The Meiji Revolution Research Paper

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1. The Meiji Revolution (1853–77)

Meiji (‘Enlightened Government’) is the era name adopted in 1868 by the new government that overthrew Japan’s previous military government of the Tokugawa shoguns (bakufu) and re-adopted the emperor as the country’s sovereign. Since 1853, when Matthew C. Perry, Commander of the American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan, first put military pressure on Japan to open up its borders to foreign intercourse, the country had been quickly incorporated into the world’s capitalist system. For the small feudal state that Japan had been up to that moment, the problem was to find a way to survive as an independent country and to decide on the type of state that would be able to deal with world capitalism and the international relations of East Asia. The great political and social changes that were the result of the political struggle, which developed around this problem, we shall call here the Meiji Revolution. The year 1877, when the last rebellion of the samurai class was suppressed, we shall consider the year of its completion. The political struggle can be divided into three stages.

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2. The First Stage: The Overthrow of the Bakufu (1853–68)

The bakufu’s authority was greatly damaged by the fact that it had been forced to open up the country to intercourse with foreign powers. In order to stabilize its political foundation, the bakufu asked the daimyo, or feudal lords of Japan, for their opinions and groped towards achieving some kind of consensus among the daimyo class as a whole. On the other hand, it wanted to clarify the legitimacy of its own national government by strengthening its connection with the emperor in Kyoto, who nominally still was Japan’s monarch. Moreover, the bakufu began to employ military drills in the Western style and made a start to build its own navy tutored by naval officers from Holland. However, when the news that a joint English and French squadron which had just defeated China in the Second Opium War was about to visit Japan in 1858, the bakufu buckled under this military pressure to sign treaties allowing free trade with the United States, Holland, Russia, England, and France. What is more, these treaties were unequal treaties in that they included clauses on extraterritoriality and fixed tariffs that denied Japan its legal and tax autonomy. The bakufu sought ratification of the treaties from Emperor Komei, but the emperor refused on the ground that Japan would cease to exist as an independent state if this attitude of acquiescence to the demands of the foreigners were to persist. As a result, the discussion about Japan’s existence as a nation-state became divided between those supporting the bakufu and those backing the position of the emperor.

As a result of the opening, in 1859, of the harbors of Yokohama, Nagasaki, and Hakodate to free trade, Japan was quickly absorbed into the world’s capitalist system. Prices rose precipitously, and the markets of the country were thrown into confusion. Voices denouncing the signing of the treaties and the bakufu’s policy of submission to the foreigners arose not only among the members of the ruling class, but also among well-to-do farmers and merchants, and so became a protest of the Japanese people as a whole. As a result, the bakufu lost confidence in its ability to rule the country. By contrast, the idea of a government that would take a hard line towards the foreigners and make the bakufu cooperate with that effort was gaining in popularity among those supporting Emperor Komei, who continued to refuse to ratify the treaties. Powerful daimyo, who, in their turn, were thinking of taking up the right to govern the country themselves, were also found supporting this idea.

Warriors of the faction that proposed radical military reforms wanted to throw out the foreigners even more badly. They were of the opinion that there was no military advantage to be gained just by superficially adopting Western-style drilling methods, while keeping the old feudal system linking military ranks with family background. They stressed that Japan should aim to modernize its army while engaged in actual battle, and so they wanted to use war to accomplish internal reform. Thus, in June of 1863, radicals from the domain of Choshu first attacked foreign shipping in the Straits of Shimonoseki in order to force the shogun to take military action against the foreigners, for the country’s leadership in such matters was considered to be his responsibility. However, this type of behavior by the radical warriors, which showed no regard for the feudal order, frightened Emperor Komei and the highest officials of his court. They proceeded, in September of 1863, to chase the Choshu warriors from Kyoto with the help of the warriors from the Aizu domain in north-eastern Japan, which traditionally supported the bakufu.

On the other hand, the Great Powers of Europe and the United States, which had concluded treaties with Japan, would not allow a native movement that aimed to break away from world capitalism by military force. Therefore, they decided to complete Japan’s incorporation into the world’s capitalist system by dealing its radical faction some harsh blows. In August of 1863, an English naval squadron attacked the home base of the Satsuma at Kagoshima. Next, in September of 1864, a joint naval force of English, French, American, and Dutch warships attacked the strategic port of Shimonoseki in Choshu. This fief had been declared an ‘Enemy of the Imperial Court’ by Emperor Komei, because its soldiers had entered the capital against his will. Moreover, in November of 1865, the joint naval force of these four nations penetrated Osaka Bay, and obtained from Emperor Komei, through military pressure, the ratification of the treaties. Thus, Satsuma and Choshu both painfully experienced Western military power at first hand. They were, therefore, also the first to understand that, in order to resist foreign pressure, it would be necessary to bundle the power of the entire Japanese people through the establishment of a unified nation-state. They became convinced that, as a first step to accomplish this, they should take immediate and drastic measures to reform their military forces.

