Interpretations of the Meiji Restoration

The Meiji Restoration is an enormously complex event, yet it may lack some of the blood, the drama, the destructiveness or political violence typical of major revolutionary transformations elsewhere, namely in France, Russia and China. But that still leaves us with an obligation to try and understand it as an historical event as best we can. Consider the following discussion on how to approach the Meiji Restoration.

The process by which the old Tokugawa regime was overthrown was, by comparison with other revolutionary overturns, a relatively simple matter:

Most of Japan, divided into units that were either too small or too indecisive to take effective action, simply stood by and watched, while a small group of dynamic young samurai, many of humble birth, seized control of the han governments of Satsuma and Choshu, then with the connivance of a few friendly nobles won control of the court, and finally, through daring use of the military power of Satsuma and Choshu, won mastery over the whole nation. (Fairbank, Reischauer, Craig, p.226)

The real problems were to follow the seizure of power. It is by no means clear that, beyond a fairly general commitment to “modernisation” of Japanese society, the group of young samurai who now effectively ruled Japan knew what they were then going to do. As events would prove, they were themselves not united in their aims. Rather, as they gradually strengthened their power over the next decade, they were to clarify their goals. Between 1868 and 1877 the Meiji revolution went through a series of step-by-step, incremental policy changes; in the process, a new kind of Japanese polity emerged. In the course of this evolution, the victors in the new regime would more than once have to employ the state’s ultimate resource, armed force, to secure their position.

This statement gets to the heart of the matter. The Meiji Restoration was not "revolutionary" in the traditional sense of being aimed at a specific social class, but, at the end of the day, the "aristocratic" samurai leaders acted in a revolutionary manner once they proceeded to reorganize the Japanese polity. How are we to explain this behavior?

I. The Traditional or "orthodox" interpretation favored by the Meiji and later Japanese governments was that a few perceptive and loyal samurai were moved by patriotic concerns for both monarch and nation and acted to "save" Japan from the crisis of foreign penetration which had underscored the inadequacy of the old "feudal" structures.

II. A variant on this emophasizes the role of the west, the coming of Perry, as sparking a crisis in late Tokugawa society and politics which centeered around a debate between those who favored "kaikoku" (good) or "opening the country" and those who favored "Joi" or "Expel the Barbarian" (bad).

There is nothing wrong with either of these interpretations though they are not highly nuanced and they have nothing to say about agrarian unrest and class conflict. For such a perspective, the Marxist intpretatiion has something to offer. Marxist inprepretations abound among Japanese scholars but the first and most compelling was put forth by Canadian scholar and diplomat, E. Herbert Norman. His interpretation, orginally put forth in 101, goes something like this:



The Norman Thesis

The historian and diplomat E. Herbert Norman was born in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture on September 1, 1909, the third child of Canadian missionaries.

From the age of eleven, Norman attended Canadian Academy, where he served on the student council, helped put out the student magazine, and played baseball, basketball, and tennis. In 1925, after unsuccessful treatment in Japan for tuberculosis, Norman traveled to Canada, where he eventually overcame the disease and resumed his schooling. He entered Victoria College at the University of Toronto in 1928, majoring in classics.

In 1935, after completing a MA in Ancient History on a scholarship at Trinity College of Cambridge University, Norman married Irene Clark. He took a position teaching classics at Upper Canadian College until the Fall of 1936, when he entered Harvard University. Under the auspices of a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship in Far Eastern Studies, Norman completed his MA and PhD in Japanese History.

Returning to Japan in 1940 as an employee of Canadian External Affairs, Norman was quickly promoted to third secretary in the Canadian Legation in Tokyo. It was here that he was interned from December 1941, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, until mid-1942, when he and other diplomatic employees were released in a prisoner exchange.

After WWII Norman was seconded at the request of the United States to the General Headquarters of the Allied Powers, where he was involved in the democratization and reform of occupied Japan. In August, 1946 he was appointed head of the Canadian Liaison Mission in Japan, and in September, 1951 served as chief advisor to Canada's representative at the San Francisco Conference on the Japan Peace Treaty. He became Canada's High Commissioner to New Zealand in 1953 and Ambassador to Egypt/Minister to Lebanon in 1956.

