150 Years after the Meiji Restoration

The Tokugawa shogunate (feudal Japanese samurai government), which ruled over 260 years in Japan, renounced its power in November 1867 and returned the government power to the emperor. The following year a new government was formed and the Meiji Epoch began.

Thereafter, Japan began to introduce the achievements of the Western countries very quickly. The transformation of a feudal state into a Western-oriented country was realized by the restoration of the Samurai (Warriors), not by an uprising of the lower social classes. At the same time, it was the end of an era in which the samurai elite had been ruling for over 700 years.

The samurai belonged to the highest social class, followed by peasants, craftsmen and merchants. The class system was abolished after the Meiji Restoration, forcing many samurai into new occupations. In view of the mighty Western countries, particularly the samurai in the countryside were worried because the Western powers colonized India, and the Qing Dynasty (China) was exploited by these powers after the Opium War. In order to be able to fend off such a colonization, a united country (nation state) with a strong economy and strong armed forces was indispensable.

The Tokugawa shogunate consisted of about 270 independently ruled fiefdoms, which partly fought against the shogunate but also against each other. By means of the new policy, Japan rapidly strove for Western systems and cultures, but lost much of its own culture in this adaptation. The ethics of the Samurai, called Bushido, fell by the wayside which also caused a gradual loss of morality in the society since Bushido had served the people as a model.

Today, Japan seems to have forgotten its own history. In the face of North Korea’s increasingly provocative nuclear and missile tests and China’s unbridled expansion policy, Japan still has neither a determined political agenda nor a people’s consensus to defend its own country. Indeed, North Korea has rockets capable of reaching Japan since the 1990s.

Although article 9 of the Japanese Constitution clearly prohibits the maintenance of any armed forces, Japan unlawfully keeps unlawful the so-called Self-Defense Forces. The majority of the Japanese, however, does not have any questions yet about security policy and the operational military doctrine. Because the Japanese military is legal only according to the latest constitutional interpretation, intense debates proliferate and ambiguities about the deployment and legal status logically follow. China, unlike Japan now, is striving inexorably to build a strong country, like Japan did 150 years ago. Apart from the fact that the way between today’s China and Japan at that time to achieve this goal is quite different, China’s consciousness and determination is undoubtedly clear and based on bitter historical experience.

A survey targeting the younger Japanese generation shows astonishing results. Many young Japanese consider the Communist Party and other opposition parties to be conservative, whereas the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is considered liberal. LDP Prime Minister Abe, in stark contrast to above opinion poll, is repeatedly criticized abroad as a right-wing conservative. Since he wants to change the Constitution and the opposition parties oppose it, the young generation in Japan seems to have a reversed political understanding.

Even if Japan has successfully reached the goals of the Meiji Restoration, the Meiji period Japanese will probably have lived in an internal conflict. As Japan perceived modern western countries as a precondition for a strong nation, it destroyed its own long-standing traditions. After the Second World War, the US served Japan as a model. Because of the increasing globalization, many foreigners are now coming to Japan, and more and more land and real estate have been bought by foreigners for lack of laws. The world is changing very quickly. It seems that Japan is once again ready for a Meiji restoration. This awareness though, despite the omnipresence and ready availability of information technologies, does not seem to mature. The lost Samurai ethic was not replaced. After 150 years of steady modernization, the history of the Meiji Restoration could teach Japan much in view of the current turbulent times.

Related Posts: