Japan: The Transition between the Tokugawa Period and the Meiji Restoration
Japan History

Research Report
Web Resources


What the world knows as modern Japan began with the Tokugawa Period and the introduction of the shogunate during the feudal era.  The shogun was a military commander who received his position by heredity and ruled the country under the nominal rule of the emperor.  1600 signaled the year of the beginning of a new nation: new ruler, new policies, different cultural approach, the climax of the samurai class and new hopes.  However, after 250 years of relative peace, the government created by Tokugawa Ieyasu and the Tokugawa family started to collapse due to both internal and external issues.  The decline of the Tokugawa regime was characterized by the influential presence of the west in Japanese soil and by the increasing discontentment of the peasants.  After a long period of practical stagnation, Japan, in a violent way, moved on to another era.  The Meiji Restoration intended to bring Japan back to what it used to be ideologically before the Tokugawa Period.  Instead, Japan found itself sinking into modernization and a redesigning process that helped to produce the contemporaneous Japanese society of today.

Historical Background

The Battle of Sekigahara in the year 1600 provided Japan with the “Tokugawa Pax”.  The Tokugawa Period was characterized by strong centralized rule, relative peace and stability.  The social structure was divided in four levels: samurais, farmers, artisans and merchants.  The state of peace was granted by the fact that the shogun controlled the country through several powerful samurais, called daimyos.  To make sure that they would not rebel against the government, a system known as sankin-kotai was implemented.   All daimyos were required to spend some time in Edo, and when they were coming back to their homes their family had to remain back in Edo.  In this way, if they would ever do something not approved by the shogun, their families would suffer the consequences.  "This was a completely schematized society where everybody knew who he was and what he had to do. The samurai were the elite in the Tokugawa system – they were not been allowed to raise their swords for 200 years" (Riedlsperger).  Moreover, several new aspects of the Japanese society were featured during this time.

Among the measures taken by the shogunate was the suppression and persecution of Christianity.  The reason:  Iemitsu Tokugawa, the grandson of Ieyasu, the first shogun, understood that Christians were a threath to his absolute control.  At the time this view was very reasonable given that Christianity called attention to God’s laws being above human laws.  For this reason, he decided to completely close the country to the outside world.  "Japanese travel and trade abroad was banned, and Japan was essentially closed to foreign visitors. Japan moved itself into self-isolation, though it was interested in Western guns, ships and technology" (Agatucci).  The only foreigners who were accepted in Japan were the Dutch, but they were confined to live in a small section of Deshima Island.  Under the Tokugawa, Japan saw the flourishing of arts like Kabuki and Bunraku Theater, Ukiyoe (woodblock printings), and Haiku poems.  During this period Japan observed a high level of economic development, common background and achievements in education.  According to other research works done on this topic, "the sankin-kotai system provided a strong stimulus to  the national economy "(Gordon).  The development of an extensive road system was necessary and towns grew along the roadside, marking the beginning of market-economy.  As a result, urbanization started to spur, farmers went from subsistence farming to the growing of commercial crops, which, in fact, motivated the initiation of family companies like today’s Mitsui and Sumitomo.  As samurais were relatively in peace, they turned to act as bureaucrats in order to help sustain the rapid economic growth.  “Merchants gained entrepreneurial and financing skills that would be valuable to economic growth in the Meiji period” (Gordon).  Also, as the Japanese were already used to serving a leader, social stability was provided; this last issue accounted very much for the state of peace enjoyed during this time.  At last, we find the importance given to education by the establishment of a large number of schools for children.  All these factors prepared Japan for its next transition.

