Tokugawa Period and Meiji Restoration

Tokugawa Period and Meiji Restoration

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Japan’s Tokugawa (or Edo) period, which lasted from 1603 to 1867, would be the final era of traditional Japanese government, culture and society before the Meiji Restoration of 1868 toppled the long-reigning Tokugawa shoguns and propelled the country into the modern era. Tokugawa Ieyasu’s dynasty of shoguns presided over 250 years of peace and prosperity in Japan, including the rise of a new merchant class and increasing urbanization. To guard against external influence, they also worked to close off Japanese society from Westernizing influences, particularly Christianity. But with the Tokugawa shogunate growing increasingly weak by the mid-19th century, two powerful clans joined forces in early 1868 to seize power as part of an “imperial restoration” named for Emperor Meiji. The Meiji Restoration spelled the beginning of the end for feudalism in Japan, and would lead to the emergence of modern Japanese culture, politics and society.

Background & Rise of Tokugawa Shogunate

During the 1500s, power was decentralized in Japan, which was torn apart by warfare between competing feudal lords (daimyo) for nearly a century. Following his victory in the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, however, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) swiftly consolidated power from his heavily fortified castle at Edo (now Tokyo). The prestigious but largely powerless imperial court named Ieyasu as shogun (or supreme military leader) in 1603, beginning a dynasty that would rule Japan for the next two-and-a-half centuries.

From the beginning, the Tokugawa regime focused on reestablishing order in social, political and international affairs after a century of warfare. The political structure, established by Ieyasu and solidified under his two immediate successors, his son Hidetada (who ruled from 1616-23) and grandson Iemitsu (1623-51), bound all daimyos to the shogunate and limited any individual daimyo from acquiring too much land or power.

Tokugawa Shoguns Close Japan to Foreign Influence

Suspicious of foreign intervention and colonialism, the Tokugawa regime acted to exclude missionaries and eventually issued a complete ban on Christianity in Japan. Near the beginning of the Tokugawa period, there were an estimated 300,000 Christians in Japan; after the shogunate’s brutal repression of a Christian rebellion on the Shimabara Peninsula in 1637-38, Christianity was forced underground. The dominant faith of the Tokugawa period was Confucianism, a relatively conservative religion with a strong emphasis on loyalty and duty. In its efforts to close Japan off from damaging foreign influence, the Tokugawa shogunate also prohibited trade with Western nations and prevented Japanese merchants from trading abroad. With the Act of Seclusion (1636), Japan was effectively cut off from Western nations for the next 200 years (with the exception of a small Dutch outpost in Nagasaki Harbor). At the same time, it maintained close relations with neighboring Korea and China, confirming a traditional East Asian political order with China at the center.

Tokugawa Period: Economy and Society

The Neo-Confucian theory that dominated Japan during the Tokugawa Period recognized only four social classes–warriors (samurai), artisans, farmers and merchants–and mobility between the four classes was officially prohibited. With peace restored, many samurai became bureaucrats or took up a trade. At the same time, they were expected to maintain their warrior pride and military preparedness, which led to much frustration in their ranks. For their part, peasants (who made up 80 percent of the Japanese population) were forbidden from engaging in non-agricultural activities, thus ensuring consistent income for landowning authorities.

The Japanese economy grew significantly during the Tokugawa period. In addition to an emphasis on agricultural production (including the staple crop of rice as well as sesame oil, indigo, sugar cane, mulberry, tobacco and cotton), Japan’s commerce and manufacturing industries also expanded, leading to the rise of an increasingly wealthy merchant class and in turn to the growth of Japanese cities. A vibrant urban culture emerged centered in Kyoto, Osaka and Edo (Tokyo), catering to merchants, samurai and townspeople rather than to nobles and daimyo, the traditional patrons. The Genroku era (1688-1704) in particular saw the rise of Kabuki theater and Bunraku puppet theater, literature (especially Matsuo Basho, the master of haiku) and woodblock printing.

Meiji Restoration

As agricultural production lagged in comparison to the mercantile and commercial sectors, samurai and daimyo did not fare as well as the merchant class. Despite efforts at fiscal reform, mounting opposition seriously weakened the Tokugawa shogunate from the mid-18th to the mid-19th century, when years of famine led to increased peasant uprisings. A series of “unequal treaties” in which stronger nations imposed their will on smaller ones in East Asia, created further unrest, particularly the Treaty of Kanagawa, which opened Japanese ports to American ships, guaranteed them safe harbor and allowed the U.S. to set up a permanent consulate in exchange for not bombing Edo. It was signed under duress when Commodore Matthew Perry menacingly sent his American battle fleet into Japanese waters.

In 1867, two powerful anti-Tokugawa clans, the Choshu and Satsuma, combined forces to topple the shogunate, and the following year declared an “imperial restoration” in the name of the young Emperor Meiji, who was just 14 years old at the time.

The Meiji Constitution of 1889–which remained the constitution of Japan until 1947, after World War II–was largely written by Itō Hirobumi and created a parliament, or Diet, with a lower house elected by the people and a prime minister and cabinet appointed by the emperor.

The peace and stability of the Tokugawa period, and the economic development it fostered, set the stage for the rapid modernization that took place after the Meiji Restoration. During the Meiji Period, which ended with the emperor’s death in 1912, the country experienced significant social, political and economic change–including the abolition of the feudal system and the adoption of a cabinet system of government. In addition, the new regime opened the country once again to Western trade and influence and oversaw a buildup of military strength that would soon propel Japan onto the world stage.

Russo-Japanese War

In 1904, the Russian Empire under Czar Nicholas II, was one of the largest territorial powers in the world. When the Czar set his sights on a warm-water port in the Pacific Ocean for trade and as a base for its growing navy, he zeroed in on the Korean and Liaodong peninsulas. Japan, fearing the growth of Russian influence in the region since the First Sino-Japanese War of 1895, was wary.

At first, the two nations attempted to negotiate. Russia refused Japan’s offer to give them control of Manchuria (northeastern China) in order to retain influence in Korea, then demanded that Korea north of the 39th parallel serve as a neutral zone.

The Japanese responded with a surprise attack on the Russian Far East Fleet at Port Arthur in China on February 8, 1904, kicking off the Russo-Japanese War. The conflict was a bloody one, and over 150,000 people lost their lives as the fighting waged on between 1904 and 1905.

The war ended with Japanese victory and the signing of the Treaty of Portsmouth, which was mediated by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt (who later won the Nobel Prize for his role in the talks). Sergei Witte, a minister in Czar Nicholas’ government, represented Russia, while Harvard graduate Baron Komura represented Japan. Some historians refer to the Russo-Japanese War as “World War Zero” as it set the stage for the coming global wars that would reshape global politics.


Meiji Constitution: Britannica.

The Meiji Period of Restoration – Japanese History Paper
The Meiji period brought about the rapid modernization of Japanese politics, culture, and foreign relations which resulted in Japan’s attaining the status of the leading

country in Asia and a world economic and political power. However, looking back on the Meiji Restoration, it becomes unclear as to whether it was a smooth transition, or a dramatic breaking point in Japanese history. (In order to determine the significance of the Meiji Restoration, an examination of the proceeding system of governance, culture and foreign relations is necessary.) The first part of this essay will discuss the Tokugawa period the second will examine the Meiji Restoration. The last will analyze the Restoration itself and the changes that were made politically, culturally, and in foreign relations and conclusions on the nature of the Restoration will be drawn based on the given information.

