Why Have Concepts Of Restoration Reform Reconstruction And Revitalization Dominated The Thoughts And Actions Of Japans Ruling Elites From The 1850 S To The 1930 S

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Why have concepts of restoration, reform, reconstruction and revitalization dominated the thoughts and actions of Japan’s ruling elites from the 1850s to the 1930s? How have these ideas manifested themselves in governmental or elite-level policies over the same period? What does the resilience of these ideologies tell us about state-society relations in Japan over the years we have studied?
Up until the 1650s Japan had been isolated from the rest of the world where its government and society were rigidly hierarchical. Its emergence in the world was started from the Meiji period and shifted Japan from a weak Asia country to a great world power. In this essay, I will demonstrate the factors of the need for Japan to restore, reform, reconstruct and revitalize from the 1850s to the 1930s, the effects of these ideas to Japan through the government elite and policies, and the state-society relations in Japan. I will argue that the main reason for the restoration is that Japan have realized her internal weakness and was seeking to change the situation of being oppressed by western powers and among other factors. Through the Meiji period, she have successfully turned herself into civilization by reform her political and judicial, military and education, and economic and industrial, and rose the country to the world power, and because of her government is democracy and her people was educated thus Japan can achieve “National Unity” and get support from her people.
The concepts of restoration, reform, reconstruction and revitalization dominated the thoughts and actions of Japan’s ruling elites form the 1850s to the 1930s were the results due to a number of factors including domestic problems under the shogunate rule, that the fact she was nervous of foreign threats after China’s defeat by Britain in the First Opium War which made Japan aware of Western strength, the Peter Convention incident and the unfair treaty signed in 1854 which made Japan realize that how weakness and backward she was. These factors allowed the Meiji Restoration to occur, where the political revolution overthrew the military shogunate government in January 1868. “Japan realized that they would have to introduce western ideas and methods to ensure they would put themselves in a strong enough position to resist foreign pressure and not have to accept unwanted trade and regulations as China had been forced to.”
Under the shogunate rule, Japan had secluded itself for more than 200 years, it was clearly evident in the negotiation with the Western countries, that Japan was technologically and military behind. This was because, for two centuries, Japan mostly was only in contact with the Chinese and Dutch, and shared their culture, where western countries were further developed than the Asian countries. Apart from that the “domestic problems have also came up, agriculture had become commercialized, industrialization had commenced, and trade among regions had grown enabling rising household incomes,” which impacted by creating many social changes which challenged the social and political dominance of the shogunate rule. In order to resolve the social change problems and be seen as an equal to the western countries, and be one of the powerful countries, the oligarchs knew that Japan had to be restored and reformed with the western nations as their model.
Moreover, China’s defeat by Britain in the First Opium War (1839-1843) had upset the Japanese ruling classes, for which “the Japanese worship of China at the time was feverish” because they thought China was a strong country, “they have followed China and considered Western nations was minor “barbarian” countries.” Ito Hirobumi and other Japanese had visited the West because of this war and became very aware of the strength of the European nations. A treaty was signed between China and Britain that ended the war and forced it to accept unwanted trade and regulations because its position was weak, this required China to open up several new ports to trade. This event has given Japan a great warning of the western powers, and if Japan denied sharing the same fate with China, she must strengthen herself by restore and reform into a better place. It was not surprised that western interest soon passed on to Japan, American gunboat flotillas commanded by Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Edo Bay in 1853 and 1854 and forced the shogunate to end Japan’s restrictions on contacts with Western countries. In 1854 the shogunate submitted to foreign demands and signed treaties that ended Japan’s isolation. This intrusion by Western powers caused further discontent. In 1858 the shogunate signed a commercial treaty with the United States, which opened six ports and guaranteed rights of trade and residence for Americans in Japan. This shook the foundations of both the legitimacy and the authority of the shogunate rule and demonstrated the need of restoration and reform. As a result of this action, many other treaties between several western powers followed and Japan was now open to the world. As bad as this may have seemed for Japan, this exposed the world to them and made them realize just how backward they were. It was evident then, that change was imminent.
When Tokugawa rule was defeated, it was the start of the Meiji Period named by Emperor Mutsuhito, meaning “Enlightened Government”. A small ruling group of people containing members of aristocrats and samurais, called oligarchs were given the power to dominate Japan. The Meiji Restoration of Japan involved many contributing factors that led to a successful reform. These major reforms took place in areas such as political and judicial, military and education, and economic and industrial. They were successful because they were shaped and reformed upon other styles and methods that Japan had seen others countries use and the trials and errors that they had seen China make. It was Japan’s ability to incorporate all these reforms into one single body, which ultimately enabled Japan to successfully reform to the level of a recognizable world power by the start of 1900s.

