The sesquicentennial of the Meiji Restoration of 1868, which the government marked with a commemorative ceremony in Tokyo on Tuesday, gives us an opportunity to revisit the process of modernization that it ushered in — and explore the way forward for a nation that today is confronted with a variety of challenges. The anniversary should not serve as a mere occasion to view past events with a sense of nostalgia. Instead it should be viewed as an opportunity to learn from the massive transformation that began 150 years ago and laid the foundation for the building of a modern nation-state — a process that is all the more relevant at a time when Japan is facing what increasingly looks like an uncertain and uncharted future.
The start of the Meiji Era brought to a close the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate, which, under pressure from the Western colonial powers, had just ended the isolationist policy that had closed the country off from most of the world for more than two centuries. In subsequent years, the nation built up the institutions that formed the basis of its modernization, including the abolition of the feudal clans and introduction of the prefecture system in 1871, the launch of the Cabinet system in 1885 and the promulgation of the Constitution of the Empire of Japan in 1889, which brought about a limited form of male-only voting rights.
The basis of today’s centralized power structure and government bureaucracy dates back to this time. The Meiji Era also marked the rapid opening up and “civilization” of Japanese society through the introduction and adaptation of political, economic and social systems from the West as well as Western technology and culture. The nation also embarked on an industrial and military buildup in its quest to join the ranks of the world’s major powers.
When Japan marked the 100th year from the Meiji Restoration in 1968, it had risen from the devastation of defeat in World War II and was in the middle of a period of rapid economic growth that would make it one of the world’s largest economies. As the nation commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration, many of the elements that sustained its postwar growth and prosperity, including its model of economic development, are being questioned. After weathering the “lost decades” following the burst of the bubble boom in the early 1990s, Japan’s economy continues to suffer from low growth. The rapid aging and decline of the population threatens the future of the economy and social security programs, while the unabated concentration of population and business in Tokyo casts doubt on the sustainability of depopulated rural areas.
In the government-organized ceremony on Tuesday — the day the name of the imperial era was changed to Meiji 150 years ago — Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said today’s Japan, with its aging and declining population and the radically changing international environment, is in a “national crisis” and called on people to confront and overcome the crisis by revisiting the way their Meiji ancestors “opened the door to a new era.” The people who achieved the Meiji Restoration had “acted courageously” to maintain Japan’s independence as it faced a crisis of survival amid a wave of colonization by Western powers that had reached Asia, and many people born of the times drove the rapid modernization that laid out the foundation of today’s political, economic and social systems, the prime minister said as he expressed his “respect and gratitude” to the citizens of the Meiji Era.
The nature of the challenges confronting Japan today is, of course, entirely different from those of the Meiji Restoration, and so is the international environment. A large part of Japan’s modernization since the Meiji Restoration was based on a strategy of following Western models and catching up with the Western powers. Japan today — a mature industrialized economy — is often said to be the first of the world’s advanced nations to experience many of common challenges, including demographic woes. As such, there are no established models for Japan to follow.
Given the unpredictability of the changes that await us both at home and globally in these uncertain times, the challenges that Japan faces today may be even more difficult to overcome than the ones that gripped the nation 150 years ago. At Tuesday’s ceremony, Abe stated that he is determined to “follow the people of Meiji and explore the future without flinching in the face of any difficulty.” That must not end up being mere lip service to our Meiji ancestors. If the situation surrounding Japan is indeed in a crisis, the sesquicentennial of the Meiji Restoration poses a question not only to the nation’s political leaders but to those leaders in business and other sectors, as well as to the nation’s citizens at large: Are we ready to meet the challenges that face Japan?