Meiji Period in Japan

Knowledge shall be sought throughout the world so as to strengthen the foundations of imperial rule.

—1868 Meiji Pledge 

With Emperor Meiji’s ascension to the throne in 1867, Japan theoretically restored power to the emperor, but because he was only 15 years old he had little governing power. Instead, the power rested with the new government consisting of a small, close-knit cabinet of advisers. This new cabinet immediately began implementing a series of reforms to both strengthen and unify Japan. One of their largest concerns was that Japan would not be able to regain its sovereignty if it did not modernize. With the recent display of the superior armament of the United States military with Commodore Perry in 1853, such concerns were not unfounded.

The goals of the early leaders of the Meiji era were ambitious, as they established new economic, political, and social institutions that governed Japan through World War II. The majority of these reforms were greatly influenced by the West, but they never deviated significantly from Japan’s cultural and historical roots. Perhaps most dramatically, it abolished the old system of a social hierarchy based on inherited status. For example, samurai, who historically were recognized as a warrior class, could now be farmers and engage in trade and commerce, and townspeople could now join Japan’s new army.

The Meiji government communicated these changes to the country by publishing the Charter Oath in 1868. This brief document outlined the intentions and policies of the new government and laid the foundation for all the reforms that would follow in the coming decades. The original text is believed to have been written by Yuri Kimimasa, an official of thefiefof Fukui.

The Charter Oath of the Meiji Restoration (1868)

By this oath we set up as our aim the establishment of the nationalwealon a broad basis and the framing of a constitution and laws.

Deliberative assemblies shall be widely established and all mat- ters decided by public discussion.

All classes, high and low, shall unite in vigorously carrying out the administration of affairs of state.

The common people, no less than the civil and military officials, shall each be allowed to pursue his own calling so that there may be no discontent.

Evil customs of the past shall be broken off and everything based upon the just laws of Nature.

Knowledge shall be sought throughout the world so as to strengthen the foundations of imperial rule.1

Many early Meiji reformers believed such reforms were necessary for achieving diplomatic equality and military strength and to begin building a path toward democracy. The motto of the era was “Enrich the Country and Strengthen the Military” and at the helm of this effort was Emperor Meiji. He embraced these efforts both in practice and in appearance. He wore Western-style military clothing, styled his hair in a Western manner, and grew a kaiser mustache. The pervasive philosophy of “Civilization and Enlightenment” impacted social policy throughout Japan and aspired to “correct” Japanese culture and to cultivate the idea of “civilizing” the nation. For example, officials outlawed mixed bathing and excessive exposure of flesh in public.

Government officials also consolidated power among an elite band of oligarchs. They formed a close circle around the emperor and advised him on everything. Their first priorities included implementing land tax reforms and military conscription to strengthen the government. Over the next four decades, the emperor and his oligarchs made education compulsory and invested in everything from banks to railroads to modern printing presses that increased newspaper circulation. The military adopted Western-style weapons and uniforms and took steps toward new models of military education. Some Japanese remained unaware of the changes taking place while others remained directly opposed to them. All of these changes, however, caused tremendous upheaval for a people ruled by a warrior class for centuries.

None of these far-reaching reforms were put into place overnight. The ideas for the reforms largely came about as a result of trips that Japanese officials took to the United States and Europe. Five years after the emperor was restored to the throne, Meiji adviser Iwakura Tomomi led a delegation of nearly 50 government officials on an 18-month diplomatic mission to Europe and the United States. Iwakura understood that Japan would maintain sovereignty only if it embraced a certain degree of modernization. The objectives of the Iwakura Mission, as it came to be known, were twofold: to hold preliminary discussions on a revision of the “unequal treaties” signed with the Western imperial powers beginning in the 1850s and to observe and study the public and private institutions of these Western powers. While Iwakura and his delegates were largely unsuccessful in renegotiating the provisions of the treaties, they were impressed by the culture and institutions of the West and brought back many ideas for the reforming of schools and universities, factories, power plants, cultural life, the police, military, and government.

