Asian History

What is the significance of the Meiji Restoration for the emergence of a capitalist economy and state in Japan?

The Meiji Restoration has a great significance in the history of Japan, not necessarily due to the event itself, namely, the restoration of the Imperial rule in Japan, but rather, due to the correlated events that took place after the symbolic return of the emperor’s power. The Meiji era was a time of tremendous change or Japan, which emerged from its Feudal tradition to become one of the world’s most powerful countries, and it all occurred during the lifetime of Emperor Meiji. Though the emperor himself is associated with this evolution, his political role was limited and the progress was directed by the same group of intellectuals that brought him back to symbolical power. In these conditions, the role of the Meiji Restoration for the emergence of a capitalist economy and state in Japan may be questioned.  While the emperor himself was not empowered by the restoration, the young thinkers of the then-contemporary Japan were empowered through him, and their eyes turned towards the West with admiration and a great ambition of reaching and exceeding their power.

The Meiji Restoration represented the peak of the turmoil that had begun to grow discretely in Japan in the last two centuries, a turmoil that was characterized by a rejection of the old norms and conventions, a more and more pronounced appreciation of the power of money, and a renewal of the Japanese philosophical thought, represented by neo-Confucianism and Nativism, all of these changes could not but lead towards the emergence of a modern, capitalist state. It is then safe to argue that the Meiji restoration gave the new thinkers, or the westernizers, the necessary political power to achieve their goal and provided a figure that could lead symbolically Japan into the new era, namely, that of the emperor.

Japan succeeded so much in so little time not because they broke all traditions, and denied their past in favor of modernity and Western values, but rather because it built on the past(Lecture note 2). On contrary, Japan had evolved to such a stage that all it took was power to reach the right hands in order for the modern state to emerge. In both economy and philosophy, Japan had changed tremendously in the past two hundred years.

This crossing from feudalism to modernity was documented by the Japanese literature of the time, and represented, as it can be deducted from these primary sources (Ihara, 1880; Shundai, 1998), a period of great incertitude and uneasiness, particularly for the ordinary people, for whom capitalism represented only a way for the rich people to get even richer. Saikaku Ihara, the author of a collection of stories in which people’s extreme lust for money was satirized, emphasizes and laments the new power of money. According to the author, for example: “If we are talking about a businessman without capital of his own, than no matter what talents or wit he may have at his disposal, sooner or later the interest rates on his loans will drive him into the ground, and he will end up working for someone else”(Ihara, 1880, p.47).  This note concerning the importance of capital in 17th century Japan demonstrates that, even then, the economy based on goods exchange had come to an end and money had begun to represent a condition sine qua non for a man to acquire some wealth. This precondition is also mentioned in the text, in two different stories. Saikaku Ihara(1980) explains that it takes money in order to make money and hard work only does not pay of any longer as it used to.

This shift from an economy based on production goods (grains, clothes), to an economy based on money occurred in the beginning of the 17th century. This is when the import of gold and silver began to increase as compared to ancient Japan. However, maybe even more significant, in this period, the flow of cash also began to increase, replacing production goods such as grains and cloths as a transaction method (Shundai, 1998). Moreover, according to Dazai Shundai (1998), people came to realize that, if one had gold and silver, food and clothes could be easily bought. Thus, grain and clothing became a commodity that could be transacted and acquired in excess, thus becoming a commodity.

Apart for this inflow of gold, silver and cash in the form of coins, the transformation of grains into commodity was influenced by the development of agriculture, as a result of the years of peace that came along with the instauration of the Tokugawa rule. During these years, agriculture recorded surplus of rice, which was stored by the daimyo. Not being needed for survival purposes on certain domains, it began being transacted itself as a commodity good (Lecture Note 1). This is also shown by Saikaku Ihara (1980), who, in his description of the typical borrower, mentions “the man who wishes to order a shipment of rice from the Western provinces and set up a new wholesale operation” (p.87). This shows that the surplus of grains transformed this good into important merchandise that could be sold wholesale. Equally important in this passage is that extent to which trade had developed to comprise distant parts of the empire (Lecture Note 1).

