Should the Meiji Restoration be considered a revolution?  What were its consequences?

Research Essay by Stuart Iles.

The Meiji Restoration is a very important period in Japan’s history as it reestablished Imperial rule and was the catalyst for the Japanese economy and society to move into the industrial age.  268 years of rule under the Tokugawa shogunate ended, and was eventually replaced with a national parliamentary system.  Most members of this parliament consisted of the victorious ruling aristocrats from the Choshu-Satsuma provinces and the restoration of the Emperor as Japan’s divine leader.  International relations and trade is resumed with Europe and the U.S (United States of America), propelling Japan into the industrial age with the introduction of technology and raw materials such as steel.  Shinto is reintroduced into Japanese everyday life, agricultural technology increases its value and production resulting in a boost of wealth for peasant farmers.  In this essay I will discuss some important alliances such as the Choshu-Satsuma Alliance, the military campaign known as the Boshin War, the Imperial Oath taken in 1868 and the writing of the new constitution in 1888.

Development of the Restoration

Reasons behind the Meiji Restoration are quite varied.  There is not one point or action that took place that can be definitely argued as the turning point.  Some authors believe that foreign influence and possible invasion were the major factors for the Restoration as Richard Bowring writes,

“The single most important motive for these changes was national self preservation, which became an urgent priority when Japan was forced to confront the expansion of European and U.S interests in Asia and the Pacific”.

However other authors such as Marius Jansen write,

 “….foreign conquest was never as real a danger as Japanese leaders thought.  The decade between the negotiations of a commercial treaty with Townsend Harris in 1858 and the fall of the military government of the Tokugawa Shogun in 1867 saw animosities and tensions that had long been present burst into flame….”

Tokugawa Iesada by Kawamura Kiyoo (Tokugawa Memorial Foundation). Iesada was the 13th Tokugawa Shogun and it was during his reign that the Bakumatsu period began.

Foreign influence was a part of the restoration movement, but increasing civil disorder leading up to the restoration movement became more frequent as well as the number of people and regions taking part in numerous uprisings.  Many high ranking Tokugawa officials, including regional daimyo (regional lords) were becoming increasingly anxious with the weak Tokugawa stand concerning foreign affairs and the increasing number of uprisings.  Jansen writes that the Harris commercial treaty in 1858 was hastily signed by the Bakufu (Tokugawa central government) without court approval for fear that the British and French would make moves into Japan as they had done in China and South East Asia.  Many daimyo thought that signing the treaty only showed weakness in the government which many of them disagreed with.

On the home front, peasant and lower ranked samurai uprisings became more frequent leading up to the restoration movement, Yoshio Sugimoto writes that there has been little scholarly attention to wider range of rebellions throughout Japan in the fifty or so years before the restoration movement and most focuses on the Satsuma-Choshu alliance.  Japanese historians are also split between the positive effects of the peasant revolts early in the 1830s and their effects on the restoration of the Emperor later on.   Other historians only believe that the Choshu-Satsuma alliance had any positive outcome of the restoration movement.  But, as early as 1830 the Bakufu dealt with many civil uprisings brought about by high taxes and famine.  The Tempo famine of 1833 through to 1836 was the worst of the famines leading up to the restoration movement in 1866.  Harold Bolitho writes that the Tohoku crops of 1836 were only 28 percent of normal yield, in Mito, 75 percent of rice and 50 percent of barley crops were lost.  During the famine it is thought that over 120,000 people died in the Tohoku and Echizen regions.  During the famine years the Bakufu continued to take taxes from these regions and collected 1.25 million koku of tax rice in 1833 and again in 1836 at the height of the famine they collected 1.03 million koku.  Naturally, people who suffered most from the effects of the famine were still forced to pay taxes and it is clear they were not happy.

Village leaders and farmers all started to make their demands for help and tax relief from the Bakufu.  It is thought at the peak of the famine in 1836 there were 465 rural disputes, 445 peasant uprisings and 101 urban riots. It is clear that the government’s inefficiency and inability to act decisively during these times of crisis encouraged popular resistance.  Closer to the restoration period, between 1865 and 1871 there were 475 peasant uprisings, and 70 urban disturbances.  

