Japan’s Transformation Under Meiji Rule Essay

The ascension of Emperor Mutsuhito (Meiji) to the Japanese throne on the third of November 1852 marked the dawn of a revolution for the Japanese people. Mutsuhito, known posthumously as Meiji, literally meaning “Enlightened Rule” served as the figurehead to the Meiji Oligarchy, a privileged ruling class clique formed by powerful Samurai, which reformed and revolutionised Japan, transforming it into a world power within half a century.

The Meiji Oligarchy succeeded the Tokugawa Shogunate, a feudal military dictatorship which had ruled Japan for 256 years. The Meiji leadership revolutionised Japan in response to the “Opening of Japan”, the arrival of the Black Ships, lead by Commodore Mathew Perry of the United States Navy. Under Meiji Restoration, Japan was modernised and revolutionised under the slogan “Enrich the country, strengthen the military” (Fukoku kyohei) and as the slogan suggests, militarism was a key factor in the revolution of Japan.

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Under the authority of the Emperor, the social system was restructured, extensively restructuring Japan’s governance and diminishing the power of the Samurai. The changes were all thanks to the extensive political reform which took place subsequent to the overthrow of the Tokugawa shoganate. Finally, the manner in which education was administered was modernized and offered to all citizens to cement the modernisation of the nation. The most notable area of reform within Japan during Meiji’s reign was the militarisation of its people.

This reform worked in parallel with the Meiji Restorations social reforms, in that the exclusive right to bear arms was stripped from the Samurai class and extended to the wider populace, as outlined in “The Modern History of Japan” . In 1873, 21 years after Meiji’s accession, conscription was introduced mandating compulsory military service for males turning 21 years of age for a four-year term. This was followed by a compulsory three more years in the reserve forces, creating a peacetime force of 26,000.

The ancient, exclusive privilege of a right to bear arms and the claim of status based upon it, was suddenly bestowed upon the entire male peasantry, much to the dismay of the Samurai class, under the government’s proclamation “all are now equal in the empire and without distinction in their duty to serve the nation”. According to The Modern History of Japan; “The conscript army was to be a means by which the government could indoctrinate a rising generation in chosen ideals,” yet initially the Meiji Government struggled to do this.

The Japanese adopted Western methods of combat, hiring numerous Western military personalities to train their newly created soldiers. The army’s main priority was to defend Japan against attacks from abroad, yet it struggled to quell mere peasant revolts at home, the real test however was against the traditionalist Samurai, seemingly mentally ill-equipped to cope with change. Japan spent copious sums of money purchasing the services of gunnery and naval specialists and military trainers with a European manner, with young Meiji himself being fascinated by anything Western.

In response to home-grown formidable military opposition, the rural Samurai, the Japanese government in 1878 increased the conscription period in the reserve forces to nine years, amassing a peacetime force of 73,000 and a total wartime force of in excess of 200,000. In 1894, the government splurged on artillery and arms, equipping the entire military strength with modern rifles, newly of Japanese construct, in addition to the newly developed “gatling gun” – a machine gun of devastating force.

The newly formed Navy also benefited greatly thanks to Meiji’s emphasis on military prowess. In1872 the Japanese navy possessed 17 war ships, by 1900, and there were over 35 warships and 26 torpedo boats. An indicator of the importance of military strength to the Japanese government was that “by the 20th century, one third of government spending was on the army and navy” The militarisation of Japan paved the way for it to become a world superpower and the militarily dominant Eastern nation.

Japan underwent immense social reform, including the abolition of the feudal system and Samurai prestige from the late 1870’s. In addition to the stripping of Samurai rights, those of the Daimyo (literally, “Great Family/Name” ) were also placed at a disadvantage. The Daimyo were the most powerful feudal rulers from the 10th century onwards and often elite Samurai, who were forced to pay increasing tariffs and taxes to the Japanese government.

Many of the ruling members of the Meiji Oligarchy were previously Daimyo and Samurai who wished to limit the prospect of an overthrow by others and ergo promptly sought to limit their power with immense taxation. In 1871 the Japanese government stripped all classes of title and, and claimed their land for redistribution. The authority of these powerful feudal lords and Samurai was replaced by a centralised system of bureaucracy and the previous ruling classes effectively became a portion of the common peasantry.

