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"Evil Customs of the Past Shall be Broken off": The Meiji Restoration as Revolution

On 3 January 1868, following an edict from the young Emperor Meiji, imperial rule was reasserted in Japan, marking the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate’s nearly three centuries in power. The edict was, in fact, the culmination of fifteen years of reformist agitation led primarily by a clique of lower ranking samurai who believed their education and ability were being wasted by the Tokugawa Shogunate as it attempted to deal with Western encroachment following the arrival of Commodore Mathew Perry in 1853. This small group of men, which included some who would later prove to be influential in modern Japan’s early government such as Saigō Takamori and Kido Takayoshi, essentially led a coup that toppled the existing order. In its place they ruled with the goal of modernizing Japan to compete equally with the West, all in the name of the Emperor. Over the next decade, they rapidly instituted a series of reforms to Japan’s centuries old political, social, and economic systems. However, while these reformers came of age in the Edo (Feudal Shogunate) system, they did not wish to perfect it. Instead, if one examines their instituted reforms during the 1870s, it becomes clear that the goal was a complete overhaul of the political, economic, and social structures of that period. It was, as historian Andrew Gordon correctly terms it, a revolution [1].

The goal of the first series of reforms by the Meiji government was to form a centralized government that united fragmented Japan. In many ways these reforms represented an abandonment of the Edo political system in an attempt to create a fundamentally new structure. In August 1871, at the advice of men such as Kido Koin, the Emperor decreed that all domains were to be abolished. The Daimyo were paid off and ordered to Tokyo while their lands were consolidated and divided into prefectures. This reform represented a complete shift from the Edo political system in several ways. First, the central government now collected taxes from former domain lands. Comparatively, during the Tokugawa period the Shogunate could only generate revenue from lands over which it had direct ownership. Furthermore, the governors of the new prefectures were not only appointed by the Meiji government but could be selected from all ranks, not just the Daimyo. Many of the new governors were, in fact, middling ranked former Samurai.[2] If the objective of this reform had been to perfect the Edo structure, the former domain lords likely would have simply remained with the new title of governor. Instead, the Meiji reformers wished to create a new system where governors answered to the central government which, in turn, had control over all the lands of Japan. This desire to create a political structure distinct from the Tokugawa period can also be seen further in the titles of the early Meiji government’s offices and departments. Many names were reused terms from the Japanese court in the Heian Period, considered the height of imperial court, in an attempt to emphasize the new importance of the restored Emperor in the Meiji period.[3] The centrality of the Emperor, was in itself a reform, and one that also illustrated the Meiji government’s attempt to create a new political order. In 1868, the populace was relatively ambivalent towards the Emperor, who had always been in the background of the Tokugawa political order. In the 1870s and 1880s the Meiji activists placed him in the center not only to give their new system legitimacy but also to act as a unifying force, using the image of the Emperor and Empress to normalize “western” ideas, including the western version of monarchy.[4] As historian Frederick Dickinson puts it, “the founders of Imperial Japan had urged Japanese subjects, through the authoritative voice of the emperor, to follow the trends of the world.”[5] The Emperor had a key role to play in the new Meiji political system, again making it distinct from the earlier Edo period.

While the political reforms of the 1870s led to a new political structure with the Emperor at its center, the Meiji government also instituted social changes that resulted in an overhaul of the regimented system enforced during the Tokugawa era. In 1876, the Meiji government eliminated the status system by ordering all samurai stipends to be converted into bonds. The right to wear swords was limited only to soldiers and police officers. Furthermore, all Edo era travel and occupation restrictions were eliminated. As a result, former landowners, manufacturers, and some merchants under the Tokugawa regime were able to thrive in the more open Meiji order.[6] For example, relaxed travel restrictions allowed businessman and manufacturers access to new markets. Also, the new social mobility available to the samurai, despite the loss of their stipends, allowed the former warriors to move into positions of influence in government or lead groups that advocated for political rights or a constitution.[7] This new relaxation of rigid social status represented a stark change from the strictly hierarchal nature of the Edo period, where mobility was limited and social roles were deemed hereditary. In the Meiji period, social mobility was to be based on merit as stated in the regime’s charter oath, which declared that “the common people, no less than the civil and military officials, shall each be allowed to pursue his own calling so that there may be no discontent.”[8] Through the elimination of the status system, the Meiji reformists turned the charter promise into a reality and created a distinct social system from that of the Edo era.

