The Emergence of Nationalism in Japan during the Meiji Period. An essay by Stuart Iles.

Happy New Year everyone. First blog for 2021. Last year was the best year for Rekishinihon so I would like to say thankyou for your support. I love Japanese history and I love living in Fukuoka. I hope I can keep producing great blogs for you and you can learn about Japanese history from my experiences and studies.

This is an essay I wrote as a uni student and I was getting deeper into Meiji Period history. I always wondered why nationalism took hold at the beginning of the 20th century in Japan. As an English speaker I had always read English literature relating to the topic which I have to say is quite biased. I wanted to find out from the Japanese point of view, as much as I could, to get a better understanding. My study was still a little narrow back then. I have learnt much more since I wrote this but it is still a good overview I think. I added some photos to break up the text a little, otherwise it is as I wrote it about 10 years ago. So, some things may have become dated.

This essay will discuss events of rapid political and economic change in Japan from the beginning of the Meiji period in 1868 to the end in 1912.  Many will notice however that I have extended the period of the essay to 1919.  I have done this because I believe the initial phase of Japanese nationalism which led to aggressive territorial expansion should also mention territory gained after the First World War of 1914-1918 as it demonstrates Japan’s change from reformist to imperialist culture.  The Meiji Restoration was not simply a revolution like those in England and France in the 17th and 18th centuries, it was a revolutionary restoration which brought back the rule of the monarch who was believed to be the divine ruler of Japan and whose ancestry went back more than 1500 years.  Lincicome describes it as modern national identity shared with national consciousness to form an emperor centered nationalist movement but institutionalised by the state.[1]  For about the first twenty years from 1868 Japan underwent rapid change, however, radical nationalism crept into the national ideology by the late 1880s transforming Japan into an aggressive imperial power.

On 6th April 1868 the Charter Oath was established.  It laid out the government’s basic intentions for the transfer of power from the feudal lords to the central government taking in account the interests of all Japanese, high or low and that the base customs of former times (Tokugawa) be abandoned, and that in the pursuit of national strength knowledge would be sought throughout the world.[2]   Members of the new ministry were samurai from Satsuma, Choshu, Tosa and Hizen who had successfully led the restoration movement.  By the beginning of 1869 these four domains were the first to submit their lands and rule of their people under the emperor and new government.  Other domains however who had not been directly involved in the restoration movement and those who had been loyal to the Tokugawa bakufu struggled with the surrender of their feudal rights.  Minister of Home Affairs Okubo ordered the regional lords to follow suit as the four domains of the restoration did but they had to make compromises.  Local lords who gave up their lands to the government were then appointed as governors to administer the lands they had just surrendered.  In principal they now became members of the government but in practice they continued to do as they did before.  In a few short years local councils and ministers replaced court nobles, feudal domain lords and the administration of the country as a whole and had been brought into a centralised government.  The central government now needed to undergo radical land tax and military reforms.  Each of the feudal domains had their own complex systems of tax collection and military service, both of which had to be incorporated into the new government administration.

Okubo Toshimichi became one of the great three nobles of the Meiji Period. A low ranked samurai from Satsuma Province (Kagoshima) who supported the Restoration and helped form the Meiji Government.

Between 1868 and 1873 there were 177 peasant revolts[3] due to the hardships of the tax system.  In 1871 Matsukata Masayoshi was appointed new Finance Minister and quickly standardised the tax system which enabled a certain amount of tax relief for the poor.  In 1872 he abolished the old Tokugawa ban on land ownership and a new system of land ownership certificates was introduced. Land ownership was now possible for any Japanese citizen whether you were a member of the feudal ruling class, a lonely samurai or a peasant.  Former members of the feudal class who were previously not allowed to make money by farming, trading or other work were now granted permission to supplement their incomes, pay tax and establish businesses.  Low level feudal class samurai under the Tokugawa received stipends from their regional lords for the services they once provided and were not permitted to do anything else but were now forced to find work.  Many struggled, which created large groups of wandering samurai looking for work called ronin.

