Colin Barker


Origins and Significance of the Meiji Restoration


The Meiji Restoration

From 1866, leading officials from the “outer” han of Choshu and Satsuma especially began to put together an alliance which involved officials from a few other han and a group of nobles at the imperial court. Choshu and Satsuma had been developing their relationships with the western powers, particularly Britain, and using these contacts to strengthen and modernise their armed forces. In these and other han, vigorous new leaderships had arisen, sometimes out of young men who had survived the experience of “extremism” and now developed a new orientation to the problems of Japanese politics. Their nominal lords, the daimyo, “were to remain fairly conservative in their thinking about the future” but “their activist agents and officers were moving towards the abolition of the shogunate and the creation of a new government under the emperor” (Hall, 1970, p.262)

The situation moved towards a climax with two events in early 1867. The emperor died, to be succeeded by his fourteen-year-old son. And the former regent to the shogun, Tokugawa Yoshunobu (or Keiki) succeeded to the shogunal office. These changes at the top served to bring political agitation to its conclusion. The new shogun made a last-ditch effort at internal reform, backed by the French. Some of the daimyo tried to work out a new form of conservative coalition, whose aim was to preserve the shogunate together with their own positions, but in much closer association with the imperial court. To this end one of them, the lord of Tosa, persuaded Keiki, the shogun, to resign in favour of a council of daimyo working together under the emperor, a council in which the Tokugawa head of house would retain his powers and lands. The Shogun, in acceding, effectively brought about an “imperial restoration” of a sort.

But the solution was unacceptable to the radical samurai officers of Choshu and Satsuma, and their allies in court. They were determined to strip the Tokugawa clan of its powers and material possessions, and to take the political initiative themselves. They moved warriors into the imperial capital at Kyoto, and seized power on 3rd January 1868 through an attack on the shogunal palace. Keiki himself was probably disposed to accept the situation, but his clan henchmen insisted on a trial of arms. The ensuing civil war was brief and decisive. The armies of the Shogun met those of Choshu and Satsuma later in January 1868. Two and a half centuries before, at the battle of Segikhara in 1600, Keiki’s ancestor, Tokugawa Ieyasu, had crushed the western feudal lords and established the supremacy of the Tokugawa shogunate. Now, after a three-day battle, the situation was reversed. And, as in 1600, the battle was in large part won and lost through treachery: a substantial section of the Tokugawa forces changed sides. Keiki surrendered at Edo, and went off into exile.

Thus a new regime was established, an empire without a Shogun. The new government soon had control of the whole country. The imperial capital was moved from Kyoto to Edo, where the emperor took over the old shogunal palace. Edo was renamed Tokyo (“Eastern Capital”). The new regime was given a “period name” which would also be the name of the young emperor: Meiji. Thus was the Tokugawa shogunate replaced by the “Meiji Restoration”.



Consolidating the New Regime

The process by which the old Tokugawa regime was overthrown was, by comparison with other revolutionary overturns, a relatively simple matter:

Most of Japan, divided into units that were either too small or too indecisive to take effective action, simply stood by and watched, while a small group of dynamic young samurai, many of humble birth, seized control of the han governments of Satsuma and Choshu, then with the connivance of a few friendly nobles won control of the court, and finally, through daring use of the military power of Satsuma and Choshu, won mastery over the whole nation. (Fairbank, Reischauer, Craig, p.226)

The real problems were to follow the seizure of power. It is by no means clear that, beyond a fairly general commitment to “modernisation” of Japanese society, the group of young samurai who now effectively ruled Japan knew what they were then going to do. As events would prove, they were themselves not united in their aims. Rather, as they gradually strengthened their power over the next decade, they were to clarify their goals. Between 1868 and 1877 the Meiji revolution went through a series of step-by-step, incremental policy changes; in the process, a new kind of Japanese polity emerged. In the course of this evolution, the victors in the new regime would more than once have to employ the state’s ultimate resource, armed force, to secure their position.