In Satsuma, the old system based on lineage was abandoned and a new homogeneous army of samurai warriors established. In Choshu, lower ranking samurai, farmers, and townsmen joined to form an armed militia or shotai. The bakufu, on the other hand, used the opportunity offered by the fact that Choshu had been named an ‘Enemy of the Imperial Court’ and the domain’s defeat at Shimonoseki to try and re-establish its authority. It succeeded in coopting the Court and in destroying the lateral alliance of the powerful daimyo. In 1866, with the sanction of the Emperor, the bakufu organized an expedition to punish Choshu, but the domain had just concluded a military alliance with Satsuma, and with its newly organized militia it was able to defeat the army of the bakufu.

3. The Second Stage: The Restoration of Imperial Rule (1868–1871)

In a coup d’etat of January 1868, samurai from Satsuma, convinced that it would be impossible to establish a strong nation-state under the leadership of the Tokugawa, together with Tosa warriors and members of the Imperial Court, who were concerned with the loss of prestige the Imperial House had suffered because of its recent connection with the bakufu, took over power and established a government based on the restoration of imperial rule (osei fukko). Warriors from Satsuma, Choshu (which had obtained a cancellation of the order declaring it to be an ‘Enemy of the Imperial Court’), and Tosa defeated the bakufu’s forces near Kyoto in the same month. By means of a civil war, which continued until June of 1869, the restoration government was able, with the cooperation from the domains, to eradicate the power of the old bakufu and to seize the lands which had been under its jurisdiction. The Tokugawa family was reduced to nothing more than being one of many daimyo. The restoration government made Emperor Meiji, who had been born in 1852 and had succeeded to the throne after the death of his father Komei in 1866, the country’s new sovereign. Instead of the slogan Sonno joi (‘Revere the Emperor and Expel the Barbarian’) through which it had come to power, the new government now stressed Japan’s national power with a new slogan Bankoku Taiji (‘Holding Out Against All Nations of the World’). Also, in order to obtain support for the new government, the new leaders criticized the autocratic nature of the old bakufu, professed its respect for public opinion, and established a deliberative assembly the members of which were elected by the domains.

During the one-and-a-half-year long civil war, which claimed more than 10,000 lives, the idea that birth should determine social standing was abandoned in the domains of the various daimyo, which also westernized their military forces and accepted the participation of rich farmers and merchants in their local governments. For these men, it was natural to expect that the army of the new Japanese nation-state would consist of the combined military forces of the domains. But to the restoration government, it seemed that trying to take a hard line against the foreign powers in this manner might spiral the power of the local samurai out of control. Conversely, the leaders of the domains attacked the weakness of the government’s foreign policy. The effort to stabilize a hard-line government based on a consensus and with the cooperation of the domains was abandoned. In August of 1871, after several thousand elite warriors from the three domains of Satsuma, Choshu, and Tosa, had gathered in Tokyo, the government took the drastic measure of abolishing the domains and establishing prefectures, saying that ‘The existence of the domains hurts the realization of the Bankoku Taiji policy’.

4. The Third Stage: The Centralized Nation-state (1871–77)

Therefore, the problem of establishing this was felt to be an urgent matter to be accomplished through the cooperation of the three domains mentioned above. These, together with the domain of Hizen, formed the backbone of the new government. In December of the same year, Iwakura Tomomi (the Court), Okubo Toshimichi (Satsuma), and Kido Koin (Choshu) and others were sent as the representatives of the new government on an embassy to the United States and Europe in order to revise the unequal treaties. Saigo Takamori (Satsuma) was the most important man of the caretaker government remaining behind in Japan and he forcefully pursued the legal and institutional reforms that would make the Great Powers agree to a revision of the treaties. In order to accomplish this, the armament factories and the ships built and owned for the sake of modernization by the bakufu and the different domains were brought under government control, students were sent overseas, and many able foreigners were employed. Ten percent of the original assessed income of their former domain was given as personal property to the daimyo, and the courtiers (even those of the lowest ranks) were assured an income at the same level as the former daimyo. The government, however, aimed at building a nationstate on the model of those in Europe and America, which required an enormous outlay of funds. For this reason it did not relieve the tax burden required of the farmers. Also, there was no agreement between the four domains on the question of how to deal with the warrior class. Even though their stipends had been guaranteed, from 1873 an army draft had been started from among all layers of the population in order to be able to suppress internal rebellions. Therefore, it became necessary to face the problem of the position of the samurai in the new society.

