Meiji Period Japan History

History of Japan - Meiji Period 1868-1912 明治時代

The Meiji Period of Japanese history saw great change in the decades following the decisive defeat of the Tokugawa regime by pro-imperial forces at the Battle of Toba-Fushimi and the short Boshin War that followed as anti-Tokugawa forces pushed up from Kyoto to Edo and beyond. The surrender of the last of the Tokugawa die-hards at Goryokaku Fort in Hakodate in Hokkaido, signaled the end of Tokugawa dominance and the short-lived Republic of Ezo.

With hostilities over, the young Meiji Emperor moved his court from the ancient capital of Kyoto to Edo, which was re-named Tokyo and became the new capital of Japan.

Former Gakushuin Elementary School built in 1899.
Former Gakushuin Elementary School built in Tokyo in 1899 now preserved in Narita, Chiba Prefecture

Meiji Restoration

The so-called Meiji Restoration (Meiji Ishin) ushered in a number of fundamental changes to Japanese society as the new government attempted to modernize and industrialize the country in an attempt to ward off foreign domination, symbolized by the treaty ports of Yokohama and Kobe and the laws of extraterritoriality that applied to foreigners in Japan.

In this period Japan can be said to have changed from early modern (kinsei) to modern (kindai) and the speed of that change was remarked upon by a British observer of the time, Basil Hall Chamberlain: "To have lived through the transition stage of modern Japan makes a man feel preternaturally old; for here he is in modern times.... and yet he can himself distinctly remember the Middle Ages."

This transition was not a revolution as such and much still remained from the previous two hundred and sixty years of the Edo Period. The essence of this transition was centralization, as the new Meiji oligarchs attempted to create a modern nation state with national institutions, rather than a motley collection of feudal domains under the control of their individual lords or daimyo paying allegiance to a shadowy shogun in Edo.

Thus the early Meiji period saw the abolition of the domains and the formation of prefectures, the creation of a modern national army, navy and police force, the beginnings of a national railway and national education system.

A growing industrial sector began to emerge (firstly based on silk production) and the beginnings of an export economy based on the Treaty Ports. Banks, limited companies, newspapers, insurance and company law all first appeared. The four social classes of the Edo era were proscribed, samurai were forced to abandon their swords and cut their top-knots (chonmage). A centralized bureaucracy developed from Tokugawa roots and eventually freedom of religion was guaranteed and a constitution adopted in 1889.

Foreign entrepreneurs and specialists like Thomas Glover in Nagasaki and Lafcadio Hearn in Tokyo arrived to trade and teach.

Soon Japanese people from all walks of life started to adopt and adapt western fashion, entertainments, food, music, sports, literature and even ways of thinking and talking.

Emperor Meiji and his wife, Japan.
The Emperor Meiji 1852-1912 and Empress
Meiji Constitution promulgation, Japan.
Meiji Constitution Promulgation 憲法発布略図

Architecture & Housing in the Meiji Period

In Tokyo and the larger cities new, Western style concrete, stone and brick buildings and bridges were built. These were often designed by foreign architects and the most famous include The Bank of Japan, Ginza Bricktown, The Asakusa Twelve Storeys, Tokyo Central Station and the infamous Rokumeikan. Gas lighting came to the Ginza in 1874 and electricity in 1878. However, it was not until well into the twentieth century that Tokyo began to resemble London, Paris or New York rather than old wooden Edo. Meiji Mura in Aichi Prefecture has collected a number of these historical structures and saved them from demolition.

Eating Habits in the Meiji Period

As for eating habits, the Meiji period saw a wider diffusion of changes in Japanese people's diets begun in Tokugawa times with increases in the consumption of polished rice, tea, fruit, sugar and soy sauce. Dining out in restaurants also became more widespread. With the development of communications and increased social mobility local customs such as eating seafood became national ones over a period of time. Meat eating, though encouraged by such "modernizers" as Fukuzawa Yukichi and spread through army conscription (along with beer) did not become widespread until after World War II in Japan.


An area of great change and modernization during the Meiji era was in the field of education, though the changes owed more to Western ideals than actual Western practice. After the creation of the Mombusho (Education Ministry) in 1871, the Fundamental Code of Education in 1872 provided the design for a nationally unified, government controlled system to provide for elementary and middle schools as well as universities.

Compulsory attendence for all Japanese school children regardless of gender and previous class distinctions was set at four years. This did not become a reality until 1900, however, when education was made free to all citizens. The early emphasis was utilitarian, with knowledge seen as the capital for self-improvement and raising the individual in society. From the 1880s onwards the Mombusho under Mori Arinori began to change education to a more nativist position to serve the interests of the nation.

Thus in the 1890 Rescript on Education teachers became servants of the state, traditional values of loyalty and filial piety were stressed along with devotion to the Emperor and the nation. The Mombusho determined curricula, selected textbooks, prepared examinations, increased the emphasis on morals and decided teaching methods.

Tokyo University was created out of an amalgam of three shogunal schools in 1877 and Kyoto University in 1897. Other private academies included Fukuzawa's Keio, Okuma's Waseda and Niishima Jo's Christian Doshisha University. All these schools employed foreign teachers and were extremely Westernized and through the increase of the teaching of Law, which became a route into government service, Japan gradually became a more meritocratic society.

The Press, the Arts and Sport

Another area of change and modernization in the Meiji Period was the press which grew out of Western initiatives in the treaty ports of Yokohama and Kobe. The development of the early western-style press in Japan was greatly speeded by the modern printing press which replaced wood block printing as well as the arrival of photography. Photography studios opened in Yokohama and attracted a huge demand for portraits and western and later Japanese photographers took this new technology into the hinterland.

