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A Discussion on Japan's Meiji Reforms

Updated on November 14, 2022
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Rhylee Suyom has hopped in three different worlds: the academe, the corporate, and the media. He enjoys being with nature and his family.

A History of East Asia


A Discussion on Japan's Meiji Reforms


The Meiji Renovation or also known as the Meiji Reformation was one of the significant events in the history of Japan. It has been the turning point in its history that paved the way for Japan to embrace modernization and strengthen itself as a nation. Looking into the historical accounts of the events during this period, the Meiji reformation period prompted Japan to restore its power back to its Emperor after being ruled under military dictatorship for almost 700 years. Military rule has been characterized by the rule of the shoguns who were appointed and the government has been burgeoned by the ruling class and samurai. The years under military rule saw the country's plague in crisis, the bakufu is almost out of budget because of the stipend sit has to pay the samurai which is also exempted from tax. There is discontent among the people. This prompted the reformation and the goal to place the power of rule on the emperor again.

But more than the liberation from the military dictatorship the best outcome of the Meiji Reformation is that it led Japan to open itself to modernization and embrace the idea of the west in order to empower itself as a nation that is capable of surviving threats from the colonizing countries. The Meiji Reformation has brought Japan to its strong foundation as a nation learning from its neighboring countries empowering itself not only in terms of its military force but even in economic and education sectors. The true power is not just on placing all under the rule of the Emperor but more so rebuilding itself, breaking down social classes, and transforming Japan into a modern nation that still embodies its traditions (, 2018).

Strong Foreign Influences on Japan’s Reformation

Among the strongest influence in the changes in Japan during the Meiji Reformation in the United States and Germany. Watching how the United States has strengthened and established itself as a powerful nation, Japan saw the significance of modernization, science and technology, and military support. Japan perceived this as a way to protect itself too from colonizing countries. The primary purpose of the restoration is to give back again the power to rule Japan to the emperor. The term “Meiji” means “enlightened rule” and it aims to combine “modern advances” with traditional “eastern values” (Szczepanski, 2018).

The Beginnings of the Meiji Reformation

The Restoration has been initiated by the Satsuma-Choshu Alliance that was formed between Saigo Takamori and Kido Takayoshi; with the recognized leaders of the reformists - Satsuma Domain and Choshu Domain. They are the ones who supported Emperor Komei and were brought together by Sakamoto Ryoma to challenge the shogunate to restore the Emperor to power. When Emperor Komei died, Emperor Meiji inherited the throne. This became the turning point in the leadership of Japan as it changed Japan’s feudal society into a market economy and began to give Japan the influence of modernity as well (Szczepanski, 2018). Among the reforms brought about by Meiji Restoration is illustrated in the economic condition of Japan. In order to address the difficulties caused by the previous rule, the system of samurai, farmer, artisan, and the merchant has been abolished. This is to give more time for people to engage in productive work. Under the law, everyone is equal despite some old prejudices and consciousness of status being manifested. With the reformation new social distinctions have been given, the daimyo became known as the nobles, the samurai became the gentry and the rest are commoners. Reforms on land and tax laws were also implemented; as the land was being assessed on a fair market value deeds were also issued. Taxes were paid in cash instead of goods as had been a practice in the pre-Meiji era (, 2018).

Samurais were required to cut their topknots, castles have been dismantled and the imperial capital was moved from Kyoto to Edo (now known as Tokyo). In total there were 144 castles ordered to be destroyed leaving only 39 which were also destroyed during World War II, where only 12 survived (, 2018).

Specifics of the Changes

Meiji leaders had embraced the influence of western thoughts particularly in science and technology. Universities were opened to all citizens and a new education system was adopted, a new banking system was implemented, modern weaponry trains communications system (telegraph) were imported too. Japan had also adopted the use of Gregorian calendar which was used together with the traditional system of the previous reigning emperors.

In terms of national security, military modernization had been very significant; this was evident in the small standing army, a large reserve system, and compulsory military service for all men. As Japan embraced the influence of the west it made an effort to study the military systems of foreign military and naval schools, advisers with knowledge of military and defense were brought in, and cadets were sent to Europe and United States military and naval schools to learn. The modern army of Japan was not just composed of samurais, under the leadership of Masujiro Omura, peasants and workers were recruited into the military. This was not pleasing to the warrior class and had caused Omura his life; he was assassinated by a group of samurai later on (, 2018).

With the dissolution of the Japanese feudal system, the reformist government bought lands from the noble class (daimyo). These lands were integrated into the new imperial aristocracy. With the pensions for the daimyos and samurais paid off, the samurai also lost their exclusive claims on military positions and found themselves pursuing new careers as bureaucrats, teachers, army officers, police officials, scholars, journalists, colonists, bankers, and businessmen. On the part of the daimyo, as they surrendered the lands to the government, it also reflected their surrender to the emperor. Believing that land and people should all be under the emperor’s jurisdiction. The daimyos still became governors and paid off their administrative expenses.

With the onset of the new leadership under the reformation era, the government also took over the large assets and obligations of the bakufu. When Meiji Reformation began, the bakufu is in a destitute condition which is why the government needs to find sources of revenue immediately. Among the biggest expense incurred by the military dictatorship before is the payment of stipends for the samurais. To force the samurai to agree to be paid a lump sum for their stipends, the government imposed a tax law that also requires the samurai to pay taxes from their stipends. Only a few of the samurai agreed to this condition of lump sum payment though (Holcombe, 2017).

The amount saved by the government from paying samurai stipends was used to finance intermediate-term government bonds which were distributed to the people and reduced government expenses. The samurai who received the bonds used them to survive, some invested their bonds, and others sold them to brokers but were unwise in spending the money which is why they ended up broke. The condition of the former samurai, it had caused their discontent and led them to hold an uprising which was recognized as a rebellion against the Meiji government (Holcombe, 2017).

The Japanese Learning the Western Ways

The leader of the Meiji government has been aware of the progress of the western world and thus sent some learning missions to get an idea and absorb as much as possible from neighboring countries. The officials were sent to United State and Europe in order to learn about the government institutions, courts, prison systems, schools and education, the import and export business, factories, glass plants, mines, and a lot of enterprises. This is to modernize the economy of Japan. The experience in the United States is more perplexing for the delegates, they have been “culture shocked” with the way things are in the US compared to how they felt in Britain and Germany. From those experiences, they have realized that they are relatively alike to Germany. It was from Germany that they got the idea of building a strong military force first instead of relying merely on laws and the people. Even in education, like teaching language and literature, Japan took after the system of Germany (Holcombe, 2017).


Meiji Reformation is a breakthrough for Japan; it has been instrumental in saving Japan from plunging into debt and losing a lot of money for payment for the samurai. It has been also the way for Japan to see the benefits or advantages of opening itself to western thoughts and ideas and not really replacing their traditional values but rather combining what they learn from the west with what they have to establish a nation that is stronger than before


Asia for Educators. n.d. 11 December 2018. Par. 1 - 4. N.p. <>japan_1750_meiji>.

Holcombe, Charles. (2017). A History of East Asia: From the Origins of civilization to the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 240 - 265.

Meiji Period Reforms, Modernization, and Culture. n.d. 11 December 2018. Par. 1 - 5. N.p. <>.

Szczepanski, Kallie. ThoughtCo. 2 August 2018. 11 December 2018. par. 2 -3. N.p. <>what-was-the-meiji-restoration-in-Japan>.


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