Today (July 30) marks the 100th anniversary of the death of the Meiji Emperor, great-grandfather of the current Emperor, and a figure whose 45-year reign saw perhaps the most rapid and dramatic changes in Japan’s history.
Right: Perhaps the most famous portrait of the Meiji Emperor, drawn in graphite or charcoal by Edouard Chiossone in 1888. Photographs of the work were distributed throughout the country, a crucial part of a nationalism centered on the emperor. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Admittedly, when we consider that 45 years is also the difference between today and 1968, it is not actually that short a timespan. So much has happened in the world between 1968 and today, and so I suppose the argument could be made that the Meiji reign, from 1868-1912, should not be seen as such a big deal. Yet, in addition to the fact that this period represents the first emergence of a non-industrialized non-Western country into a top, world-class Westernized, industrialized nation-state, the most dramatic changes took place in the first ten years or so of the period.
The shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu (Keiki) officially resigned in November 1867, and an Imperial government took command of the country for the first time in centuries. The Emperor, whose personal name was Mutsuhito, had taken the throne earlier that year. Though the Shogun resigned peacefully, not being militarily forcibly overthrown, pro-shogunate forces acting on their own (i.e. not commanded by the shogun or his government) continued to fight until 1869 (and then again a couple times in the 1870s). Early in 1868, the Emperor officially declared the restoration of direct Imperial rule, and sent missives to foreign powers reporting the change in government; later that year, the former shogunal capital of Edo was renamed Tokyo, and the Imperial capital was moved there, after being located in Kyoto for over 1000 years.
Right: The tomb-mound gravesite of the Meiji Emperor, on the former site of Fushimi-Momoyama Castle in Kyoto. During the Meiji Period, in conjunction with a crafted culture/ideology of emperor worship, all the imperial gravesites in the country were re-fashioned to conform to a more consistent style of site to visit and revere. Photo my own.
A new Constitution, heavily influenced by Western models, including especially the British and Prussian modes of government, would be promulgated in 1890, but as early as 1868, a new government based on historical Imperial models was already in place, replacing the administrative structure of the Tokugawa shogunate’s governance. The quasi-independent samurai domains, or han, were abolished in 1871, and reorganized as prefectures, absorbed into a much more centralized, unified state. By the end of the 1870s, the samurai class and traditional Court aristocracy would be abolished, and replaced with a new peerage system of aristocracy based on European models, while the various status ranks of peasants and townspeople were combined and elevated into citizens.
By the end of the 19th century, Japan would have a nationwide public education system; Western/”modern”-style banks, industry, and corporations; its first railroads; and numerous other elements of a “modern” nation-state based on Western models.
Of course, such rapid modernization & Westernization did not come without sacrifices and difficulties; a myriad of aspects of traditional culture became seriously threatened, and each of these fields, from painting and woodblock printing to kabuki and other traditional performing arts, to Buddhism, faced dramatic struggles for survival. Though regional specialties (e.g. foods, souvenirs, known as meibutsu) and a strong sense of regional cultural identity remain today, this was also a period of powerful homogenization efforts, as an ideology of a single, homogeneous Japanese people and Japanese state was emphasized in the public schools and throughout the country.
Meiji Japan was a place of great advancement, if we might use that word, improvements in civil rights, democratic participation, and public education for all, a place of beautiful style and aesthetics, and exciting constant changes. I can only imagine it would have been beautiful and exciting to live in, or visit, such a place, a place full of rickshaws and railroads, of Victorian hats and coats juxtaposed with traditional kimono, of busy, active cities filled with impressive new monuments and sites of great history, and of new and old traditions.
Left: A statue of Emperor Meiji, at Naminoue Shrine in Naha, Okinawa. The plaque identifies the subject of the statue not as “the Emperor” or “the Meiji Emperor,” but as “The State” (国家, ”kokka”), a dramatic symbol, perhaps, of attitudes at that time equating the Emperor with Japan itself, and a symbol of the imposition of Japanese political control, ideology, and culture into the territory of the formerly independent Ryûkyû Kingdom. Photo my own.
Yet, many scholars today trace the militarism of the 1930s-40s too back to the Meiji period. For a time, the dominant narrative was that the 1930s-40s represented a dramatic break, an anomalous deviation from the positive, liberal, democratic path Japan had been on. Scholars today, however, point to a more consistent path beginning in Meiji. The northern island of Hokkaidô, the home of the indigenous Ainu, was incorporated into the Japanese empire in 1869, and over the course of the next 10 years, the Ryukyu Kingdom was dismantled, and its territory – the string of islands to the south of Kyushu, from Okinawa down to Yonaguni near Taiwan – was annexed. Taiwan itself became a Japanese territory after the Japanese victory in the 1894-1895 Sino-Japanese War, followed by the annexation of Korea in 1910, the Japanese victory over Russia in the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War being quite notable as a victory of a non-Western power over a Western power. Colonial history, fascism, militarism, and the like being very popular topics today in scholarship on Japanese history here in the US, the Meiji period is becoming less purely positive and more controversial.
Japan remains today one of the leading Westernized/modern non-Western countries, a country on the cutting edge of technology and culture in so many ways. The modernization efforts of the Meiji period did not grow out of nothing at all – they were built atop proto-industrial and “early modern” foundations set in the Edo period – but, even so, the advances and developments of the Meiji Period were, inarguably, invaluable, in making Japan the great modern power and vibrant cultural scene that it is today.