On July 27, 1853, the Tokugawa shogunate was in crisis. Shogun Tokugawa Ieyoshi passed away from what today is believed to be heat exhaustion at Edo Castle in the heart of Edo, present-day Tokyo.

Abe Masahiro, the top samurai bureaucrat under the shogun, had an urgent mission to carry out that day. He asked Tanaka Zenemon, an official from Saga, a feudal provincial government seat in today’s Saga Prefecture, to come to Edo Castle.

Abe’s urgent question: Could Saga manufacture about 200 iron cannons for the shogunate?

By that time, the political turmoil that would eventually doom the shogunate and transform Japan’s political and social systems had started.

Just 10 days before that, American Commodore Matthew Perry, who came to Japan on July 8, left Edo Bay after pledging to come back the next spring.

Perry led a fleet of four “black ships” armed with 63 powerful cannons. He vocally demanded that Japan end its national seclusion policy that had continued for more than 200 years.

Perry’s arrival would soon split samurai lords and activists over how Japan should defend itself from Western powers. Some called for war to drive away the barbarians from the West, while others argued Japan should open up and adopt Western technologies to defend itself.

Ensuing power struggles and civil war eventually led to the collapse of the shogunate and establishment of a government centered on Emperor Meiji in 1868 that later modernized, industrialized and Westernized the entire country to compete with the rest of the world.

This reform process is now known as the Meiji Restoration, or Meiji Ishin in Japanese.

A woodblock print by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi depicts a battle between pro-Imperial and pro-shogunate samurai in the Ueno district of Tokyo in 1868. The battle was part of the Boshin Civil War, which led to the establishment of the modern Meiji government.
A woodblock print by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi depicts a battle between pro-Imperial and pro-shogunate samurai in the Ueno district of Tokyo in 1868. The battle was part of the Boshin Civil War, which led to the establishment of the modern Meiji government. | EDO-TOKYO MUSEUM

On Tuesday the government held a ceremony to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Meiji Era, when the 16-year-old Emperor officially chose the era name Meiji for his reign.

Through the Meiji reforms, Japan barely managed to emerge as one of a few non-Western countries that successfully modernized and thereby avoided being colonized by a Western power.

“Meiji Ishin was a holistic change of Japanese society from feudalism to modernistic capitalism under the global environment of the 19th century,” said the late Toshihiko Mori at a symposium in 2010, when he was professor emeritus of Japanese history at Osaka City University.

“It was Japan’s response to the challenge from the Industrial Revolution of Western Europe, which started in Britain in the 18th century,” he said.

In fact, Abe the samurai bureaucrat knew how serious the challenge from the Western powers would be.

Long before Perry arrived, Abe and other Japanese leaders were precisely aware of what happened to China after it was defeated by the modern British military in the 1840-1842 Opium War. This was the very reason Abe reacted so quickly after Perry sailed out of Edo Bay.

Abe had no choice but to turn to Saga, however humiliating it might be for the shogunate.

Saga was the only provincial government that had succeeded in mass-producing iron cannons after carefully studying an imported Dutch book of gun production technologies.

The shogunate had tried but never succeeded in manufacturing its own iron cannons due to technological difficulties. It only owned bronze guns, which were weaker and used far less gunpowder.

Abe’s request to Saga was one example that underlined the huge technological gaps between premodern Japan and the Western powers of the time.

To this day, Japanese people proudly embrace the success story of the Meiji Restoration.

Dramatic stories of numerous young middle- to lower-class samurai heroes who played key roles in overthrowing the shogunate are extremely popular and have been repeatedly made into novels, TV dramas and movies.

A girl shakes hands with a statue of Sakamoto Ryoma, a samurai reformist popular among history fans, in the city of Kochi, where he was born.
A girl shakes hands with a statue of Sakamoto Ryoma, a samurai reformist popular among history fans, in the city of Kochi, where he was born. | KYODO

Such individuals include Saigo Takamori, a samurai leader who was featured in this year’s NHK history drama series, and Sakamoto Ryoma, an activist who helped overthrow the shogunate and was assassinated in 1867 in Kyoto.

But historians say — despite the long-lasting popularity of these samurai heroes — that the Meiji Restoration has never been fully understood by the Japanese people in general.

Even among historians, key aspects of the restoration are often overlooked or ignored because of the ideological biases of the different political forces before and after World War II.

“In my view, what was most important about Meiji Ishin was the removal of the hereditary class system. Before Meiji Ishin, people all belonged to one of the classes for life,” said Hiroshi Mitani, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Tokyo.

Hiroshi Mitani
Hiroshi Mitani | REIJI YOSHIDA

“In that sense, it was a revolution, not a mere restoration of the old Imperial system,” Mitani said, adding that its revolutionary element has long been overlooked by historians.

In fact, one can find an odd paradox in the Meiji reforms.

It was samurai leaders who played key roles in building the modern Meiji government. But the Meiji government then abolished the class system that had separated samurai, farmers, artisans and merchants. It also deprived samurai of their hereditary privileges, including salaries paid in the form of bags of rice.

This reform was presumably carried out to mobilize people of all classes for various social reforms taking place at the time. But as a result, strangely enough, the biggest losers of the Meiji revolution turned out to be those belonging to the samurai class.

According to Mitani, about two-thirds of the samurai, who accounted for 6 percent of the nation’s total population of 34 million, became jobless with the abolition of the class system. The remaining one-third were meanwhile re-hired as bureaucrats.

