Japan: TOKUGAWA PERIOD AND MEIJI RESTORATION Japan’s Tokugawa (or Edo) period, which lasted from 1603 to 1867, would be the final era of traditional Japanese government, culture and society before the Meiji Restoration of 1868 toppled the long-reigning Tokugawa shoguns and propelled the country into the modern era. Tokugawa Ieyasu’s dynasty of shoguns presided over 250 years of peace and prosperity in Japan, including the rise of a new merchant class and increasing urbanization. To guard against external influence, they also worked to close off Japanese society from Westernizing influences, particularly Christianity. But when the Tokugawa shogunate growing increasingly weak by the mid-19th century, two powerful clans joined forces in early 1868 to seize power as part of an “imperial restoration” named for Emperor Meiji. The Meiji Restoration spelled the beginning of the end for feudalism in Japan, and would lead to the emergence of modern Japanese culture, politics and society.
BACKGROUND & RISE OF TOKUGAWA SHOGUNATE During the 1500s, power was decentralized in Japan, which was torn apart by warfare between competing feudal lords (daimyo) for nearly a century. Following his victory in the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, however, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) swiftly consolidated power from his heavily fortified castle at Edo (now Tokyo). The prestigious but largely powerless imperial court named Ieyasu as shogun (or supreme military leader) in 1603, beginning a dynasty that would rule Japan for the next two-and-a-half centuries.
From the beginning, the Tokugawa regime focused on reestablishing order in social, political and international affairs after a century of warfare. The political structure, established by Ieyasu and solidified under his two immediate successors, his son Hidetada (who ruled from 1616-23) and grandson Iemitsu (1623-51), bound all daimyos to the shogunate and limited any individual daimyo from acquiring too much land or power.
TOKUGAWA SHOGUNS CLOSE JAPAN TO FOREIGN INFLUENCE
Suspicious of foreign intervention and colonialism, the Tokugawa regime acted to exclude missionaries and eventually issued a complete ban on Christianity in Japan. Near the beginning of the Tokugawa period, there were an estimated 300,000 Christians in Japan; after the shogunate’s brutal repression of a Christian rebellion on the Shimabara Peninsula in 1637-38, Christianity was forced underground. The dominant faith of the Tokugawa period was Confucianism, a relatively conservative religion with a strong emphasis on loyalty and duty. In its efforts to close Japan off from damaging foreign influence, the Tokugawa shogunate also prohibited trade with Western nations and prevented Japanese merchants from trading abroad. With the Act of Seclusion (1636), Japan was effectively cut off from Western nations for the next 200 years (with the exception of a small Dutch outpost in Nagasaki Harbor). At the same time, it maintained close relations with neighboring Korea and China, confirming a traditional East Asian political order with China at the center.
TOKUGAWA PERIOD: ECONOMY AND SOCIETY The Neo-Confucian theory that dominated Japan during the Tokugawa Period recognized only four social classes–warriors (samurai), artisans, farmers and merchants–and mobility between the four classes was officially prohibited. With peace restored, many samurai became bureaucrats or took up a trade. At the same time, they were expected to maintain their warrior pride and military preparedness, which led to much frustration in their ranks. For their part, peasants (who made up 80 percent of the Japanese population) were forbidden from engaging in non-agricultural activities, thus ensuring consistent income for landowning authorities.
The Japanese economy grew significantly during the Tokugawa period. In addition to an emphasis on agricultural production (including the staple crop of rice as well as sesame oil, indigo, sugar cane, mulberry, tobacco and cotton), Japan’s commerce and manufacturing industries also expanded, leading to the rise of an increasingly wealthy merchant class and in turn to the growth of Japanese cities. A vibrant urban culture emerged centered in Kyoto, Osaka and Edo (Tokyo), catering to merchants, samurai and townspeople rather than to nobles and daimyo, the traditional patrons. The Genroku era (1688-1704) in particular saw the rise of Kabuki theater and Bunraku puppet theater, literature (especially Matsuo Bosho, the master of haiku) and woodblock printing.