The political structure of the Tokugawa period was quite simple. At the head of the government was the Shogun, who was the main executive power. Under the shogun were the daimyo, who were very similar to governors. There were three “sections” of daimyo, family of the Tokugawa were called Shinpan, allies were called fudai, and enemies of the Tokugawa were called tozama. The last level of government was the samurai, who were leading men in the society who were traditionally military fighters, but formed the main bureaucracy of the Tokugawa government. This form of government is commonly referred to as the bakuhan, and shaped the culture of Japan during the Tokugawa Period. It should be noted that the Tokugawa government was quite strict. In his journals, Perry noted this and wrote, “It is evident that nothing but the fear of punishment deterred them from entering into free intercourse with us, but they were closely watched and it may be inferred that he higher class would be equally inclined to greater intimacy if they in their turn were not also watched.” (Commodore Perry’s Journal, pg 180)

The culture of Tokugawa Japan was very different from the culture after the Meiji Restoration. The Japanese were a proud people, and regarded their nation very highly. However, the people were very traditional, and really knew little about change and participation in the government. In the Tokugawa Period, social class was very important, and was determined by a person’s heredity. There were four main social groups: samurai, farmers, merchants, and artisans. Outside of these four main classes, there were other people in society, such as priests, imperial workers, and sex workers. The largest group was the farmers, who made up about 80 percent of the population. Most Japanese people lived in the country, with only 5-6 percent living on the larger cities.

Besides the confines of heredity, the culture of Tokugawa was lively. The people did not concern themselves in politics, so in their free time, there was art and music, plays and religions parties, entertainment, and the Licensed Quarters for the adventurous. Buddhism was the prominent religion. Inside of their circumscribed world, the people enjoyed considerable autonomy as long as they paid their taxes. Women had their place in the culture they were very important in the home and to their husbands and were generally treated with respect. They were not on the same level as the men however. Overall, Tokugawa culture created a peaceful Japan. The people were content, the government was stable, the economy was strong, and these aspects led to a positive culture in Japan, at least till the early 1800’s.
The last aspect of the Tokugawa Period related to politics, government, and culture: foreign relations. The government in Japan, before 1850, had no desire to interact with any foreign countries. This isolationist policy was called Sakoku. The reasons for this policy are unclear, but Japan clearly did not want to have anything to do with the world. The Tokugawa government did not attempt to have relationships with any surrounding nations, and discouraged other Asian nations from interacting with Japan. This policy of the government was enforced from the top down. When foreigners, such as the Dutch, came to Japan, the people were forbidden to interact with them. This was because the government resented having the Dutch, or any other foreign power, in their country. So, during the Tokugawa period, Japan strove to be isolated from the World, both politically and culturally.

In the mid 1800’s, the rule of the Tokugawa started to crumble. The political structure was growing weak and outdated, as was Japan’s social structure, and its foreign relations. In 1868, the Tokugawa rule officially collapsed and the Meiji took over power. The Meiji Restoration was headed by discontented samurai who were not satisfied with their position under the Tokugawa. After studying the politics, culture, and foreign relations of the Tokugawa period, these same aspects of the Meiji Period need to be examined to determine the whether the Meiji Restoration was a dramatic break point, or merely a transition.

The first changes made were in the political structure and government. The Meiji decided that the politically fragmented system of the daimyo had to be completely overhauled. So immediately (after coming into power) in 1868, prefectures were established to replace the daimyo. The main goal in establishing the prefects was (to create) a national and bureaucratic state. All of the leaders of the prefects would report directly to the emperor in Tokyo, and would collect taxes to pay the samurai and the central government. These prefects extended the power and reach of the central government. A Genroin (senate) was also established. The second major political change was the rise of the emperor. In Tokugawa Japan, the emperor was more of a figurehead, but under the Meiji, the emperor held extensive executive power. The rise of the emperor gave the government legitimacy in the eyes of the people. The creation of this new bureaucratic state was a very important step in the history of modern Japan. The Meiji leaders inherited and modified the Tokugawa bureaucratic rule of the samurai. The (final) success of the Meiji Restoration of the government came in 1889 when a Constitution was written and ratified. The Constitution gave Japanese people rights they didn’t have before. In Chapter II of the Constitution I has laws such as, “No Japanese subject shall be arrested…unless according the law.” (Meiji Constitution, Chapter II, Article 23) There were more laws that protected the people, this (being but) is only one example. Japan was now under an ordered and stable rule, one that was modern and centralized with the holy emperor at its head.

The culture of Japan also underwent major changes during the Meiji Restoration. The first, and most significant change that was made was the abolishment of the class system in Japan. With the abolishment of the class system, the Japanese emphasis on heredity was destroyed. Ones family line no longer determined what social class they would belong too, but rather, social standing was determined by ambition, education, and wealth. So, personal ability became extremely important for the first time.
The second significant change in culture related to the emperor. With the rise of the prestige and importance of the emperor and empress, Japan’s culture changed to one (of) loyal to the royal family. Nationalism grew exponentially among the common people, who now had someone to look (up) to in their government. Shinmin No Michi wrote, “The Imperial family is the fountain source of the Japanese nation, and the national and private lives issue from this.” (Sources of Japanese Traditions, pg. 1001) Popular rights and freedoms also became very important. Under Tokugawa rule, individuals did not have very much personal freedom, but under the Meiji, commoners had freedom.
The third significant cultural change was a move away from traditionalism and into modernity. During the Tokugawa period, the people thought little of change and progress, but the Meiji Restoration changed that completely. Once the rigid social structures were abolished, the people before to flex their cultural muscles. They moved into the large cities where they enjoyed markets and shopping. Cafes appeared that offered good food, conversation, and also the Jokyu (modern prostitute). These were a classier alterative to the relatively poor Licensed Quarter. After the change in culture and government came significant changes to foreign relations we well
Previously, Japan had been very isolated. But after the Meiji restoration, Japan became more and more exposed to Western culture, and realized that it was falling behind the world. So, Japan began taking huge steps to learn about the West. The most important was the Iwakura Embassy (1871-1873). In this, the Japanese reformed treaties it held with other countries, and also sent people to other countries to study them in detail and report back to Japan. Basically, Japan opened itself up to the influence of the world, everything from fashion to government and imperialism.

Based on (a careful analysis of )this information on Japan before the Meiji Restoration (Tokugawa Rule) and after, the answer to the question of whether it was a “dramatic break point’ in Japanese history is no. (Not sure if this is the conclusion that you are supporting. All of your example and analysis show a significant contrast between the Tokugawa Rule and the Meiji rule. If all of these differences and contrast are true then the conclusion should be, yes, this was a breakpoint in Japanese history. ) History shows the Tokugawa rule set many of the foundations needed by the Meiji for their Restoration. Tokugawa politics were becoming outdated and ineffective, the culture was suppressive and not malleable, and Japan could not remain isolated from the world for very long in the dramatic global changes in the mid-1850’s. Japan was ripe for change, and it seems that the Meiji Restoration should be called a dramatic change, and not a breaking point in the history of Japan. The reasons the Restoration was so sudden was because Japan had held off on change for many years during the Tokugawa rule. And when it collapsed and the Meiji took over, Japan was ready for something new. The Meiji Restoration would not have been so easy had Japan not been ready for significant changes in their government, culture, and foreign relations. So, based on the facts given, the Meiji Restoration was not a break in Japanese culture, but merely a culmination of circumstances that warranted and encouraged drastic changes in Japan in 1868 and the years following.

Isolationism in the Edo Period

The isolationist policy of the Tofugawa shogunate known as sakoku tightly controlled Japanese trade and foreign influences for over 200 years, ending with the Perry Expedition that forced Japan to open its market to European imperial powers.

