This episode explores the origins of the Meiji Revolution, how it changed the Japanese society, and how it shaped regional and world dynamics. 

A New Era For Japan

150 years ago, the Meiji Restoration restored the central governing power of the Japanese emperor and catapulted Japan into great power status. Japan had been governed under the feudal bakufu system since the 12th century, where the bakufu retained power and the emperor played a minor, symbolic role. Commodore Perry’s arrival in 1853 precipitated rapid change as he pressured Japan to open its society and forced the bakufu to sign unequal treaties. Disillusioned local daimyo governors restored Emperor Meiji to a position of centralized power in 1867, hoping he would take a strong stance against western pressure.

Instead of leading Japanese resistance against the west, Emperor Meiji sought to understand western society and technologies. In 1871, he dispatched the Iwakura Mission, a group of top government officials on a nearly two-year mission to learn about the United States and Europe. Impressed by western advances, the group advised the emperor to spearhead modernization initiatives. For decades after, Japan became a technological and industrial hub. At the turn of the 20th century, it adopted western expansionism by invading its neighbors Korea and later China.

A Different Path From China

Internal political dynamics and external incentives prevented China from modernizing alongside Japan. In the 1860-70s, China’s weak central government which oversaw a chaotic society was unable to push modernization initiatives Japan’s central government was undertaking. At the same time, western powers sought to exploit Chinese economic potential and undermine its power, prompting China to react with hostility to the outsiders.

Shaping Regional and World Dynamics

The Meiji Restoration fundamentally changed regional dynamics and world order. A modernized, expansionist Japan became the nexus of Asian power, eventually leading to military demise in WWII. Even after the war, Japan has remained an economic powerhouse and technological innovator with the intention to remain a great world power.

Dig Deeper

Take a look at some of our favorite sources that we came across while researching this topic:

About the Author
Drew Casey received his M.A. in International Affairs from the George Washington University’s Elliott School. He is the Director of Development for Matters of State and a regular episode contributor. He previously graduated from Oklahoma State University with a degree in International Business. Drew has lived in multiple major cities in the U.S. and spent a year and a half teaching English in China.