Modern Japanese History
Many of the newer realistic samurai films are set around the Meiji Restoration period. In order to better understand the social situation of those times, I like to present her the essentials of an essay by Karl-Heinz Winkler who described this epoch in my opinion quite well. The social upheavals of the Meiji period were the prerequisites for the development of modern budo such as judo, kendo and aikido.
Revolution from above
The Meiji Restoration is one of the most amazing developments in response to the clash between an Asian civilization and Western modernity. Within a few decades, Japan developed from an agrarian state into an industrial nation that caught up with the West and very quickly showed itself to have colonial ambitions.
Other nations in Asia, such as Siam or Afghanistan, resisted Western imperialism. But afterwards they stayed in their old structures. Japan, however, recognized that a mere defense against the foreign threat was not enough. The country had to change completely in order to play a role in future world politics. And it is even more astonishing that this did not require a revolution against the old upper classes, such as later in China. In Japan, the elites themselves carried out this transformation process. They were ready to forego some of their privileges. They also took military action against those fractions of the previously ruling groups that did not want to follow the path to modernity.
After a long phase of internal unrest, Tokugawa, a powerful prince in the east of the country, succeeded in defeating all rival warlords and founding the Tokugawa shogunate (Shogun = army leader, also known as Bakufu), which officially existed until 1868. Since 1639 they kept the country completely closed off from the outside world and only left the Dutch a trading base in Nagasaki. Foreign travel and contacts with other countries were strictly forbidden to the Japanese. It was not until 1853 that US ships under Commodore Perry, who appeared with his ships at Yokohama in the Bay of Edo (Tōkyō), forced the end of the country's self-imposed isolation.
The Japan that the Americans and later the Europeans found, reminded them of the European Middle Ages. While in the other Asian states sovereigns ruled their countries with a centralized bureaucracy, in Japan the emperor (Tennō) was condemned to complete powerlessness. He led a shadowy existence in the palaces of Kyoto. It was of no use to the emperors that they were supposedly of divine origin and that their dynasty should descend from the sun goddess Amaterasu. Instead, Japan was ruled by a small group of feudal lords, 266 grand princes (daimyō), who owned the entire country with the peasants belonging to it.
The most powerful of them belonged to the Tokugawa clan, who owned about a quarter of the Japanese land. The daimyō ruled their vast estates more or less autonomously. But the Shogun forced them to stay always for a while in Edo, the Japanese capital, in order to subject them to his control.
The old class society
The entire society was divided into four classes, which were strictly separated from each other. It was a question of birth, people were born into them, a change was not possible. Just like in the European Middle Ages they prevented social mobility.
The first booth consisted of the Samurai, the warriors and followers of the daimyo. They were similar to the European knights, except that as a rule they did not own their own land, but received an annual salary from their feudal lords in the form of rice allowances.
At the end of the Tokugawa era their number was about 2 million, including family members. That was about 6% of the population. Their social situation was very manifold. It depended on the wealth of their masters and the rank of each warrior in the hierarchy. Trained to wage war, they lost all function during the long period of peace under the Tokugawa shogunate and increasingly assumed the character of a parasitic caste. They no longer performed useful tasks and generally limited themselves to spending their wages. Even in their very own field, warfare, they developed into an anachronism. Because the heroic individual combat turned out to be hopelessly inferior in the confrontation with modern European armies. Since the samurai rejected firearms as dishonorable, they were easy victims of modern weapon technologies.
Their code of conduct, called Bushidō, which means, unconditional loyalty to one's superior, has shaped Japanese society to this day. Many historians believe that this made possible the later militarism and expansion of the Japanese Empire in World War II.
The village communities were socially differentiated because the individual families had very different shares of land. However, since the cultivation of wet rice requires extensive cooperation, there was greater cohesion in the villages. After the real division was banned, the number of farms did not increase any more. An expansion of arable land was no longer possible due to the lack of fertile land. This presumably gave rise to a large number of landless farmers, many of whom moved to the cities.
One million people lived in the city of Edo in the 19th century.
The village communities were collectively liable for the taxes paid to the landlords and their entourage. The farmers were organized in groups of five, five houses were responsible for each other and were supposed to control each other. It remains to be seen whether this organized monitoring system showed the desired results.
There are reports of over 3,000 peasant revolts during the Tokugawa shogunate, but these were usually only local riots.
There was also the third booth of the craftsmen and the initially little respected fourth booth of the merchants.