One of the first steps taken by the new rulers was to have the young emperor issue a “Five Articles Oath” (often referred to in English as the “Charter Oath”). This was drafted by the young samurai, and promulgated from the throne on 6 April 1868:

The Five Articles Oath of 1868

1. Deliberative assemblies shall be widely established and all matters decided by public discussion.

2. All classes, high and low, shall unite in vigorously carrying out the administration of affairs of state.

3. 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.

4. Evil customs of the past shall be broken off and everything based upon the just laws of nature.

5. Knowledge shall be sought throughout the world so as to strengthen the foundations of imperial rule.

Of the five clauses, the first represented not a guarantee to establish a parliamentary form of government, but rather a general promise to significant forces in Japan – probably the ambitious samurai of other han in particular – that they would not be excluded from the new regime. The second and third were more radical in their implications, for they pointed to the abolition of the Tokugawa status-class system. The fourth was vague, but suggested major changes in the form of rule. The last was probably the most important of all, for it signalled an orientation towards the development and strengthening of Japan through the use of western knowledge – and thus a repudiation of the former radical samurai aspirations to “expel the barbarians”.

Although the han officials from Satsuma, Choshu, Tosa and Hizen who had assumed power were to proceed towards the destruction of the old system of power, they moved cautiously, one step at a time. Initially, they established a form of government around the emperor in which daimyo played the public roles, while the real formulation of policy went on behind the scenes. Only gradually did they emerge from careful obscurity to take on top offices. It was only after a year and a half that the real government of Japan emerged to declare itself as such.

An oligarchy was beginning to take shape, composed at this time (August 1869) of somewhat less than twenty men drawn almost evenly from the court and the four main han, though behind them in the lower ranks of the central government there was a great preponderance of men from Satsuma and Choshu. Hence Japanese have referred to this as the “han clique” (hambatsu) government. (Hall, 1970, p.275)

And, while in practice the measures which the new government was to push through amounted to a “revolution from above”, many of the measures were framed and announced, not in the name of novelty but in the name of the revival of traditions from the dim pre-shogunate past.

The old order was attacked in the name of a transcendent and still more ancient sanction which was moreover supremely “Japanese”. Japan’s initial reaction to the western impact was taken in the name of a “return to the past” (fukko). To this extent a “restoration” had taken place. (Hall, 1970, p.265)

Potential resistance to the new regime was contained in two ways. First, while the old han governments were disrupted and had their powers transferred to the new central government (see below), the new system opened up all manner of opportunities for able and ambitious men among the former samurai and village officials. For the more energetic among the samurai, the new regime provided opportunities for the realisation of the old samurai demand for recognition of “merit”, by opening new channels of mobility. And, in line with the first of the classes of the Charter Oath, new local assemblies were established, to act as a series of “safety valves” which could absorb the energies of large numbers of politically ambitious individuals, while preserving the real power of the centre.

In 1871 the government encouraged the establishments of Consultative Assemblies (Kaigi) at the lower levels of government within the new prefectures. In most parts of the country these came into being quickly at the village, district and prefectural levels. Village assemblies thus became a repository for men of local influence (generally former village heads) who might otherwise be deprived of any status. District assemblies were drawn from the membership of village assemblies, and prefectural assemblies were formed by representation from the districts. These groups served both as bodies for the voicing of political ideas and also as agencies through which the government was able to secure backing for its more controversial reforms in land ownership and taxation. Since the assemblies were given powers of debate only, they did little to impede the course of policy determined from Tokyo. (Hall, 1970, p.277)