Moreover, apart for grains, peasants began selling other goods as well, thus increasing their income, and developing the economy of the daimyo. Dazai Shundai(1998), for example, remarks in his work that, besides grains, people also produce other commodity goods that could be transacted by the landlords, thus increasing the richness of their territories. With such emphasis placed on the commodity and on trade as a means of increasing one’s income (Shundai 1998) there is no wonder that capitalism was the only possible evolution for Japan.

In addition to the economic trend, the philosophical thought also contributed to particular thinking in politics. The Japanese Neo-Confucianism was a philosophical trend that influenced to a great extent the political views of the Tokugawa period. According to Harry Harootonian, Neo-Confucianists regarded the emperor as the possessor of perfect virtue, in which his political power resided (Hartoonian, 1970). This virtue, which was the source of his power, also stopped him from acting politically however.  Rather than ruling, the ideal Confucian leader thought his people to respect his superior morality (ibid), thus making politics useless. Then came Ogyu Sorai, who gave Neo-Confucianism a new shape by explaining that, in China’s past, the sages made their own moral codes, according to the times.

Ogyu’s ideas led to the birth of nativism, rooted in the Japanese reality. Motoori Norinaga, the most famous of these new thinkers, believed that, by returning to Japanese origins, the ruled will learn how to submit to the emperor’s leadership naturally. Consequently, Motoori advocated for “a political restoration of direct imperial authority, because it promised popular acquiescence”(Harootunian, 1970, p. 28). However, the emperor’s authority was not absolute, in Motoori’s vision, and even, they did not conceive him as “an autonomous maker of rules (ibid., p.30).  Rather, nativists tried to inspire the people to be more submissive.

Despite the lack of actual power, the figure of the emperor was essential in order to start the political movement which would eventually lead to modernization. This is because the emperor represented the idea of unity and superiority that was able to unite the Japanese against the foreign potential invasion. Accordingly, beginning with mid-19th century, Hartoonian (1970) claims, the idea that the emperor alone “could represent the unified realm and support the decisions that governed its fate”, (p.39) emerged, and eventually led to the Meiji restoration. The emperor became the persona around which the politicians who dreamed of a modern and powerful Japan, gathered, in order to seem legitimate in their demands. The new era and the end of the feudalism, was marked by the return to an earlier philosophy, however, the changes that were about to be implemented were towards progress and capitalism.

The first requirement of capitalism is private ownership, and the first to be privatized after Restoration was the land.  The progress of agriculture was essential to progress of Japan in general, because this domain of economy is the basis of many potential social transformations, such as the creation of labor market, of population surplus or of population movement (Norman, 1977). Moreover, private ownership led to free labor, which is one of the most important elements of industrialization, as E.H. Norman (1977) explains. However, the author further shows, the agrarian settlement led to the dispossession of land for peasants, who did not have the means to pay the land taxes demanded by the new regime.  As a consequence of the increase of the peasant population, many youngsters fled the countryside in order to work in the emerging textile industry, which was to become the first important industry for the Japanese economy (ibid.).  In addition, trade developed tremendously due to the removal of the ban on rice export, which, Norman shows, contributed to the involvement of peasants into the emergent money economy (ibid.).

Therefore, the Meiji restoration represented the peak of the trend towards the modernization of the economy and of the state which began as early as the 17th century. The restoration itself was significant in that it offered its leaders a political basis for modernization but did not actually confer great powers to the emperor, who was merely a symbol of unification. The Neo-Confucianist thinkers, and later, the Nativists did not envisaged a restoration when they formulated their theories regarding the imperial leadership, but the imminent external threat, which affected the nation itself, called for an authority that could represent and stand for the entire people. In front of the unknown, the nation gathered together around their emperor, for guidance and protection.


Harootunian, H. (1970). Toward the restoration: the growth of political consciousness in Tokugawa Japan. Berkley, Los angeles, Oxford: University of California Press.

Ihara, S. (1980). Some final word of advice, (P. Nosco, Trans.). Rutland, VT and Tokyo, Japan: Charles E. Tuttle Company.

Norman, E.H. “The Agrarian Settlement and its Social Consequences”. In Origins of the Modern Japanese State: Selected Writings of E.H. Norman, ed. John W. Dower. New York: Pantheon Books, 1977.

Shundai, D. (1998). “Keizairoku Shui Addendum to “On the Political Economy”.  In T. Najita (Eds.). Tokugawa Political Writings (pp. 141-153). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.