Indeed, Japan was very similar to European feudal society and it is possible that the country was in the process of transforming itself into a capitalist society. The conversion of peasants' payments into money rent during Bakufu gradually led to the disintegration of the feudal system, which is well known from Europe. Because the natural economy thus turned into a money economy . Money makes it possible to acquire an unlimited variety of goods, allows unlimited development of needs. This leads to an incentive to increase agricultural production if the level of the levy is fixed and the excess surplus remains with the farmer for private consumption. But the nobility was now also multiplying its needs and wanted to satisfy its new consumer needs. If they tried to get more money by increasing the farm lease fees, this would lead to considerable tension in the relationship between landlords and farmers. The rise in peasant unrest in Japan at the end of Bakufu may be due to this fact.
In the cities the craftsmen had organized themselves in guilds and had extensive knowledge of metalworking, the manufacturing of clocks, weapons, rickshaws, writing implements, and textiles. The growing cities offered a sufficiently large sales market. Numerous homeworkers who processed cotton lived in the villages. With many samurai living across the country, there was a broad class of affluent consumers with local markets everywhere.
In the 19th century Japan was at an advanced stage of protoindustrialization and thus already had all the characteristics considered necessary for the development of a modern market economy: a fully developed money economy, closely networked market structures, considerable capital assets, ready for extensive investment, a well-developed infrastructure, a considerable level of commercial and agricultural production, a disciplined workforce that had long been used to working for their own account, generated surpluses and was interested in the constant development of their incomes.
Traditional Japanese traditions did not stand in the way, the self-discipline of the samurai was also a useful quality for wage earners and small business owners. The organization in groups of five in agriculture, which also existed in trade and industry, clearly showed that in a group more can be achieved. Self-interest and group interest did not constitute a contradiction. All in all, Japanese society was well positioned and was therefore able to respond appropriately to Western penetration.
Japan might have managed to found a civil society on its own, abolish the estates, end feudal rule, and abolish all regulations that hampered industrial development, but this proved unnecessary. The clash with the colonial powers was so violent that all layers were interested in westernizing their country as soon as possible.
End of isolation and fall of the Shogun
When the American commodore Perry forced Japan to open its ports, the country's 250-year self-isolation suddenly ended. In the Treaty of Kanagawa in 1854, it opened two ports to American ships for provisioning. It had to allow the establishment of an American consulate and grant the USA a most-favored nation clause. In the next few years, relationships were established with European countries, which also set up branches. The development could no longer be stopped. Nobody could ignore the technical and military superiority of the foreigners.
The Bakufu proved to be completely unable to stop or control this process. In the eyes of the other daimyo, it gambled away its leadership role. But the attempts of other clans to drive away the strangers also failed miserably. The ruler of Satsuma in southern Japan got into a conflict with the British, who then shelled his fortress Kagoshima. The ruler of Chōshū in western Japan also messed with the foreigners. In 1864 a fleet of 17 ships of British, American, Dutch and French origin appeared and destroyed all fortifications in the port of Shimonoseki. It looked as if Japan would soon suffer a fate similar to that of India or China, becoming a dependent, underdeveloped colony, a plaything of the great powers.
The fact that the development then turned out completely different was thanks to a remarkable insight of the upper class into the gravity of the situation. Shortly after the arrival of Commodore Perry, a group of advisors to the daimyo had formed who, with the slogans "Drive out the barbarians" and "Adore the emperor," carried out a fundamental revision of domestic policy. They replaced the dual leadership, emperor and shogun, by the sole concentration of power to the Tennō.
In order to save Japan from foreigners, the incompetent shogun had to be overthrown. The vast majority of the daimyo joined this movement and called for the end of Bakufu. After a short battle, the Shogun was finally defeated and the entire land of the Tokugawa clan was confiscated and placed under the state. All power was now concentrated with the young Meiji emperor, who had taken office in 1868.
In the following year almost all of the daimyo surrendered their lands to the new ruler and renounced their property and privileges.
The Japanese farmers now paid their taxes, now regular taxes, to the state and no longer to their former landlords. The power of the Tenno was once again considerably strengthened.
One thousand and one year
An order that was more than a thousand years old collapsed practically overnight in just one year without the need for a bloody revolution, as in France, Russia or China. This astonishing change was also rather unspectacular, because the abolition of Bakufu and the sole rule of Tennō only seemed to be the restoration of an ancient order and had nothing revolutionary about it, so it was more of a restoration. This was only possible for three main reasons: firstly, because of the external threat, secondly, because the number of daimyo was very small and they had a high level of understanding of the political necessities, and thirdly because of the emperor's god-like position, which gave him sufficient legitimacy.
