Saturday, October 03, 2009

Emergence of Reformist Ideology in Pre-Meiji Japan (1800-1868)

Why is Japan so different from the rest of Asia?

Anybody who seeks an answer to this seemingly simple question will - quite invariably -  take stroll down by-lanes of history and find numerous references to `Meiji Restoration`, as well as the young Samurais from two peripheral domains of the Japanese archipelago - Choshu and Satsuma.

This small group of men – later called the ‘Meiji Reformers`, not only mounted a successful coup against the 250-year old Tokugawa Shogunate, but also went on to construct myths & traditions to unify a nation, and to implement a series of reforms that were to transform a resource-starved, largely feudal, agricultural society into one of the most prosperous, dynamic countries of the world.

The changes wrought by Meiji reformers were so deeply ingrained in the collective psyche of the nation that it played no small part in the resilience shown by the Japanese in the face of utter defeat and devastation that came as an aftermath of World War-II. How did such a small provincial group come to be regarded as the visionaries who changed the destiny of a nation?

This paper attempts to seek answers to the aforesaid questions. In doing so, it examines the life and times of the key players, starting with the first visible signs of dissidence in the Tokugawa Shogunate during the early 1800’s and culminating in the Boshin Wars and Meiji Restoration in 1868.


In the early 1800’s Japan was a largely agricultural economy with a population of about 30 million (Japan Profile, 2006). It was almost completely shut-out from the outside world by a coalition of military rulers under the Tokugawa Shogunate. This shogunate had come to power in the 1600’s after a protracted period of internal strife and turmoil (Senkoku – or the Warring States Period: 1467-1568).

Since foreign influence was perceived as one of the destabilizing factors, the rulers decided that the best way to maintain peace in the country was to keep its interaction with the outside world to an absolute minimum. Accordingly, foreign ships were barred from all the ports in the Japanese archipelago, except Nagasaki which was directly controlled by the shogunate. Feudal domains were under strict instructions to ensure that foreigners – especially European traders and proselytizers – were kept out of the archipelago.   At the same time, the Japanese themselves were forbidden to travel overseas.

The Tokugawa shogunate then undertook a series of steps to assure military and economic preponderance for itself (Najita, 1974):

  • Direct control over one-fourth of the rice yield in the country
  • Enacting stringent  laws forbidding lateral baronial alliances between the regional daimyo’s (feudal lords)
  • It allowed daimyo to retain as lords of han domains (~250), along with administrative authority in judicial, fiscal, agricultural, and educational matters .
  • Also allowed the daimyo’s to retain a separate vassalage, samurai who owed direct loyalty to them as lords of han, not to the shogun as head of the bakufu
  • Each daimyo had to visit Edo periodically and leave behind hostages (a system called Sankin kotai), forcing them to build several sumptuous mansions and for a sizable service retinue;
  • To limit mobility of the samurai class they were given the `choice` of living on land or in castle towns;
  • Retaining the unilateral prerogative to use military force against transgressors of its laws;

The Tokugawa shogunate thus managed to establish a coalition of feudal lords. Even though peace had been established after a period of protracted turmoil (Warring States Period, 1467-1568), competition persisted among the semiautonomous domains. Military traditions were preserved but the competition was increasingly of an economic sort. Each domain promoted its own version of state interest (kokueki) by through `internationally` organized commercial development. (Pyle, 2007)

The above steps, on one hand, ensured political stability to the country for about 250 years, but at the same time it made the rulers oblivious of the momentous changes were taking place on the other side of the globe. In Europe, industrial revolution in England had triggered a socio-economic transformation, as well as a severe competition for raw materials from colonies in Asia, Africa and the “New World”.

Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands had been initially at the forefront during the age of Discovery. Driven by improvements in shipbuilding technology and navigation, they had discovered new lands and returned with hoards of spices gold that spurred nations to send their ships further. Soon, other European nations followed this trend resulting in a severe competition for resources had impelled European powers across Africa and South Asia towards the hitherto unexploited markets of East Asia – especially China.

In the face of the momentous changes in Japan’s neighborhood, perhaps the only course of action to ensure survival was to was to meet the West on its own terms - i.e., to introduce modern science and technology in order to transform a traditional society on an industrial basis under the aegis of a modern nation-state .

The constraints to such a transformation were quite formidable. In natural resources, Japan appeared at a grave disadvantage - her farmlands were overcrowded; her mineral endowment was meager, except in coal and copper; It geographical location was a disadvantage with no easy access to great markets or raw materials; In terms of social capacity too it suffered the handicap of feudal traditions which, during the 250 years of isolation under the Tokugawa shogunate, had failed to create a moral basis for unity so long characteristic of China (Lockwood, 1956).