One of Norman's great achievements was his role in bringing in UN emergency forces to safeguard the peace in the Suez Crisis of 1956. Engulfed by the storm of fanatical McCarthyism during the Cold War, he took his own life while posted in Cairo on April 4, 1957. On that day, he took a leap from a rooftop. The circumstances leading to his death are still a subject of debate today. He was 47. His ashes were laid to rest in an unmarked grave next to the poet Shelley's tomb in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome.


E. H. Norman, a Canadian Diplomat and Scholar, put forth the earliest and best-known Marxist interpretation of the Meiji Restoration in in English his book The Emergence of Japan as a Modern State which originally appeared in 1940 published by the Institute of Pacific Relations. Given the publication date, a year before Pearl Harbor but well after Japan had become active militarily on the continent, Norman was asking questions about whether the roots of Japanese militarism and fascism might be found in the very nature of the Meiji Restoration. The web page listed below gives a summary of Norman's arguments though it does not specifically mention him by name in the text. Nevertheless, the remark that it is based on Norman's book is added with attribution to D. Rounds of UCLA, as well as reference to adaptation byTK Chung. It opens with this paragraph which is a basic statement of the orthodox interpretation:

In 1868, the long rule of the Tokugawa regime came to an end and full sovereign powers, at least in theory, were restored to the new Meiji Emperor. Opposition to Tokugawa rule had been growing for a long time, but it was not until the 19th century that several lines, ideological, of attack on the Shogun were available. From these various lines of attack, the Restoration leaders emphasized, above all, the theory that in ancient days the Emperor had enjoyed great power and prestige and that the Shogun was a usurper who had taken all real authority away from the Emperor. Such a line of attack on the Shogun became more and more effective as Tokugawa power progressively declined.

But it also contains a discussion of Norman's notion of the alliance between the merchant and samurai class.

In studying Japanese social history, it becomes apparent that one must dismiss all preconceptions based on a class-struggle interpretation as sometimes applied to the French revolutions. In the case of political struggle against the feudal aristocracy against the Church and the Crown and eventually winning a clear-cut victory in France. In Japan, however, the interests of the feudal ruling class and the big merchants became so closely connected that whatever hurt one easily injured the other. Should a daimyo refuse to pay his debts or threaten the merchant in order to obtain their cancellation, he soon found that whenever he applied elsewhere for loan, he met with a polite but firm refusal. The big merchants depended on the interest of the loans to daimyo and samurai for their livelihood. The samurai and the daimyo who together with their followers were compelled by the sankin-kotai system to spend 1/2 of their time in Edo, became the chief customers of the chonin.

Quite logically then, the chonin felt that their own prosperity was closely tied to that of the warrior and noble classes, their customers and debtors. For this reason, the chonin never dreamed of attacking feudalism as a system though they were prepared to finance a political movement against the Shogunate in connection with rival feudal elements. Takigawa Masajiro in his "Nihon Shakai Shi" or "A Social History of Japan", therefore said, "The reason why this nascent class of chonin did not even think of overthrowing the bushi class was the latter were their customers and if they ruined their customers, if only for a brief period, the shock to their own economic power would have been disastrous. For this reason, the samurai were able to maintain their position right to the Restoration, long after they had lost their real power in the country." This aristocratic class therefore stood shoulder to shoulder with the despised but economically powerful merchant and usurer class. As the Tokugawa period advanced, these 2 groups drew closer together making possible the co-operation between the big merchants of Osaka and the leading anti-Tokugawa clans. Thus, the Meiji Revolution was not the story of a rising business class which destroyed the structure of feudalism and established its supremacy in a mercantile state. Still less was it a democratic revolt transferring political power to representative of the mass of the peasants and workers.


