* Meiji imperial regime

Meiji Imperial Regime (1867-1912)

Figure 1.--The Japan the Emperor Meiji set out to modernize was a Japan virtually untouched by the Western world. Here we see three men and two boys, we think in the 1870s. Perhaps our readers will help us understand this image, but we think it is a Japanese family, the men of which did not think it proper to have their wives and daughters photographed. Japan would prove more accepting of Western technology than Western social values. This would prove a common traditional reation around the world to the West. Japan proved especially adept at technological change.

With the coup d'état in 1867, the Shogun abdicated. A boy emperor, who had virtually nothing to do with over turning the Shogunate, turnrd into an energetic new, young emperor. And for the first time in centuries actually ruled Japan. He took the title Meiji for his reign (1867-1912). He soon showed himself to be both competent and strong-willed. He proved to be especially adept at choosing wise officials to positions of influence. Japan under Meiji rule pursue a consistent policy with considerable success. He installed men from the formerly 'outside clans' into the key positions of power. The new Government had taken power in part becauuse of the Shogun's decession to open Japan. And they saw in China what the Western powers were capable of doing in Japan. They concluded, however, that given Western military superiority that that anti-Western actions and policies, without the military power needed to defend the country, would be self defeating. They decided to mute their anti-Western attitudes while Japan built a modern military. Officials soon realized that this meant industrialization. (In the West, the Royal Navy played a key role in the Industrial Revolution.) nd this in turn ewould reequire a modern efducayion system. This connection between industry and military power was soon recognized. Thus a deeply conservative who treasured tradition, set about transforming themselves with breathtaking speed and thourgness. Japan quickly made the transition from a medieval to a modern economy. The Japanese followed European models. The country formed a parliamentary government (1889), but the social and political modernization lagged the economic modernization--a development that would lead to the 20th century Pacific War. A rising industrial base allowed Japan to create the most powerful military in Asia.

Imperial Military

Japan was not a Fascist country. It had features of fascism, including racism, militarism, and xenepobia, but there was no fascist political party. Rather the military, dominated by the Imperial Army, seized control of the state. And unlike Fascist political parties, the military's goal was to preserve traditional society, not to conduct a social revolution. The Meiji Restoration ovethrew the Shoigunate and instituted a range of modrtizing reforms. One of thise was a European dtyle military with modern arms. Underneath the modern patina, many tradituional values and the old social structure were retained. For the military this meant the traditional samarai spirit and code of Bushido. Japan became the only industrial country in Asia and was thus able to domimnte Eastern Asia, including China a much larger country with resources it coveted. Japan waaa resource poor country whose industry was dependent on importing raw nmaterials. It was also not self sufficent in food production. This helped set the military on a very expensive course of overseas expamsion. Competing with still tradition bound China was one things, competing with Western powers was another matter--especially the United States and the Soviet Union. After World War I, this is precisely what Japan set out to do, They were attracted by the resource-rich colonies of the European powers. and began to brankrupt the country. A first civilan poloiticans who resusted were assassinated, eventually after the Depressioin caused severe locations, the military began to play an increasing political role, eventually seizing control of the country. The military fir the most part were not highly ediucated men. They assumed that part of a great natioin was having colonies which would provide needed resources. As a result, this was their goal, . Unfortunately for Japan, set squarely between the Home Islands and the resoirce-rich Europoean colonies of Southeast Asian was the American Phillipine Island. This meant that even went Europe eruoted in War, the Japanese woulf have to contend with the United States when they moved south. Unlike the European Axis, the Japanese militarists studied the matter of war verybcarefully and they concluded that they coukld defeat the United Stares in a short war. And based on their ujnderstanding of America, based primarily on watching Hollywood films, decadent Americans would not have the stomach to fight a long war. While Japan's suucess in China was based largely on its industrial supoeriority, the mikitarists concluded that their superior traditional fighting spo=irit would be major factor in defeating the United States.

Industrial Modernization

The super-isolated Japan became the first Asian country to introduce Western methods and industrialize. After the Unied States forced Japan to open its ports (1850s), the Tokogawa Shogunate began the industrilization of the country. That process was excelerated by the Mejii Restoration. One of the major steps taken by the Mejii reforers was to end the feudal system. The first sector to industrilize as with the induistrial revvolution in the West was the textile industry, primarily cotton and especially silk. Cotton had to be imported, but silk was produced domesticlly. Traditionally silk was produed at home workshops in rural areas. Modern Japanese textiles plants dominated the domestic marke and had begu to competey with British textiles in China and India (1890s) Japanese shippers had begun competing with European lines to carry goods in the Pacific and had begun to open European routes. The textile mills employed mainly employed women, about half of whom were teenagers. Their fathers incouraged this to increase family income. Japan largely skipped over theearly water power phase that Britain went thrug and early mills oprated on steam power. This created ademand for coal, onentural resource Japan had. The Mejii Government intervened massively in the economy. The government often introduced new industries seen as important, especially industries needed for producing military weapons and supplies. The Goverment would not operate these new industries over a long period. Once a factory had achieved some success, it was sold to private operators, not uncommonly at attractiove prices. Thus the Japanese Government was financing the creation of a capitalist economy. Many developing countries maintain high-import duties on foreign goods to promote the development of domestic industries. Japan did not do this. Thus Japanese industries while supported by the sate developed in a competitive environment and became highly efficient. It also meant that the companies could compete on the world market. Even before World War I, Japanese products had begun to compete with Western goods in China and other Asian markets. The relationship between industry and military power was clear. The country, however, took to economic moderization much quicker than to political and social modernization. Ths is all well reported by historians and economists. What isnot well reported is that Japanese economic progress was generated by capitalism. Perhaps because of the horendous atrocities of the Japanese military during World War I, this has been obscured. As a result, the new countries appearing with decolonization chose to try to rapidly develop modern economies through socialist polices. The reult in China and the former Europen colonies in Africa and Asia was economic failure. Only with the Asian Tigers and then China and India did the power of capitalim and the failure of socialism begin to be more widely understood.


Japan at the time of the Meiji Restoration had the most advanced school sysrem in Asia, but it was not yet a true public school system. The modern educational system began to take shape after the last Shogan, Hitotsubashi Yoshinobu, resigned in 1867 and the Emperor, Mutsuhito, assumed the powers of the actual head of state. Mutsuhito took the name Meiji ('Enlightened Government') to designate himself and his reign. Feudal fiefs were surrendered to the Emperor who ininitated a series of political and social reforms aimed at transforming Japan into a modern state--using the nation states of Europe as a model. The preminent model used Imperial Germany which had just been forged out of a host of independent states by Prussia. A major goal of the Meiji reformers was to create a modern education system. One of the early steps taken by the Imperial Government was the creation of a public school system. An education law enacted in 1872 made 4 years of compulsory education manditory. The government set up elementary and secondary schools throughout Japan. Primary education was coeducational and free. Secondary education involved fees and girls could attend separate schools. The Government in 1886 inagurated a system providing 3-4 years of education. But an important part of the reforms was to educate the girls as well. The children mostly wore traditional garments in the 19th century, but the secondary schools began introducing uniforms. We have not yet found any school images at all until the Meiji Restoration. Western dress was not yet common in Japan. We do see boys wearing Prussian cadet caps, but not the rest of the uniform that would become common in the 20th century. The photographic record shows boys wearing traditional clothes to school throughout the 20th century. Most of the 19th century images we have found show boys at school. The idea of educating girls as well was an idea that took some time to be accepted by Japanese society.


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Created: 2:53 AM 1/24/2010
Last updated: 2:53 AM 1/24/2010