In April 1868 the Japanese government’s determination of restoration was made clear when it announced in the Imperial Charter Oath, that ‘Knowledge shall be sought throughout the world so as to strengthen the foundations of imperial rule.’ The Charter Oath was a general guideline for the people and became the origin of the Meiji policy. It allowed for public discussion on government matters, a less rigid social class
classification, being able to individually do
The Emperor Meiji
what the people wanted to do, applying everything to the just-laws of nature, and the allowance of travel to other countries for the purpose of gaining knowledge. By 1890, Japan had created a full representative government and a civic ideology centered on the emperor. The emperor did not rule directly, he was expected to accept the advice from a small group of ambitious, able, and patriotic young men who emerged to take control and establish the new political system. The emperor represented Japanese culture and historical continuity which made him the national prominence and to unity of the Japanese people. His “advisers”: the Genro which where the elders, the Privy Council or the Constitutional Body, the Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal and the Imperial Household Ministry. Underneath them were the Military and Navy Advisers, the Prime Minister and his Cabinet, and the Diet which is an elected parliament. With these changes in the Government and constitution, a judiciary reform would be soon to follow.
The reform of the Judiciary system took place because of the fact that ‘as long as Japan’s legal system remained feudal, the foreign powers would be unwilling to revise the un-equal treaties.’ By 1890, along with the Constitution, Japan changed its entire legal system, adopting a new criminal and civil code modeled after those of France and Germany. Japan adopted these codes into their judicial system and gradually began to revise the un-equal treaties with Britain and the other western powers. With the introduction of new laws into the Japanese society, laws such as conscription laws were passed as a matter of importance. Thus, in effect it created a military reform.
In the late nineteenth century, many Japanese believed that one of the most important things a modern state needed was a strong army. There was a slogan at the time: ‘Enrich the country, strengthen the army.’ Thus a national army based on universal conscription was created in 1872, requiring three years’ military service from all men, samurai and commoner alike. This was also modeled upon western civilizations. A Navy was also created and fashioned upon the British Navy. Thus Japan’s age of militarism was at hand, as the more the military’s strength grew, the more Japan relied upon it. People became very nationalistic and because of the new educational system set up by the government, this was encouraged from an early age.
The new leaders of Japan considered education as vital in strengthening the nation. “We deem that the prosperity of a State is founded on the sturdy spirit of its nationals, and hence they must foster the spirit so that the national foundation may be strengthened.” An Education Act was issued in 1872 that laid the foundation for compulsory education, including primary education. Universities, middle-schools, and technical schools were also opened and organized upon western standards. Japans main motive though, of establishing a compulsory educational system was so that Japans young people could acquire knowledge and skills to establish itself as a World Power. Meanwhile, nationalism was also ballyhooed to the whole country, “The slogan kyokoku itchi (national unity) seemed to serve as a panacea.” They also needed a financial system that would provide a sound economic foundation for the government and its restoration.
Funds were needed for restoration and strengthen the country. Japan had several internal debts to pay and could not continue to modernize unless they were paid. Thus, a uniform taxation was introduced immediately. The government allowed for the sale of land, and assessed the land in order to determine a national land tax. By 1873, money began to flow into the national treasury and Japan could resume their restoration. Under this, they also arranged a new form of currency. A decimal system was adopted and the Yen was used as the formal unit. From what the leaders of Japan could see, other Western Powers did not only rely upon taxes to improve their financial positions. Industry was also used as a large form of income and as a position of strength in retaining the position of a world power.
“A country’s strength depends on the wealth or poverty of its citizens, and the latter is closely related with the amount of production.” Heavy industries were created such as munitions and mining, and transport began booming as well. The industrial factories were modeled upon western examples and they started to manufacture western products such as cement, glass, clothing and paper. Private industries were soon introduced and the zaibutsu rose as owning many of the bigger companies produced in privatized industry. With this expansion in the industry, domestic and foreign trades were introduced to Japan and their relationship with the western world powers increased.
With the internal restoration and reform of Japan, ‘people is becoming civilized day by day, so powerful has the nation apparently become, that it may seem as though little remains to place it on a level with European and American powers.’ With the power, Japan fought a war against China over its interest in Korea in 1894, which China claimed as a vassal state. Japan won the war and gained control over Korea and gained Taiwan as a colony. Japan’s sudden, decisive victory over China surprised the world and worried some European powers. By 1904, when the Russians were threatening to establish control over Korea, Japan was much stronger. It declared war on Russia and, using all its strength, won victory in 1905. Japan thus achieved dominance over Korea and was recognized as one of the great powers of the world.
The Meiji reforms brought great changes both within Japan and in Japan’s place in world affairs. During the Taishô period (1912-1945), Japanese citizens began to ask for more voice in the government and for more social freedoms. During this time, Japanese society and the Japanese political system were significantly more open than they were either before or after. ‘The period has often been called the period of “Taishô democracy.” One explanation is that, until World War I, Japan enjoyed record breaking economic prosperity.’ The Japanese people had more money to spend, more leisure, and better education with nationalism deep in the heart, supplemented by the development of mass media. Increasingly they lived in cities where they came into contact with influences from abroad. ‘During these years, the Japanese people began to demand universal manhood suffrage which they won in 1925. Political parties increased their influence, becoming powerful enough to appoint their own prime ministers between 1918 and 1931.’
When the Meiji emperor was restored as head of Japan in 1868, the nation was a militarily weak country, was primarily agricultural, and had little technological development. It was controlled by hundreds of semi-independent feudal lords. When the Meiji period ended, with the death of the emperor in 1912, Japan had a highly centralized, bureaucratic government, a constitution establishing an elected parliament, a well-developed transport and communication system, a highly educated and united population free of feudal class restrictions, an established and rapidly growing industrial sector based on the latest technology, a powerful army and navy. It had regained complete control of its foreign trade and legal system, and, by fighting and winning two wars, it had established full independence and equality in international affairs. The Meiji period with those concepts of restoration, reform, reconstruction and revitalization was indeed an “enlightening rule” for Japan.

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