The consolidation of central government required the abolition of the old han governments and the dispossession of the old powers of the various daimyo. The ruling samurai clique moved a step at a time to destroy the remnants of provincial autonomy and to abrogate the traditional aristocracy. First, the lands of the defeated Tokugawa – amounting to a quarter of Japan – were placed under central control, and reorganised not as old-style han but as prefectures of the government. The other lords did not see this as a threat, for it seemed that the emperor was becoming his own Shogun. In 1869, after first ensuring that the regiments drawn from Satsuma and Choshu were strong enough to form an imperial army, the ruling samurai persuaded the daimyo of the four principal coalition han – Satsuma, Choshu, Tosa and Hizen – to “return” to the emperor the titles to their domains. To ease the blow, the former daimyo were immediately reappointed “governors” of their former territories. Thereby the former “fiefs” were in effect abolished, in the name of “tradition”. Other daimyo were induced to follow suit. Those who did not volunteer the surrender of their domains were then ordered to do so. Two years later, after careful preparation, the final move was made: the ex-daimyo were summoned to the emperor’s presence and baldly informed that by imperial decree the former han were now abolished. The old domains were replaced by imperial prefectures, under newly appointed governors. The former daimyo were pensioned off, their han and their armies abolished, their former castle headquarters confiscated by the government. The existing 305 units of local administration were then reduced by merger to 75, all under centrally-appointed governors. Thus the top layer of the aristocracy, and the former basis of its rule, were summarily abolished.

By European standards, the destruction of the old nobility was an extraordinarily simple operation, conducted with a minimum of resistance by the old “feudal” lords. The ease of the transition from the former Baku-han state system to a modern, central government in which the new oligarchy was in full command seems to have been due to several inter-related factors.

First, there was the method by which the new ruling clique proceeded. Each step towards the abolition of the han was taken slowly, and without any explicitness about what was to follow. Hence every step became harder to resist. Second, the first steps – persuading the four “outer” daimyo to surrender their domains to the emperor – were possible because these daimyo believed that they would thereby reduce the fears in Japan of a new Shogun emerging out of the defeat of the Tokugawa. Third, the deal offered to the former daimyo was not very difficult to refuse. “There were no guillotines awaiting the dispossessed daimyo, rather they received generous financial settlements at the same time that they were freed from the burdens of office.” (Hall 1970, p.272). Even the old han debts, and the old paper currencies they had issued, were taken over and absorbed by the new regime. They were given government bonds in return for their former domains, enabling some of them over the succeeding years to make the transition from territorial to financial magnates. Fourth, despite the grandeur of their titles, the daimyo had in a real sense become figureheads of their han governments. Fifth, the very fact that they were not “feudal lords” on the European model made the transition much easier: they had no intimate ties of property and management with the lands of their domains, over which the power they and their servants had exercised was more of a “tributary” than a “feudal” character. The shock of the transition was thus not half as great as it would have been for the English, French or Prussian aristocracies, among whom the relationship with land was much more direct and intimate. In any case, at every stage in the process of dispossessing the daimyo the government did not act until it was sure of deploying sufficient military force to carry the day, a point that will not have gone unnoticed by the daimyo as they meekly surrendered their previous powers, domains and offices. In return, the government ensured an easy material transition for them – even the former Shogun, Tokugawa Keiki, was given a comfortable financial settlement and made a prince in 1903 – and it was thus able to draw on the ideology of imperial loyalty in a situation of national crisis to ensure their submission.

To the former daimyo, the government assigned one-tenth of their former han revenues as private income. In reality, this made them better off financially than they had been before, for as well as wiping out their debts and assuming all the costs of local government, the state also took over their responsibility for paying samurai stipends.

The class of samurai as a whole did much worse out of the reform process than their former lords. Their stipends were cut by 50 per cent or more. A large part of the samurai found themselves in a much worsened financial situation. Later in the decade, the state was to reduce its compensations to the samurai still further, provoking revolts.

In paying off the daimyo and samurai as generously as it did, the government ensured a form of relative stability within the process of social and political transformation. The Japan it was moving towards “modernising” had a noble class of some 1,900,000 – about ten times, in the proportional terms, the size of the privileged classes in France at the time of the 1789 Revolution. It would have been no easy task to dispossess such a large class, who had monopolised both the martial arts and political leadership in Japan for centuries, without any form of compensation. Certainly no such thing could have been achieved without turning the “Meiji Restoration” into a very different kind of revolution, in which the mass of the population were mobilised into radical action. The new rulers therefore were bound to tread carefully, and to treat the abolition of privilege with great caution.

