Cultural Change in Meiji Era Japan
Japan History

Research Report
Web Resources


This report will focus on the changes that occurred in people's lives after Commodore Perry opened Japan to the outside world in 1854.  From that point on, the country quickly shifted from an antiquated feudal society to one that looked forward with hope and expectation.  In the Meiji Era, people's lives took a dramatic change in several areas.  However, there were many ways in which traditionalism was still retained by the people especially in the countryside.  By the end of the Meiji era, a new Japanese culture had started to arise as a synthesis of the rapid modernization and traditional culture. 
Historical Background

      After centuries of isolation and several unsuccessful attempts by the Western nations at opening Japan to international relations and trade, the United States Navy sent Commodore C. Perry in 1853 with a letter from President Millard Fillmore to the Emperor of Japan asking for trade relations, care for shipwrecked sailors, and a place to store coal for steam ships.  On July 8, 1853, the "black ships of evil mein"  billowing smoke and riding without oar or sail were first seen off of Edo harbor (Walworth, 3).  The mission was to be the defining point at the end of the feudal period and the beginning of the new age.  In the words of the Emperor's reply to the President the following spring, "we are governed by imperative necessity." Japan could no longer isolate itself from the rest of the world.

     Moreover, to the people it showed that the Tokugawa shougunate could no longer protect the Emperor.  Already struggling with a weak economy, a failing feudalist structure, as well as a lineage dispute, the shogunate finally lost the confidence of the people when it could not turn back the barbarians.  February 1854 saw the opening of the ports at Shinoda and Hakodate.  Townsend Harris arranged a treaty with Japan in 1858 for trade rights with the U.S, and gradually more ports opened not only to America but Britain, France, the Netherlands, Russia, and the other Western countries.  Xenophobia and economic hardship caused by the foreigners led to violent protests and the rise of extremists who abhorred the ineffectiveness of the current political situation.  Ultimately, the dissatisfaction of the daimyo with the Tokugawa led to a military coup which overthrew the shogun 

      Under the Meiji Emperor the old feudal systems were dismantled and the nation looked toward the West for a new ideal.  In order to consolidate power the new government abolished the han in 1871 and re-divided the country into prefectures.  The government dismantled the samurai class by raising its own conscripted national army where commoner and samurai fought side by side and by outlawing the carrying of swords in 1876.  Commoners were now allowed to take a surname and were free from any labor or travel restrictions.  Although not without its problems, the Meiji Era was remembered as one of hope and discovery; the source of both was the endless menagerie of all things Western.

Research Report

     During the Meiji period (1868-1912), the influx of new ideas and technology had a sweeping impact on all areas of Japanese life.  At the same time, Japan still tried to hold onto its own cultural identity.  In the end a synthesis of the old and new would bring about modern Japan.

      Many of the Japanese were quick to adopt western style both in their appearance and actions.  For example, the traditional Japanese hair cut for males was the chomímage.  This called for the head to be shaved except for the rear, which was then pulled up and folded over the top of the head. Thanks to its high maintenance and uncomfortable nature, it did not take long for many men to switch to western hairstyles, especially those men who were engaged in the new professions like school teacher, policeman, or Meiji official.  However, when the Meiji government finally came out against the chomímage, some people fervently defended the old style.  There were even reports of mothers rejecting sons who came back from the city or the army without their chomímage, and bridegrooms finding themselves suddenly unworthy of their fiancées. (Shibusawa, 38)

      As with hairstyles, it was people in the new professions and the army who took the lead in adopting western clothes.  Even then, in the cities, it was not uncommon to see someone in a kimono with western shoes or in an obi worn with spectacles and an umbrella.  Traditional clothes remained in place though for those engaged in traditional roles such as farming or fishing.  It took a longtime for the new ways to penetrate the countryside because there was little reason to change, and actually, many of the changes in the villages came from veterans returning from service and the young who had gone to the city. (Shibusawa, 26)

      The science and technology of the West was quick to find its way into Japanese society. It was Commodore Perry who demonstrated the telegraph to the imperial court in 1853.  Soon the first line was strung from Yokohama to Tokyo.  However, many people thought that there was black magic at work in the device.  One rumor said that the wires were soaked in the blood of unmarried women. Others in the country were perplexed when they hung messages written on paper from the wire and they did not fly down the line. Fear over the new technology even led to riots in Hiroshima in 1871.  It did not gain wide acceptance right away because of these superstitions and the high cost of transmitting messages and as such was primarily used by officials and the new newspapers.   (Shibusawa, 252) 