 Two ex high ranking samurai, Yamagata Arimoto and Saigo Tsugumichi spent a year in Europe during 1869-70[4] to study French and German government, military and political systems.  On their return they were promoted as senior officials in the Ministry of Military Affairs and began drafting a plan for a conscript army.  Despite conservatives calling for ex-samurai elite to form the core of the new military the government put forward the Conscription Law in January 1873 which allowed any man regardless of previous samurai ranking to enter the army.  The law required men of age twenty to serve in the national army for three years, then as a reservist for a further four.  Beasley estimates that there was a peacetime force of over 30 000 strong which helped solved the problem of wandering ronin around the streets of Japanese cities who were looking for work.  Popularity of the conscript system found that revision of the law was needed to accommodate the growing number if people looking to join.  The revised law in 1883 now required four years of conscript service followed by nine years of reservist service.  This raised the peacetime force to over 73 000 men and a wartime strength to 200 000.[5]  By 1894 all soldiers were equipped with modern rifles and artillery, most of the weapons being made in Japan.  Japan sought foreign military expertise and by 1875 French advisers were assisting the Meiji government. German advisers were also brought into Japan who provided military expertise.  Major Klemens Meckel was recruited from Germany to set up a military college specifically to teach staff officers.  The navy was not given as much attention during this time and it was not until 1888 that the first naval officer’s school was built and the first Navy General Staff Office opened in 1891.  The Japanese fleet at this time only consisted of 28 modern ships, aggregating 57 000 tonnes.[6] It was not only the military that was going through rapid westernisation.  The central government and education systems were also westernised.

Image of a Meiji Period Imperial soldier.

Six government departments were established in 1885, all based on western government systems. The Civil Affairs, Finance, War, Justice, Imperial Household and Foreign Affairs offices were established.[7]  Members of the ever growing civil service were recruited based on their education and experience in western style democracy and politics.  Japan also established the first compulsory schooling system in Asia[8] and Beasley notes that the majority of civil servants entering as a member in the new Meiji government graduated form the newly established university of Tokyo.  By 1910 one third of all the bureaucrats in the Meiji government who attained department chief and higher had been admitted by exam and by 1920 the proportion was four-fifths.[9]  The growth of the middle class and the rise of social mobility allowed a mass movement of the population to create their own wealth which inturn enabled them to afford higher education which had never been seen before.

In 1884 the Meiji emperor announced he would create a new peerage honouring high born descendants of illustrious ancestors and men who had shown merit in the restoration of the Meiji rule based on western titles of nobility.  There were five ranks awarded, including duke, marquis, count, viscount and baron.  Of the five hundred titles created all but about thirty of them went to the old court and feudal nobility.[10]  Despite radical transition from the Tokugawa period to the Meiji period the majority of the bureaucrats serving under the emperor were former feudal lords and feudal leaders.  In 1888 a Privy Council was created to provide the emperor with a group of senior advisers and who would act as an independent advisory body for such things as revising the constitution, law reforms and foreign treaties.[11]  They had the power to give advice but could not initiate change.  Beasley believes that rapid modernisation and the adoption to a western system of government had two main aims.  Firstly to negotiate against the unequally treaties forced upon Japan in 1854 and secondly as it seemed to the many Japanese who had travelled and studied in Europe, the western system of tax collection, armed forces, education, industrial strength and power was the appropriate system for Japan to follow.[12]  The new Japan and government was aiming to become an equal among the industrialised imperial powers of Europe and despite looking to the west for most of the early reforms conservative elites believed Japan had lost their identity in their thirst for education and knowledge.  This prompted a conservative backlash and the ideology for Japanese nationalism was promulgated through the education system which went through radical change.[13]  The education system became a catalyst for conservatism and came under direct control of the state which was becoming increasing authoritarian.  Iriye argues that although democracy was envisioned by Meiji government the centralised military and education systems established under the supreme command of the emperor headed towards totalitarianism rather than democracy.[14]   The 1880s also brought about a push by conservatives to protect the Japanese homeland from increasing foreign influence.