History teaches us that industrial development generally builds on agricultural expansion in the early stages. Soon it comes to depend on the creation of large metal working industries. In face of the aforementioned constraints, the crucial element was the emergence of new elite with the capacity to face realistically the situation confronting them, to identify their own personal and class interests with the cause of modernization, and to act in the role of leadership before the opportunity was lost. (ibid. 1)

The Early Reformers

During the 1800`s Japan was agrarian, semi-centralized, aristocratic, and seclusionist. Just a hundred years later, by the 1900`s, it had become unmistakably industrial, centralized, egalitarian, constitutional and expansionist.

One of the key factors that led to this transformation was the emergence of a rather radical school of thought which came to be known later as the Mito Critique. Mito was a prestigious fief in the country headed by Tokugawa Nariaki (1800-1860) - a young daimyo who was also a blood relative of the Shugun. Nariaki has been acutely aware, not only of the changes taking place in Japan's neighborhood, but also of the inertia and obscurantism of his own ruling class. Recognizing the imperative for change, he encouraged some of the leading writers and thinkers of the period to take residence in his fief.

Mito thus developed into an impressive academic fief by developing an eclectic framework within which to discuss political ideology and power relations. It principal writers in the early 19th century were Aizawa Seishiai (1782-1863) and Fujita Toko (1806-55). Their ideas, first applied to politics by young Nariyaki to gain advantage in bakufu (shogunate) politics. (Najita, 1974).

Aizawa developed the dualist ideas of earlier thinkers like Yamazaki Ansai, under which there was a strong identification with the imperial institution as a pure cultural ideal (normative ideal – pure and hence inactive, an object of faith to which ultimate loyalty is extended). Below the monarchy was the all-encompassing realm of practical management and action. He laid out the contours of his ideas on national transformation in Shinron (New Thesis). In this influential work of 1825, Aizawa discussed `proper techniques` of present rule:

  • The defensive capacity of the bakufu as a political and social system was questioned;
  • It asserted that encroachment of Western power throughout Far-East was inevitable;
  • As a practical strategy, it recommended that Japan must break out of seclusion and confront the threat;
  • A multi-class army and navy must be formed and modern firearms must be forged at once;
  • To enhance support from society, maximum use must be made of ethical and religious ideas, symbols, images, rituals and shrines. These should be identified with the monarchical symbol and the ideal of a continuous and national historical essence (kokukai).
  • Common people should not be feared…or merely controlled through punitive devices, but viewed as a source of social energy and, through the cultivation of `loyalty to emperor` (sonno), incorporated into the foundation of a strong country.

The shogunate`s reaction to this open challenge from its owns ranks was to implement the Tempo Reforms (1830-43) which merely reconfirmed self-sufficient agrarianism and seclusionism. Nariaki was ordered to leave Edo and remain in exile; Aizawa was sentenced to house exile and Fujita Toko was imprisoned in Edo (Najita, 1976).

It was during this scene of simmering ferment that Commodore Matthew Perry reached the shores of Japan in his famous “black ships”. Confronted with Perry’s ultimatum the bakufu, under the leadership of its Tairo (senior chief councilor) Ii Naosuke (1815-60), signed the Treaty of Amity and Commerce (aka Harris Treaty) was signed between the United States and Japan on July 29, 1858. It opened the ports of Edo and four other Japanese cities to American trade and granted extraterritoriality to foreigners, among other stipulations.

Despite the façade of ‘amity’ this agreement with the Americans was widely seen to be an “unequal treaty” because the concessions given by the Japanese were largely ones-sided – the Americans were in no way obliged to extend similar privileges to the Japanese themselves.

To those who supported the Mito Critique and called themselves the “loyalist faction” (kinno ha), the treaty was irrefutable proof of the incompetence of the Tokugawa shogunate in preserving the sovereignty Japan. Sensing the rising discontent in the country, Ii Naosuke responded with the Ansei Purge (1858-59) during which over a hundred loyalists were arrested or executed. Among the purged leaders were Nariaki and three other daimyo’s. Soon after the purge the dissident loyalists also responded with decisive violence when 17 samurai from Mito (and one from Satsuma) assassinated Ii Naosuke at one of the gates of the Edo castle in Tokyo.

The assassination triggered further violent actions which were led by loyalists from Choshu and Satsuma. This time the dissidents killed Western traders and refused to pay any reparations, thus forcing the bakufu to pay on their behalf. On one hand this further undermined the political authority of the bakufu, and on the other, leadership of the dissident loyalist-faction moved from Mito to the western domains of Choshu and Satsuma.

