Meiji Ishin, a Brief Overview of the Meiji Restoration

Published April 7th, 2023

The Meiji Restoration was a political movement that began in 1868. This led to the industrialization and modernization of Japan. In Japanese, it is referred to as 明治維新 (Meiji Ishin).

Starting in 1603, the Tokugawa shogunate, a militarized government, ruled Japan. It was also known as the Edo shogunate, and so this period is the Edo period, or 江戸時代 (Edo jidai). Before the Edo period, Japan went through two centuries of near constant civil war. This all came to an end with Tokugawa Ieyasu’s victory during the Battle of Sekigahara (1600). After the victory, Tokugawa Ieyasu established the Tokugawa shogunate. He announced himself as the first shōgun (将軍) and became one of the great unifiers of Japan. The Tokugawa shogunate led Japan into a period of peace, stability, and prosperity.

Statue of Tokugawa Ieyasu

But, by the late 1800’s, Japan had begun to weaken and outside threats were becoming clear. Japan was still living in a feudal state. It was run by hundreds of feudal lords known as 大名 (daimyō). The country was focused on agriculture, so technology had not developed. Japan’s weapons and technology were outdated and would not stand against an invasion. After 200 years of solitude, Japan had reopened its borders to foreign trade. With that, it became clear how out of date their technology was. This could lead to invasion and colonization.

The Meiji Restoration was a rebellion. Young samurai questioned the shogunate’s ability to defend against foreign invaders. Besides outside threats, outdated technology, and a weak military, Japan's economy was worsening. The inflation of rice prices angered samurai. Samurai received a stipend of rice known as (koku).

After overthrowing the Tokugawa shogunate, power was restored to the current emperor. This was Emperor Meiji. The Meiji Ishin received its name from him and 維新 (ishin) means “restoration.” The Meiji period (明治時代, Meiji jidai) ran from 1868 until Emperor Meiji’s death in 1912. During this time, Japan experienced rapid modernization and change.

Emperor Meiji

This did not come without resistance. Resistance in Japanese is 手向かい (temukai). Pushback came from conservatives and samurai who were now unemployed. The most notable rebellion to occur during this period was the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877. By this time, the Japanese military were now trained in Western warfare with modern weapons. The rebels were easily defeated. This was the last major rebellion against the Meiji Restoration.

With the Meiji Restoration, all aspects of Japanese society began to change. From technology and sciences to art and philosophy. Even so, Japan has been able to hold on to its culture and traditions. This created a beautiful and unique fusion of both traditional and modern culture.

Ouchijuku, Fukushima pref.

Small areas (撮土, satsudo) of traditional Japan still exist throughout the country. Tsumago (Nagano pref.) is considered one of the best preserved Edo-period villages in Japan. Cars are prohibited and all modern technology is hidden. Ouchijuku (Fukushima pref.) is an Edo-period village featuring 400 year old buildings with thatched roofs. All modern technology, such as electrical wires, are hidden underground. The “old town” area of Takayama (Gifu pref.) is a section of the city preserved since the Edo period, when it was a prospering merchant town. Shirakawa-go and Gokayama (Gifu pref.) are neighboring villages that both feature 250 year old thatched farmhouses. These famous A-frame gassho-zukuri homes are especially popular during the winter months.