As agricultural production lagged in comparison to the mercantile and commercial sectors, samurai and daimyo did not fare as well as the merchant class. Despite efforts at fiscal reform, mounting opposition seriously weakened the Tokugawa shogunate from the mid-18th to the mid-19th century, when years of famine led to increased peasant uprisings. In 1867, two powerful anti-Tokugawa clans, the Choshu and Satsuma, combined forces to topple the shogunate, and the following year declared an “imperial restoration” in the name of the young Emperor Meiji, who was just 14 years old at the time.
The peace and stability of the Tokugawa period, and the economic development it fostered, set the stage for the rapid modernization that took place after the Meiji Restoration. During the Meiji Period, which ended with the emperor’s death in 1912, the country experienced significant social, political and economic change–including the abolition of the feudal system and the adoption of a cabinet system of government. In addition, the new regime opened the country once again to Western trade and influence and oversaw a buildup of military strength that would soon propel Japan onto the world stage.
In 1867/68, the Tokugawa era found an end in the Meiji Restoration. The emperor Meiji was moved from Kyototo Tokyo which became the new capital; his imperial power was restored. The actual political power was transferred from the Tokugawa Bakufu into the hands of a small group of nobles and former samurai.
Like other subjugated Asian nations, the Japanese were forced to sign unequal treaties with Western powers. These treaties granted the Westerners one-sided economical and legal advantages in Japan. In order to regain independence from the Europeans and Americans and establish herself as a respected nation in the world, Meiji Japan was determined to close the gap to the Western powers economically and militarily. Drastic reforms were carried out in practically all areas.
The new government aimed to make Japan a democratic state with equality among all its people. The boundaries between the social classes of Tokugawa Japan were gradually broken down. Consequently, the samurai were the big losers of those social reforms since they lost all their privileges. The reforms also included the establishment of human rights such as religious freedom in 1873.
In order to stabilize the new government, the former feudal lords (daimyo) had to return all their lands to the emperor. This was achieved already in 1870 and followed by the restructuring of the country in prefectures.
The education system was reformed after the French and later after the German system. Among those reforms was the introduction of compulsory education.
After about one to two decades of intensive westernization, a revival of conservative and nationalistic feelings took place: principles of Confucianism and Shinto including the worship of the emperor were increasingly emphasized and taught at educational institutions.
Catching up on the military sector was, of course, a high priority for Japan in an era of European and American imperialism. Universal conscription was introduced, and a new army modelled after the Prussian force, and a navy after the British one were established.
In order to transform the agrarian economy of Tokugawa Japan into a developed industrial one, many Japanese scholars were sent abroad to study Western science and languages, while foreign experts taught in Japan. The transportation and communication networks were improved by means of large governmental investments. The government also directly supported the prospering of businesses and industries, especially the large and powerful family businesses called zaibatsu.
The large expenditures led to a financial crisis in the middle of the 1880's which was followed by a reform of the currency system and the establishment of the Bank of Japan. The textile industry grew fastest and remained the largest Japanese industry until WW2. Work conditions in the early factories were very bad, but developing socialist and liberal movements were soon suppressed by the ruling clique.
On the political sector, Japan received its first European style constitution in 1889. A parliament, the Diet was established while the emperor kept sovereignty: he stood at the top of the army, navy, executive and legislative power. The ruling clique, however, kept on holding the actual power, and the able and intelligent emperor Meiji agreed with most of their actions. Political parties did not yet gain real power due to the lack of unity among their members.
Conflicts of interests in Korea between China and Japan led to the Sino-Japanese War in 1894-95. Japan defeated China, received Taiwan, but was forced by Russia, France and Germany to return other territories. The so called Triple Intervention caused the Japanese army and navy to intensify their rearmament.
New conflicts of interests in Korea and Manchuria, this time between Russia and Japan, led to the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-05. The Japanese army also won this war gaining territory and finally some international respect. Japan further increased her influence on Korea and annexed her completely in 1910. In Japan, the war successes caused nationalism to increase even more, and other Asian nations also started to develop national self-confidence.
In 1912 emperor Meiji died, and the era of the ruling clique of elder statesmen (genro) was about to end.