Remembering the Meiji Restoration

The History Club

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Medieval Japan was a place of mystery to the Western world for many years. The island nation was heavily isolationist with minimal trade with Europe, outside of the Dutch. However, this all began to change in 1868, with the beginning of the Meiji Restoration. This “Restoration” was focused on industrialization, westernization and modernization. The beginning of this period marks the start of modern Japan. The implications of this period are long lasting and numerous, from both World Wars, incredible modern industry and global cultural significance.

Beginning with a coup d’etat, removing the last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, and replacing him with the new emperor, Mutsuhito (Meiji). The leaders of this reform were young samurai, now left adrift from the collapse of the feudal system. Scared of falling victim to foreign imperialism, these former samurai and reformers looked to quickly develop the nation. The first order of business was to form a plan of reform, listed in the Charter Oath, created in April 1868. The five conditions of the Charter Oath were based around political equality, cultural revitalization and intellectual prosperity. This document paved the way for creating a western-type parliamentary constitution that would bring Japan to the global forefront and set the stage for modern Japanese prominence.

The restoration was characterized by a massive overhaul of industrialization, modernization and republicanization. The results were not small either: 1,400 miles of railroad track was laid in 18 years, and Japan had achieved notable allies and military victories by the early 20th century. Japan had allied with the English in the Anglo-Japanese Alliance in 1902, and had defeated the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. This victory over the Russians was the spark that lit the powder-keg that was the Meiji Restoration ablaze. Prior to this, no Asian power had been taken seriously by Europe, much less defeated a European nation in battle. With the defeat of the Russians in 1905, Japan was now seen by the rest of the world as a force to contend with. This victory also got the ball rolling for the Japanese Imperial aspirations present in World War I, and even more so in World War II.

Despite the Japanese defeat in World War II, the effects of the Meiji Period were still alive and well, even to the current day. After the war, the Japanese rebuilt their cities into the advanced metropoles we know today. Tokyo, after being almost completely leveled by fire bombings, is now a booming, advanced metropolis, with state-of-the-art infrastructure, technology and cultural hub of Asia. Looking back to the railroads, the Japanese jumped far beyond the rest of the world in railroad technology after the war as well. In 1964, the Tokaido Shinkansen line was created. This line connected major cities Tokyo and Osaka, which are 320 miles apart and made the trip 4 hours long. Today, the trip takes 2 hours and 30 minutes. Constant refining, optimization and advancement of technology is something that the Japanese focus on in all aspects of industry, life and business. This idea echoes back to the original Charter Oath of April 1868, that set the chain of events off that lead us to today. So next time you are riding in a Lexus, Toyota, or Shinkansen, Japanese industry, and by extension, the Meiji Restoration, are to thank.

This article is written and contributed to the Beacon Newspaper by the History Club. They meet on Tuesday from 12:30-1:45 in Preakness Hall room 223.