What Was the Meiji Era?

Family tends a pottery shop in Meiji Japan, 1897
A family's pottery shop in Meiji Japan, 1897. Buyenlarge / Getty Images

The Meiji Era was the 44-year period of Japan's history from 1868 to 1912, when the country was under the rule of the great Emperor Mutsuhito.  Also called the Meiji Emperor, he was the first ruler of Japan to wield actual political power in centuries.

The Meiji Era or Meiji Period was a time of incredible transformation in Japanese society.  It marked the end of the Japanese system of feudalism, and completely restructured the social, economic, and military reality of life in Japan.

 The Meiji Era began when a faction of daimyo lords from Satsuma and Choshu in the far south of Japan united to overthrow the Tokugawa shogun and return political power to the Emperor. This revolution in Japan is called the Meiji Restoration.

The daimyo who brought the Meiji Emperor out from "behind the jeweled curtain" and into the political limelight probably did not anticipate all of the repercussions of their actions. For example, the Meiji Period saw the end of the samurai and their daimyo lords, and the establishment of a modern conscript army. It also marked the beginning of a period of rapid industrialization and modernization in Japan.  Some former supporters of the restoration, including the "Last Samurai," Saigo Takamori, later rose up in the unsuccessful Satsuma Rebellion in protest of these radical changes.

Social Changes:

Prior to the Meiji Era, Japan had a feudal social structure with samurai warriors on top, followed by farmers, craftsmen, and finally merchants or traders at the bottom.

 During the Meiji Emperor's reign, the status of the samurai was abolished - all Japanese would be considered commoners, except for the imperial family.  In theory, even the burakumin or "untouchables" were now equals of all other Japanese people, although in practice descrimination was still rampant.

In addition to this leveling of society, Japan also adopted many western customs during this time. Men and women abandoned silk kimono and began to wear western-style suits and dresses.  Former samurai had to cut off their topknots, and women wore their hair in fashionable bobs.

Economic Changes:

During the Meiji Era, Japan industrialized with incredible speed.  In a country where just a few decades earlier, merchants and manufacturers were considered the lowest class of society, suddenly titans of industry were forming huge corporations that produced iron, steel, ships, railroads, and other heavy industrial goods.  Within the reign of the Meiji Emperor, Japan went from a sleepy, agrarian country to an up-and-coming industrial giant.  

Policy-makers and ordinary Japanese people alike felt that this was absolutely essential for Japan's survival, as the western imperial powers of the time were bullying and annexing formerly strong kingdoms and empires all over Asia.  Japan would not only build up its economy and its military capacity well enough to avoid being colonized - it would become a major imperial power itself in the decades following the Meiji Emperor's death.

Military Changes:

The Meiji Era saw a rapid and massive reorganization of Japan's military capabilities, as well.

 Since the time of Oda Nobunaga, Japanese warriors had been using firearms to great effect on the battlefield.  However, the samurai sword was still the weapon that denoted Japanese warfare up until the Meiji Restoration.

Under the Meiji Emperor, Japan established western-style military academies to train a whole new type of soldier.  No longer would birth into a samurai family be the qualifier for military training; Japan had a conscript army now, in which the sons of former samurai might have a farmer's son as a commanding officer.  The military academies brought in trainers from France, Prussia, and other western countries to teach the conscripts about modern tactics and weaponry.

In the Meiji Period, Japan's military reorganization made it a major world power.  With battleships, mortars, and machine guns, Japan would defeat the Chinese in the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, and then stun Europe by beating the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05.

 Japan would continue headlong down an increasingly militaristic path for the next forty years.

The word meiji literally means "bright" plus "pacify."  A bit ironically, it denotes the "enlightened peace" of Japan under Emperor Mutsuhito's reign. In fact, although the Meiji Emperor did indeed pacify and unify Japan, it was the start of a half-century of warfare, expansion, and imperialism in Japan, which conquered the Korean Peninsula, Formosa (Taiwan), the Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa), Manchuria, and then much of the rest of East Asia between 1910 and 1945.