One member of the delegation was the statesman Ito Hirobumi. He documented everything, from currency systems to education and technology. Ito observed the role that the constitutions of various nations played in guiding the conduct and institutions of the nations he visited. After studying the Prussian and Austrian constitutions, Ito, Japanese leaders, and Western scholars began drafting the Meiji Constitution in 1881. Eight years later it was promulgated.2The document defined the roles and responsibilities of the emperor, the rights and obligations of all Japanese citizens, and the establishment of government institutions such as the Diet (Japanese legislature) and the judiciary. In essence, the rule of law became institutionalized in Japan. In order to maintain a link between past and present, essential to the preservation of order, the framers of the Meiji Constitution maintained the imperial system while becoming a modern nation-state. In fact, the day chosen for the Meiji emperor to announce the constitution to the Japanese people was February 11, 1889, the anniversary of the ascension of Jinmu, the mythical and purportedly first emperor of Japan, to the throne 2,349 years earlier.3

Excerpts of the preamble and several articles of the constitution highlighting these changes in Japan are included below:


Having, by virtue of the glories of Our Ancestors, ascended the Throne of a lineal succession unbroken for ages eternal; desiring to promote the welfare of, and to give development to the moral and intellectual faculties of Our beloved subject, the very same that have been favored with the benevolent care and affectionate vigilance of Our Ancestors; and hoping to maintain the prosperity of the State, in concert with Our people and with their support,
We hereby promulgate, in pursuance of Our Imperial Rescript of the 12th day of the 10th month of the 14th year of Meiji, a fundamental law of State, to exhibit the principles, by which We are to be guided in Our conduct, and to point out to what Our
descendants and Our subjects and their descendants are forever to conform.

The rights of sovereignty of the State, We have inherited from Our Ancestors, and We shall bequeath them to Our descendants. . . .

Chapter 1: Emperor (excerpted 7 out of 17 articles)

Article I. The Empire of Japan shall be reigned over and governed by a line of Emperors unbroken for ages eternal.

Article II. The Imperial Throne shall be succeeded to by Imperial male descendants, according to the provisions of the Imperial House Law.

Article III. The Emperor is sacred and inviolable.

Article IV. The Emperor is the head of the Empire. . . .

Article XI. The Emperor has the supreme command of the Army and Navy.

Article XII. The Emperor determines the organization and peace standing of the Army and Navy.

Article XIII. The Emperor declares war, makes peace, and concludes treaties.

Chapter 2: Rights and duties of Subject
(excerpted 4 out of 15 articles)

Article XVIII. The conditions necessary for being a Japanese sub- ject shall be determined by law.

Article XX. Japanese subjects are amenable to service in the Army and Navy, according to the provisions of law.

Article XXIII. No Japanese subject shall be arrested, detained, tried or punished, unless according to law.

Article XXIX. Japanese subjects shall, within the limits of law, enjoy the liberty of speech, writing, publication, public meetings and associations.

Chapter 3: The Imperial diet (excerpted 3 out of 22 articles)

Article XXXIII. The Imperial Diet shall consist of two Houses, a House of Peers and a House of Representatives.

Article XXXIV. The House of Peers shall, in accordance with the Ordinance concerning the House of Peers, be composed of the members of the Imperial Family, of the orders of nobility,
and of those persons who have been nominated thereto by the Emperor.

Article XXXV. The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members elected by the people, according to the provision of the Law of Election.4


  • fief : A fief is an estate of land held in feudal service.
  • weal : A weal is a sound, healthy, prosperous state.
  • 1 : Wm. Theodore de Bary, Carol Gluck, and Arthur E. Tiedemann, eds., Sources of Japanese Tradition, 2nd edition, vol. 2 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 672.
  • 2 : Paul Akamatsu, Meiji 1868: Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Japan, trans. Miriam Kochan (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), 278.
  • 3 : Jinmu is the mythical son of the Shinto sun goddess Amaterasu-Omikami and traditionally believed to be the first emperor of Japan. See Reading 2.2, “Shinto and Japanese Nationalism,” for a further explanation.
  • 4 : de Bary, Gluck, and Tiedemann, Sources of Japanese Tradition, 745-47.

Connection Questions

  1. According to the reading, how did Japanese leaders define what it meant to be a modern nation?

  2. What were the goals of the leaders of the Meiji era? What words, images, and ideas from the reading symbolize the changes those leaders hoped to bring to the country?

  3. Two key documents of the Meiji era, The Charter Oath and the Meiji Constitution, were expressions of Japan’s new national identity. Referencing these documents, what specific words or phrases stand out? How do they represent the identity and values the government hoped to project?

  4. The new motto was “Enrich the Country and Strengthen the Military.” What do you think might be the benefits of having a strong military at the center of efforts to reform the country? What are the skills of a great soldier? What are the skills of a great citizen? Where do those roles intersect? What differences seem important?

  5. The reforms of the Meiji period were not taken in isolation. What were some of the concerns of Japanese leaders at the time? How did the choices they made reflect their concerns?

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