Yet, at the same time, the level of compensation they assumed created major financial difficulties for the new regime. A financial and fiscal reconstruction became a vital necessity, and thus a further step towards “modernisation”. A small amount of foreign borrowing was arranged: £930,000 at nine per cent interest was raised in London in 1869 to finance a railway from Tokyo to the nearby port of Yokohama; in 1872 a loan of £2.7 millions was raised to help cover the government’s financial obligations after taking over the management and costs of the provinces. But the Japanese government was anxious not to fall into financial dependence on the west, and this method was not used again. A second source of finance was the traditional Tokugawa one of forced loans from the great merchant houses. In 1868, out of total government receipts of less than 9,000,000 yen, some 3,838,000 was raised in this manner. Some writers (e.g. E.H. Norman) make much of this merchant financing of the new government, seeing in it evidence of the “bourgeois” character of the Meiji revolution:

Less dramatic than the political and military exploits of the samurai, but more far-reaching in accomplishing both the overthrow of the Bakufu and the stabilisation of the new regime, was the financial support of the great chonin (merchants), especially of Osaka, where it is said that 70 per cent of Japan’s wealth was concentrated. According to Professor Honjo, the decisive battles in the war for the Restoration were fought and won with funds supplied by the chonin. The official record of the House of Mitsui says, “The loans required for the military operations of the Imperial forces were largely furnished by the House of Mitsui.”

What is even more important, the new regime... could not have extricated itself from its financial plight and begun the gigantic task of reconstruction but for the contributions and loans of such great merchants as the Mitsui, Konoike, Ikasaki, Ono and Shimoda ... The Meiji Restoration then was the outcome of this coalition of merchant class with lower samurai ... (E.H. Norman, pp.49-50)

Barrington Moore Jr. too sees the Meiji Restoration in “class-instrumentalist” terms. But, as we shall see, this kind of analysis really does not fit the situation in Japan. That the merchants sought to win the favour of the new government seems undeniable, but to treat of the relation between them and the ruling group of samurai as a “coalition” implies a more active political role for the merchants than the evidence warrants: “The merchants ... acquiesced in making the loans and in some cases added additional gifts of money, but it never occurred to them to dictate basic government policy.” (Fairbank, Reischauer and Craig, p.234)

In any case, as well as a reconstruction of governmental financial mechanisms and the currency, fiscal arrangements needed a thorough-going reform. In July 1873 a revision of the agricultural tax system inherited from the Tokugawa was begun. The land tax that was introduced was to provide the major source of government revenue: as late as 1880 it still provided four-fifths of all tax income. The state was unwilling to impose significant taxes on trade and industry, for it was looking to their growth to meet the foreign economic threat. Tariffs on foreign trade were relatively insignificant as a source of revenue, for under the “unequal treaties” the shogunate had signed with the western powers import and export taxes were limited to five per cent ad valorem – and the agreements had saddled the regime with the costs of building lighthouses and providing buoys and lightships at the trading ports.

What the state needed was “a unified system of taxation – a tax that was easy to collect and difficult to evade, and above all a tax that would not fluctuate according to the harvest” (E.H. Norman, p.140). But the development of such a tax implied the reconstruction of rural relationships, a “land reform”. The Japanese land settlement, Hall (1970, p.278) suggests, is sometimes compared with the freeing of the serfs in Tsarist Russia a decade earlier. In reality, the measure was inspired by different motives, took a different form, and had different consequences from that in Russia. The Japanese motive for reform was fiscal, not social. In order to alter and improve the basis of tax revenues, the ownership of land had to be placed on a new legal footing. Land reform was thus preliminary to tax reform.

Previously, agricultural taxes had been calculated as percentages of agricultural yields. Variations in the harvest meant unpredictability in tax revenues and therefore in state budgeting. In 1873, therefore, taxes were recalculated, at fixed levels, as a charge not on harvests but on land values. The initial level was set at three per cent of land value (roughly half its theoretical productivity) but when this proved too disruptive and dangerous it was lowered in 1876 (?) to two and a half per cent.