Learning Objectives

Describe Japanese isolationism in the Edo Period

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Sakoku was the foreign relations policy of Japan, enacted by the Tokugawa shogunate through a number of edicts and policies from 1633–39, under which severe restrictions were placed on the entry of foreigners to Japan and Japanese people were forbidden to leave the country without special permission. Historians have argued that the sakoku policy was established to remove the colonial and religious influence of Spain and Portugal and for the Tokugawa to acquire sufficient control over Japan’s foreign policy.
  • Japan was not completely isolated under the sakoku policy, but strict regulations were applied to commerce and foreign relations by the shogunate and by certain feudal domains (han). The shogunate maintained limited and tightly controlled trade relations with the Dutch, China, Korea, the Ainu people, and the Ryūkyū Kingdom.
  • The growing commerce between America and China, the presence of American whalers in waters off Japan, and the increasing monopolization of potential coaling stations by the British and French in Asia were all contributing factors in the decision by U.S. President Millard Fillmore to dispatch an expedition to Japan. The Americans were also driven by the idea that Western civilization and Christianity would benefit and thus should be imposed on Asian nations.
  • The Perry Expedition, under Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, left the U.S. in 1852 and reached Japan in 1853. Perry employed various techniques to intimidate the Japanese and refused their demands to leave or to proceed to Nagasaki, the only Japanese port open to foreigners. Eventually the Japanese decided that simply accepting a letter from the Americans would not constitute a violation of Japanese sovereignty. After presenting the letter, Perry departed for Hong Kong, promising to return the following year for the Japanese reply.
  • Perry returned in 1854, after only half a year. After initial resistance, he was permitted to land at Kanagawa, where after negotiations lasting for around a month the Convention of Kanagawa was signed on March 31, 1854. The convention effectively meant the end of Japan’s policy of national seclusion by opening the ports of Shimoda and Hakodate to American vessels. It also ensured the safety of American castaways and established the position of an American consul in Japan.
  • Externally, the treaty led to treaties with the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, and France. Internally, debate over foreign policy and popular outrage over perceived appeasement to the foreign powers was a catalyst for the eventual end of the Tokugawa shogunate.

Key Terms

  • Tokugawa shogunate: The last feudal Japanese military government, which existed between 1603 and 1867. The head of government was the shogun and each was a member of the Tokugawa clan. The regime ruled from Edo Castle and the years of the shogunate became known as the Edo period.
  • Harris Treaty of 1858: A treaty, known formally as the Treaty of Amity and Commerce, between the United States and Japan signed on the deck of the USS Powhatan in Edo (now Tokyo) Bay on July 29, 1858. It opened the ports of Kanagawa and four other Japanese cities to trade and granted extraterritoriality to foreigners, among a number of trading stipulations.
  • gunboat diplomacy: The pursuit of foreign policy objectives with the aid of conspicuous displays of naval power implying or constituting a direct threat of warfare, should terms not be agreeable to the superior force.
  • Convention of Kanagawa: The first treaty between the United States of America and the Tokugawa Shogunate. Signed on March 31, 1854, under the threat of force, it effectively meant the end of Japan’s 220-year-old policy of national seclusion (sakoku) by opening the ports of Shimoda and Hakodate to American vessels. It also ensured the safety of American castaways and established the position of an American consul in Japan. The treaty precipitated the signing of similar treaties establishing diplomatic relations with other western powers.
  • Perry Expedition: A diplomatic expedition to Japan involving two separate trips by warships of the United States Navy, during 1853–54. The primary goal was to force an end to Japan’s 220-year-old policy of isolation and open Japanese ports to American trade, through the use of gunboat diplomacy if necessary. It led directly to the establishment of diplomatic relations between Japan and the western Great Powers and eventually to collapse of the ruling Tokugawa shogunate.
  • Sakoku: The foreign relations policy of Japan under which severe restrictions were placed on the entry of foreigners to Japan and Japanese people were forbidden to leave the country without special permission, on penalty of death if they returned. The policy was enacted by the Tokugawa shogunate under Tokugawa Iemitsu through a number of edicts and policies from 1633–39 and largely remained officially in effect until 1866, although the arrival of the American Black Ships of Commodore Matthew Perry, which started the forced opening of Japan to Western trade, eroded its enforcement severely.


Sakoku was the foreign relations policy of Japan under which severe restrictions were placed on the entry of foreigners to Japan and Japanese people were forbidden to leave the country without special permission, on penalty of death if they returned. The policy was enacted by the Tokugawa shogunate under Tokugawa Iemitsu, the third shogun of the Tokugawa dynasty, through a number of edicts and policies from 1633–39. It largely remained officially in effect until 1866, although the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry in the 1850s began the opening of Japan to Western trade, eroding its enforcement.

Historians have argued that the sakoku policy was established to remove the colonial and religious influence of Spain and Portugal, perceived as posing a threat to the stability of the shogunate and to peace in the archipelago. Some scholars, however, have challenged this view as only a partial explanation. Another important factor behind sakoku was the Tokugawa government’s desire to acquire sufficient control over Japan’s foreign policy to guarantee peace and maintain Tokugawa supremacy over other powerful lords in the country.

Japan was not completely isolated under the sakoku policy, but strict regulations were applied to commerce and foreign relations by the shogunate and certain feudal domains (han). The policy stated that the only European influence permitted was the Dutch factory at Dejima in Nagasaki. Trade with China was also handled at Nagasaki. Trade with Korea was limited to the Tsushima Domain. Trade with the Ainu people was limited to the Matsumae Domain in Hokkaidō and trade with the Ryūkyū Kingdom took place in Satsuma Domain. Apart from these direct commercial contacts in peripheral provinces, trading countries sent regular missions to the shogun in Edo and Osaka Castle. Due to the necessity for Japanese subjects to travel to and from these trading posts, this trade resembled outgoing trade, with Japanese subjects making regular contact with foreign traders in essentially extraterritorial land. Trade with Chinese and Dutch traders in Nagasaki took place on an island called Dejima, separated from the city by a small strait. Foreigners could not enter Japan from Dejima, nor could Japanese enter Dejima, without special permissions or authority.

Western Challenges to Japanese Isolationism

The growing commerce between America and China, the presence of American whalers in waters off Japan, and the increasing monopolization of potential coaling stations by the British and French in Asia were all contributing factors in the decision by U.S. President Millard Fillmore to dispatch an expedition to Japan. The Americans were also driven by the idea that Western civilization and Christianity would benefit and thus should be imposed on Asian nations, which were seen as “backwards.” By the early 19th century, the Japanese policy of isolation was increasingly challenged. In 1844, King William II of the Netherlands sent a letter urging Japan to end the isolation policy on its own before change would be forced from the outside. Between 1790 and 1853, at least 27 U.S. ships (including three warships) visited Japan, only to be turned away. There were increasing sightings and incursions of foreign ships in Japanese waters and leading to debate in Japan on how to meet this potential threat to Japan’s economic and political sovereignty.

In 1851, U.S. Secretary of State Daniel Webster drafted a letter addressed to the “Japanese Emperor” with assurances that the planned expedition under the authority of Commodore John H. Aulick had no religious purpose, but was only to request “friendship and commerce” and supplies of coal needed by ships en route to China. The letter also boasted of American expansion across the North American continent and the technical prowess of the country. It was signed by President Fillmore. However, Aulick became involved in a diplomatic row with a Brazilian diplomat and quarrels with the captain of his flagship and was relieved of his command before he could undertake the expedition. His replacement, Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry (1794–1858) was a senior-ranking officer in the United States Navy and had extensive diplomatic experience.

Perry Expedition

In 1852, Perry was assigned a mission to force the opening of Japanese ports to American trade, through the use of gunboat diplomacy if necessary. On November 24, 1852, Perry embarked from Norfolk, Virginia, in pursuit of a Japanese trade treaty. On his way, he met with American-born Sinologist Samuel Wells Williams, who provided Chinese language translations of his official letters, and with the Dutch-born American diplomat, Anton L. C. Portman, who translated his official letters into the Dutch language. Perry finally reached Uraga at the entrance to Edo Bay in Japan on July 8, 1853. His actions at this crucial juncture were shaped by a careful study of Japan’s previous contacts with Western ships and what he knew about the Japanese hierarchical culture. As he arrived, Perry ordered his ships to steam past Japanese lines towards the capital of Edo and turn their guns towards the town of Uraga. He refused Japanese demands to leave or to proceed to Nagasaki, the only Japanese port open to foreigners.

