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Meiji: beyond the imperial restoration lies a true cultural and economic revolution
Promulgation of the Meiji Constitution in 1889

Written by Maciamo on 14 March 2004 (slightly revised in January 2012)

Historical background

In the mid 19th century, Japan was a country closed to the Western world (with the notable exceptions of the Dutch trading post in Nagasaki) and had been so for about two and half centuries. During that time, Japanese society and technological advances progressed very slowly compared to Western countries. In the 1850's the British, Americans and Russians exerted increasing pressure on Japan to open its ports to international commerce. The shogunate first tried to ignore them, but then had no choice but to cede after the Americans, under commodore Perry, threatened to use their guns' power if Japan refused to cooperate. The Japanese thus reluctantly let the "long-nosed barbarians", as they were referred to, trade in a few Japanese ports under a fairly unequal set of trade treaties. These treaties applied not only to Americans, but also to the British, French, Dutch and Russians.

This caused great discontentment in Japanese society. Resentment mounted among the samurai class too, and a number of bunched up and planned to overthrow the government that they judged incapable of protecting the interests of Japan. Their first intention was to subsequently push the foreigners out of Japan, but as they organised their rebellion they had no choice but to negotiate with Western powers themselves. After a failed uprising in Chōshū (the Western end of Honshū), some samurai from Tosa (southern Shikoku) created a alliance with samurai from Satsuma (southern Kyūshū) and the remainder of Chōshū samurai. While France backed the shogunate, Britain helped the rebels by providing them with guns. The rebellious samurai could this way arm peasants to fight on their side, and eventually succeeded in a few weeks in taking control of the whole country.

In a complete reversal of situation, the new leaders were now convinced that Japan had to modernize itself if it were to compete with Western powers. This meant adopting Western technology, system and knowledge. Thus started the great changes of the Meiji restoration. Here is a list of the transformations that Japan underwent during the last 3 decades of the 19th century.

What changed in Japan during the Meiji period

Army

  • adoption of Western weapons
  • adoption of Western uniforms
  • adoption of Western-style military music
  • adoption of Western military organization (titles, etc.)
  • creation of a Western-style navy
  • introduction of a conscription system

Culture & Education

  • compulsory schooling
  • first universities
  • developement of Western-style literature (in contrast to haiku, kabuki, noh, etc.)
  • developement of Western-style painting (in contrast to ukiyoe)
  • Japanese start drinking (cow) milk for the first time in their history

Government & Society

  • Western legal system (=> one condition to revise the unequal treaties)
  • bicameral parliament
  • nation-wide tax (as opposed to daimyo domain taxes)
  • creation of prefectures (in replacement to daimyo domains)
  • suppression of samurai rights (swords...) and stipends
  • suppression of the fixed social classes/occupations
  • permission for commoners to move outside their villages
  • creation of family names for everybody

Fashion

  • adoption of Western clothes (洋服) for everybody from the Emperor to manual workers.
  • adoption of Western hairstyles
  • develpopment of Western entertainment (dances, music, literature...)
  • Western-style houses/buildings (which has evolved to a new hybrid style after WWII)
  • Westernized etiquette (though only partly)
  • women stopped shaving their eyebrows and blacken their teeth.

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