A Brief History of Japan from the Late 19th Century to the Early 20th Century


Bakumatsu is the Japanese phrase used to categorize the pivotal years at the end of the Edo era (1603-1868). The Chinese characters for Bakumatsu signify “the end of the Bakufu”. This was the end of Tokugawa Shogunate, who ruled Japan from 1600 to 1868. What partially resulted in the decline of the Tokugawa Shogunate was the arrival arrival of Matthew C. Perry of the United States Navy and his infamous black ships, a fleet indeed to force the Japanese to open to trade after the centuries long period of isolation.

One such trade agreement was the 1858 Treaty of Amity and Commerce between the United States and the Empire of Japan. This treaty that had dire consequences for Ii Naosuke, a high-ranking official of the Tokugawa shogunate who negotiated the terms. The treaty opened ports of Tokyo, Kobe, Nagasaki, Niigata and Yokohama to trade, and granted extraterritoriality to foreigners. Displeased with this apparent assault on Japanese sovereignty, several of Ii’s detractors plotted to have him assassinated in 1860, as an act known as the Sakuradamon Incident.

The assassination triggered a succession of events, starting with the the 1862 Namamugi Incident, that was an assault on the British people in Japan. Failure by the Satsuma clan to respond to British demands for compensation resulted in the Anglo-Satsuma War between the United Kingdom and the Satsuma Domain. The people’s trust in the Tokugawa Shogunate plummeted and a fever swept Japan to restore rule to the emperor, expressed in the cries of sonnō jōi, or “revere the Emperor, expel the barbarians”.

The Choshu Domain later fell under the radar of the Tokugawa shogunate in several punitive expeditions known as the First and Second Choshu Expedition, in 1864 and 1865. These expeditions were further strengthened by the Tokugawa Shogunate alliance with England, France, the United States and the Netherlands, who bombarded Shimonoseki. With mediation from Sakamoto Ryōma of the Tosa Domain, Satsuma and Choshu military leaders formed the 1866 Satchō Alliance to restore Imperial rule, and overthrow the Tokugawa shogunate of Japan.

Yoshinobu Tokugawa, the 15th shogun, implemented restoration of imperial rule in 1867 in hopes that the Tokugawa Shogunate could be preserved and allowed to participate in the future government. Samurai who had ruled Japan for nearly 700 years were in their final days, but not before one final decisive showdown known as the Boshin War. This civil war was fought from 1868 to 1869, between the Tokugawa shogunate and those seeking to return political power to the Imperial Court. Ultimately, it resulted in imperial rule reigning supreme throughout Japan.

Meiji Restoration

Broadly speaking, the Meiji Restoration was a political revolution that ushered in the Meiji era (1868-1912) by ending the rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The end of the war saw power restored to the imperial palace under the newly crowned Emperor Meiji. The modernization and westernization of Japan was ushered in through major political, economic and social change, which all occurred in a remarkable span of merely 50 years.

The unfair treaties that Japan had signed with western nations was one driving force of the Meiji Restoration. Recovery of Japanese sovereignty and power became the basis of a large part of the policies formed during the Meiji period. After more than two centuries of isolation, Japanese nationalists feared that Japan would be subjected to the same western intervention as was happening in China in the mid 19th century. As such, the slogan “Enrich the country, strengthen the army” (fukoku kyohei) was used as a rallying call to create a nation-state capable of standing equal among Western powers.

The first call of action was moving the imperial capital of Japan from Kyoto to the shogunate capital of Edo, which later took on its current name of Tokyo (“The capital of the east”). This was followed by the dismantling of the feudal regime and its class privileges, and replacing domains with the present-day system of prefectures.

Furthermore, a national army, along with universal conscription law and universal education, resulted in a nationalist ideology shift. Thinking shifted from a line of defense against western colonization, to a fight to obtain equality with western industrialized nations.

These changes were not welcomed with open arms. Throughout the 1870s and reaching its peak in the 1880s, former samurai, stripped of their privilege and status led a series of uprisings. Peasants were dissatisfied with agrarian and taxation policies that served only as a form of revenue for the new Meiji government, without benefiting the common folk.

Due to the introduction of universal education, which largely started with importing western philosophy, a growing popular rights movement called for the creation of a constitutional government. In response, the Meiji government created a cabinet system in 1885 and four years later, Itō Hirobumi, Japan’s first prime minister, drafted the Meiji Constitution. Modeled after the Prussian and British models of a mixed constitutional and absolute monarchy, the Meiji Constitution named the Meiji Emperor head of state and the prime minister the head of government. The Meiji Constitution remained in place until 1946, when it was revised to Japan’s current constitution.

Along with political advances, Meiji era Japan underwent an enormous process of industrialization and modernization. Known as bunmei kaika (“civilization and enlightenment”), western culture was widely promoted. From intellectual trends to clothing and architecture, trends were adopted to promote and strengthen Japan’s science, technology, iron and steel manufacturing, shipbuilding, and coal mining industries. The first railroad was built in 1872, and all major cities were linked by telegraph lines by 1880. Private firms were also encouraged with government financial support, and aided by the institution of a European-style banking system in 1882.

By the end of the 19th century, Japan had become a full-fledged modern industrialized nation, on par with western powers. The unequal treaties of 1854 that had granted foreign powers judicial and economic privileges through extraterritoriality were revised in 1894. While the death of the Emperor Meiji in 1912 marked the end of the period, several of the important Meiji leaders carried on as elder statesmen, many of whom were educated at Hagi’s Shouka Sonjuku.