The Meiji Restoration of 1868 toppled the long-reigning Tokugawa shoguns of the Edo period and propelled Japan into the modern era. Japan’s Edo period, which lasted from 1603 to 1867, would be the final era of traditional Japanese government, culture and society. Tokugawa Ieyasu’s dynasty of shoguns presided over 250 years of peace and prosperity in Japan, including the rise of a new merchant class and increasing urbanization. They also closed off Japanese society to Western influences. As the Tokugawa shogunate grew increasingly weak by the mid-19th century, two powerful clans joined forces in early 1868 to seize power as part of an “imperial restoration” named for Emperor Meiji. The Meiji Restoration spelled the beginning of the end for feudalism in Japan, and would lead to the emergence of modern Japan.

Rise of Tokugawa Shogunate

During the 1500s, power was decentralized in Japan, which was torn apart by warfare between competing feudal lords (daimyo) for nearly a century. Following his victory in the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, however, Tokugawa Ieyasu swiftly consolidated power from his heavily fortified castle at Edo (now Tokyo).

The prestigious but largely powerless imperial court named Ieyasu as shogun (or supreme military leader) in 1603, beginning a shogunate dynasty that would rule Japan for the next two and a half centuries.

Did you know? Just seven years after the Meiji period ended, a newly modernized Japan was recognized as one of the "Big Five" powers (alongside Britain, the United States, France and Italy) at the Versailles Peace Conference that ended World War I.

From the beginning, the Tokugawa shogunate focused on reestablishing order in social, political and international affairs after a century of warfare. The political structure, established by Ieyasu and solidified under his two immediate successors, his son Hidetada (who ruled from 1616-23) and grandson Iemitsu (1623-51), bound all daimyos to the shogunate and limited any individual daimyo from acquiring too much land or power.

Japan Self-Isolates

Suspicious of foreign intervention and colonialism, the Tokugawa regime acted to exclude missionaries and eventually issued a complete ban on Christianity in Japan. Near the beginning of the Tokugawa period, there were an estimated 300,000 Christians in Japan.

However, after the shogunate’s brutal repression of a Christian rebellion on the Shimabara Peninsula in 1637-38, Christianity was forced underground. The dominant faith of the Tokugawa period was Confucianism, a relatively conservative religion with a strong emphasis on loyalty and duty.

In its efforts to close Japan off from damaging foreign influence, the Tokugawa shogunate also prohibited trade with Western nations and prevented Japanese merchants from trading abroad. With the Act of Seclusion (1636), Japan was effectively cut off from Western nations for the next 200 years (with the exception of a small Dutch outpost in Nagasaki Harbor).

At the same time, Japan maintained close relations with neighboring Korea and China, confirming a traditional East Asian political order with China at the center.

Edo Period: Economy and Society

The Neo-Confucian theory that dominated Japan during the Tokugawa Period recognized only four social classes—samurai warriors, artisans, farmers and merchants—and mobility between the four classes was officially prohibited. With peace restored, many samurai became bureaucrats or took up a trade.

At the same time, they were expected to maintain their warrior pride and military preparedness, which led to much frustration in their ranks. For their part, peasants (who made up 80 percent of the Japanese population) were forbidden from engaging in non-agricultural activities, thus ensuring consistent income for landowning authorities.

The Japanese economy grew significantly during the Tokugawa period. In addition to an emphasis on agricultural production (including the staple crop of rice as well as sesame oil, indigo, sugar cane, mulberry, tobacco and cotton), Japan’s commerce and manufacturing industries also expanded, leading to the rise of an increasingly wealthy merchant class and in turn to the growth of Japanese cities.

A vibrant urban culture emerged centered in Kyoto, Osaka and Edo (Tokyo), catering to merchants, samurai and townspeople rather than to nobles and daimyo, the traditional patrons. The Genroku era (1688-1704) in particular saw the rise of Kabuki theater and Bunraku puppet theater, literature (especially Matsuo Basho, the master of haiku) and woodblock printing.

Gunboat Diplomacy

As agricultural production lagged in comparison to the mercantile and commercial sectors, samurai and daimyo did not fare as well as the merchant class. Despite efforts at fiscal reform, mounting opposition seriously weakened the Tokugawa shogunate from the mid-18th to the mid-19th century, when years of famine led to increased peasant uprisings.

A series of “unequal treaties” in which stronger nations imposed their will on smaller ones in East Asia, created further unrest, particularly the Treaty of Kanagawa, which opened Japanese ports to American ships, guaranteed them safe harbor and allowed the U.S. to set up a permanent consulate in exchange for not bombing Edo. It was signed under duress when Commodore Matthew Perry, who used the tactics of “gunboat diplomacy” by menacingly sending his American battle fleet into Japanese waters.

Meiji Restoration

In 1867, two powerful anti-Tokugawa clans, the Choshu and Satsuma, combined forces to topple the shogunate, and the following year declared an “imperial restoration” in the name of the young Emperor Meiji, who was just 14 years old at the time.

The Meiji Constitution of 1889—which remained the constitution of Japan until 1947, after World War II—was largely written by Itō Hirobumi and created a parliament, or Diet, with a lower house elected by the people and a prime minister and cabinet appointed by the emperor.

The peace and stability of the Tokugawa period, and the economic development it fostered, set the stage for the rapid modernization that took place after the Meiji Restoration.

During the Meiji Period, which ended with the emperor’s death in 1912, the country experienced significant social, political and economic change–including the abolition of the feudal system and the adoption of a cabinet system of government. In addition, the new regime opened the country once again to Western trade and influence and oversaw a buildup of military strength that would soon propel Japan onto the world stage.

Russo-Japanese War

In 1904, the Russian Empire under Czar Nicholas II, was one of the largest territorial powers in the world. When the Czar set his sights on a warm-water port in the Pacific Ocean for trade and as a base for its growing navy, he zeroed in on the Korean and Liaodong peninsulas. Japan, fearing the growth of Russian influence in the region since the First Sino-Japanese War of 1895, was wary.

At first, the two nations attempted to negotiate. Russia refused Japan’s offer to give them control of Manchuria (northeastern China) in order to retain influence in Korea, then demanded that Korea north of the 39th parallel serve as a neutral zone.

The Japanese responded with a surprise attack on the Russian Far East Fleet at Port Arthur in China on February 8, 1904, kicking off the Russo-Japanese War. The conflict was a bloody one, and over 150,000 people lost their lives as the fighting waged on between 1904 and 1905.

The war ended with Japanese victory and the signing of the Treaty of Portsmouth, which was mediated by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt (who later won the Nobel Prize for his role in the talks). Sergei Witte, a minister in Czar Nicholas’ government, represented Russia, while Harvard graduate Baron Komura represented Japan. Some historians refer to the Russo-Japanese War as “World War Zero” as it set the stage for the coming global wars that would reshape global politics.


The Meiji Restoration and Modernization. Asia for Educators.
The Meiji Restoration: The End of the Shogunate and the Building of a Modern Japanese State.
After 150 years, why does the Meiji restoration matter? The Economist.
Gunboat Diplomacy. U.S. Department of State.