When the caretaker government in Japan realized that, is the short term, a revision of the treaties was out of the question, it strengthened its intention to display the energy and prestige of the new Japanese nation-state within East Asia. The Japanese government wanted to assure its prestige in an East Asian world that seemed dominated by continuing concessions to the Great Powers of Europe and the United States since the defeat of the Qing in 1842. It hoped in this way to heighten the prestige of the new nationstate at home and decided it could use the samurai class to project its military power. Already in 1871, during negotiations with the Qing the Japanese had started to build new international relationships in East Asia. When aborigines from Taiwan harmed and killed some inhabitants of the Ryukyu Islands, which traditionally paid tribute to both China and Japan, this was used as an excuse to plan a military expedition to Taiwan. Moreover, the government considered the attitude of Korea, which had refused, since 1868, to negotiate with Japan because its diplomatic form was no longer that used by the Tokugawa bakufu, an affront to its national prestige. For this reason, in August of 1873, the caretaker government decided to send an embassy with the message that it was ready to go to war over this issue. However, the chief ambassador of the delegation that had been sent to Europe and the United States, Iwakura, came back to Japan in September of that year and forcefully opposed this idea. He was supported by that part of the samurai class that was in the process of being transformed into the bureaucracy of the new nationstate.

Because Emperor Meiji cancelled the decision to send the embassy, Saigo and Eto Shinpei (Hizen), who had been the main members of the caretaker government, resigned from the government. The Satsuma and Tosa warriors, who were living in Tokyo as part of the Imperial Household guards, seceded from this force, and in February of 1874 the samurai of Hizen rebelled under the leadership of Eto. The Meiji government, now mainly led by Iwakura and Okubo, used the warships it had collected and the newly installed nationwide telegraph network to the maximum extent possible and subdued the insurrection within a short time, thus preventing it from spreading. However, in order to win over the armed forces and its officer corps, which both still mainly consisted of samurai, the government proceeded with the invasion of Taiwan in April 1874. Ignoring China’s protest that this was an infringement of its national sovereignty and showing its readiness to go to war with the Qing, the government showed that it was able to take a hard line. When the Qing recognized, at the very last moment in October 1874, that the Taiwan expedition had been a ‘heroic act,’ the Japanese leadership learned it need not respect the power of the Qing. On the other hand, from the attitude China had taken on the Taiwan issue, it was possible to forecast that, in case of a Japanese dispute with Korea, the Qing, even though it was officially Korea’s suzerain, would not come to its rescue. Moreover, it was becoming clear that if Japan engaged in military ventures in East Asia the Western powers were likely to remain neutral.

On the national level, this success earned the government the loyalty of its officer corps, and, across the board, the pace towards a system of general conscription was accelerated in order to prepare for war. For the first time, it seemed possible to replace the samurai class and establish bureaucratic control over the army. In February 1876, Japan imposed, through military force, an unequal treaty on Korea, which had kept itself isolated in a manner similar to Japan before Perry’s arrival. Also, with the treaty concluded with Russia in May 1875 by which Sachalin was exchanged for the Kuril islands, the government succeeded in solving a border dispute, which had existed since the last years of the eighteenth century.

So between 1874 and 1876, the Meiji government gave permanent shape to Japan’s borders and reorganized its international relations with East Asia. In this way, it put an end to the general feeling among the population of Japan, existing since the 1840s, that the state was in a crisis which might lead to its dissolution. The only problem left was the revision of the unequal treaties with the Great Powers of Europe and the United States.

With the national prestige the government harvested from these developments, it decided to embark on some radical internal reforms. These reforms were meant to create the conditions necessary to establish capitalism in Japan, which, in turn, would enable the country to respond adequately to world capitalism. One of these conditions was to revise the land tax and to establish the right to private ownership of land without diminishing the national tax income as a whole, and the government meant to accomplish this within 1876. Another was to convert the stipends of the former daimyo, the courtiers, and the samurai into government bonds (August 1876). This latter reform was no rejection of feudalism, but rather a decision to change it into a tool for the adoption of capitalism.