Uprisings occurred throughout Japan and were not isolated to any one area, and the majority of these revolts occurred where the population consisted mainly of peasants.  However Sugimoto writes;

“Domains which propelled the samurai–initiated anti-Tokugawa movement were those with the low frequency and magnitude of popular revolts.  Conversely, domains which defended the existing regime were those with the high frequency and magnitude of popular revolts”.

One could speculate that in domains where revolts were low, the samurai class had been stronger and were less influenced by the Tokugawa Bakufu and were able to keep order in the region themselves.   However, in the regions where revolts were common the samurai class was weaker and under more the influence of the Tokugawa regime, that in itself was weak.

In the 1860s it was the Satsuma and Choshu provinces that were able to provide a direct political and military threat to the Tokugawa Bakufu.  However Satsuma and Choshu leaders were suspicious and jealous of each other and had a history of conflict.  Despite their distrust of each other they both shared a hatred of the Tokugawa and both were fiercely loyal to the Emperor. An alliance was possible but needed a great deal of work for them to put their differences aside.  Jansen writes that this role fell to a Tosa ronin who had fled to Satsuma and Choshu for protection after his hopes had faded for civil resistance in his home province.  Sakamoto Ryoma headed for Satsuma with his friend Nakaoka Shintaro and to the Choshu loyalists in western Honshu.  From 1864 through to 1866 both samurai worked tirelessly to gain trust, respect and loyalty from their new domain leaders and finally in March 1866 the Satsuma-Choshu agreement was signed.  Although the Shogunate did not know of the secret alliance, Tokugawa police and agents strongly suspected that Sakamoto was up to no good and he became a wanted man. On the night after the alliance was sealed in Kyoto, Sakamoto was ambushed by a Tokugawa samurai squad, thought to be the Shinsengumi.  Jansen writes “As he and a samurai of Choshu, who had been assigned as Sakamoto’s bodyguard, celebrated their great success in a second-story room at Sakamoto’s favorite inn, the Teradaya situated on the outskirts of the Imperial capital, they were attacked.”  Sakamoto survived this attack but a year later the Shinsengumi once again tracked him down and was assassinated in the prelude to the restoration.

Sakamoto Ryoma and Nakaoka Shintaro

The alliance between these two powerful provinces was now sealed and proved to be the turning point for the restoration movement.   The Tokugawa Bakufu was unable to retain national leadership and there was a loyalist group powerful enough to make a move on the Tokugawa central government.  Jansen also writes of the importance of this alliance, “The alliance Sakamoto had helped to bring about enabled the Choshu leaders to stand firm in their refusal of Tokugawa demands for submission.” The Bakufu took immediate action against the alliance.  In the summer of 1866 Tokugawa troops attempted an attack on the Choshu rebels which ended in a humiliating defeat.  Support for the Tokugawa Shogunate had waived and many domains who were sent to fight the rebels refused to fight at all, such as Satsuma who had already signed an alliance with Choshu.  The new Tokugawa Shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu managed to sign a peace treaty but it was obvious the Tokugawa Bakufu had become severely weakened. 

Civil War

The Boshin War began in January 1868 and ended in June 1869 fought between the Imperial forces of Choshu and Satsuma and the ruling Tokugawa Shogunal forces, the first of which is known as the Toba-Fushimi battle.  Although the Choshu-Satsuma alliance army was greatly outnumbered it was armed with modern machine guns and cannons.  The battle lasted for four days, but from as early as the second day the alliance began to overpower the Shogun’s forces which were still mostly made up of medieval samurai.  Fearing defeat, a few of the Shogun’s retainers and army defected and turned their support to the Imperial forces which drew a quick end to the battle with heavy losses on the Tokugawa side.  After this decisive victory over the Tokugawa forces at Toba-Fushimi in January 1868 the Restoration forces led by Saigo Takamori moved quickly to gain control of the western provinces and by early March they began their push east to Edo.  The Imperial army was camped about 120 km outside of Edo which enabled Saigo to quietly enter the city alone and propose a peaceful and unconditional surrender of Edo with Katsu Kaishu, the Tokugawa Army Minister.  The terms of the agreement were accepted by Kaishu and without further bloodshed signaled a peaceful end to the revolution.  Some pro-Tokugawa troops continued to resist throughout the year of 1868 fighting battles all the way through northern Honshu to no avail.  The final surrender and end of the civil war occurred in Hakodate, Ezo (Hokkaido) in June of 1869 allowing the new government to concentrate on restoring peace and order throughout Japan.  

