Japan History

Part I: Politics and Society under the Tokugawa Shogunate

During the period between 1603 and 1868, the shoguns of the Tokugawa family ruled Japan. Tokugawa Shogunate was the name of their political entity (Central Themes for a Unit on Japan: The World Cultures Social Studies Curriculum 1). This period was characterized by political peace and economic stability. The Tokugawa Shogunate established centralized feudalism form of government. Here, Tokugawa Shogunate controlled all the activities in Japan, allowing autonomy to the 260 individual domains (daimyo) only. Establishment of centralized feudalism was to ensure that the Tokugawa Shogunate gained control over everything in Japan, including power and wealth.

The Tokugawa Shogunate wanted to install a neo-Confucianism policy, which was to define the Japanese hereditary system. To achieve this, the Tokugawa Shogunate defined the four strata of Tokugawa society (Central Themes for a Unit on Japan: The World Cultures Social Studies Curriculum 2). This strata system categorized Japanese society into four groups: the samurai, peasant, artisan, and merchant. Each stratum had its role in the support of the larger social order. The samurai and daimyo were the highest in the strata. The farmers/peasants then followed them. The farmers were important since they produced the food that all other classes depended on (Central Themes for a Unit on Japan: The World Cultures Social Studies Curriculum 2). The Artisans came after the farmers, while the merchants were the last. The four-tier system helped the Tokugawa Shogunate to define social order, where the shogun was above the system and was able to retain power for a long time.

The Tokugawa Shogunate believed that Japanese interaction with the outside world was destabilizing its economic and political order, for instance, the ‘Christianity problem,’ which was because of the trading activities between Christian daimyos and the European traders. Besides, the Tokugawa Shogunate was opposed to colonization. Accordingly, the Tokugawa Shogunate enforced the policy of seclusion, where Japan was totally closed to the outside world. Nobody was to leave Japan. Those who left were prohibited from returning (Central Themes for a Unit on Japan: The World Cultures Social Studies Curriculum 3).

The Tokugawa Shogunate also utilized the social stability goal to enforce the ‘alternate residence’ policy. The shogun was to ensure that it remained powerful (both economically and socially), and that it had supervisory authority over the daimyo (owners of land). It, therefore, introduced the alternate residence system, where the daimyo had to live in Edo and their provinces (han) alternatively; one year in Edo and the next year in their provinces (Central Themes for a Unit on Japan: The World Cultures Social Studies Curriculum 4). While in han, the daimyo had to leave their families as hostages until their return. While in han, the daimyo created great financial burden to their hosts. This system allowed both the daimyo and han to double up as hostages. Tokugawa Shogunate’s motive behind this system was to ensure both the daimyo and han remained loyal to the shogun (Central Themes for a Unit on Japan: The World Cultures Social Studies Curriculum 4).

Part II: Political and Social Change during the Early Meiji

The Meiji Restoration began in 1868, after the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate in November 1867. During the era of the Tokugawa Shogunate, Japan was closed to the rest of the world. There was no form of trade taking place between Japan and the rest of the world. This situation has rendered Japan behind in terms of political, economic, and social development. However, Meiji Restoration helped Japan to achieve enormous economic growth within a short period (Barker 2002). When Meiji Restoration took power, they abolished the strata system, established by the Tokugawa Shogunate. They started taxing the Samurai, who were a big financial burden to other classes, and eventually abolished them through creation of a national wide military. All young men were to serve four years as armies and three years as reserves, once they attained the age of 21. All males in Japan acquired the right to carry arms (Barker 2002). This led to abolition of the Samurai class.

Major land reforms took place, when Meiji took power in Japan. Meiji rule legitimized the tenancy system of land (Barker 2002). However, the tenancy system was no longer dependent on the class system. The peasants and villagers started leasing out land to other farmers. In the process, they became rich, thus, disrupting the class system. The Meiji rule also strengthened the Japanese military, a thing that made Japan win the Russo-Japanese and Sino-Japanese wars (Barker 2002).

Economically, Meiji rule brought about rapid modernization and industrialization (Barker 2002). The rapid modernization and industrialization necessitated development of infrastructures. This saw the development of iron smelting, spinning mills, and ship industries, which manufactured various machines that were sold to various entrepreneurs. Consequently, domestic industries started consuming Western technology, a thing that enabled them to produce cheap but competitive items in the international market (Barker 2002). Growth of industries in Japan caused development of the railway line as well as modern methods of communication. Development of railway, as a mode of transport, led to increased demand for coal, which acted as the main source of power. The increased production of shipyards also accelerated the demand of coal. For these reasons, Japanese’s coal industry grew rapidly, from a production capacity of 0.6 metric tons in 1875 to 21.3 metric tons in 1913 (Barker 2002).

Politically, Meiji Restoration created a strong centralized state with a defined national identity (Barker 2002). The Meiji rule created a common national language, which replaced all the regional and local dialects, created by the Tokugawa Shogunate. Meiji unified the partially unified state under a capitalist form of government. The aforementioned social, economic, and political developments that took place in Japan after 1867 provide evidence that Meiji Restoration was revolutionary. It is during the Meiji Restoration that many developments, which have eventually contributed to the modern Japan, took place, thus, making Meiji Restoration revolutionary.