“So the elite class accounting for 4 percent of the total population vanished all at once. This is a real class revolution,” Mitani said.

In the 1930s and ’40s, Japan’s militarism prevailed and the Imperial government started further glorifying stories of pro-Imperial players in the Meiji Restoration to propagate the legitimacy of the Imperial regime.

For example, from 1939 through 1941, the Education Ministry published a six-volume series of the official history of the Meiji Restoration.

In the 1930s and 1940s when militarism prevailed, the Education Ministry published the six-volume Ishin-shi, the official history of the Meiji Restoration, centered on pro-Imperial activities.
In the 1930s and 1940s when militarism prevailed, the Education Ministry published the six-volume Ishin-shi, the official history of the Meiji Restoration, centered on pro-Imperial activities. | NATIONAL DIET LIBRARY

The declared purpose of the publication was to “let the people learn about the dignity of the national polity.” Thus the narratives of the set of volumes, called Ishin-shi (Restoration History), were centered on those of pro-Imperial activities and the Imperialists’ struggles with their political enemies.

However, such stories oversimplified the actual history because various parties in the Meiji revolution had their own agenda, according to Mitani.

He said that because much of the historical facts in the books were accurate and their oversimplified stories were easy to understand, their interpretation of the Meiji reforms had a long-lingering influence on history education in schools even after the war.

Fuji Takagi

After the war, many historians were influenced by Marxism. Left-leaning historians played down this revolutionary nature of the Meiji reforms because it did not match their Marxist view of history, said Fuji Takagi, a professor emeritus of history at Otsuma Women’s University in Tokyo.

“They believed the old class system had merely been replaced with that of landowners and tenant farmers” because this was in line with the communist dogma of historical views, Takagi said.

Many postwar historians, like a majority of the Japanese, detested Japan’s wartime militarism in the 1930s and ’40s that was centered on people’s worship of the Emperor.

They found that the origin of the modern Imperial system they criticized went back to the Meiji Restoration, another reason they attached less importance to the achievements of the reforms, Takagi said.

“Studies of history are not just about looking into the past but are closely related to how you see contemporary society. Historians look at the past to think about the present or to form a vision of the future,” he said, explaining why so many Japanese historians were affected by Marxism after the war.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Marxism lost much of its appeal and Japanese historians finally shed its influence.

But young scholars nowadays instead tend to focus on precise, factual studies on the details of certain historical materials, such as newly found handwritten documents, and do not try to present a big picture of history, both Takagi and Mitani said.

“This is a backlash from Marxism. Marxism presented a too-big picture of history and it turned out to be totally wrong,” said Mitani, who is also a professor of history at Atomi University in Tokyo.

But now that nearly 30 years have passed since the collapse of the communist sphere, it may be about time to review the meaning of the Meiji reforms, setting aside ideological biases, either prewar worship of the Emperor or postwar Marxist theories, Takagi said.

He said he has recently sensed a rise in nationalism in Japan, as in other countries, including the United States and Russia.

Nationalistic people often try to glorify the history of their country and play down their grave past mistakes, such as those conducted during World War II, he said.

“So I’m concerned. The 150th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration should not be made into something used just to glorify the state,” he said.

On the other hand, most Japanese appear not to care very much about the lingering effects of the prewar Imperial education or Marxist influences on postwar historians.

Many history fans are still fascinated with the dramatic, and often fictional, stories of samurai heroes of the turbulent Meiji Era, as can be seen in the huge popularity of novels on the Meiji Restoration, such as those written by the late Ryotaro Shiba.

Shiba’s novel “Ryoma ga Yuku” (“Ryoma Goes His Way”), first published in a daily newspaper from 1962 through 1966, sold more than 25 million copies. His novels on the Meiji Era made him one of the most popular writers in postwar Japan.

Ryotaro Shiba’s
Ryotaro Shiba’s ‘Ryoma ga Yuku’ novels have sold millions of copies, contributing to establishing samurai reformist Sakamoto Ryoma as the hero of the Meiji Restoration. | REIJI YOSHIDA

Critics, however, say his novels focus too much on the positive episodes of individual heroes and avoid the era’s negative aspects.

“The biggest problem is his simple dichotomy of the ‘positive Meiji Era’ versus the ‘negative Showa Era,’ ” wrote Masanori Nakamura, a professor emeritus of history at Hitotsubashi University in his book published in 2009.

Nakamura says the “negative Showa Era” is represented by the militarism of the 1930s and ’40s. Deeply disillusioned with Japan’s wartime militarism, Shiba never wrote a novel about the era of Japan’s wartime militarism, devoting himself to writing only about individual heroes before that dark age.

Shiba is said to have conducted vast research into historical facts in his writing, which lends much credibility to the stories in his novels.

But readers can’t tell which parts are fictional and which are based on historical evidence because his novels usually don’t show the sources of their descriptions, unlike academic writings by historians.

“This may be natural for a novel, but sources of information are rarely shown. Most readers have no choice but to assume what is written is true,” Nakamura wrote.

But reading Shiba’s novels at least provides people with “a good opportunity” to become interested in the history of the Meiji Era, Takagi said.

“Every historian would say they can’t beat Mr. Shiba because the number of copies printed is so large that it’s no comparison with books written by historians,” he said.

Shiba probably wrote his works to explore what an individual could do in times of upheaval. So his novel on samurai reformist Sakamoto Ryoma, for example, has entertained and encouraged millions of readers — something few historians could achieve, Takagi said.

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