Government officials were split about the amount of influence western powers were allowed to have in Japan.  Inoue Kaoru argues that free contact with the people from the west would not only help Japan become a civilised state but would also lead to investment of foreign capital which would help the growth of Japanese industry and the economy.  Conservatives however insisted that Japan must act boldly in their dealings with foreign countries and it was not right for the Japanese to rewrite their laws because foreigners found them unacceptable and such an act would show weakness[15]in the eye of international politics. 

Iriye believes that the strong centralised Meiji government and modern state did not allow European imperialists the opportunity to colonise Japan,[16]despite foreign influence in South East Asia and parts of China.  The modernisation of the Japanese state did however give Japan the opportunity to begin their own expansion in the lesser developed areas such as Korea and China.  Blinded by the success of the Meiji restoration and Japanese development some politicians began to show signs of supremacist ideologies. Korea soon became an interest in Japan’s expansion but members of the council were once again split about foreign affairs.  Discussions were raised whether Japan should divert resources away from the Meiji rebuilding program to invade Korea, their weaker, more backward neighbour.[17] Conservative council member Yamagata Yorimoto called for called for a strategy of national interest circles radiating outward from the Japanese mainland.  These circles were to encompass territory relating to the sovereignty of Japan that would be under Japanese occupation and would act as a buffer zone to any foreign influence.

Under the ideology of expanding domestic security, Japanese troops marched into Korea in 1894, the First Sino Japanese war.  Public euphoria swept throughout Japan and huge public Japanese celebrations exhilarated by Japanese army and navy success in Korea.  Japanese influence throughout Korean was rapid.  Japanese advisers influenced Korean politics, Japanese government constructed railways, many Japanese owned businesses set up new bases and the growth of Japanese commercial interests spread rapidly.  The growing number of Korean upper class and politicians who supported Japanese occupation cemented Japanese influence in Korea.  But this expansion halted Russia’s own expansion and influence in the region.  Both nations now faced a dilemma.  Their own territorial expansion halted by one another’s.

The First Sino Japanese war of 1894-85

Russia had initially gained influence in the region via occupying the strategic Port Arthur docks and naval yard on the Liaotung peninsula under a lease from the Chinese.  This port was linked with the Southern Manchurian Railway which extended from Port Arthur to Dalny (also known as Dairen), to the Chinese city of Harbin then which extended into Russian Manchuria. Russia had made Port Arthur their Pacific base, fortified it and began fortifying and garrisoning the railways to the objection of the Japanese.  The war of 1904-5 (Russo-Japanese War) formed the basis for further Japanese expansion.  Victory over the Russians gave Japan the upper hand in Manchuria and Korea.  The Manchurian Remedial Protocol of December 1905 drawn up by the Japanese called for Chinese obligation to hand over Port Arthur as well as transfer all Russian territories in Manchuria to Japan.  Known as the Kwantung leased territory the Japanese now had full control over Manchuria, the railways and Port Arthur, which was believed to be the finest naval dockyard and trading port on the Pacific Asian coast.[18]   

Japan modernised rapidly with help from Britain, Germany and France. The defeat of Russia allowed the Japanese to take hold in Manchuria and Korea.

Events leading up to the First World War strengthened Japan’s influence in Korea.  Japan had gradually turned Korea into a satellite state.  The Korean monarch was allowed to keep the throne but all power now belonged to the Japanese.  Japanese Prime Minister Ito Hirobumi planned to modernise Korea.  Education, political system, manufacturing, political administration was all to undergo Japanisation.  But there was Korean resistance which led to the assassination of Ito and all out rebellion between 1908 and 1910.  The Japanese military brutally suppressed the rebellion killing over twelve thousand Koreans in return.  Nationalistic hard liners in Tokyo assumed positions in the new cabinet that chose to annex Korea in 1910 and install iron fisted General Terauchi Masatake as governor.  The outbreak of European conflict in 1914 allowed Japan to further expand her territories by joining the Allies against Germany.  German territories such as Tsingtao in China, Micronesian islands, the Carolines and Micronesia were all brought under Japanese control in the first weeks of the War.  Japan later secured international recognition for the territories at the Paris peace talks in 1919.          