Matthew Calbraith Perry, photo by Mathew Brady, ca. 1856-58.: When Perry returned to the United States in 1855, Congress voted to grant him a reward of $20,000 (USD $514,000 in 2017) in appreciation of his work in Japan. He used part of this money to prepare and publish a report on the expedition in three volumes, titled Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan.

Perry attempted to intimidate the Japanese by presenting them a white flag and a letter, which said that if they chose to fight, the Americans would destroy them. He also fired blank shots from his 73 cannons, which he claimed was in celebration of the American Independence Day. Perry’s ships were equipped with new Paixhans shell guns, cannons capable of wreaking explosive destruction with every shell. He also ordered his ship boats to commence survey operations of the coastline and surrounding waters over the objections of local officials.

In the meantime, the Japanese government was paralyzed by the illness of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyoshi and political indecision on how to handle the unprecedented threat to the nation’s capital. On July 11, the chief senior councilor (rōjū) Abe Masahiro decided that simply accepting a letter from the Americans would not constitute a violation of Japanese sovereignty and Perry was asked to move his fleet slightly southwest to the beach at Kurihama, where he was allowed to land. After presenting the letter to attending delegates, Perry departed for Hong Kong, promising to return the following year for the Japanese reply.

Perry returned on February 13, 1854, after only half a year rather than the full year promised, with ten ships and 1,600 men. Both actions were calculated to put even more pressure on the Japanese. After initial resistance, Perry was permitted to land at Kanagawa, where after month-long negotiations the Convention of Kanagawa was signed on March 31, 1854. Signed under the threat of force, the convention effectively meant the end of Japan’s 220-year-old policy of national seclusion by opening the ports of Shimoda and Hakodate to American vessels. It also ensured the safety of American castaways and established the position of an American consul in Japan.


In the short-term, both sides were satisfied with the agreement. Perry had achieved his primary objective of breaking Japan’s sakoku policy and setting the grounds for protection of American citizens and an eventual commercial agreement. The Tokugawa shogunate could point out that the treaty was not actually signed by the Shogun or any of his rōjū, and by the agreement made, had at least temporarily averted the possibility of immediate military confrontation.

Japanese 1854 print relating Perry’s visit

After the signing of the convention, the Americans presented the Japanese with a miniature steam locomotive, a telegraph apparatus, various agricultural tools, and small arms as well as 100 gallons of whiskey, clocks, stoves, and books about the United States. The Japanese responded with gold-lacquered furniture and boxes, bronze ornaments, porcelain goblets, and upon learning of Perry’s personal hobby, a collection of seashells.

Externally, the treaty led to the United States-Japan Treaty of Amity and Commerce, the Harris Treaty of 1858, which allowed the establishment of foreign concessions, extraterritoriality for foreigners, and minimal import taxes for foreign goods. The Kanagawa Convention was also followed by similar agreements with the United Kingdom (Anglo-Japanese Friendship Treaty, 1854), the Russians (Treaty of Shimoda, 1855), and the French (Treaty of Amity and Commerce between France and Japan, 1858).

Internally, the treaty had far-reaching consequences. Decisions to suspend previous restrictions on military activities led to re-armament by many domains and further weakened the position of the Shogun. Debate over foreign policy and popular outrage over perceived appeasement to the foreign powers was a catalyst for the sonnō jōi movement (the movement to overthrow the Tokugawa shogunate) and a shift in political power from Edo back to the Imperial Court in Kyoto. The opposition of Emperor Kōmei to the treaties further lent support to the tōbaku (overthrow the Shogunate) movement, and eventually to the Meiji Restoration.

The Tokugawa Era, the Meiji Restoration, and the Rise of Japanese Nationalism

Japan was engulfed in political conflicts and wars between the 12th and 16th centuries. This period of upheaval ended during the reign of the Three Unifiers (Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu). Wary of foreigners and their influence, the shōgun Tokugawa Ieyasu issued the sakoku edicts in 1635 and started the self-imposed isolation of Japan in 1639. The country would remain isolated until Commodore Matthew Perry and his “Black Ships” arrived off the coast of Japan in 1853. Japan was forced to open itself to the West, but its people resented the concessions it was forced to give to America and other European nations. This resentment of Western Imperialism would evolve into excessive nationalism and motivate Japan to prosperity by the end of the 19th century. These events are recorded on the Bible Timeline with World History during that time period.

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The End of the Sengoku Period (1467-1603) and the Rise of the Tokugawa Era (1603–1868)

During the early 1550s, Oda Nobunaga overcame rival daimyōs and started the long process of unifying a country during the last years of the Sengoku Period. He and his army terrorized the Japanese people, but were able to bring stability to a country torn by civil war. He and his soldiers were armed with Portuguese arquebuses which they used to the full extent to subdue daimyōs, samurais, and civilians alike. Oda Nobunaga died in 1582 after he was forced to commit seppuku by one of his vassals. He was succeeded by one of his generals, the brilliant and equally ruthless Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

By 1590, Toyotomi Hideyoshi had defeated most of his enemies to become the most powerful man in Japan. Brutal yet more flexible than his predecessor, he consolidated power by playing off rivals until they eliminated each other. He viewed European missionaries with suspicion and started the persecution of Christians in his domain. He led the Japanese invasion of Korea which devastated the kingdom during the last years of his reign.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi died in 1598 and was succeeded by his young son who was to be guided by appointed regents until he came of age. The regents and various generals promptly ignored him and soon embroiled themselves in a civil war. They came to a head in the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 which was won by Tokugawa Ieyasu and his supporters. He also defeated Hideyori, Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s son, when the boy came of age.

Tokugawa Ieyasu took for himself the prefectures of Nara, Kyoto, Edo, Nagasaki, and Osaka as fiefs. He ruled as shōgun (military dictator) starting in 1603, but soon abdicated in favor of his son Hidetada. Although he was technically a retired shogun, he still wielded considerable power up until his death in 1616.

Portuguese, Spanish, English, and Dutch traders and evangelists flocked to Japan during the early years of the Tokugawa shogunate. The Europeans played each other off in their quest to dominate the Japanese market and acquire converts, but their strategies soon backfired. Tokugawa Ieyasu had always been wary of foreign and Christian influence on his subjects, leading him to prohibit trading and evangelization activities in his domain. (The only exception to the rule were the Dutch traders whom the Japanese perceived as pragmatic and cooperative.) In 1614, Japanese and European Christians alike were persecuted. The shōgun’s heirs maintained the anti-Christian policies until the end of the Tokugawa shogunate in the 19th century.

The Tokugawa shogunate’s anti-foreign stance hardened during the mid-1600s. The deep-seated suspicion on foreigners led the shōgun to impose the edicts of seclusion (sakoku) starting in 1635. Japanese citizens were not allowed to travel abroad, while foreign traders and European missionaries were ordered to leave Japan. Those who left and dare to come back were punished with death. The shōgun ordered the destruction of large ships to discourage the Japanese people from leaving the country.

Although feudal and backward, the Tokugawa era was generally a period marked by peace and stability. Though Japan still had an emperor, he and his family faded into obscurity. The shōgun was the head of the bakufu (military dictatorship) and was at the top of the hierarchy. He was followed by various daimyōs and samurais. Those who were at the bottom of the hierarchy (peasants, artisans, and merchants) were expected to toe the line.

Cracks in the Tokugawa shogunate started to appear during the 1830s when Japan was plagued by droughts. Famine set in, and people soon died of starvation. The hoarding done by ruthless traders led to the rising prices of grain. Starving people engaged in protests, but these assemblies sometimes led to riots. The bakufu implemented reforms, but these measures often came too late.

Even samurais were not immune to changing fortunes during the last decades of the Tokugawa shogunate. They were forced to work other jobs, as well as contribute a part of their stipend to an incompetent government. Unable to maintain them any longer, some daimyōs were forced to let their samurais go. These masterless samurais (rōnins) sometimes became bodyguards of wealthier people or mercenaries.