Research Report

According to E. Herbert Norman in his book The emergence of Japan as a Modern State, there are two theories that account for the downfall of the Shogunate: The first one establishes that the arrival of foreigners undermined the authority of the Tokugawa and ruined it, and the second one points out that the system was being uprooted from the inside even before foreigners came to Japan.  A look at the second theory will help to understand the situation in a better way.  Inasmuch as the government policies could bring some good features to Japan, social instability still persisted in the country, making peasants and farmers being uneasy about it.  "Local daimyos could do as they pleased, as long as they conformed to the Shogunate’s policies.  Taxes were paid in rice, and from the taxes paid to the local daimyo, he gave stipends to the samurai under his command. It was a very fragile agrarian-based economy that could only endure for so long" (McCarter).  Even though merchants were considered as lower-ranking citizens, they had products that people wanted.  Daimyos started taking taxes years in advance to attempt to retain a positive cash flow, but in the end, this strategy proved unsuccessful.  Riedlsperger points out that, the merchants began to have more and more power over the samurais who were in their debt so their whole world was turned upside down.  Norman also explains that, “the Shogunate itself was on the whole better off than most of the daimyo for it could debase the currency to its own advantage and it controlled all the great cities and most of the economically advanced parts of the country.”  The concept of divisions of classes started to fall in the corner of obsolete things by the 19th century given that economic growth in previous centuries was already producing a new social and political order about to explode.  This was the preface to nationalism in Japan.

In 1854, American ships appeared in the Japanese bay of Edo, commanded by Commodore Perry, with the intentions of opening Japan to rest of the world.  His message was very clear: if the Japanese did not open up their country, he would do it by force.  “Japan had a very unhappy peasant base, an indebted and nearly powerless samurai class, and a government that could hardly support its own weight” (McCarter).  By this time the merchants were holding much of the power thus, as much as the government tried not to do so, they could not refuse the demands of the United States.  What happened next was that Japan was overflowed with foreigners: Americans, British, Russians, French, Dutch, etc.  There was no other solution for the Tokugawa than to try to understand these people who were invading their land.

Who is credited with the actual bringing-down of the Tokugawa shogunate?  Answer: a coalition of samurai clans from the provinces of Satsuma and Choshu.  The Shi-shi (men of high honor) group was born from the conception of weakness about the government that some people had given that the shogunate did nothing against the Americans.  Others feared even worse results out of the entire situation.  The Shi-shi groups created the Ishin movement, who attempted to bring Japan back to its refined past.  Their motto was “Sonno Joi” (Revere the Emperor and expel the Barbarians).  “The Shi-shi believed that Japan was sacred ground and that the emperor was a god” (Riedlsperger).  Their reaction against the situation turned to be the assassination of prominent foreign figures.  As it is to expect, the West’s response was not delayed in this matter and they attacked both Satsuma and Choshu as powerful as they could with devastating results for the Ishin movement.  This was known as the Shimonoseki Affair.  From that point on, Japanese understood that if they wanted to overcome foreigners’ power, they must learn to fight them with their own power.  From this idea was born a new motto: “Japanese spirit, Western technology.”

The strategy developed by the Satsuma-Choshu coalition was actually pretty simple.  First they armed themselves in the Western style.  "The wealth of Satsuma and Choshu in the mid 19th century was probably a factor leading to their success, for without adequate financial resources they would have had neither the strong morale nor the western arms which made possible their triumph" (Norman).  Second, the samurais began a campaign of assassination of the strong Tokugawa leaders in order to make the system weak as much as possible.  Third, the Shi-shi’s outnumbered the shogun’s army because they allowed the participation of townsmen and peasants.  “Satsuma had about 27,000 samurais and Choshu had about 11,000 samurais” (Norman).  Finally, their greatest strength was solidarity and union.  Seeing that the Shogunate was unable to hold the Satsuma and Choshu clans, the majority of the daimyos started to refer to the government as powerless and hence, they started to consider themselves as exempted from their obliged loyalty to the government.  Therefore, the Tokugawa system was losing its support and it was falling to the hands of the revolution.  In 1866, samurai Saigo Takemori led an army of the Satsuma-Chosu alliance and defeated the Shogun’s army near Kyoto.  The Tokugawa Shogun gave up its power and it came back to Emperor Komei, who later died.  The capital of the country was moved from Kyoto to Edo and it was renamed as “Tokyo” (the East Capital).  The new Emperor was only 16 years old and he was to be known as “Meiji”, the enlightened one.  The new Emperor became the symbol of change in Japan.

