The Meiji Restoration

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Podcast Transcript

In the mid 19th century while the industrial revolution was in full swing, Japan was still an agrarian, feudal society. 

By the end of the 19th century, Japan had become one of the leading industrialized countries in the world.

What happened between those two points was one of the most radical social and economic transformations that any country had ever gone through. 

Learn more about the Meiji Restoration and the creation of modern Japan, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Before we can understand what happened with the Meiji Restoration, we have to understand the state of Japan in the mid 19th century. 

For the previous 250 years, Japan had existed under what was called the Tokugawa shogunate which is also known as the Edo period in Japanese History. 

The Tokugawa shogunate began in 1603 with the end of a period of civil war in the country. The first shogun was Tokugawa Ieyasu. 

The shogun was basically a military dictator who ruled Japan. The emperor was still around, but he was a figurehead during this period when the shoguns actually ruled the country. 

The administration of Japan was divided between various daimy?s who were samurai that were the equivalent of feudal lords. 

The reason why this is known as the Edo Period is that the shogun reigned from Edo Castle in the city of Edo, which is today called Tokyo. The imperial capital of Japan during this time was still in Kyoto

Japan during this period was a very insular country. Foreign trade was limited to only a few port cities, and foreign religions such as Christianity were heavily restricted. 

In 1635, the Closed Country Edict prohibited any Japanese person from leaving the country, and anyone who did leave was forbidden from returning. 

Eventually, all foreign trade was limited to the city of Nagasaki, and even then only a few countries were allowed to enter.

Socially, the country was run under a very rigid class system which was totally based on your birth status. There were multiple levels with the Emperor at the top and peasants at the bottom, and there was no real way to move between classes. 

Economically, the country was heavily reliant on agriculture. There was a merchant and craftsman class that lived in urban areas, usually around the castle of the regional daimyo, but agriculture was the foundation. 

This system sounds familiar, it should, because it was very similar to how Europe was organized in the middle ages. 

The problem was, Japan still had a feudal system, with no real contact with the outside world, in the middle of the 19th century, hundreds of years after this system had been abandoned elsewhere. 

By mid 19th century, the Shogunate was starting to weaken. The sitting shogun had married the sister of the emperor, which increased the power of the imperial throne. Mostly, however, the system was just starting to fall apart after 250 years. 

The thing that changed everything occurred on July 8, 1853. That was when American Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Tokyo Harbor with four American gunboats. 

These weren’t the ships that had visited Nagasaki for the last 200 years. These were modern steamships with modern guns. 

Perry and his fleet worked their way up the coast of Japan, starting in Okinawa, knowing full well that word of their approach would be sent in advance. 

Their goal was very simple. To pry open Japan to foreign trade, in particular trade with the United States

He basically steamed into the harbor and ignored all protests by Japanese officials asking him to leave or to go to Nagasaki. 

Perry had a letter from President Millard Fillmore and would only deliver it to a high-ranking official. The letter set out a list of demands for the Japanese to open up their country.

His position was that they had come in peace, but if he had to, he was willing to blow them to smithereens. 

He eventually delivered his letter and left, promising to return the next year. 

What Perry didn’t know and couldn’t have known was that his visit was timed with the incapacitation of the Shogun who was gravely ill. His illness locked up the decision-making process in the Shogunate. 

Just three days after Perry left, the Shogun died, and his successor was his sickly son. In an earlier time, he never would have become the shogun because the shogun was supposed to be a warrior. 

When the new shogun was presented with the problem of what to do with the American demands, he did something that had never been done. He took a poll of all the regional daimyos to get advice on what the Japanese response should be.

It turned out this was a horrible idea. 

Asking for everyone’s advice and making the process public made the shogun look even weaker. 

Moreover, the opinions of what to do were all over the place. 

In the end, when Commodore Perry returned in 1854, the Japanese pretty much gave in completely. They realized there was no way they could fight them given the massive discrepancies in firepower.

They had a brief negotiation and a signing ceremony where they gave each other gifts. The Japanese gave fine luxury goods and the Americans gave tools and machines. 

The reaction to this incident wasn’t what you’d expect for a very conservative, isolated country. You’d think that there would have been resistance to having been basically forced to open themselves up to foreign trade. 