The rigid social structure of Edo was done further away with through the introduction of compulsory education in 1872 and military conscription in 1873. The edict announcing compulsory education declared that four years of elementary education was required for both boys and girls. Initially based on American and French models, the goal of Meiji education reform eventually turned into opening doors to new opportunities for boys while training girls to raise good Japanese citizens.[9] This emphasis on creation of opportunities realigned with a new social structure based on the ideal of merit, which of course contrasted with that of the Tokugawa period. Aizawa Yasushi, an Edo era thinker for example, feared that equal access to education would lead “stupid commoners” to betray established authorities and forget their place in the hierarchy.[10] Similarly, instituting military conscription also represented the desire by Meiji reformers to create a fundamentally different social order from the previous era. By instituting a draft, military service became, after serious initial resistance, a fact of life for a wide swath of Japanese society. Comparatively, in Tokugawa, military service, and especially military leadership was restricted to the samurai class. Both compulsory education and military conscription represented the fulfillment of a second aspect of the Charter Oath, which declared that “all classes, high and low, shall unite in vigorously carrying out the administration of affairs of state.”[11] With this fulfillment, the Meiji government created a new social order that fundamentally differed from the Tokugawa Era.

Finally, the economic reforms of the early Meiji Regime also represented an abandonment of the Edo order in favor of a new system. Beginning in 1873, the government began taxing the owner of each individual piece of land based on its assessed value. Furthermore, taxes were required to be paid in cash, not in kind as they had during the Tokugawa period. According to Andrew Gordon, the tax reforms of the 1870s were the most significant economic changes of the Meiji regime. It guaranteed a secure revenue for the government and allowed them to invest in infrastructure projects and to support industrial enterprises.[12] The tax reform also represented a significant shift from the Tokugawa economic order. Individuals were now responsible for the paying of taxes, rather than the whole village. As a result, their economic prosperity or failure was now intimately linked to the nation, whereas during the Edo period, it was linked to the village and the Domain. Returning to government investment in the economy, the Meiji government also created many model factories, mines, and railroads in an attempt to spur the economy forward. In 1874, Okubo Toschimichi wrote that, “the volume of goods produced arises partly from the industriousness of the people, but more fundamentally it must depend upon prior guidance and encouragement by the government and its officials.”[13] In other words, it was the responsibility of the government to encourage Japanese merchants and businessmen to risk investment in the new capitalist economy. This high degree of government investment in the economy represented another overturning of the Edo economic order. While Domain led monopolies existed during the Tokugawa Era, the Meiji government’s decision to intervene in the economy was not a legacy of pre-1868 thinking but rather a pragmatic choice made to increase the speed of Japanese economic development in order to catch up with the encroaching Western Powers.[14]

In the 1868 Charter Oath, the Meiji reformers declared that “evil customs of the past shall be broken off and everything based upon the just laws of Nature.”[15] While from an initial reading of this part of the charter one may get the impression the reformers were simply talking about Japan’s traditional customs, it seems that, at least based on their reforms, the political, social, and economic structures of Tokugawa Japan were also evil customs to be done away with. Beginning in 1868, the Meiji government completely overhauled the political system of Edo by abolishing the domain system and elevating the Emperor to the center of a national government. The political system that had lasted for 260 years was done away with almost overnight. They made similar far reaching reforms in the country’s social and economic spheres as well. The status system was abolished for a meritocracy as was a warrior class in favor of a conscript army. In the economic sector, the government reformed taxation while completely altering the relationship between land, the individual, and the government. Doing so, allowed the Meiji reformers to be extremely hands on in terms of investment in the economy. While it can certainly be argued that the decisions taken to completely reform Japan were pragmatic ones made for self-preservation, it cannot be argued that post-reform Japan was simply a perfection of the Tokugawa System. As shown, the Meiji government created a strikingly different system in what can only be called a revolution.



[1] Andrew Gordon, A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present, (New York, Oxford University Press, 2009), 61.

[2] Ibid., 63

[3] Ibid., 63

[4] Ibid., 68

[5] Frederick Dickinson, World War I and the Triumph of New Japan: 1919 – 1930 (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2013) 61.

[6] Gordon, A Modern History of Japan, 63

[7] Ibid., 65.

[8 ]The Charter Oath quoted in Louisa Rubinfien, “The Meiji Restoration,” History 483: History of Japan Since 1800 (class lecture, University of Maryland, College Park, MD, February 13, 2020). Slide 11, the Charter Oath, 1868

[9]Gordon, A Modern History of Japan, 67

[10] Ibid., 67

[11] The Charter Oath quoted in Louisa Rubinfien, “The Meiji Restoration, Week 3B” Slide 11, the Charter Oath, 1868

[12]Gordon, A Modern History of Japan, 70

[13] Quoted in Ibid., 72

[14] Ibid., 72.

[15] The Charter Oath quoted in Louisa Rubinfien, “The Meiji Restoration, Week 3B” Slide 11, the Charter Oath, 1868


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