During this period of turmoil, most of the loyalists were surprisingly young men – many in just their mid-twenties and mid-thirties: Yoshida Shoin (1830-59) of Choshu became the single greatest inspiration to the activists in this period. The others were - Yoshida Sakamoto, Kusaga Genzui (1840-64), Takasugi Shinsaku (1839-67), Kido Koin (1833-77), Fujita Koshiro (1842-65), Hirano Kuniomi (1828-64), Hashimoto Sanai (1828-64), and Saigo Takamori (1827-77).

Despite the strident anti-foreigner stand taken by the leaders of Choshu and Satsuma, they were keen to learn and take advantage from the material and military superiority of the Westerners. Yoshida Shoin, for instance, tried his best to gain direct access to the Cdr. Perry’s ships in 1853. When his attempts failed and landed him in prison, he continued to spread his ideas through his students and prison-inmates, some of whom, like Ito Hirobumi (1841-1909) went on to become the Prime Minister of Japan four times during the critical post-Restoration period.

Another instance of realpolitik displayed by the rebel leaders when, after being defeated by the British in a naval blockade, went on to procure battleships, guns and – most critically – military training from the Britishers.  They were also the first to institute reforms that removed restrictions from non-samurai joining the army and thus created the first multi-class fighting units in Japan. These newly armed and trained units proved to be decisive against forces of the shogunate when they attempted to subdue the rebels in two invasions of Choshu (1864, 1866).

Once it was clear that the Choshu and Satsuma could hold on their own against the numerically superior shogunate forces, it was just a matter of time before the loyalists triumphed and rose to power using the “restoration” as the rallying slogan.

The dissolution of the Tokugawa feudal order was followed by a steady consolidation of oligarchic leadership in the hands of Okubu Toshimichi (1830-78) and Kido Konin in the 1870’s and Ito Hirobumi (1841-1909), Yamagata Arimoto (1838-1922), and a handful of other men – often referred to as the Meiji Genro – in the 1880’s. (Najita, 1976)

The men from Satsuma and Choshu, not only shared their common geographical origin but also a shared understanding that the Restoration was a mandate to create, through bureaucratic means, a powerful, wealthy, and autonomous Japanese nation. Their pragmatic and realist approach was also evident in the way they dealt with their former enemies. Bakufu leader’s like Katsu Kaishu (1823-99) and commoners such as Shibuzawa Eiichi (1840-1931) were promoted to positions of great responsibility, and were responsible to creating a modern army and a banking system respectively.

Other reforms introduced by the leaders were just as dramatic – dissolution of the han system and declassing of the samurai; promotion of commercial enterprise as a means of accumulating national wealth and strength; universal education and universal military conscription; and the construction of a legal system far more decisive and effective than the one provided by the bakufu.

The persuasive skills of the oligarchs was perhaps most evident in the way they organized and implemented the Iwakura Mission to Europe and America. Once they created a critical mass of leaders who had the power of first-hand experience and conviction, the two essential conditions for adaptation and growth had been created –

  1. Innovating, enterprising leadership in technological and social change, displayed initially at the top but spreading soon throughout the population;
  2. Teamwork, discipline, solidarity in group organization, sufficient to give order and momentum to the process of change.

These change resulted in the rise of science to a high place of learning; increasing acceptance of businessmen as a part of the legitimate elite; successful control of graft and nepotism in military commands; and in industrial management (Lockwood, 1956)


It is interesting to note the critical role played by the peripheral domains in the shaping the transformation of Japan from a feudal, agrarian society to a strongly centralized, industrial nation-state. One could perhaps claim that the reformist ideology could not have achieved a relatively peaceful transformation of pre-Meiji Japan, had it not been born and nurtured at Mito – a prestigious domain close to the centre of power within the Tokugawa shogunate. At the same time, the process of transformation may not have succeeded if the leaders from domains at the Western corner of Japan – Satsuma and Choshu - had not seized the initiative as soon as the opportunity presented itself.


  • Najita, Tetsuo (1974). Japan – The Modern Nation in Historical Perspective. Prentice-Hall, Inc.
  • Japan – Profile of a Nation (1999). The Kodansha Encyclopedia
  • Beauchamp, Edward R. (1976). An American Teacher in Early Meiji Japan, The University Press of Hawaii.
  • Marshall, Byron K. (1999). Learning to be Modern – Japanese Political Discourse on Education, Westview Press.
  • Lockwood, William W. Japan's Response to the West (1956),: The Contrast with China, The Johns Hopkins University Press, World Politics, Vol. 9, No. 1 pp. 37-54, Accessed on 16 Nov., 2009 from -
  • Pyle, Kenneth B. (2007). Japan Rising – The Resurgence of Japanese Power and Purpose. Century Foundation.
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