     Western thought had a tremendous impact on Japanese culture at this time.  With the establishment of the Institution for Study of Barbarian Literature a steady stream of Western ideas and entertainments were translated into Japanese.  Samuel Smiles' book Self Help and Lord Lyton's novel Ernest Moltavers became huge successes in translation.  Also several young men were sent to study abroad in Europe and America under the Bureau of Western Learning. They came back to Japan with the texts of John Stuart Mill, the Constitution of the United States, German philosophers such as Hegel and Kant, and the Social Darwinists for a country ready for new ideas.  Ideas of economic liberalism, the need for a market economy, and equality under the law resonated with many in Japan's new generation.  Fukuzawa Yukishi, the prolific writer and great champion of westernization, said, "To abstain from intercourse with foreign nations was a contradiction of both the laws of nature and human nature."  In the late 1850's English overtook Dutch as the most studied Western language as the Japanese saw the source of enlightenment shift to the West. (Yanaga, 70)
Industrialization and trade had a huge effect on the people's normal everyday lives.  For instance, once sake became an industry it took on a much different place in society.  Whereas sake used to be primarily home-brewed and saved for special occasion, industrialization had improved both the quality and quantity giving rise to the local tavern and along with it many of the social ills accompanying alcohol.  Beer also made an introduction into Japanese life with advertising starting as early as 1872.  However alcohol abuse soon led to consumption laws outlawing sales to minors in 1922 (Yamagida, p.41).   Tea also had changed in this new era.  It was during this time that Japanese started the enormous consumption of tea.  No longer reserved for tea ceremonies or special times, tea became a staple of Japanese life (Yamagida. p 44).  Along with the explosion in tea came an even bigger sensation in sugar.  Previously very expensive, with the newly opened ports sweets of all kinds started appearing in shops in the cities.  Sugar became so popular it had to be rationed and only then was it spread into the countryside.

       Before 1853 Japan was not only closed to the outside world, but within the country, even individual fiefs were isolated from eachother.  As such if one region suffered from a poor harvest or natural disaster, the effect would be devastating, costing many thousands of lives a year. (Shibusawa, 57) But with the breaking of the feudal barriers both internal and external, the rural food supply could finally be stabilized.  Being able to import rice, which only then became a staple of the Japanese diet, bolstered supplies even more.  Consumption of rice steadily increased, especially in the cities, and  by 1882 rice had become Japanís main export.  The opening of the foreign market had made production profitable, and this in turn helped to stabilize the price at home. 

      In all these different areas, and throughout Japanese civilization at this time people found themselves inundated with ideas and technology and experiences that would have been only fantasy a generation before.  In each case, they found ways to apply new styles, technology, and ideas to their pre-existing circumstances and to make something new come from it.  Japan was able to adapt with so ferociously and completely because it did not want to be left behind in the world it had just re-entered.

Historical Significance

     The changes that took place in the Meiji Era are important because it sets the stage for Japanís rise as a world power.  It is amazing to see just how quickly the Japanese society could transform itself from a feudal and isolationist island into an industrialized, modern nation in so short of a time. 

     Like most sweeping cultural changes it was easier for the young to shift their attitudes.  Meiji Japan was no exception, it was the former samurai who gave up the militaristic life for the role of the official, and the young peasant who went to the city or was conscripted into the army who was quickly exposed to a quickly evolving culture.  It was the young who would pass on to their villages what was new and exiting.

     It was also this young generation which would see Japan's place among the world powers.  With a total devotion to the Emperor, and increasing trends of militarism and industrialization, it would only be a short time until Japan found itself squaring off against adversaries who had only a few years ago viewed it as primitive and backwards. 


Yamagida, Kunio. Japanese Manners and Customs in the Meiji Era. Tokyo: Tokyo Bunko, 1969.

Shibusawa, Keizo. Japanese Life and Culture in the Meiji Era. Tokyo: Tokyo Bunko, 1969.

Walworth, Arthur. Black Ships off Japan. New York:  Alfred A. Koff Co. 1946.

Yanaga, Chitoshi.  Japan Since Perry. New York:  McGraw-Hill Book Co. Inc, 1949

Fujii, Jintaro. Outline of Japanese History in the Meiji Era. Tokyo:  Tokyo Bunko, 1969.

Web Resources   A link to Indiana University which has many links to digests and journals of US-Japanese topics.   A virtual tour of Edo.   Articles about Japan's economic history.   A good concise site, with sub links about many topics   Nice pictures and links

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