What did the Meiji Restoration mean for Japan?  It meant change and reformation.  "The Meiji Restoration brought about the rapid modernization of Japanese economic, political, and social institutions, which resulted in Japan’s attaining the status of the leading country in Asia and a world economic and political power" (Gordon).  An article released by the U.S. Library of the Congress reports that the first reform of the Meiji government was the implementation of the Charter Oath of 1868.  It provided for the establishment of deliberative assemblies, the involvement of all classes in carrying out state affairs, the freedom of social and occupational mobility, the replacement of old custom with the “just laws of nature”, and an international search for knowledge to strengthen the foundations of the imperial rule (U.S. Library of the Congress).  In 1871 daimyo’s hans disappeared and former prefectures were created.  This helped to the continuous flow of authority to the national government.  Economic, social, and religious reform toppled the agenda of the government by this time.  New taxes, like those for education, were imposed, Shinto religion was no longer under the administration of Buddhism and the Tokugawa’s social structure disappeared. Everyone was considered equal before the law.  However, the government implemented different ways to maintain social differences on an equal basis.  This was the moment for Japan to catch-up with the West, for if it did not want to become a colony modernization must be brought home.  “The Meiji oligarchy was aware of Western progress, and ‘learning missions’ were sent abroad to absorb as much of it as possible” (U.S. Library of Congress).  The Japanese studied other countries’ government institutions, courts, prisons systems, education systems, the import-export business, factories, shipyards, glass plants, mines, etc.  The key was to create policies on ministry, taxes, defense and agriculture.

The reform that had the greatest impact in Japan was the eradication of the samurai class.  Their stipend was cancelled and the government ordered them to look for a job and become members of the new society.  However, for most of them, this was not so simple and they were just unable to change in such a radical way.  General Saigo, who was a Meiji leader now, argued for the preservation of the samurai class and even proposed to attack Korea with the help of the samurais.  When the government dismissed him of such action he left them.  Then, in 1877, General Saigo went against the very government he helped to establish and led the last samurai uprising in the history of Japan: The Satsuma Rebellion.  The Meiji forces crushed the revolutionaries.  After losing the battle, he went to his home in Kagoshima and committed suicide, just to preserve his honor.  “Saigo’s death was the death of the samurai class. It also marked the true beginning of the Meiji transformation”(Riedlsperger).   A new era, a new government, a new country, a new slogan: “Civilization and Enlightenment”.  This was to be the new route of the Japanese way.

Historical Significance

Every little detail of the Japanese history presents the difficult and dark road the Japanese had to go through in order to achieve the country image they have today.  The Tokugawa Period made Japan known to the rest of the world and the Meiji Restoration gave Japan a place in the world, but it was this country’s experience during the transition from one system to other that set forth the role of Japan before the rest of the world.  The transition between these two eras meant a movement from "Old Japan" to a "New Japan".  The Meiji restoration took Japan out of a state of cultural, political and economic stagnation and brought it into the light of modernization, helping to convert it in the world’s second-largest economy.  Japan has made a good use of history and its main purpose.  History was designed to help us learned from past experiences and to avoid, in the future, the mistakes committed in the past.


1) Gubbins, John.  The Making of Modern Japan.  Freeport: New World Book Manufacturing  Co.  1971.

2) Harootunian, H.D.  Toward Restoration: The Growth of Political Consciousness in Tokugawa  Japan.  Los Angeles: University of California Press.  1970.

3) Huber, Thomas.  The Revolutionary Origins of Modern Japan.  Stanford: Stanford University Press.  1981.

4) Perez, Louis.  The History of Japan.  Westport: Library of Congress.  1998.

5) Totman, Conrad.  The Collapse of the Tokugawa Bakufu. Hawaii: University Press of Hawaii.  1980.

Web Resources

Timeline of the most important issues that took place during both the Tokugawa Period and the Meiji Retoration.

A report that highlights the aspects of the Tokugawa Period that influenced the Meiji Restoration.

A descripiton of the Japanese animation series titled 'Rurouni Kenshin'. RK is the story of a samurai who helped end the Tokugawa Period and how his experiences influenced his behavior, character and moral values after the first 10 years of the Meiji Restoration.

A report concerning the theories accounting for the downfall of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the way Japan reacted to the Meiji Restoration.

An article that explains the characteristics of the Meiji Restoration in Japan.

An introduction to the history behind the Tokugawa Period: how it started and how it ended.

A report that explains the emergence of modern Japan.

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Luis A. Cerda