Battle of Toba–Fushimi, The Great Victory of the Government Forces of Mori (Chōshū), Shima (Satsuma), and Yama (Tosa), 1868.

A New Beginning

On the 6th April 1868 a ritual ceremony was held in the hall of the Imperial palace for the swearing in of the sixteen year old Meiji Emperor.  Sanjo Sanetomi (Chief Executive of the court) faced the court officials and regional daimyo and “declared the Emperor’s intent to assume the reins of power, beseeching their help in bringing order out of chaos and in punishing any who infringed the pledge that they were about to make”.  Four hundred and eleven members of the Imperial court and daimyo swore an oath of allegiance to the Emperor as the spiritual and divine leader of Japan, thus bringing about the Meiji Restoration.  However, the oath was also conceived, designed and staged to enable three men, namely Kido Takayoshi from Choshu, Okubo Toshimichi from Satsuma and Iwakura Tomomi, Chief Executive of the Imperial Court,  a privileged role in the new Meiji government which gave them direct contact with the Emperor thus being able to manipulate the decision making in the new government.  These three men controlled and maintained the former feudal domain systems until the first year of Meiji, but they knew they had to act quickly as the new centralized Meiji government needed strong control over local administrations in order to advance the construction of the modern nation, military advancement and economic development.  In the second year of Meiji (1869), the daimyo returned their domains. In the fourth year of Meiji (1871), clans (domains) were abolished and prefectures established. A political system, in which the central government dispatched governors to each prefecture, was established.

Saigo Takamori and Okubo Toshimichi. Childhood friends from Satsuma who would eventually become enemies.

Kido Takayoshi had been insistent on setting up a legislative branch of the government from the first year of Meiji, but opposition made it necessary to wait until the system of public government offices had been reformed, and until a certain level of national education and cultural understanding had been achieved. Okubo Toshimichi maintained a system of political reform centered upon the bureaucrats of the former Satsuma and Choshu domains. As the reformations matured and the Movement for Civic Rights and Freedom rose during the 1880s, several steps such as the order of setting up an assembly by Emperor Meiji in 1881 were taken by Ito Hirobumi and others, to enact the constitution as quickly as possible. A privy council was established for deliberation of the constitution. Finally, in 1889 the Meiji Constitution was promulgated, and the next year the Diet was opened. Okubo Toshimichi and other loyalists wanted to move the capital to Osaka, but Emperor Meiji did not agree and eventually Edo was changed to Tokyo and became the new capital.  The Restoration of the Emperor not only enabled political leaders to take control of Japan but also enabled spiritual leaders an opportunity to practice the ancient religion of Shinto that had been all but eradicated during the Tokugawa period.  Shinto was reintroduced to help establish a stable political structure which was centered on the Emperor.  Religion had no formal place in the 1889 constitution, but the aura of the imperial institution was used as a powerful political tool.  Old Shinto rituals relating to past Emperors became a fundamental part of Japanese life.  Bowring writes that Imperial rescripts and edicts had sacred connotations attached to them, for example the 1890 Imperial rescript on education was regularly read in schools and obeisance made to a portrait of the Emperor.   Buddhism was affected dramatically with the governments’ focus and support of Shinto.  However the role of Buddhism and Shinto in Japanese life continues to coexist even today.


During the Edo period trade had continued through a few ports with the Dutch, China and Korea but the Meiji Restoration opened up a huge trade industry with the west.  One of the first prominent trading corporations was established in the eve of the Meiji period in 1867 by Sakamoto Ryoma under his Kaientai (rebellion group). The Kaientai was essentially a front for Sakamoto who was based in the international port-city of Nagasaki.