Japan remained irresistible to the West despite its self-imposed isolation. Britain tried to initiate trade but was rebuffed by the bakufu. During the late 1700s and early 1800s, news of Russia’s colonization of eastern Siberia reached Japan. The bakufu prepared for any eventuality by tightening its control on the Ainus of Hokkaido. American ships also made attempts to land in Japan but were turned away.

Japan’s isolation was finally lifted when the American Commodore Matthew Perry and his flotilla of steamships arrived in the Edo Bay on July 8, 1853. Perry insisted on delivering a letter from President Fillmore to the “emperor” (it was, in fact, the shōgun). The letter contained a request for trade and diplomatic relations, shelter and provisions for stranded American whalers, and coal for their ships. The presence of the large steamships and the volley of the gunner’s practice shots compelled the Japanese authorities to receive Commodore Perry’s letter. Perry and his flotilla left, but not before promising to return to Japan one year later.

Despite Japan’s isolation, the bakufu was aware of China’s defeat and humiliation at the hands of Britain and her allies during the First Opium War. They feared that the Americans would do something similar, so some daimyōs counseled the shogun to resist any attempts to open the country to foreigners. Other daimyōs, however, acknowledged that Japan had remained isolated for so long that its weapons and army had become outdated. They simply would not stand a chance against foreign forces in the event of an invasion.

Perry and his flotilla returned in early 1534. Representatives of the bakufu signed the Treaty of Kanagawa with Perry but gave few concessions to their American counterparts. Perry, however, was satisfied with the outcome and left Japan in the same year. His visit was followed by Townsend Harris who became the first American consul general in Japan. He succeeded in forcing the bakufu to sign the Treaty of Shimoda in 1858 after insinuating that the humiliations China suffered might also happen to Japan if it did not comply.

The Treaty of Shimoda included terms that were advantageous only to Western nations. Apart from trade concessions, the treaty also granted Europeans and Americans the right to reside in or near the treaty ports and enjoy the benefit of extraterritoriality. Although it was not included in the treaty, foreigners began to bring Christianity back to Japan’s shores. Cheap goods from the West flooded Japan’s market, rendering local manufacturers unable to compete.

Japan was also forced to set the tariff on imported goods at a measly 5 percent, as well as grant the Most Favored Nation status on all Western nations which traded in its ports. What angered the Japanese authorities most was the fact that they were bound to this treaty forever. There was also no way for them to revise the terms without the consent of all concerned foreign powers.

The enemies of the Tokugawa shōgun felt that the bakufu had conceded much in dealing with the “barbarians.” They believed that this behavior was unbecoming of a shōgun and that he no longer held the privilege to rule them. Enemies of the Tokugawa shōgun—particularly the daimyōs of Satsuma and Chōshū—saw their chance to topple him during the early 1860s. They formed the Satchō Alliance with the intent of restoring the emperor to the seat of power after getting rid of the shōgun.

The humiliations Japan suffered after the bakufu signed the Treaty of Shimoda gave way to nationalism. To counter their feelings of inferiority, traditionalists asserted that Japanese culture and religion were superior to those of the “barbarian West.” The clamor to restore the emperor also became louder among the Japanese population.

Taking a cue from China, the nation embarked on its own “self-strengthening” program. Intellectuals learned about Western science and technology and translated Western books into Japanese. For the first time, Japanese students were allowed to leave their homeland and travel to the United States to study. Samurais were also sent by their daimyōs abroad to learn Western military tactics and acquire knowledge on Western weapons. Unlike in China, however, Japan’s “self-strengthening” program was a success story.

The Fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate

As years passed, the anti-foreign feelings of nationalistic Japanese often manifested in violence against Europeans and Americans living in the country. Foreign envoys promptly protested to the bakufu, but the shōgun’s position was already tenuous among his people so there was nothing he could do. The foreigners retaliated by bombarding Shimonoseki (the stronghold of the Chōshū clan) and Kagoshima (the stronghold of the Satsuma clan). The Satsuma clan secretly befriended the British to get them to stop the bombardment, and claimed that members of their clan had managed to drive the enemy away. This was done so they could save f ace.

The Satsuma clan was now subdued, so the Chōshū clan took up the slack. In 1863, the emperor decided to once again isolate Japan and gave the foreigners an ultimatum. When the foreigners refused to leave, the Chōshū clan fired upon Western ships off the coast of Shimonoseki. The American, Dutch, English, and French fleet promptly retaliated and overcame the Chōshū clan in September 1864.

Frustrated in their efforts to dislodge the foreigners, the Satsuma and Chōshū daimyō focused on toppling the Tokugawa shogunate and strengthening the Japanese military instead. The shogun died in September 1866, and it was followed by the emperor in the following year. This emboldened the daimyōs to convince the new shōgun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, to retire. The shōgun agreed and allowed the restoration of Japan’s Yamato Dynasty to the seat of power. The 15-year old Prince Mutsuhito acceded the throne and took the name Emperor Meiji (“Enlightened One”) in 1868.

A short civil war (the Boshin War) ensued when the former shogun refused to give up his extensive lands and return them to the crown. The Tokugawa forces, however, were soon defeated and the family was forced to give up their claims to the lands. From then on, the Emperor and h is ministers were free to implement reforms and usher Japan into the 20th century.

Meyer, Milton Walter. Japan: A Concise History . Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2012.


Pre-Lesson Activities (Optional)

  1. Introduce the Meiji era using the Japan’s Response to Imperialism handout, which asks students to read a challenging essay (MIT Visualizing Cultures “Throwing Off Asia I”) and create a PowerPoint presentation illustrating their response to the question: Did Japan respond to the West as a threat or an opportunity?
  2. Have students complete Part 1 of the Japan’s Response to Imperialism worksheet as homework. If students do not have Internet access at home, you may need to print a few copies of the Dower essay from the MIT site.
  3. Organize students into groups of two or three and have them complete Part 2 in class. Students will need computers with Internet access to complete the assignment. Collect students’ worksheets and PowerPoints.

Day 1

  1. For homework, have students read a textbook account of the Meiji era and Japan’s encounter with modernity. As students are reading, have them make note of changes that are described and whether these changes would have applied to all Japanese (A) or some Japanese (S).
  2. In class, review the Meiji era as Japan’s encounter with modernity. Based on students’ understanding of the process of modernization—how a country becomes a modern nation—and the case of Japan, have students predict the impact of changes on the everyday lives of Japanese people. Introduce the lesson’s central question: Was modernization the dominant feature of daily life in Meiji Japan? Record students’ predictions and save for the end of the lesson.
  3. Have students share their notes from the textbook reading assigned for homework. When they identify a change only affecting some, ask them to try to identify which groups (rural, urban, samurai, farmers, artisans, merchants, outcasts, commoners, elite, women, wealthy, poor) would be affected. Review the central question and how they would answer the question based on this source.
  4. Pass out the Meiji Era Woodblock Prints: Images of Modernization handout for students to take notes. With the whole class, access the first image online and model analysis of: (1) changes and continuities of the Meiji era portrayed in the image and (2) what groups each change or continuity would have affected. Draw students’ attention to clothing, architecture, utilities, transportation, and other details. Discuss when and why each image was created. (Make sure students understand that Meiji woodblock prints featuring Western structures and new technology were used unofficially to promote the Meiji government’s national project of modernization.) Have the students complete analysis of the remaining three images for homework or in class.
  5. Have students compare their findings from the images with their notes from the textbook. Do these sources agree or disagree?

