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The Meiji Restoration, Abolition of Feudalism

Saigo Takamori, unequal treaties, Bonin islands, imperial decree, Tokugawa shogunate

The overthrow of the Tokugawa shogunate was described as a restoration of imperial authority, but the new imperial government soon launched a sweeping program to transform Japan into a modern nation state. The core government leaders were younger samurai from Choshu, Satsuma, Tosa, and Hizen who had plotted to bring down the Tokugawa. These leaders were united in their belief that the shogunate was not up to the task of strengthening the country or renegotiating the unequal treaties imposed by the foreign powers. However, they were divided in their views of what kind of change was needed. Some, like Saigo Takamori of Satsuma, wished to preserve as much of the old social and political order as possible; others, such as Okubo Toshimichi of Satsuma and Kido Takayoshi of Choshu, advocated more radical reform. The radicals prevailed. In April 1868 the new regime proclaimed its reform goals in the Charter Oath, promising to base its decisions on wide consultation, to seek knowledge from the outside world, and to abandon outmoded customs. The emperorís main function was to legitimate the new regime and symbolize a united nation.

The division of Japan into independent domains made it difficult to deal with foreigners in a concerted way or to fully mobilize national resources. Thus, the Meiji governmentís first task was to unify the country territorially. In late 1868 the imperial capital was moved to Edo (which was renamed Tokyo), where the emperor took up residence in the shogunís former castle. In 1869 the daimyo of Choshu, Satsuma, Tosa, and Hizen surrendered their lands and census records to the imperial government and asked that their domainsí laws, institutions, and regulations be placed under unified control. Other domains soon followed suit. In 1871 all the daimyo domains were abolished by imperial decree and were replaced by a system of centrally administered prefectures governed by imperially appointed officials.

From 1871 to 1873 the new Meiji leaders felt confident enough to send half of their number on a diplomatic mission around the world. Under the leadership of Iwakura Tomomi, they were to learn about the institutions, laws, and customs of economically and technologically advanced countries of the West, such as the United States and Britain. The Iwakura missionís direct observation of the West left them feeling challenged but hopeful. Much of the progress that Western countries had made in military science, industry, technology, education, and society had occurred only within the past two generations, and a number of the European nations, such as Germany and Italy, were quite new themselves. It did not seem impossible that Japan could catch up with the Western nations very quickly.

During the 1870s the imperial government enacted reform after reform to dismantle the Tokugawa system. The goal was to create a new population of imperial subjects who all shared the same obligations to the state, regardless of their social origins. Laws enforcing the status system were abolished between 1869 and 1871, elementary education was made compulsory in 1872, a military conscription system requiring service of young adult males was promulgated in 1873, and new national land and tax laws replaced the old domain-based tax system in 1873. The final blow to the old order came in 1876, when the government stopped paying stipends to the former samurai class and abolished their privilege of carrying swords. The result was a series of local samurai rebellions, culminating in the Satsuma (or Kagoshima) Rebellion led by Saigo Takamori in 1877. The governmentís new conscript army successfully crushed all of the uprisings.

In the 1870s the Meiji government also consolidated and expanded its control over outlying islands. It launched a program to colonize Hokkaido, asserted control of the Ryukyu and Bonin islands to the south, and made an agreement with Russia for control of the Kuril Islands to the north.

Article key phrases:

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