This week in history: Meiji Restoration in Japan

From the 17th century to the middle of the 19th century, a military government ruled Japan. Decisions were taken by the shogun, the chief military commander, with the emperor (although nominally in charge) reduced to a figurehead.

At the core of this was a strict caste system. At the top were large landowners, the daimyo, followed by the nobility, the samurai. Peasants, craftsmen and merchants were at the bottom of the heap and were required to pay taxes to their superiors.

The status quo was maintained with restrictions on trade and industry, which delayed Japan’s economic development. The privileges enjoyed by the samurai became increasingly resented.

Eventually, in 1867, Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu was forced to give up political power to Emperor Meiji (also known as Meiji the Great). After a brief rebellion, Yoshinobu surrendered his main castle in Edo, bringing the era known as the Tokugawa Shogunate to a close.

The samurai lost their titles and privileges (which included the right to strike down commoners) and the daimyo were stripped of their lands, which peasants were allowed to lease. The government encouraged investment in heavy industry and modernised the army.

Japan went through a period of strong growth – known as the Meiji Restoration – with GDP nearly tripling from 1868 to 1912. Victory in the 1904-1905 Russo-Japan war underlined Japan’s growing power.

However, many remnants of the shogun period persisted, such as the concentration of land ownership in the hands of a few individuals. This problem was only solved through land reform during the American military occupation.

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