Western knowledge and literature was disseminated through a growing range of translations, books and newspaper and magazine articles. Fukuzawa's Seiyo Jijo became a best seller along with Nakamura Keiu's translations of Samuel Smiles' Self Help and J.S. Mill's On Liberty.

By 1890 there were 716 newspapers in print with a circulation over 500,000. Among them were the Tokyo Nichi-nichi Shimbun which published the first Japanese daily editorial and the Yomiuri Shimbun which used furigana to reach out to a popular base.

In literature, authors, such as Natsume Soseki, adopted a more straightforward modern prose and discovered a new interest in the individual, though Meiji writers were not totally reliant on Western conventions and technique.

Oil painting was introduced to Japan in the Meiji Period and practised by Kawakami Togai and Takahashi Yuichi, ironically at a time when Western appreciation of Japanese traditional art was very high. For example, Van Gogh had organised an exhibition of Japanese prints in Arles, which he referred to as "his Japan." Western church, military and public school music also merged with the traditional legacies to create a modern but discernably Japanese style.

New Western sports made their appearance in Japan for the first time, such as baseball, golf, soccer, cricket, rugby, athletics and rowing at such new foreign institutions as the Kobe Regatta and Athletic Club.

Emperor Meiji.
The Emperor Meiji 1852-1912 oversaw great changes in Japanese society during his reign
The Meiji Emperor greets the Second French Military Mission.
The Meiji Emperor greets the Second French Military Mission to Japan in 1872

The Law in the Meiji Era

The law along with the Land Tax Revision was a major contributor to the modernization of Japanese society in the Meiji Period. From the Meiji Restoration to 1900 a national as opposed to a local legal system was adopted. The driving force behind the changes was to win foreign approval of both the code and the administrative machinery to end extraterritoriality in the law as applied to foreigners under the treaties with the Western Powers.

In 1882 a criminal code largely inspired by the Napoleonic model and drawn up under a French adviser, Boissonade, was issued. This ended torture and introduced public trials (though these could be suspended by government order).

A commercial legal code under German influence was fully adopted in 1899. In 1898 a civil code finally emerged after much debate which confirmed individual property ownership and individual rights - kenri - (a new concept in Japan) over feudal obligations.

However traditional, nativist pressure and German absolutist legal theories saw that the new code fitted to conservative practices. Thus "laws were incorporated safeguarding such vital aspects of the family as filial piety, primogeniture, and even the greater subservience of the wife to the husband." The 1889 Constitution also guaranteed certain basic rights but these could be rescinded by government legislative action.

The Japanese Military

Modern History of Japan.

Even though in terms of numbers the armed forces were not a large proportion of Japanese society their modernising impact and influence on other sectors such as education, health and industry were great.

The military was the first to modernize in terms of dress, technology and the hiring of foreign advisers. Conscription and military life were completely foreign to new soldiers. Shoes, trousers, beds, tinned food, bread, beer and cigarettes gradually permeated into society at large. The mixing of recruits from different areas and the rigidity of army life led to the breakdown of many village taboos and customs. Ex- military men often moved into the police and education influencing those sectors in turn.

The Japanese navy spurred the development of heavy industry through the Yokosuka and Tsukiji dockyards as Japan's navy increasingly began to be manufactured domestically, not bought from Britain. The building of the nationwide telegraph system also owed much to military needs as did the development of modern accounting and the growth of "organizational professionalism" - training, certification, conferences and a specialised literature - which spread into the private Japanese business sector.

Meiji Society

By 1900, times had changed, quite literally with the adoption of the Gregorian calendar. The very word for society - shakai - was a new compound. This society, too, had become more complicated so that Japan in 1865 bore little resemblance to the Japan of 1890.

The structural aspects that characterise modernity, a Constitution, a modern army, mass education and the idea of the nation with its associated phenomena: nationalism, the nation state, national symbols and histories were all in place.

Japanese people were both inspired and forced to change their way of life during the Meiji Period. The ancient feeling of belonging to a specific village and a particular ie, though still apparant today, began to give way as Japanese society was influenced by urbanization, capitalism and individualism.

People began to migrate to the towns and cities, even to Hawaii and America. Women slowly began to find jobs not just in silk factories but as telephone operators, in the new department stores and as teachers and doctors. Though women lost some of the rights they held in the pre-modern era, such as the consent of the bride in marriage and their plight was to worsen in the run up to World War II.

A wonderful place to learn much about Meiji society is Meiji Mura near Inuyama in central Japan, which has collected and re-assembled a number of Meiji-era buildings including churches, prisons, post-offices, shops and banks.

The death of the Meiji Emperor.
Mourners pay their respects outside the Imperial Palace in Tokyo after the death of the Meiji Emperor in 1912

Foreign Policy in the Meiji Period

The Meiji Era was also a period of profound change diplomatically for a country that had spent over two centuries ensuring national isolation (sakoku) and the new nation-building was to lead Japan into a period of foreign expansion overseas. Firstly the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War, followed by the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5 allowed Japan a free hand in Korea, which it annexed in 1910.


W.G. Beasley, The Rise of Modern Japan
Basil Hall Chamberlain, Things Japanese
Carol Gluck, Japan's Modern Myths
Eric Hobsbawm, The Invention of Tradition
J-P Lehman, The Roots of Modern Japan
Yanagida Kunio, Japanese Manners & Customs in the Meiji Era

Meiji Mura Video

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