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.