In the mid-19th century, the stability of the Tokugawa regime was undermined by a combination of factors, including peasant unrest due to famine and poverty. The incursion of Western powers into Japan–and especially the arrival in 1853 of Commodore Matthew C. Perry of the U.S. Navy, on a mission to get Japan to open its doors to international trade–proved to be the final straw. In 1858, Japan signed a commercial treaty with the United States, followed by similar ones with Russia, Britain, France and Holland. The controversial decision to open the country to Western commerce and investment helped encourage resistance to the shogunate among conservative forces in Japan, including many samurai, who began calling for a restoration of the power of the emperor.
The powerful clans of Choshu and Satsuma combined efforts to topple the Tokugawa Shogunate and announce an “imperial restoration” named for Emperor Meiji in early 1868. Feudalism was officially abolished in 1871; five years later, the wearing of swords was forbidden to anyone except members of the national armed forces, and all samurai stipends were converted into government bonds, often at significant financial loss. The new Japanese national army quashed several samurai rebellions during the 1870s, while some disgruntled samurai joined secret, ultra-nationalist societies, among them the notorious Black Dragon Society, whose object was to incite trouble in China so that the Japanese army would have an excuse to invade and preserve order.
Ironically–given the loss of their privileged status–the Meiji Restoration was actually engineered by members of the samurai class itself. Three of the most influential leaders of the new Japan–Inoue Kaoru, Ito Hirobumi and Yamagata Aritomo–had studied with the famous samurai Yoshida Shouin, who was executed after a failed attempt to kill a Tokugawa official in 1859. It was former samurai who put Japan on the road to what it would become, and many would become leaders in all areas of modern Japanese society.