Colin Barker


Origins and Significance of the Meiji Restoration



Japan is today the world’s third largest industrial power, measured in terms of gross national product. Yet, in the mid-19th century, the Japanese economy was at a level not dissimilar to that in England under the later Tudors. The story of Japanese industrial growth is quite spectacular.

The present notes do not deal with the whole history of industrialising Japan. What is dealt with here is just one problem: the “political revolution” of 1868 through which Japan was converted from a “traditional” to a “modern” state. That process is, I hope, sufficiently interesting to merit consideration in its own right. I have quoted extensively and shamelessly from other authors.

I hope some time to add one additional section, dealing at least briefly with the consequences for Japanese development of the peculiar form of its “revolution from above”. In the meantime, anyone interested is recommended in particular to look at Ellen Kay Trimberger, Revolution From Above, especially pp.105-138, or at the article by the same author.

The bibliography at the end lists the sources I have used, in each case indicating – if the item is available within the Polytechnic library system – where it may be obtained.

This handout was produced in a great rush, and no doubt suffers from the circumstances of its production. Any comments, queries, criticisms and the like will be more than welcomed by

Colin Barker
Department of Social Science, Manchester Polytechnic
1 February 1982


Postscript (1991). Over the years since this paper was originally drafted, there has been a tremendous amount of new material published in English, as Japanese studies have – very properly – expanded. There is a good listing of recent work in the Bibliography to the recent book by Janet E. Hunter: The Emergence of Modern Japan: An Introductory History since 1853 (Longman 1989). There is a very useful theoretical and comparative discussion of some of the issues posed by the Meiji Restoration in Alex Callinicos, Bourgeois revolutions and historical materialism, International Socialism 43, June 1989. Also of interest is Germaine A. Hoston, Marxism and the Crisis of Development in Pre-war Japan, Princeton University Press, 1986

Postscript (2001). The volume of materials appearing over the past ten years has been tremendous. I have not managed to keep up with them. But any modern reader should look out for the multi-volumed Cambridge History of Japan, which contains large amounts of really excellent materials.

Colin Barker
Department of Sociology, Manchester Metropolitan University
Feb 2001


Last updated on 28.2.2002