As a preliminary to collecting this new tax, however, the ownership of land had first to be established. The government issued “certificates of landed property” to individual landowners. All previous communal and pre-capitalist forms of land-holding were thereby abolished, and private property in land was established, together with the legal right of sale and purchase of land. Under the new law, the man paying the tax – whether as independent cultivator or as landlord whose fields were worked by tenants – was the landowner. The law thus effectively legitimised the situation which had developed in the Japanese village during the Tokugawa period, through which a commercialising agriculture had given rise to a class of peasant landlords who received rent for their land from tenants. What had been strictly illegal, but widely practised before the Meiji Restoration, now became the legal basis of agriculture in Japan.

Even this “modernisation” of rural land-holding was carried out in part under the flag of a “restoration” of ancient ways.

... when the “certificates of landed property” were issued after 1871, the administrators were aiming at restoring imperial taxes; their only purpose was to secure regular revenue for central government finances. The 1873 law was entitled “Reform of the Tax on Land” and not ... “Introduction of Land Tax” or “Abolition of Dues”. In the jurists’ minds, taxes and dues went hand in glove. The dues, misappropriated by the usurpers, had to be brought back into taxes. Men, therefore, had a revival in mind in the early years of Meiji, and not an innovation as we might think today. The movement forward was made by referring to the past. (Akamatsu, p.300)

What was totally new was the payment of all taxes in money and not in kind.

The legal reorganisation of landed property brought in its train a series of developments in rural relations. While the overall tax level was no higher than in the later Tokugawa period, the fixed, cash form of tax meant that the producer was no longer cushioned during years of poor harvest as he had been. In the past, the lords’ policy – that the peasants should have “just enough to live on and no more” – meant in practice that their tax exactions were reduced in bad years. Now that paternalistic variation was gone.

... the peasants were now freed from the oppressive bondage of feudalism and at the same time deprived of the “paternal” consideration of their lord whose problem it was to see “that they neither died nor lived”. In the new society they were free to choose their own fate; to live or die, to remain on the land or sell out and go to the city. In this way the majority of the rural population, while released from the tyranny of feudalism, were not at the same time accorded state protection in the same way as were the landlords by the guarantee of the right to private ownership of land. (Norman, p.143)

Those who could not pay their taxes, thanks to the vicissitudes of nature (storms, blight, crop failure) or of the market (fall in the price of rice) had either to accept the confiscation and sale of their land, or to have recourse to the money-lenders and thus to enter on the treadmill of interest payments which might at any time end in fore-closure. The need for money to pay taxes pushed the peasant away from self-sufficiency toward market production, yet without the resources of the landowner who could store his rice in granaries while the price-level improved. The peasant cultivating his own land thus entered a new world of risks. The tenant, on the other hand, might pay his rent in either cash or kind (mostly the latter in the early period) to the landowner, who paid part of the rent over to the state as taxes and pocketed the rest as plain profit. Thus the effect of the revision in land tax was to hurry along the already evident tendency towards the dispossession of the small peasantry and the parallel concentration of land into the hands of the landlord class. The most rapid development of these two inter-connected tendencies was seen in the 1880s. The Meiji land reform promoted both peasant discontent and a sharpening of rural stratification divisions, as peasant farming was more and more displaced by landlord-tenant relations.

In line with the general aim of “modernisation” the regime moved to abolish the legal basis of the former status-class system. All occupations were declared open to all citizens of the Japanese empire. Where previously only samurai might bear family names, now these were also available to former commoners. Freedom of marriage was introduced, and restrictions on dress and hairstyle were abolished. The wearing of swords by samurai was declared optional. As the regime became more secure, and its armed forces were reorganised, it began to cut the cost of its support to the lesser members of the old noble class. In 1873 all stipends were declared subject to taxation, on a sliding scale. In 1874 samurai were given the option of commuting their stipends into government bonds, or selling them for cash; in 1876 all remaining stipends were ordered to be thus commuted. In this way the state reduced the cost of its remuneration to the former samurai to one-tenth of what it had been. The outcome was the financial destruction of the samurai. A small minority turned their government money into capital to invest in business, but the majority – having little talent or training for the new commercialising official world of Japan – saw their money wiped out in a relatively short time. They sank into penury – or died in the last revolts of the samurai (below).

