The Collaborative Effort of the Meiji Restoration

Updated: Dec 21, 2019

Anela Mangum


Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the 15th and last shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate

By late 1867, Japan’s centuries-old Tokugawa government was losing ground. In November, Tokugawa Yoshinobu resigned from his position as shogun. While Yoshinobu hoped to maintain his political prestige, samurai from the outer regions of Japan led a successful campaign against the traditional government. This violent civil war occurred because of disagreements within the government, especially as it concerned Western influence. Domestic issues tore once-allies apart. Trade with Europeans led to a change in currency, devaluing the traditional form of rice, or koku. Three different historians put forth three different arguments about the formation of the Meiji Restoration and who led the primary effort. Smith, in his article “Japan’s Aristocratic Revolution,” argues that the reformation was led by patriotic samurai in reaction to increasing Western influence. With incredible selflessness, these “aristocrats” gave their social capital to the people of Japan, making the restoration even more impressive than that of the French Revolution. In his book Feudal Background of Japanese Politics, Norman criticizes the samurai for their crassness and lack of foresight. However, he identifies the lower-class samurai as the primary actors of the movement, contrary to Smith’s idea of an aristocratic revolution. Lastly, George Wilson argues, in Patriots and Redeemers in Japan, that the people promulgated the political movement through informal protests like the spontaneous dancing festivals of Ee ja nai ka. While some historians claim that the Japanese aristocracy were the primary agents of change in the 19th century, change would not have been possible with general discontent and political mobility among the common people, as shown by the Ee ja nai ka movement and the leadership provided by the disgruntled lower-class samurai.

Each historian looks at this history with a different lens. While Thomas Smith, E. Herbert Norman, and George M. Wilson, scholars of Japanese of history, have divergent arguments, they complement each other in certain ways. A common cause for discontent among the aristocracy and the common man was Western influence and the rising status of merchants. Commodore Perry arrived in Japan in 1852, bringing with him the United States’ most impressive ships. While it was clear that no one in Japan welcomed this intrusion, the Tokugawa government had little choice but to accept Western countries’ unequal treaties and open to foreign trade and influence. Smith sees this occurrence as the event which prompted the aristocracy “to make revolutionary innovations in the name of national salvation.” Comparatively, Norman shows the ideas of different leaders in the country, not only from the Tokugawa government. He mentions specifically the jo-i, meaning “expel the barbarian” in Japanese. While the Tokugawa government hesitatingly accepted foreign demands, provinces like Satsuma welcomed them after the Battle of Kagoshima, determined “to possess [the power of Western arms] as early as possible.” Despite Norman’s acknowledgement that “most of the evidence suggests that domestic problems… were the focus of concern,” he also shows how the general political “malaise” contributed to the movement of common people against the government.


The Satsuma Rebellion at Kagoshima (1877)

After seeing concern with growing foreign influence in each article, there are some obvious differences. Smith sees the Japanese aristocracy as a single, monolithic social structure while Norman shows the differences between the office-holding upper samurai and the frustrated and politically incapable lower-samurai. Smith explains the bureaucratization of the samurai as a cause for its radical streak, leaving them separate from both the land and traditional feudal lords. However, Norman illustrates that the lower-class samurai communicated better with local communities than the Tokugawa government. “During a long peace, personages in high places did not know how the lower classes suffered. Hence the inferior Samurai understood best the feelings which existed among the common people.” While Norman criticizes the samurai and the government as a whole for internal corruption, Norman illustrates the differences between the high samurai and the low samurai, showing that they reflected the common man’s frustrations with the system.

All three articles mention peasant revolts, but show the various reactions to them by different classes. While Norman portrays the samurai as the leaders of the movement, he also depicts the common man’s contribution in specific ways. The lower samurai tried to channel the common man’s frustration by recruiting them into local militias and organizing riots to embarrass Tokugawa leaders. However, the samurai did not organize all events. Each author discusses the effects of the peasant riots, caused by poor farming seasons and a fixed tax law, and how it contributed to the overall feelings of political instability. Through their actions in local militias and expressing discontent in riots and ee ja nai ka, the peasantry were a key group in the overthrow of the Tokugawa government. Norman’s portrayal of the political elite’s understanding of the Taiping Rebellion in China shows the important role that the peasantry could play in Japan’s reformation, particularly with their army organization. Wilson also discusses the “misalliance” that formed between the lower samurai and the peasantry. Because they were protesting similar things, foreign influence and government corruption, these traditionally separate groups were able to complement each other and make the movement more successful.


Satsuma Samurai during the Boshin War (1868-1869)

The samurai, the less influential in the Tokugawa government, functioned as the leaders of the movement for political change. While samurai from Chôshû, Satsuma, Hizen, and Tosa all contributed their leadership skills to the effort, they were not in full control of the movement. Although Smith claims that “townsmen in Japan never challenged aristocratic privileges, either in practice or theory,” Wilson shows that the common man contributed to the reformation in dancing in the ee ja nai ka movement, “contribut[ing] to that malaise.” The people grounded the movement for political change. Before the Meiji restoration, the leaders allowed a certain amount of political freedom as the movement changed focus. While they were successful in changing the country and the government, the subsequent reforms did very little to change the social system within Japan, leaving the leaders of the movement at the top of the new government. The samurai who led the movement did not have the same foresight as those of the French Revolution. They simply wanted representation in the government and wanted to combat Western influence, which contributed to class inequality among the samurai and the merchants. Their desire to participate in government, fostered by the people’s general discontent with the Tokugawa government, allowed the samurai to change leadership and introduce limited reform and shape Japan’s future.

#Meiji #Japan #Asianhistory #Tokugawa #restoration #samurai #Japanese

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