nihonga artists, and promoting appreciation for Buddhist and Japanese traditional arts, discouraging the Japanese art world from fleeing entirely into adoption of Western styles and subjects. The development of art societies, art journals, and official government salon-style exhibitions such as the Teiten, were significant developments, too, in the Japanese art world's modern transformation.

"Modern" academic disciplines such as archaeology, anthropology, medicine, and hard sciences also got their starts in Japan at this time. This came partially from visiting Westerners, and partially from Rangaku scholars and other Japanese. Tsuboi Shôgorô pioneered anthropological studies of the Ainu, helped found the Tokyo Anthropological Society, and played a role in the first ever discovery of Yayoi period remains. The discovery of the Ômori shellmound by Edward Sylvester Morse was also a significant development in the origins of archaeology in Japan.

Western-style clothing was mandated for most government workers in the mid-1880s. Western fashion had spread and grown quite common in urban centers by this time (especially among men), though traditional clothing would remain widely worn (especially by women) well into the 20th century. Sewing machines were first introduced into Japan in the 1870s, but by the mid-1880s, tailors and seamstresses making use of such equipment were more widespread.[23]

The main gate to Heian Shrine, established 1895, but based on the architectural style of the Heian Imperial Palace of the 8th-12th centuries.
The Nijûbashi bridge at the Tokyo Imperial Palace
A model of the Daijôkyû, a ritual space deep within the Tokyo Imperial Palace, used for supposedly ancient imperial ceremonies invented, or re-invented, in the Meiji period

The city of Kyoto was intentionally shaped into a symbol of Japan's great, noble, past, and numerous historical figures (such as Kusunoki Masashige) were revived and celebrated as national heroes. Nitobe Inazô invented and promoted the notion of bushido as a corollary to Europe's great tradition of chivalry. A European-style aristocratic peerage, complete with titles equivalent to Baron, Duke, and Marquis, was implemented, and many classical government positions were given equivalent European names; for example, the post of Naidaijin was named Lord of the Privy Seal, and was, at least partially, patterned in its new, modern incarnation, after the position of Lord of the Privy Seal in European courts.[24]

For the first decade or two of the period, the Meiji government made little concerted effort to guide the (re)building and shaping of Tokyo and Kyoto, and in fact for the first several years of the period the government remained undecided as to which city would be the official capital, or whether they might have multiple capitals. Even after it was decided that Tokyo would be the national, Imperial, capital, for many years little coordinated effort was made to reshape the city into a national symbol and modern capital in the Western/modern mode. The Imperial family moved from Kyoto into a set of buildings in the nishi-no-maru (western bailey) of Edo castle as early as 1869, but it was only in the late 1880s and 1890s (albeit with a few earlier exceptions) that the government begin to build grand boulevards, triumphal arches, massive public parks, and statues of national heroes. And it was only in 1889 that the Tokyo Imperial Palace itself was (re)built, the modern imperial palace created out of the former shogunal castle. Similarly, the old imperial capital of Kyoto was largely left to simply fall into disrepair from 1868 until the 1880s, before the government decided to make a concerted effort to shape Kyoto into a powerful symbol of Japan's illustrious past. Beginning in the 1880s, the Kyoto Imperial Palace was repaired, and much of its grounds transformed into a public park, with many other sites in the city attracting government attention and support as well. Historian Takashi Fujitani writes of a "museumification of Kyoto" which was effected at this time, transforming the city into something "not unlike a public museum in its display of objects that were to be appreciated as the true representations of history."[25]

State Shinto was also developed, along with a complex set of rituals, tradition, and national ideology surrounding the Emperor. However, like much else in this period, this developed over time. Though many of the earliest Meiji period documents express adulation of the emperor, continuing the sonnô jôi and kokugaku rhetoric which preceded them, it was only after the 1895 victory over the Chinese that the ultranationalist forms of "emperor-worship" emblematic of the 1930s-1940s began to settle into place.[26] Shinto was divided into State Shinto, with hierarchies of national shrines being created; Sect Shinto, in which networks of related shrines were counted as separate from the national hierarchies; and local folk practices. Numerous shrines were formally designated as chief shrine for their prefecture, and shrines were also established in the colonies. Buddhism was at the same time very briefly but very powerfully suppressed, in a policy known as haibutsu kishaku. Where Buddhism and Shinto had previously been closely intertwined, Buddhism was now extricated from shrines, to make them more purely Shinto sites. A great many temples were closed in 1869-1870 or so, and a great many Buddhist artworks, icons, and artifacts were either sold to foreign collectors or were destroyed. A number of New Religions (shinkyô or shinshûkyô), such as Ômoto (est. 1892), also first emerged at this time.[27]