The land tax reform called forth a movement that opposed the fixation of the taxes at the high levels of feudalism. This opposition was led by rich farmers, and peasant rebellions exploded, one after another, in virtually all regions of Japan. At the same time, from October 1876, a revolt by samurai broke out which reached its peak with the Satsuma rebellion of February 1877. In January of that year, therefore, the government lowered the land tax from 3 percent to 2.5 percent of the land value and also diminished the local taxes. This drove a wedge between the peasant movement and the samurai rebellion and allowed the government, after a violent struggle lasting eight months, to defeat, with its conscription army of 60,000 men, the 40,000 samurai of Satsuma. As a result, the movement to incorporate the samurai class into the structure of the nation-state was extinguished and the power of the new state was no longer challenged. However, after its defeat, the samurai class held the government to its original promise to respect public opinion and it became the foremost power in the struggle for the opening of the National Diet to all classes of Japanese society. In this struggle, the samurai, allied with the rich farmers and merchants who stressed that there could be no taxation without representation, opposed the increasingly authoritarian Meiji government. And so the struggle, which had centered on the manner in which national power was to be wielded, now transformed itself into one for democratic rights for everyone.

5. Historiography of the Meiji Revolution

These events were, until the second decade of the twentieth century, considered to be the epochal restoration of direct imperial rule, accomplished by the imperial house with the reverent support of the Japanese people. When Japanese capitalism reached a dead end during the 1920s, with its repressive system at home and its increasingly aggressive policies abroad, Japanese social scientists, and Marxists in particular, started to link the unholy trinity of monopoly capital dominating the country’s political system, its halffeudal land ownership, and its imperially indoctrinated army and bureaucratic leadership with these events that were now known as the Meiji Restoration. This train of thought divided itself into two schools, one maintaining that the Meiji Restoration was an incomplete bourgeois revolution, and the other that it was nothing but the establishment of absolutism. After World War II, and especially during the 1960s, the pre-war interpretations were considered to be flawed because they neglected the concrete facts of the international situation around Japan at the time of the revolution and had been narrowly focused on the events as one stage in the development of the Japanese nation by itself. According to this thinking, foreign pressure in the middle of the nineteenth century forced the realization that if Japan wanted to keep its independence, it needed to cooperate in achieving a thorough overhaul of the state. Because a bourgeois revolution was not necessarily an indispensable ingredient for the success of the capitalist system transplanted to Japan in the second half of the nineteenth century, the revolution compromised and merged with the feudal elements of Japanese society. However, today the positions are divided as follows. One group of historians stresses the fact that the transition to modern society was comparatively easy because of the high levels of social and economic development in Japanese society during the second half of the Edo period (1600–1867). Another group of historians considers the Meiji Restoration a popular or a nationalist revolution, ignoring such problems as feudalism, class, and the status of power holders. While recognizing a certain level of development in pre-modern Japan, a third group maintains that the Meiji Restoration was the formation of a centralized imperial state, which aimed to establish capitalism on a basis of support for the old nobility and the daimyo class of Tokugawa society. During this process of introducing world capitalism into Japan, the state itself went through several transformations.

6. Issues of the Debate on the Meiji Revolution

The Meiji Revolution presents, by its very nature, a complicated problem. On the one hand, it should be called a ‘restoration of imperial rule’ because of the efforts that were made to revive the structure of the imperial state that had centralized power in Japan more than 1,200 years earlier. Until 1945, the position of the emperor as the supreme wielder of power in the modern Japanese state seemed to be fixed, and this in itself continued to confront and suppress all political thought stressing the sovereignty of the Japanese people. On the other hand, in the sense that the feudal state made up of shogun and daimyo, which had existed for more than 260 years, was destroyed, it can be called a sort of revolution. This Asian-style nationstate, which had existed since the beginning of the seventeenth century, could not have gradually reorganized and modernized itself from above without the overwhelming military and economic pressures from world capitalism of the second half of the nineteenth century.

In Japan, the men responsible for these revolutionary changes did not come from the bourgeoisie as in the case of Western-style revolutions. During Japan’s closed-country policy, a new class of rich farmers and merchants had, to a certain degree, emerged with the formation of a national market that involved the whole country, but not the outside world. Their nationalism formed the basis of and fueled the changes that took place. However, the leaders of the Meiji period were a group of men, who had their roots in the warrior class and had changed themselves into a literary and military bureaucracy while treating the state as their private property. By 1877, they had gained complete control of the Japanese state with the emperor at its head. However, without the support of the rich farmers, merchants, and ex-samurai, political and social stability still eluded them. This had to wait until the 1890s when a constitution had been put in place and a parliament was established so that other groups might have some say in the running of the government. In the very broadest sense, Japan’s Meiji Revolution ranks with Germany, Italy, and Russia as one of the latecomers in the drive towards modernization. Further generalizing seems to be meaningless, and this author would like to stress that the revolution creating a nation-state in response to foreign pressure was probably the result of the specific circumstances existing in the second half of the nineteenth century in East Asia.


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