Day 2

  1. Have students review their answers to the central question based on the sources they have seen so far.
  2. Pass out copies of the Meiji Era PowerPoint Notes Format (or the handout printed out from the PowerPoint file) and tell students to take notes on it as you show the PowerPoint, Meiji Era: Change or Continuity? Students should analyze the images for changes and continuities during the Meiji era, trying to identify what groups in Japanese society would have been affected by each change or continuity. Encourage students to speculate on how and why each image/artifact was created. Students should note the title of each image or slide.
  3. Have students compare what they gained from these sources with what they learned from the textbook account and the woodblock prints. Do the sources agree? Do they agree on some points and not on others? Discussion should also go back to the central question.
  4. Distribute the Stability in Transition handout, which summarizes findings from a chapter of the same name in historian Susan B. Hanley’s book Everyday Things in Premodern Japan. Ask half the students to read the section on clothing and the other half the section on housing. For homework, students should read their assigned section, looking for how this source agrees or not with the other sources and how it affects their answer to the central question.

Day 3

  1. Have students share the information from their readings, either in pairs or as a whole group. Discuss how the students would refine their answers to the central question based on this new source.
  2. As a whole class, review the images from the Meiji Era Woodblock Prints: Images of Modernization handout and the Meiji Era: Change or Continuity? PowerPoint. Have students re-examine the images and compare them to Hanley’s excerpts. Students should add new ideas or thoughts about the images/artifacts to their notes. The concept of “public and private” is an important one when analyzing material culture and teaching what Meiji Japan adopted and rejected—in another words, its changes and continuities. At this point in the discussion, make sure students recognize that in most cases:
    • Western attire, if worn at all, was frequently worn in public and as job uniforms for the military and other professions.
    • The buildings that Japanese chose to build in Western architectural styles (cement, brick) were public institutions supporting the processes of modernization and nation-building, such as schools, banks, post offices, and public spaces for entertaining guests.
    • In their private lives, Japanese in the Meiji era still wore Japanese clothing and preferred Japanese-style living space.
  3. Ask students to review their predictions from the first day as to how changes in the Meiji era affected the lives of everyday people. Discussion should include in what ways their predictions were correct and in what ways they were not. Encourage students to frame questions they have now and identify additional information needed to better understand the effect of modernization on everyday life.
  4. In class or for homework, use one of the assessment options (see Plan for Assessment) requiring students to answer the central question of the unit, drawing on the sources provided for evidence to support their answers.


Prior to the concluding assessment activity, have students read and analyze written primary sources regarding various Japanese groups in terms of continuity and change in the Meiji period and the impact (both negative and positive) of modernization on their lives. Suggested excerpts from Mikiso Hane’s book Peasants, Rebels, & Outcastes: The Underside of Modern Japan (New York: Pantheon Books, 1982) and E. Patricia Tsurumi’s book Factory Girls: Women in the Thread Mills of Meiji Japan (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990) include:

  • Poem and testimony of a silk reeler (Tsurumi, p. 84)
  • Law 270 (Tsurumi, p. 114)
  • Breakdown of male and female cotton workers by age, Table 7.1 (Tsurumi, p. 130)
  • Complaint of licensed prostitute to police in 1910 (Tsurumi, p. 185)
  • Newspaper article on differences between city and country (Hane, p. 33)
  • Hiroshima authorities dispelling rumor of equal land distribution (1871) (Hane, p. 16)
  • Peasant statement against burakumin (Hane, p. 144-145)
  • Government inquiry on conditions of girls in the filature (Hane, p. 186)
  • Japanese industrialist defending child labor (Hane, p. 195)

A number of these sources are used in the lesson “Voices from the Past: The Human Cost of Japan’s Modernization, 1880s-1930s,” available on the TEA website.

To Stand with the Nations of the World: Japan’s Meiji Restoration in World History, by Mark Ravina

Oleg Benesch, To Stand with the Nations of the World: Japan’s Meiji Restoration in World History, by Mark Ravina, The English Historical Review, Volume 135, Issue 575, August 2020, Pages 1051–1053,

150 years since the overthrow of the Tokugawa shogunate and the ‘restoration’ of imperial rule under the Meiji emperor in 1868, the complexity of this period continues to excite debate among historians. The larger meaning of the restoration has been subject to a wide variety of interpretations, usually tied closely to Japan’s position in the commentators’ own time. As the label implies, the ‘restoration’ drew on idealised ancient models, yet it also marked a process of rapid modernisation based on the European model. In the Meiji period itself, official views tended to stress the break with the ‘evil customs’ of the immediate past of the Tokugawa period (1603–1868). The restoration was soon seen as the starting-point for Japan’s imperial project, in.

Tokugawa Period and Meiji Restoration - HISTORY

The Meiji Era (明治時代 1868-1912) denotes the reign of the Meiji Emperor. During this time, Japan started its modernization and rose to world power status.

A key foreign observer of the remarkable and rapid changes in Japanese society in this period was Ernest Satow, resident in Japan 1862-83 and 1895-1900.

In 1867, 14 year old Mutsuhito succeded his father, the Emperor Komei, taking the title Meiji, meaning "enlightened rule". The Meiji Restoration of 1868 ended the 265-year-old feudalistic Tokugawa shogunate.

Considering that the economic structure and production of the country was roughly equivalent to Elizabethan era England, becoming a world power in such a short time was remarkable progress.

There were at least two reasons for the speed of Japan's modernization: the employment of over 3,000 foreign experts (called o-yatoi gaikokujin or 'hired foreigners') in a variety of specialist fields such as teaching English, science, engineering, the army and navy etc. and the dispatch of many Japanese students overseas to Europe and America, based on the fifth and last article of the Charter Oath of 1868: 'Knowledge shall be sought throughout the world so as to strengthen the foundations of Imperial rule.' This process of modernization was closely monitored and heavily subsidized by the Meiji government, enhancing the power of the great zaibatsu firms such as Mitsui and Mitsubishi.

Hand in hand, the zaibatsu and government guided the nation, always borrowing technology from the West. Japan gradually took control of much of Asia's market for manufactures, beginning with textiles. The economic structure became very mercantilistic, importing raw materials and exporting finished products - a reflection of Japan's relative poverty in raw materials.

Following her defeat of China in Korea in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), Japan broke through as an international power with a victory against Russia in Manchuria (north-eastern China) in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. Allied with Britain since the Anglo-Japanese Alliance signed in London on January 30, 1902, Japan joined the Allies in World War I, seizing German-held territory in China and the Pacific in the process, but otherwise remained largely out of the conflict.

After the war, a weakened Europe left a greater share in international markets to the U.S. and Japan, which emerged greatly strengthened. Japanese competition made great inroads into hitherto European-dominated markets in Asia, not only in China, but even in European colonies like India and Indonesia, reflecting the development of the Meiji era.

The major institutional accomplishment after the Satsuma Rebellion was the start of the trend toward developing representative government. People who had been forced out or left out of the governing apparatus after the Meiji Restoration had witnessed or heard of the success of representative institutions in other countries of the world and applied greater pressure for a voice in government.

A major proponent of representative government was Itagaki Taisuke (1837-1919), a powerful Tosa leader who had resigned from the Council of State over the Korean affair in 1873. Itagaki sought peaceful rather than rebellious means to gain a voice in government. He started a school and a movement aimed at establishing a constitutional monarchy and a legislative assembly. Itagaki and others wrote the Tosa Memorial in 1874 criticizing the unbridled power of the oligarchy and calling for the immediate establishment of representative government.

Dissatisfied with the pace of reform after having rejoined the Council of State in 1875, Itagaki organized his followers and other democratic proponents into the nationwide Aikokusha (Society of Patriots) to push for representative government in 1878. In 1881, in an action for which he is best known, Itagaki helped found the Jiyuto (Liberal Party), which favored French political doctrines.

In 1882 Okuma Shigenobu established the Rikken Kaishinto (Constitutional Progressive Party), which called for a British-style constitutional democracy. In response, government bureaucrats, local government officials, and other conservatives established the Rikken Teiseito (Imperial Rule Party), a pro-government party, in 1882. Numerous political demonstrations followed, some of them violent, resulting in further government restrictions. The restrictions hindered the political parties and led to divisions within and among them. The Jiyuto, which had opposed the Kaishinto, was disbanded in 1884, and Okuma resigned as Kaishinto president.