To be sure, there was a faction that resisted any change, but they weren’t the ones that won.

Another group saw the writing on the wall. They saw what happened to other Asian countries. One of the regional daimyos, Shimazu Nariakira perhaps put it best. He said, “if we take the initiative, we can dominate; if we do not, we will be dominated”. 

Basically, they realized that the future was coming, and it was either going to happen on their terms, or under the terms of the Westerners. 

This all came to a head in 1868. The year before in 1867, the fourteen-year-old crown prince Mutsuhito ascended to the imperial throne after the death of his father.  

The reform forces rallied around the new young emperor, now known as the Meiji Emperor, and won a brief civil war. The sitting shogun resigned, ending the shogunate, and putting all control, after several centuries, back in the hand of the emperor… least in theory

The emperor then moved into the Edo Palace and the city of Edo was renamed Tokyo. The Edo Palace is today known as the Imperial Palace. 

With the reformers now safely in power, they began a series of social and economic changes the likes of which the world had never seen before. 

The feudal system was abolished and replaced with a system of prefectures, which still exists today. 

A centralized bureaucratic state was created to run the country and to manage taxation.

They abolished the strict class system that placed people into a lifetime social rank based on their birth and replaced it with a system more based on merit.

A national army was formed with universal conscription for young men. The army was modernized with modern weapons and modern fighting techniques were brought in from western countries. 

A universal education system was put in place that was based on western teaching methods. 

They began the construction of factories and began the creation of an industrial sector, including ironworks, and spinning mills to mass produce silk.

By 1880, all major cities in Japan were connected by telegraph. 

Railroad tracks and roads were built creating a modern transportation system throughout the country with over 1,400 miles of track by the year 1890.

They created a constitution with an elected parliament with the first Diet sitting in 1890. 

There was still resistance to these reforms. In 1877, the last samurai holdouts of the old order were defeated in the Satsuma Rebellion, which was depicted in the movie The Last Samurai with Tom Cruise.

While the emperor was in theory the head of the country, in reality, a group of advisors really were the power that ran Japan. 

While many of the changes were a straight adoption of western technology and methods, they also taught and developed a unique Japanese ideology that was nationalistic, based on ancient samurai ethics, which placed the emperor at the head of society, even though in reality, he didn’t wield any actual power.

In 1894, the Japanese fought a war with China over the control of Korea, which they won. 

However, the real test of Japan’s newfound power came in 1904 and 1905 with the Russo-Japanese War. 

No one in Europe really thought that Japan, an Asian power, had a chance in a war against Russia, a European power. But they didn’t just win, they won decisively, raising Japan’s status as a major international player.

The Meiji Period technically ended in 1912 with the death of Emperor Meiji, but the system put in place was continued with the Taish? Emperor, and through to the Sh?wa, aka Emperor Hirohito and World War II. 

It isn’t hard to connect the dots to see how this system of industrialization, militarization, a need for natural resources, and a small group near the emperor controlling the country, led to the events in the second world war. 

However, that is for another episode. 

The Meiji Restoration basically took Japan from a feudal system to becoming a fully industrialized country in just a few decades. A process that took Europe centuries. 

It remained one of the most rapid social and economic transformations that any country has ever undergone.

As a result, Japan was one of the only countries in Asia that was never, not even in part, colonized by any European power.


The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett. 

Today’s review comes from listener Nathaniel Smith over at PodcastRepublic. He writes:

I love this podcast. If you like to learn a little bit about a lot of things, this delivers. My only complaint is the dearth of episodes about places or things outside Europe and America. I’d love to hear about that too. 100% recommended.

Thanks, Nathaniel! Your criticism is actually quite fair. It is something that I have been aware of for quite some time. Most of my episode ideas come from things I read, researching other episodes, and other resources. Given where I live and what language I speak, most of those have a western, and in particular, an American, bent. 

I’ve been making an effort to go out of my way to find other stories outside of North America and Europe. China and India alone have enough to keep me busy for a while.

Remember, if you are a Patreon support, you can directly add suggestions to my running list of episode ideas, and many Patreon supporters have already done that.