Meiji Period, Japan

Japanese Blue and White Porcelain Fishbowl, probably Meiji Period (1868‑1912), decorated with birds on branch panels

p4A ItemID F7988310
Japanese Kutani Porcelain Punch bowl, Meiji Period (1868‑1912), decorated with shaped floral panels on an iron red and gilt ground

p4A ItemID F7988307
Japanese Imari Porcelain Charger, Meiji Period (1868‑1912), decorated with a central dragon‑and‑pearl roundel encircled by bands with stylized phoenix roundels and cartouches

p4A ItemID F7981521
Japanese Satsuma Pottery Three Piece Garniture, Meiji Period (1868‑1912), incl. two tapered square vases and handled koro with openwork metal cover

p4A ItemID F7968227

The Japanese Meiji Period (1868-1911)

In 1867/68 the Tokugawa shogunate era came to an end with the restoration of imperial power to the emperor Meiji (died, 1912) and the transfer of the government from Kyoto to Tokyo. 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 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 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 with the samurai were the big losers, 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 by 1870 and was 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.

Military modernization was 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.

These large expenditures led to a financial crisis in 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 World War II. Work conditions in the early factories were very bad, but developing socialist and liberal movements were soon suppressed by the ruling clique (genro).

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 governing clique (genro), however, kept 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 Western powers to return other territories gained in the war. This action made 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 in Korea and annexed the state completely in 1910. In Japan, these military victories caused nationalism to increase even more, and other Asian nations also started to develop national self confidence.


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