Government leaders, long preoccupied with violent threats to stability and the serious leadership split over the Korean affair, generally agreed that constitutional government should someday be established. The Choshu leader Kido Takayoshi had favored a constitutional form of government since before 1874, and several proposals for constitutional guarantees had been drafted. The oligarchy, however, while acknowledging the realities of political pressure, was determined to keep control. Thus, modest steps were taken.

The Osaka Conference in 1875 resulted in the reorganization of government with an independent judiciary and an appointed Council of Elders (Genronin) tasked with reviewing proposals for a legislature. The emperor declared that "constitutional government shall be established in gradual stages" as he ordered the Council of Elders to draft a constitution.

Three years later, the Conference of Prefectural Governors established elected prefectural assemblies. Although limited in their authority, these assemblies represented a move in the direction of representative government at the national level, and by 1880 assemblies also had been formed in villages and towns. In 1880 delegates from twenty-four prefectures held a national convention to establish the Kokkai Kisei Domei (League for Establishing a National Assembly).

Although the government was not opposed to parliamentary rule, confronted with the drive for "people's rights", it continued to try to control the political situation. New laws in 1875 prohibited press criticism of the government or discussion of national laws. The Public Assembly Law (1880) severely limited public gatherings by disallowing attendance by civil servants and requiring police permission for all meetings.

Within the ruling circle, however, and despite the conservative approach of the leadership, Okuma continued as a lone advocate of British-style government, a government with political parties and a cabinet organized by the majority party, answerable to the national assembly. He called for elections to be held by 1882 and for a national assembly to be convened by 1883 in doing so, he precipitated a political crisis that ended with an 1881 imperial rescript declaring the establishment of a national assembly in 1890 and dismissing Okuma.

Rejecting the British model, Iwakura and other conservatives borrowed heavily from the Prussian constitutional system. One of the Meiji oligarchy, Ito Hirobumi (1841-1909), a Choshu native long involved in government affairs, was charged with drafting Japan's constitution. He led a Constitutional Study Mission abroad in 1882, spending most of his time in Germany. He rejected the United States Constitution as "too liberal" and the British system as too unwieldy and having a parliament with too much control over the monarchy the French and Spanish models were rejected as tending toward despotism.

On its return, one of the first acts of the government was to establish new ranks for the nobility. Five hundred persons from the old court nobility, former daimyo, and samurai who had provided valuable service to the emperor were organized in five ranks: prince, marquis, count, viscount, and baron.

Ito was put in charge of the new Bureau for Investigation of Constitutional Systems in 1884, and the Council of State was replaced in 1885 with a cabinet headed by Ito as prime minister. The positions of chancellor, minister of the left, and minister of the right, which had existed since the 7th century as advisory positions to the emperor, were all abolished. In their place, the Privy Council was established in 1888 to evaluate the forthcoming constitution and to advise the emperor.

To further strengthen the authority of the state, the Supreme War Council was established under the leadership of Yamagata Aritomo (1838-1922), a Choshu native who has been credited with the founding of the modern Japanese army and was to become the first constitutional prime minister. The Supreme War Council developed a German-style general staff system with a chief of staff who had direct access to the emperor and who could operate independently of the army minister and civilian officials.

When finally granted by the emperor as a sign of his sharing his authority and giving rights and liberties to his subjects, the 1889 Constitution of the Empire of Japan (the Meiji Constitution) provided for the Imperial Diet (Teikoku Gikai), composed of a popularly elected House of Representatives with a very limited franchise of male citizens who paid 15 in national taxes, about 1 percent of the population, and the House of Peers, composed of nobility and imperial appointees and a cabinet responsible to the emperor and independent of the legislature. The Diet could approve government legislation and initiate laws, make representations to the government, and submit petitions to the emperor. Nevertheless, in spite of these institutional changes, sovereignty still resided in the emperor on the basis of his divine ancestry.

The new constitution specified a form of government that was still authoritarian in character, with the emperor holding the ultimate power and only minimal concessions made to popular rights and parliamentary mechanisms. Party participation was recognized as part of the political process. The Meiji Constitution was to last as the fundamental law until 1947.

In the early years of constitutional government, the strengths and weaknesses of the Meiji Constitution were revealed. A small clique of Satsuma and Choshu elite continued to rule Japan, becoming institutionalized as an extraconstitutional body of genro (elder statesmen). Collectively, the genro made decisions reserved for the emperor, and the genro, not the emperor, controlled the government politically.

Throughout the period, however, political problems were usually solved through compromise, and political parties gradually increased their power over the government and held an ever larger role in the political process as a result. Between 1891 and 1895, Ito served as prime minister with a cabinet composed mostly of genro who wanted to establish a government party to control the House of Representatives. Although not fully realized, the trend toward party politics was well established.

Japan emerged from the Tokugawa-Meiji transition as the first Asian industrialized nation. Domestic commercial activities and limited foreign trade had met the demands for material culture in the Tokugawa period, but the modernized Meiji era had radically different requirements. From the onset, the Meiji rulers embraced the concept of a market economy and adopted British and North American forms of free enterprise capitalism. The private sector - in a nation blessed with an abundance of aggressive entrepreneurs - welcomed such change.

Economic reforms included a unified modern currency based on the yen, banking, commercial and tax laws, stock exchanges, and a communications network. Establishment of a modern institutional framework conducive to an advanced capitalist economy took time but was completed by the 1890s. By this time, the government had largely relinquished direct control of the modernization process, primarily for budgetary reasons.

Many of the former daimyo, whose pensions had been paid in a lump sum, benefited greatly through investments they made in emerging industries. Those who had been informally involved in foreign trade before the Meiji Restoration also flourished. Old bakufu-serving firms that clung to their traditional ways failed in the new business environment.

The government was initially involved in economic modernization, providing a number of "model factories" to facilitate the transition to the modern period. After the first twenty years of the Meiji period, the industrial economy expanded rapidly until about 1920 with inputs of advanced Western technology and large private investments. Stimulated by wars and through cautious economic planning, Japan emerged from World War I as a major industrial nation.

After the death of the Meiji Emperor in 1912, the Taisho Emperor took the throne, thus beginning the Taisho Period.

Tokugawa period

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Tokugawa period, also called Edo period, (1603–1867), the final period of traditional Japan, a time of internal peace, political stability, and economic growth under the shogunate (military dictatorship) founded by Tokugawa Ieyasu.

What happened during the Tokugawa period?

The Tokugawa period was marked by internal peace, political stability, and economic growth. Social order was officially frozen, and mobility between classes (warriors, farmers, artisans, and merchants) was forbidden. The samurai warrior class came to be a bureaucratic order in this time of lessened conflict. The shogunate perceived Roman Catholic missionaries as a tool of colonial expansion and a threat to the shogun’s authority and consequently banned Christianity and adopted a policy of national seclusion.

How long did the Tokugawa period last?

The Tokugawa period lasted more than 260 years, from 1603 to 1867.

Why was the Tokugawa period important?

The Tokugawa period was the final period of traditional Japan. It was the last of the shogunates. During this time Tokugawa Ieyasu established a government at Edo (now Tokyo), where Japan’s central government remains today. In the 1630s the shogunate adopted a policy of national seclusion, which forbade Japanese subjects from traveling abroad. This isolation from the rest of the world would have a profound effect on Japan’s future.

As shogun, Ieyasu achieved hegemony over the entire country by balancing the power of potentially hostile domains (tozama) with strategically placed allies (fudai) and collateral houses (shimpan). As a further strategy of control, beginning in 1635, Tokugawa Iemitsu required the domanial lords, or daimyo, to maintain households in the Tokugawa administrative capital of Edo (modern Tokyo) and reside there for several months every other year. The resulting system of semi-autonomous domains directed by the central authority of the Tokugawa shogunate lasted for more than 250 years.