The massive cultural and societal shifts into modernity also brought significant linguistic developments. Firstly, the shift from woodblock printing to movable type meant a standardization of the characters (kana and kanji). Where woodblock printing previously emulated handwriting, in which each character might be abbreviated, calligraphically, in a number of ways, modern type (along with modern public education) now formalized both the kana and kanji into the forms we know today.[28] Second, numerous new terms were coined and incorporated into the language, to refer to modern technologies, Western cultural and intellectual concepts, and modern political and social structures. The term tetsudô (鉄道, lit. "iron road") was coined, for example, to refer to railroads, and the terms jitensha (自転車, "self turning vehicle") and denwa (電話, "electric talk") for bicycles and telephone respectively. New words were coined to refer to "philosophy" (哲学, tetsugaku), "literature" (文学, bungaku), "economics" (経済, keizai), and "politics" (政治, seiji), as understood in their particular modern/Western forms. The concept of "art," that is, high art, especially as divided into "visual arts" and "performing arts," similarly had not previously existed in Japan, and so the terms bijutsu 美術 and geijutsu 芸術 were coined. Meanwhile, numerous new fields only first emerging in the West as well at that time, such as anthropology (人類学, jinruigaku), needed to be termed in Japanese. New political structures and concepts such as the "citizen" (国民, kokumin), the Imperial subject (皇民, kômin), and the Nation/State (国家, kokka), as well as "society" (社会, shakai), "freedom" or "liberty" (自由, jiyû), and "people's rights" (民権, minken), similarly came into being at this time. A great many of these terms were then adopted into Chinese.

History was also reconceptualized at this time, as Meiji discourse constructed a "national" history, one in which "Japan" had always existed as a single unit under an unbroken line of Emperors, and in which the Tokugawa period was repressive and backwards, and the Meiji period one of progress and modernity. In the course of writing this history, numerous terms were either coined anew, or appropriated from the Chinese classics, and applied retroactively, anachronistically, to the past. It was in these histories that the feudal domains of the Edo period were first called han,[29] that the emperors were for the first time invariably called tennô[30], and that the term bakufu (lit. "tent government") was adopted as the chief, standard term for the three shogunates.[31]


  1. Norman, E.H. Soldier and Peasant in Japan: The Origins of Conscription. New York: Institute for Pacific Relations, 1945. pp41-42, 49.
  2. Conrad Schirokauer, David Lurie, and Suzanne Gay, A Brief History of Japanese Civilization, Wadsworth Cengage (2013), 192.
  3. Schirokauer, et al, 171.
  4. Jordan Walker, "Archipelagic Ambiguities: The Demarcation of Modern Japan, 1868-1879," Island Studies Journal 10:2 (2015), 215.
  5. Mark Ravina, Land and Lordship in Early Modern Japan, Stanford University Press (1999), 206-207.
  6. Walker, 218.
  7. King Shô Nei of the Ryûkyû Kingdom is very likely the only previous foreign royal to have visited Japan since the Asuka or Nara period, doing so as a prisoner of war in 1609-1611, and thus not in a similar fashion as a diplomatic state guest.
  8. Takashi Fujitani, Splendid Monarchy, University of California Press (1996), 107-111.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Schirokauer, et al, 180.
  10. Fujitani, 109.
  11. Ellen Conant, "Cut from Kyoto Cloth: Takeuchi Seihô and his Artistic Milieu," Impressions 33 (2012), 74.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 Andrew Gordon, A Modern History of Japan, Oxford University Press (2013), 71.
  13. William Coaldrake, Architecture and Authority in Japan, Routledge (1996), 216.
  14. Gordon, 71-72.
  15. Pamphlets, Currency Museum of the Bank of Japan.
  16. Gordon, 70.
  17. Andrew Gordon, A Modern History of Japan, Oxford University Press (2013), 65.
  18. Schirokauer, et al, 187-188.
  19. Fujitani, 188-190.
  20. Amy Stanley, Selling Women: Prostitution, Markets, and the Household in Early Modern Japan, UC Press (2012), 194.
  21. See Eiji Oguma, A Genealogy of Japanese Self-Images, Melbourne: Trans-Pacific Press, 2002, as cited in Gregory Smits, "Rethinking Ryukyu," International Journal of Okinawan Studies 6:1 (2015), 3, 17n10.
  22. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  23. "Adachi Ginkô, Ladies Sewing," gallery labels, Metropolitan Museum.[1]
  24. Ben Ami Shillony, "Restoration, Emperor, Diet, Prefecture, or: How Japanese Concepts were Mistranslated into Western Languages," Collected Writings of Ben-Ami Shillony, Edition Synapse (2000), 67.
  25. Fujitani, 60-61.
  26. David Lu, Japan: A Documentary History, M.E. Sharpe (1997), 306.
  27. Fujitani, 200.
  28. Note, however, that the simplification of characters did not occur until after World War II. What are known today as kyûjitai (lit. "old character forms"), such as 國、禮、and 體, were still standard through the Meiji period, and had not yet been formally, officially, replaced by the shinjitai ("new character forms") 国、礼、and 体.
  29. Mark Ravina, Land and Lordship in Early Modern Japan, Stanford University Press (1999), 28.
  30. In actual historical usage, the term tennô fell in and out of usage over the centuries.; Shillony, 69-71.
  31. Watanabe Hiroshi, Luke Roberts (trans.), "About Some Japanese Historical Terms," Sino-Japanese Studies 10:2 (1998), 32-35.
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