The rapid and successful modern transformation of the Japanese economy, education system, military power, social changes and political system from 1868 to the beginning of the 20th century somewhat clouded and a misguided sense of the purpose of the restoration in the first place.   The emergence of Japanese nationalism and the ideology that Japan was the supreme Asian nation crept into mainstream politics.  Ultra nationalistic education and propaganda corrupted the Japanese into believing it was their mission and obligation to educate the backward societies of China and Korea.  Japan transformed itself into an imperial state that simply colonised and exploited foreign lands for the benefit of the Japanese economy.  Japan was quick to take advantage of international conflict to expand her own territories and influence in the Pacific region.  Honest change and reformation transformed Japan into an expansionist Imperial power.

Bibliography

Beasley, W G. ‘The Rise of Modern Japan’.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990.

Iriye, Akira.  Japan’s drive to great power status. In Jansen, Marius B. ‘The Emergence of Meiji Japan’.  New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Jansen, Marius B. ‘Sakamoto Ryoma and the Meiji Restoration’.  New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Lincicom, Mark. E.  Nationalism, Imperialism, and the International Education Movement in Early Twentieth-Century Japan, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 58, No. 2 (May, 1999), pp. 338-360

Peattie, Mark.  ‘The Japanese Colonial Empire, 1895-1945’, in Peter Duus’, The Cambridge History of Japan: Vol. 6. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1988.

Ravina, Mark. ‘The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigō Takamori’. Hoboken, N.J: John Wiley & Sons, 2004.


[1] Lincicom, Mark. E.  Nationalism, Imperialism, and the International Education Movement in Early Twentieth-Century Japan, The Journal of Asian Studies , Vol. 58, No. 2 (May, 1999), p. 338

[2] Beasley, W G. The Rise of Modern Japan. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. p. 56

[3] Beasley, W G. The Rise of Modern Japan. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. p. 61

[4] Beasley, W G. The Rise of Modern Japan. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. p. 63

[5] Beasley, W G. The Rise of Modern Japan. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. p. 64

[6] Beasley, W G. The Rise of Modern Japan. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. p. 65

[7] Beasley, W G. The Rise of Modern Japan. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. p. 57

[8] Lincicom, Mark. E.  Nationalism, Imperialism, and the International Education Movement in Early Twentieth-Century Japan, The Journal of Asian Studies , Vol. 58, No. 2 (May, 1999), p. 340

[9] Beasley, W G. The Rise of Modern Japan. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. p. 67

[10] Beasley, W G. The Rise of Modern Japan. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. p. 67

[11] Beasley, W G. The Rise of Modern Japan. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. p. 68

[12] Beasley, W G. The Rise of Modern Japan. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. p. 69

[13] Lincicom, Mark. E.  Nationalism, Imperialism, and the International Education Movement in Early Twentieth-Century Japan, The Journal of Asian Studies , Vol. 58, No. 2 (May, 1999), p. 341

[14] Iriye, Akira.  Japan’s drive to great power status. In Jansen, Marius B. ‘The Emergence of Meiji Japan’.  New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1995.p. 279

[15] Beasley, W G. The Rise of Modern Japan. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. p. 142

[16] Iriye, Akira.  Japan’s drive to great power status. In Jansen, Marius B. ‘The Emergence of Meiji Japan’.  New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1995. P. 297

[17] Peattie, Mark.  ‘The Japanese Colonial Empire, 1895-1945’, in Peter Duus’, The Cambridge History of Japan: Vol. 6. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1988. P.224

[18] Peattie, Mark.  ‘The Japanese Colonial Empire, 1895-1945’, in Peter Duus’, The Cambridge History of Japan: Vol. 6. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1988. P. 226

By Stuart Iles.

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