As part of the systematic plan to maintain stability, the social order was officially frozen, and mobility between the four classes (warriors, farmers, artisans, and merchants) was prohibited. Numerous members of the warrior class, or samurai, took up residence in the capital and other castle towns where many of them became bureaucrats. Peasants, who made up 80 percent of the population, were forbidden to engage in nonagricultural activities so as to ensure a stable and continuing source of income for those in positions of authority.

Another aspect of the Tokugawa concern with political stability was fear of foreign ideas and military intervention. Cognizant that the colonial expansion of Spain and Portugal in Asia had been made possible by the work of Roman Catholic missionaries, the Tokugawa shoguns came to view the missionaries as a threat to their rule. Measures to expel them from the country culminated in the promulgation of three exclusion decrees in the 1630s, which effected a complete ban on Christianity. Moreover, in issuing these orders, the Tokugawa shogunate officially adopted a policy of national seclusion. From 1633 onward Japanese subjects were forbidden to travel abroad or to return from overseas, and foreign contact was limited to a few Chinese and Dutch merchants still allowed to trade through the southern port of Nagasaki.

The national economy expanded rapidly from the 1680s to the early 1700s. The emphasis placed on agricultural production by the Tokugawa shogunate encouraged considerable growth in that economic sector. Expansion of commerce and the manufacturing industry was even greater, stimulated by the development of large urban centres, most notably Edo, Ōsaka, and Kyōto, in the wake of the government’s efforts at centralization and its success in maintaining peace. The production of fine silk and cotton fabrics, manufacture of paper and porcelain, and sake brewing flourished in the cities and towns, as did trading in these commodities. This increase in mercantile activity gave rise to wholesalers and exchange brokers, and the ever-widening use of currency and credit produced powerful financiers. The emergence of this well-to-do merchant class brought with it a dynamic urban culture that found expression in new literary and art forms (see Genroku period).

While merchants and to a lesser extent tradesmen continued to prosper well into the 18th century, the daimyo and samurai began to experience financial difficulties. Their primary source of income was a fixed stipend tied to agricultural production, which had not kept pace with other sectors of the national economy. Several attempts at fiscal reform were made by the government during the late 18th and 19th centuries, but the financial strain on the warrior class increased as the period progressed. During its final 30 years in power the Tokugawa shogunate had to contend with peasant uprisings and samurai unrest as well as with financial problems. These factors, combined with the growing threat of Western encroachment, brought into serious question the continued existence of the regime, and by the 1860s many demanded the restoration of direct imperial rule as a means of unifying the country and solving the prevailing problems. The powerful southwestern tozama domains of Chōshū and Satsuma exerted the greatest pressure on the Tokugawa government and brought about the overthrow of the last shogun, Hitosubashi Keiki (or Yoshinobu), in 1867. Less than a year later the Meiji emperor was restored to supreme power (see Meiji Restoration).

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica This article was most recently revised and updated by Michael Ray, Editor.

Medieval Japanese History

During the Edo Period (1600-1868), the most famous Shogun of them all, Tokugawa Ieyasu got rid of the decentralized feudal system and installed the bakufu (military government) in the city of Edo, better known to us all as Tokyo (even today, people born in Tokyo are known as Edo-ko, or children of Edo).

Japan had experienced its first contact with European culture and religion some 60 years before. And although one of his advisors was an Englishman, Will Adams, Ieyasu saw European influence as a threat to the newly-found national stability and decided on a closed-door policy. He prohibited virtually all cultural and diplomatic contact with the outside world. Those who dared to venture abroad were executed on their return to prevent any form of 'contamination'. The only trade allowed was with the Dutch, who were confined to the small island of Dejima (left) in Nagasaki, and the only people allowed into contact with them were merchants and prostitutes. In the strict class structure, chonin (merchants) were considered the lowest, although in subsequent years they were to prosper. The once strong samurai class lost most of their relevance amidst the peace and stability while the military leaders held complete power and expected total and unwavering obedience.

The cultural renaissance of the time can probably be linked to the extremely rigid codes of behavior governing clothing, social activities and whom one should marry. Culturally, the Edo Period produced much of what we recognize today as uniquely Japanese. Kabuki, ukiyo-e, porcelain and lacquer-ware, for example, were all born and thrived during this time. Advances in printing and education led to a highly literate population for its day although kabuki and ukiyo-e were more pop culture than high art.

Everything began to change with the arrival of US Navy Commodore Matthew C. Perry and his 'black ships' in 1853. He came demanding trade and was soon followed by British and other westerners. Some years later and after a show of force in 1864, the Tokugawa Shogunate was losing the support of the daimyo (barons). They were unhappy about the foreign intrusions and wanted to expel all foreigners by force. The Shogunate surrendered power to the emperor Meiji in 1867 and subsequent rebellions were quashed.

The Meiji Period (1868-1912) began with this so-called Meiji Restoration in 1868, and the Imperial court was moved from Kyoto to Edo, which was renamed Tokyo, meaning the Eastern Capital. The days of feudalism were over and the new centralized government was left in the hands of those in favor of westernization. The emperor made Shinto the state religion, thereby establishing himself and his heirs as living gods. He also set out to create a modern and industrialised country in a fraction of the time it had taken the countries of the West. Western styles were hurriedly adopted and traditional ones often abandoned. The military and industrial bases were considerably strengthened. Foreign Minister and later Prime Minister Okuma Shigenobu successfully renegotiated treaties with the West. A new constitution was adopted in 1889 under the guidance of Prince Ito Hirobumi and Japan's modernisation was well underway. With this surge of development and change came an increased desire to dominate the rest of Asia. Successful campaigns in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-5) and Russo-Japanese War (1904-5) and the annexation of Korea (1910) certainly made Japan the major force in the region at the beginning of the 20th century.

The Meiji Restoration

In 1868 the Tokugawa rule that began in 1603 came to an end.The Tokugawa shogunatewas replaced by the Meiji Restoration.This era consolidated a political systembased on rule by the Emperor of Japan.In reality, the ‘restoration’ of the emperor was purely symbolic. It helped give the new regime the legitimacy they needed to transform Japan. The new rulers seized control of the Tokugawa government in Edo, changing the name of the city to Tokyo. In 1889, Meiji created a constitution and gave it as a gift to the people of his country.

Westernisation of Japan occurred during the restoration period. Commodore Matthew Perry travelled from America and explored South East Asia, arriving in Japan in 1854. Perry was one of the reasons that Japan became aware of the fact they were behind developmentally in comparison to theWest. The word ‘Meiji’ means ‘enlightened rule’. Meiji wanted to combine Western advances with traditional Japanese values. Perhaps the most prominent example of this is the implementation of a Western style schooling system, but the school continued to include many aspects of the traditional curriculum.

The impact of the West was not limited to cultural ideas. The Meiji also sought to create a nation-state capable of standing equal among Western powers. This was done by military modification. In 1871 there was a formation of a national army. Then, by 1873 there was a universal conscription law. The attempts to create a Japanese army eventually led to the country’s rise as a military power by the year 1905. The success of military policies was solidified by the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War, the 1902 Anglo-Japanese alliance, and the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War.

The acceleration of industrialisation was another primary goal of the newly instituted government. Industrialisation was seen as another route Japan should take to be recognised and respected on the world stage. They developed strategic industries, transportation networks and communication links. In 1872 the first railroad was built and by 1890 there was more than 1,400 miles of track. Following this, in 1880 the introduction of the telegraph linked major cities. Then, in 1882 a European-style banking system was introduced.

The death of Emperor Meiji in 1912 marked the end of the restoration period. It needs to be acknowledged that, building on the foundations established in the Tokugawa period, this was the governmentthat was responsible for the emergence of Japan as a‘modernised’ and powerful nation in the early twentieth century.

Watch the video: Feature History - Meiji Restoration