Of course, the feudal lords' power was not over now. Rather, it turned out that the old elite was also the new one. The daimyo received high severance payments and pensions from the state for the lands that were now subordinate to the state. The new entrepreneurial elite soon developed out of parts of the feudal nobility, which now no longer owned land but owned capital and thus continued to rule the country, albeit from a different base. The old rulers had modernized, the Meiji Restoration enabled them to continue to assume the leadership role under changed conditions.
The new order
The aim of the political changes was by no means to create a democratic state, not even a constitutional monarchy, but rather an absolutist empire. The European bourgeoisie had once fought for freedom and self-determination, but the Tennō had no understanding for these ideals and did not want to import them. Since there was no developed bourgeoisie in Japan, there were also no social classes that could have made such demands. This only changed a few years after the restoration began. But the democratic forces remained weak. The Tennō issued a constitution in 1889, which was based on the Prussian authoritarian constitution. It left the emperor with enormous power and allowed parliament only limited participation in the formation of political will.
These structural changes alone were not enough, the resulting opportunities now had to be used. Fortunately, the emperor had an excellent advisory staff made up of intellectuals who originally came from the samurai caste. These had meanwhile dealt extensively with western science and technology, some of them had already toured Europe and the USA.
In the next few years, the old status rules were abolished and general equality was enforced. The four-class system was thus ended. A free, economically oriented society made wealth, education and political influence the new standards of prestige. The villages' collective liability for taxes was abolished. The five houses system ended and individual taxation was introduced.
Land was freely available for sale. The old division of Japan into regions of rulership of the former landlords was abolished and a new, rational division in provinces was created according to administrative aspects. In 1873 compulsory military service was introduced, which replaced the samurai army.
The losers were the samurai, for whom there was no use in this new system. They no longer received their pensions from their daimyo, but from the state. But the government only paid them a third of their previous earnings. Then these were converted into a one-off payment of the capitalized equivalent and they received government bonds instead of annual payments. This forced them to give up their previous way of life as a pensioner. They had to look for employment or try as a farmer or small business owner. The introduction of general conscription also made them superfluous as warriors. Their clothes, their way of life, all of this seemed to be completely anachronistic now, as the western clothes and way of life became more prevalent. Their old fighting spirit flared up again during the Satsuma rebellion in 1876/77, but the samurai were defeated by a peasant army with modern weapons. In this way the danger of a counter-revolutionary revolt was banished forever.
The industrialization that was now beginning required much capital and in the first few years this could only be raised by taxing agriculture. The money that was skimmed off there ended up with the state and soon filled the pockets of the court camarilla. These were the daimyo who had become allies of the emperor and some merchants from the time of Bakufu. This financial oligarchy founded the famous Zaibatsu (財閥 = money clan), huge conglomerates that soon controlled economic life in Japan and were dissolved by the Americans in 1945.
In the years following the restoration, the Japanese brought numerous technicians and scientists into the country to learn from them. They imported machines, built them and then improved them. In general, they initially copied many inventions from abroad in order to develop them further. Factories for textile processing, for railways, mechanical engineering and big arms factories were built. One of the slogans of the new Japan was: 'A rich country through a strong army'. Most of the companies were state-owned, but mixed with private capital. Since the state was the midwife of modern society, it also played a much greater role in the economic field than in western countries. The close connection between the state bureaucracy and the private sector became a trademark of the Meiji era and beyond. The Meiji Restoration has completely modernized Japan, transformed it into one of the leading industrial nations and helped the population to achieve a high standard of living.
Critics, however, object that this was a revolution from above. The old power elites were able to reorganize themselves. The bourgeois ideals of freedom, equality and self-determination did not find their way into Japanese society. The country remained an authoritarian state. The principles of the samurai, the unconditional loyalty to the superior, were not questioned, but even became a constituent element in the new society. The Zaibatsu stopped free competition and led Japan into the catastrophe of World War II. The divine status of the emperor was retained and prevented the development of democratic structures.
This authoritarian society unleashed a bloody war in Asia and only afterwards did it embark on the path towards a modern civil society.
Link to the original essay: Meiji-Restauration, Karl-Heinz Winkler 2012