What Was the Meiji Period?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
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  • Last Modified Date: 28 August 2019
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The Meiji Period is a term used to refer to the 45-year reign of Emperor Meiji in Japan, from 1868 to 1912. The Meiji Period marked the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate and was a major shift in Japanese culture. The Meiji Period is sometimes called the “Period of Enlightened Rule” because of the major reforms in Japanese law, society, government, and economics that occurred during Meiji's reign.

The first reform of the Meiji Period was the Five Charter Oath, set out in 1868. The Five Charter Oath was designed to state the aims of the Meiji government clearly in order to boost public opinion and support for the government. The Five Charter Oath included clauses dictating the establishment of a representative assembly, the inclusion of all classes in governmental decisions, freedom of social and occupational mobility, reforms of the legal system to replace antiquated customs with more fair representation, and a greater commitment to education and knowledge. The Five Charter Oath paved the way for a more democratic form of government and a constitution dictating the terms of that government.


The ruling classes underwent radical changes under the Meiji Period, with new ranks established for people who had performed notable services for the emperor. The former system of daimyo, or feudal leaders, and samurai was replaced by a system similar to that in places like England, with princes, marquises, counts, viscounts, and barons. Only 500 of the former ruling classes were selected for noble rankings, and many former daimyo found themselves as governors over their former holdings, rather than absolute rulers.

Land ownership changed under the Meiji Period as well, with the former holdings of daimyo and the ruling classes reverting to the Emperor. Eventually, private ownership of land was legalized, and a system of tax laws and surveying was put in place to codify ownership. Private citizens were able to hold and improve land, adding to the potential for social mobility.

The Meiji Period also marked a push towards representational government, and a limited House of Representatives was established, along with a Cabinet of advisers to the Emperor. The Emperor still held ultimate power, but the people had more influence over the government than they had under the feudal Tokugawa Shogunate. The government also had a House of Peers consisting of named nobility, and the Meiji Constitution served as the primary governing document in Japan until 1947. While there were many flaws in the Meiji government, it marked a positive move towards equal representation for all citizens. Japan also began to have a party system during this period, and political parties were recognized as a vital part of the government.

The Meiji Period also marked immense technological advances in Japan, partly brought about by hiring foreign experts to assist the Japanese in creating modern technological systems. Japan also sent youths abroad to learn English and explore other nations, then bring their knowledge back for national improvement. Soon, Japan controlled most of the Asian market for manufactured goods, propelling itself from a position of relative simplicity into that of a leading power. Japan also expanded into formerly European dominated markets around the world as a result.

In addition to economic modernization, Japan also modernized the military during the Meiji Period, sending cadets abroad for training and organizing a much more efficient and highly trained military. This militarization later had tragic results, as Japan began to reach for a larger empire in the twentieth century. The Meiji Period marks a turning point in Japanese history, when the nation entered the modern world and in a very short amount of time turned from a highly restrictive feudal society to an economic and military powerhouse. The rapid changes Japan underwent were shocking to some citizens, causing a major cultural upheaval and a huge shift in the Japanese way of life.


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