In 1868 the government seized all land which now fell under Imperial control yet the land temporarily remained under the primary control of the Daimyo for a further three years. Upon the expiry of this term, all Daimyo were officially summoned before the Emperor, where it was proclaimed that the Daimyo’s dominions (approx 320 in total) would be claimed by the Monarchy. The “dominions miraculously became prefectures” and were merged into 75 of these, all accountable and payable to the Emperor, drastically increasing government revenue. Some tried to oppose the change, yet.

Confused, bankrupt and divided by mutual suspicion and ill fate, the daimyos and samurai could put up no effective resistance against government which was now able to command support from all over Japan by championing the now popular concept of “imperial rule” in the face of foreign menace. Thus, the dominions, some of which had existed as effective political units for three or more centuries were wiped out in one bold stroke. Those who dared oppose the reforms were crushed and Samurai military resistance, though fierce and perfectly trained, could no longer oppose the sheer power of Western technology, namely firearms.

Many Daimyo retained considerable influence and power however by working in senior governmental positions and therefore some remained relatively content. Some Samurai accepted this lifestyle, yet many resented the dishonour of the situation, as this was the primary value they had been raised on for centuries. Even the stripping of the right to bear arms in public bore an extreme humiliation, yet the entire process sent shockwaves throughout Japanese society that change was iminent and there was no future in opposition to it.

The social class restrictions which had existed as the status quo for hundreds of years were lifted, pushing Japan further towards democratic and effective governance. It should be noted that the Emperor’s (for the last 350 years) powers were almost non-existent prior to the overthrow of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The members of the Meiji Oligarchy which revolutionised Japan were previously Daimyo’s themselves yet elevated their position through a variety of advantageous reforms.

Their reasons for abolishing social class (as outlined) were to protect their position, ostensibly under the rule of the Emperor, who was a 14 year-old boy at the time of his accession to becoming a divine figure. The most notable political reform was the promulgation of a Japanese Constitution for the first time ever in 1889. It created a bi-cameral legislature called the Diet, with the upper house being comprised of friends and family of the oligarchs, and the lower house was chosen by election, yet all were still completely answerable to the divine Emperor, whose power effectively grew as he did from adolescence.

The government hired and “imported foreign advisors and technology for industrial, commercial and educational purposes,” gradually paving the way for nation wide reform, growth and complete modernization. Migration to Edo drastically rose and it subsequently was renamed “Tokyo” and made imperial capital, which remains to the present day. Through rapid and successful modernisation and political reform, Japan grew into a world power, worthy of consideration as a British ally by the First World War.

In order to secure the considerable changes made over the Meiji Era, education was considered a paramount and essential investment in the future. As outline in “Meiji 1868: Revolution and Counter-revolution in Japan” , a ministry of education was established in 1871, which created a centralised schooling system, heavily influenced by the French, which was established in 1872. Sixteen months of compulsory schooling was institutionalised for children of both genders when attendance stood at 46%, and gradually by 1907 this became six years of mandatory education with attendance at 95% of eligible children.

Along with education being extended to the entire child populace, Confucianism was fazed out in favour of a far more sensible secular education system, with international languages being offered for the first time. The Tokyo University was also established among others, offering medical, legal and commercial training, aimed at aspiring government officials. The reforms offered by the Meiji government left a lasting legacy of qualative education in Japan, an extremely positive reform for the Japanese citizenry.

The rise of the Meiji government in 1852 symbolically marked the beginning of a highly reformative period for the Japanese populace and “Japan had at last, finally achieved the distinction of being modern”. The Meiji government’s “Enlightened Rule” served Japan extremely well, and thrust it into the 20th century. Whereas many would have predicted a time of instability and uncertainty following the overthrow of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the Meiji Oligarchy transformed Japan into a world superpower.

It achieved this through its extensive militarism of Japan and its extensive social reform, including the abolition of the class and feudal system of governance. Revolutionary political reform made this all possible and moved Japan much closer to being a democracy. Finally, extensive beneficial educational reforms secured a future for this modernised society, and heralded freedom of education to all children. The transformation underwent by Japan under the Meiji government equipped it to become a world power and a true modern society with more responsible governance.


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