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The Meiji Restoration, Emergence of the Modern State

small ruling group, Satsuma Rebellion, Meiji constitution, beginnings of industrialization, new manufacturing technology

During the 1880s a new emperor-centered state structure took shape. After the Satsuma Rebellion, disgruntled former samurai started a popular rights movement demanding a national legislature. Meiji leaders were not opposed to constitutional government; indeed, their contacts with the West had convinced them that it would unify and strengthen Japan as well as improve its international standing by conforming to Western ideas of “civilized” government. Thus, in 1881 the emperor declared his intention to grant the country a constitution. In preparation, the government leadership created a strong executive branch run by professional bureaucrats dedicated to the national good rather than sectional or partisan interests. During the 1880s the government made several steps in this direction. It created a new nobility of five ranks from the former court aristocracy and daimyo, established a cabinet system modeled on that of imperial Germany, created a new privy council of imperial advisers, and instituted a civil service examination system for recruiting high officials.

The constitution, drafted by a small bureaucratic committee working under statesman Ito Hirobumi, was promulgated in 1889 as a “gift of the emperor” to the people. It came into effect the following year. The constitution placed most of the powers of state in the hands of the emperor, who was declared “sacred and inviolable.” It guaranteed the emperor’s subjects certain basic political and religious freedoms “within the limits of the law.” It also established a bicameral (two-chamber) national legislature, the Imperial Diet. The upper chamber, called the House of Peers, was composed of members of the newly created nobility and imperial appointees. The lower chamber, the House of Representatives, was elected by a small percentage of the population—only adult males paying more than 15 yen (Japan’s basic unit of currency) in taxes could vote. While a relatively conservative document, very similar to the constitution of imperial Germany, the Meiji constitution was a remarkable departure from a long tradition of authoritarian politics in Japan. It provided a foundation for the eventual development of representative government.

Nevertheless, for many years a small ruling group made up of the Satsuma and Choshu leaders continued to monopolize executive power. The emperor, although constitutionally the country’s highest political authority, did not participate in administration. Until the late 1910s, prime ministers and most cabinet members were drawn from the ranks of the Satsuma-Choshu clique, their proteges, and members of the civil and military bureaucracies. However, political parties gradually grew stronger during this period, eventually winning positions in the cabinet.

In addition to restructuring the government, the Meiji leaders worked diligently to build up a modern economic sector by acquiring new manufacturing technology. In the 1870s the government imported a mechanized silk-reeling mill, cotton-spinning mills, glass and brick factories, cement works, and other modern factories. They also brought in foreign workers and technicians to get the factories started and train Japanese workers. The government hired hundreds of foreign teachers, engineers, and technicians to build up modern infrastructure, such as railroads and telegraph lines, and dispatched hundreds of bright ambitious young men to study science, engineering, medicine, and other technical specialties in the United States and Europe. In the 1880s the government set up a modern banking system.

By the 1890s the beginnings of industrialization were well underway. A railroad network linking the major cities of Honshu had expanded into Kyushu and Hokkaido; coal mines were producing fuel needed for new steam-driven factories; the cotton-spinning industry had reduced the country’s dependence on foreign imports; and a domestic shipbuilding industry was developing. Except for the railroad system, however, the government no longer played a direct role either in financing or managing these enterprises. It had sold off its imported factories to private entrepreneurs and had adopted a policy of encouraging private enterprise.

The dramatic changes during the three decades after the Meiji government took power were driven by government initiatives from above, but other classes of society were not simply passive recipients of change. Many former samurai, although stripped of their traditional privileges, made a successful transition to the new society. Highly educated, trained for public service, and imbued with the values of ambition, hard work, and perseverance, they played an important role in many areas, including government, business, science, education, and culture. The same was true of the well-to-do elements in the countryside, who introduced innovations in agriculture, worked to develop local schools, and were active in the movement to establish a national legislature. Even the sons of poor peasant farmers conscripted into the army returned home with new skills, ideas, and habits that they spread to fellow villagers. And by the 1890s, when most school-age children were attending elementary school, Japan’s educational system became a formidable vehicle to promote enthusiasm for change.

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