Perhaps the worst blow to the samurai as a class was the government’s law introducing conscription for the army and navy. The former military caste thus lost its special access to its main occupation. Under the 1873 law, all males at age 21 were placed on the conscript registers and made liable for three years’ service, plus an additional six years in the reserves. The conscription law was, in its implications, probably the most revolutionary of all the measures carried through by the young Meiji bureaucrats:

For almost three centuries commoners had been denied the right even to possess swords. The whole division of classes had depended on this clear functional division between them and the samurai. Now the weaponless peasant masses suddenly became the foundation of a greatly expanded and entirely centralised and modernised military system. Naturally it took several years to put universal conscription fully into effect, but as it gradually became a reality the new government established firm control over the whole country. (Fairbank, Reischauer and Craig, pp.237-8)

Within a few years, through a series of new legal enactments, the young Meiji bureaucrats had placed Japanese society on a new basis. The whole process of creating a modern nation of equal citizens, with all (or most) previous privileges abolished, in which land – still the basis of most people’s livelihood – was converted into taxable private property, and where every young man must serve a period in the armed forces, was achieved remarkably swiftly. The process, naturally, threw Japanese society into turmoil. Some men from every class seized the opportunities to forge ahead in business and the professions, but millions found the transition exceptionally difficult.

Many of the merchant companies, accustomed to close and profitable dependence on the daimyo and the han governments, as bankers and purveyors, could not adjust to the new conditions and went bankrupt.

The peasants seethed with discontent. To gain equal civil status with the samurai was no real gain, while the legal rights granted to the landlord-peasants were seen as state theft of the land. The fixed monetary tax, and conscription, were hated and feared. Conscription was officially termed a “blood tax “ – a phrase that frightened the peasants, among whom the rumour spread that the blood of young male conscripts would be sold to foreigners. Peasant uprisings, which had anyway more than doubled during the 1860s, became still more frequent after 1868, rising to a crescendo after the Conscription Law of 1873. But the government’s new military forces – peasant sons in uniform – put them down, and the rural dangers to the regime subsided, especially after the 1876 cut of a half per cent in the tax level.

Peasant revolts were, in any case, a phenomenon with which the ruling classes of Japan had long become familiar. Much more threatening was unrest among the former samurai. The leaders in Tokyo, themselves drawn from this class, continually expressed their concern about the plight of their former fellows. Efforts were made to open up the island of Hokkaido to give them land, and as many as possible were absorbed into the expanding government service and into government-sponsored industries as both foremen and labourers.

The issue of the future of the former samurai provoked a split among the ruling group. Those who were more traditionally inclined saw a possible solution to the problems of samurai redundancy through the enlargement of the army and its use in foreign wars. In particular, the idea of a war against Korea gained widespread favour, winning support from within the small ruling group. The idea of this military enterprise appealed especially to those who looked to a strengthening of the traditional martial virtues, now threatened by the new modernising Japan. For others in the new leadership, the idea of a Korean expedition was an anathema: it would slow down the destruction of the old class system, divert to war resources which were urgently needed for industrialisation, and generally hold back the process of modernisation. It was not, as the modernisers said, that they were opposed to the idea of Japanese overseas expansion in principle – but the time was not yet ripe. This group managed to carry the day, and the Korean adventure was called off. A section of the leadership resigned in disgust, retiring to their former han to brood.

Between 1873 and 1877 there were four rebellions led by former samurai, and numbers of assassination attempts, some successful and some not. The most dangerous, and the last of these rebellions was that led by Saigo Takamori of Satsuma, one of the key leaders of the Meiji revolution who had resigned in 1873. In the battles of the Satsuma rebellion, 13,000 were killed and 24,000 wounded. (Though, as Trimberger notes, the level of violent deaths was far lower than for example in the French Revolution: 400,000 were killed in the Vendée, reaction in France, and more than 700,000 Frenchmen alone were killed in the foreign wars of 1792-1800.) The Satsuma rebellion was put down by the new army, and Saigo himself died on the battlefield.

After the defeat of the Satsuma rebellion, the new regime settled down more comfortably in office. From now on, issues to do with economic growth and expansion would concern it more closely than the reform of national institutions and the consolidation of its own power.


Last updated on 28.2.2002