What Was the Meiji Restoration?

The Meiji Emperor and his family, circa 1880, featuring adults in western-style clothes
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The Meiji Restoration was a political and social revolution in Japan from 1866 to 1869 that ended the power of the Tokugawa shogun and returned the Emperor to a central position in Japanese politics and culture. It is named for Mutsuhito, the Meiji Emperor, who served as the figurehead for the movement.

Background to the Meiji Restoration

When Commodore Matthew Perry of the U.S. steamed into Edo Bay (Tokyo Bay) in 1853 and demanded that Tokugawa Japan allow foreign powers access to trade, he unwittingly started a chain of events that led to Japan's rise as a modern imperial power. Japan's political elites realized that the U.S. and other countries were ahead in terms of military technology, and (quite rightly) felt threatened by western imperialism. After all, mighty Qing China had been brought to its knees by Britain fourteen years earlier in the First Opium War, and would soon lose the Second Opium War as well.

Rather than suffer a similar fate, some of Japan's elites sought to close the doors even tighter against foreign influence, but the more foresighted began to plan a modernization drive. They felt that it was important to have a strong Emperor at the center of Japan's political organization to project Japanese power and fend off Western imperialism.

The Satsuma/Choshu Alliance

In 1866, the daimyo of two southern Japanese domains—Hisamitsu of Satsuma Domain and Kido Takayoshi of Choshu Domain—formed an alliance against the Tokugawa Shogunate that had ruled from Tokyo in the Emperor's name since 1603. The Satsuma and Choshu leaders sought to overthrow the Tokugawa shogun and place the Emperor Komei into a position of real power. Through him, they felt that they could more effectively meet the foreign threat. However, Komei died in January 1867, and his teenaged son Mutsuhito ascended to the throne as the Meiji Emperor on Feb. 3, 1867.

On Nov. 19, 1867, Tokugawa Yoshinobu resigned his post as the fifteenth Tokugawa shogun. His resignation officially transferred power to the young emperor, but the shogun wouldn't give up actual control of Japan so easily. When Meiji (coached by the Satsuma and Choshu lords) issued an imperial decree dissolving the house of Tokugawa, the shogun had no choice but to resort to arms. He sent his samurai army toward the imperial city of Kyoto, intending to capture or depose the emperor.

The Boshin War

On Jan. 27, 1868, Yoshinobu's troops clashed with samurai from the Satsuma/Choshu alliance; the four-day long Battle of Toba-Fushimi ended in a serious defeat for the bakufu and touched off the Boshin War (literally, the "Year of the Dragon War"). The war lasted until May of 1869, but the emperor's, troops with their more modern weaponry and tactics, had the upper hand from the start.

Tokugawa Yoshinobu surrendered to Saigo Takamori of Satsuma and handed over Edo Castle on April 11, 1869. Some of the more committed samurai and daimyo fought on for another month from strongholds in the far north of the country, but it was clear that the Meiji Restoration was unstoppable.

Radical Changes of the Meiji Era

Once his power was secure, the Meiji Emperor (or more precisely, his advisors among the former daimyo and the oligarchs) set about refashioning Japan into a powerful modern nation. They:

  • Abolished the four-tiered class structure
  • Established a modern conscript army that used Western-style uniforms, weapons, and tactics in place of the samurai
  • Ordered universal elementary education for boys and girls
  • Set out to improve manufacturing in Japan, which had been based on textiles and other such goods, shifting instead to heavy machinery and weapons manufacturing.

In 1889, the emperor issued the Meiji Constitution, which made Japan into a constitutional monarchy modeled on Prussia.

Over the course of just a few decades, these changes took Japan from being a semi-isolated island nation threatened by foreign imperialism, to being an imperial power in its own right. Japan seized control of Korea, defeated Qing China in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894 to '95, and shocked the world by defeating the Tsar's navy and army in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 to '05.

Blending Ancient and Modern to Build Anew

The Meiji Restoration is sometimes characterized as a coup d'etat or revolution ending the shogunal system for modern Western governmental and military methods. Historian Mark Ravina has suggested that the leaders who created the events of 1866–69 did not do so only to emulate Western practices but also to restore and revive older Japanese institutions. Rather than a clash between modern and traditional methods, or between Western and Japanese practices, says Ravina, it was the result of a struggle to bridge those dichotomies and create new institutions that could evoke both Japanese uniqueness and Western progress. 

And it didn't happen in a vacuum. At the time a global political transformation was underway, involving the rise of nationalism and nation-states. The long-established multi-ethnic empires—Ottoman, Qinq, Romanov, and Hapsburg—were all deteriorating, to be replaced by nation states who asserted a specific cultural entity. A Japanese nation-state was seen as vital as a defense against foreign predation.

Although the Meiji Restoration caused a lot of trauma and social dislocation in Japan, it also enabled the country to join the ranks of world powers in the early 20th century. Japan would go on to ever greater power in East Asia until the tides turned against it in World War II. Today, however, Japan remains the third largest economy in the world, and a leader in innovation and technology—thanks in large part to the reforms of the Meiji Restoration.

Resources and Further Reading

  • Beasley, W.G. The Meiji Restoration. Stanford University, 2019.
  • Craig, Albert M. Choshu in the Meiji Restoration. Lexington, 2000.
  • Ravina, Mark. To Stand With the Nations of the World: Japan's Meiji Restoration in World History. Oxford University, 2017.
  • Wilson, George M. “Plots and Motives in Japan's Meiji Restoration.” Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 25, no. 3, July 1983, pp. 407-427.
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Szczepanski, Kallie. "What Was the Meiji Restoration?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/what-was-the-meiji-restoration-195562. Szczepanski, Kallie. (2020, August 26). What Was the Meiji Restoration? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-was-the-meiji-restoration-195562 Szczepanski, Kallie. "What Was the Meiji Restoration?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-was-the-meiji-restoration-195562 (accessed March 21, 2023).