Dejima (shown bottom right) Dutch trading port in Nagasaki. Authors photo.

The Kaientai was a private navy and shipping firm through which Sakamoto and his men ran guns for the Choshu and Satsuma revolutionaries in preparation for the revolution.  The increase in trade and availability of consumables the economy remained dependent on agriculture, handicrafts which accounted for the greatest economic growth, but the government directed the development of strategic industries, transportation and communication. Western style industrialization grew rapidly at the beginning of the Meiji period.  Western style factories and warehouses were established under government ownership but eventually sold to private ownership.  Privately owned companies producing goods were subsidized by the government allowing them to compete in the new market.

The first railroad was completed in 1872, and by 1890 there were more than 1,400 miles (2,250 kilometers) of railroad. All major cities were linked by telegraph by 1880.  The government gave financial support to private companies and instituted a European-style banking system in 1882. Western science and technology were imported, and a program of civilization and enlightenment (bunmei kaika) promoted Western culture, clothing, architecture and intellectual trends. In the 1880s, a renewed appreciation of traditional Japanese values slowed this trend. An educational system was developed which made use of Western theory and practice but still stressed traditional samurai loyalty and social harmony. Art and literature turned from outright imitation of the West to a synthesis of Japanese and Western influences.


If the definition of the Meiji Restoration is limited to the events of 1867 and 1868 then one can look at the incident as a civil war ending in a peaceful coup and the surrender of Edo by the Army Minister Katsu Kaishu.  But when we look at the Restoration in a larger picture, from the Tempo famine peasant uprisings, public disorders after the signing of the unequal treaties, through to the civil war, all which caused the deaths of many Japanese we are faced with a number of events containing rebellions, revolutions and civil war, all that contribute to a final restoration.  By the beginning of the twentieth century, the goals of the Meiji Restoration had been largely accomplished, and Japan was on its way to a modern industrial nation. Unequal treaties that had granted foreign powers extraterritoriality and judicial privileges were revised in 1894. The Anglo-Japanese alliance of 1902, and Japan’s victory in the Sino-Japanese War (1895) and the Russo-Japanese War (1905) and the political stability of the Meiji government gave Japan new international status as a major world power.  


Bolitho, Harold.  The Tempo Crisis. In The Emergence of Meiji Japan, edited by M. Jansen,p1-53.  Cambridge University Press. Cambridge, 1995

Bowring, Richard and Peter Kornicki.  Cambridge Encyclopedia of Japan.  Cambridge University Press.  Cambridge, 1993

Breen, John.  “The Imperial Oath of April 1868:  Ritual, Politics, and Power.”  Monumenta Nipponica, Vol . 51, No. 4 (Winter 1996)

Craig, Albert.  “The Restoration Movement in Choshu.” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 18, No. 2 (1959).

Jansen, Marius.  The Meiji Restoration.  In The Emergence of Meiji Japan, edited by M. Jansen, p.144-203. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge, 1995  

Jansen, Marius.  Sakamoto Ryoma and the Meiji Restoration.  Princeton University Press. Princeton, 1961

Sugimoto, Yoshio.  “Structural resources of popular revolts and Tobaku movement at the time of the Meiji Restoration.” Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 34, No. 4 (1975)

Wall, Rachael F.   Japan’s Century: An interpretation of Japanese History since the Eighteen-fifties.  Cox and Wyman. London, 1964

White, James.  “State Growth and Popular Protests in Tokugawa Japan.”  Journal of Japanese Studies, Vol.14, No.1 (Winter 1998)   

Vlastos, Stephen.  Opposition movements in early Meiji, 1868-1885.  In The Emergence of Meiji Japan, edited by M. Jansen, p.203-268. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge, 1995    

All information correct at the time of writing and research. Due to the nature of history, information updates very quickly. Please feel free to let me know if you have any updated information.

It you are still reading, thankyou for taking time to read my essay.


  1. Nice work, most informative. I just posted a thumbnail sketch of the restoration, relative to text I’m currently translating. Do visit if you have a minute to spare. Michael.


Comments are closed.