See a more detailed article giving a Marxist intyerpretation o the Meiji Restoration at: (Reading the first part only, up to "The 1873 Land Tax," will suffice)


Here is another similar take:

My summary of Norman's basic argument goes something like this. Norman argues that intrinsic to the Meiji Restoration was the late Tokugawa "feudal-merchant alliance" which grew out of the decay of Japanese feudalism and brought the rich merchant class into league with younger, middle-ranking samurai in order to cooperate in the overthrow of the shogunate. His thesis of amalgamation and blurring of class lines holds that chonin were able to buy their way into samurai or near-samurai status while the feudal class, always on the brink of bankruptcy, depended on the good will and largesse of the merchant houses in order to keep their operations afloat. Anxious to increase their their income, the daimyo joined hands with merchants in forming han monopolies, and hence they became "tinged with the capitalist outlook." The long-run result of this unholy alliance was a form of absolutism, or an absolutist, autocratic Meiji state which used its considerable military and police powers to ensure that the revolutionary energy of the rural and urban masses, that had been so evident in the urban and rural ikki, the carnivals, festivals, and millenarian behavior of the "Eijanaika" movement which Wilson depicts, could never rise to the level of a social revolution which might be aimed at the feudal or capitalist social classes. If that were to have happened, Japan would have had a real revolution. . .

Class analysis is central of Norman’s analysis of the transition to the modern state and the incomplete nature of the Meiji ‘revolution,’ writes John Dower, "but it must be recognized (and usually is not) that he himself conceived of this in general and flexible terms." (Origins of the Modern Japanese State: Selected Writings of E.H. Norman, 17) Quoting Norman on "the undisciplined, half-blind but earth-shaking power of the peasantry," Norman contends that "the Restoration, to a large degreee, can justly be called the harvest of peasant revolt." Because Norman advanced a leftist or Marxist-influenced interpretation of the Meiji Restoration, his work has not had the greatest acceptance in American graduate institutions, especially not in the 1950s and 1960s. But Norman was much loved and admired by historians in Japan. During the horror of the McCarthy persecutions of the 1950s, Norman's name came up repeatedly in U.S. Senate hearings, allegedly because he had been a member of a leftwing group while a graduate student at Columbia University. While he was Ambassador to Egypt in the mid-1950s, during the Suez Canal crisis, he mysteriously committed suicide by jumping off a building. John Dower wrote a penetrating and insightful 100-page essay on Norman and the impact of his scholarship in a collection of his writings that he edited in 1975 because Norman's original work had fallen out of print. Regrettably, Dower's Origins of the Japanese State: Selected writings of E. H. Norman (Random House, 1975) is now out of print as well. For a tribute to Norman and a review of Dower's book, click here. All page numbers below for quotes taken from Norman refer to Dower's reissue of Norman's work.

According to Dower’s analysis of Norman, "The development of a money economy eroded the traditional social structure—first, by creating a rich-merchant and new landlord-usurer class whose de facto power belied its de jure status at the bottom of the Confucian class hierarchy; secondly, by forcing han governments into the new economy through involvement in national money transactions (particularly the conversion or rice) and the development of han monopolies; and thirdly, by forging a mutual interdependence between these two classes through this very mechanism of nascent capitalism, a relationship in which the economic power of the merchant-landlord group and the political prestige and experience of representatives of the feudal class complemented and reinforced one another." (18)

A key conception of Norman’s, then, is that the Restoration was "an incomplete revolution—a political revolution carried out from above which was not permitted to become a social revolution." Dower goes on to point at that this argument "rests upon the thesis that in the decades after 1868, the symbiotic feudal-merchant alliance was consolidated into a ruling-class front which at a certain point deliberately abandoned the attack on feudalism in order to check the possibility of a continuing revolution from below." (20)

Norman believes that the Meiji land settlement not only confirmed but strengthened the position of rural landlords, and that "This restructured feudal-merchant alliance paved the way for a capitalist economy in Japan, but one that was distinguished by a close embrace of landlordism, banking, and state subsidy and protection, with finance capital dominant over but meshed with industrial capital." This Norman called "hothouse variety"—"a blend of the old mercantilism with its state protection, and the new-style monopoly [finance capital]. It produced a strong state, but in the process sacrificed the possibilities for a more democratic and equitable society. For such a system required political autocracy to ensure its rapid and continued growth; it aborted the emergence of an independent industrial bourgeoisie, which had been the basis for liberalism in the European experience; and it thwarted the development of pure capitalist relations in the agrarian sector by fostering a system in which the persistence of high rents made the role of parasitic landlord more attractive than that of agricultural entrepreneur. . ."(20-21)

Dower completes this line of argument by observing that:

From the point of view of the Meiji Government, the agrarian settlement was absolutely crucial, for it was the basis of the land tax which provided the bulk of government revenue throughout this early period. Creation of a strong state, in short, depended upon exploitation of the lower classes, and thus the inevitable response to peasant misery was not to relieve it but to tighten the appropriate counterrevolutionary control. This latter objective, as Norman saw it, was implicit in both the conscription law and the later constitutional system. (24)

The following are some direct quotes from Norman's work, Japan's Emergence as a Modern State, as reprinted in Dower's book:

The overthrow of the Bakufu was accomplished through the union of anti-Tokugawa forces, led by the lower samurai and ronin, particularly of the great western clan, Satsuma, Choshu, Tosa, Hizen, together with a few of the kuge [court nobles], backed by the money-bags of the merchant princes of Osaka and Kyoto. The leadership in this epoch-making change was in the hands of the lower samurai, who gradually succeeded the upper ranks of samurai and feudal lords as the political spokesmen of the day. (156)

We see then a towfold and mutually interrelated process accompanying the decay of feudal society: (1) the chonin by their economic power gain admission to the warrior class through adoption or purchase, and from that vantage point some of them become the most clear-sighted pilots who as yonin (or chamberlains) steer the anti-Bakufu forces through the troubled waters at the end of the Tokugawa period; and (2) the feudal rulers (both Bakufu and clan), always on the brink of bankruptcy and anxious to increase their income, chiefly for military purposes, adopt capitalist methods of production and to a considerable degree they become tinged with the capitalist outlook.…Already, before the Restoration one notes a blurring and breaking down of the old class lines, the uneven fusion one wing of the feudal ruling class, the anti-Bakufu leaders, with the more powerful merchants, and the absorption of chonin into high official positions as symbolized by their newly assumed badge of authority, the samurai’s two swords. This was a portent even in Tokugawa times of that union of the "yen and the sword" which characterized not only Meiji but contemporary Japan. (168)

On the subject of pre-Restoration economic reforms, often dubbed the "Tempo Reforms," especially in Satsuma and Choshu, that were carried out by the younger, lower-ranking samurai of these clans, Norman writes:

In the economic sphere these reforms, while rescuing the clan finances from bankruptcy, strengthened rather than weakenedthe monopoly system, and so placed heavier burdens on the peasantry and artisan class. These clan reforms, so far from tending to emancipate the peasantry and in this way create an internal market for manufactured goods, kept prices up by the monopoly system and by the practice of commuting rice into money, as well as by levying fresh extortions which aggravated agrarian distress. Thus it is no coincidence that the peasant revolts were the most bitter and prolonged in the domain of these rich, anti-Bakufu clans where merchant capital strong and where factory industry was beginning to take root on a limited scale. To suppress such revolts the daimyo had to call on the samurai who, accordingly, for all their growing economic distress, felt closer to the governing class than to the rebellious peasantry. (175-76)

Norman goes on to point out "two remarkable phenomena:"

First, the stunting of the growth of a capitalist class and its consequent dependence on a section of the feudal ruling class, and second, the social transformation from a feudal to a capitalist economy carried out with a minimum of social change in agrarian relations. These clan reforms were accomplished, not through the momentum of popular revolt nor by the participation of the people’s deputies in the clan government, but by a handful of military bureaucrats whose political inheritance was autocratic or paternalistic and whose insight taught them the need both for sweeping military and economic changes in the face of the foreign menace and for an absolutist centralized government as the only instrument able to undertake these tasks swiftly and decisively in the face of continued social unrest. The logic of their position dictated to them the creed of "a firm hand at the helm" or in other words an enlightened absolutism. Hence from the first, even during the transitional years, Japan experienced no liberal era. The only magnetic force capable of holding together the centrifugal atoms of feudalism was the Throne, and the only agents in a position to perform the gigantic task of reconstruction were the clan bureaucrats of the four great "outside" clans…Here we have returned to the postulate whence we set forth at the beginning of the chapter, that the political leadership in the Meiji revolution was in the hands of the lower samurai but that the economic propulsion behind it was the growing money power of the big merchants, such as the Mitsui, Sumitomo, Konoike, Ono and Yasuda. (176-77)

Norman is very aware of the real foreign threat that the powers posed to Japan. He comments:

Like Nehemiah, they had to build with sword in one hand and trowel in the other. In their anxiety to gain complete national independence and to escape once and for all from the threat of foreign encroachment, they had to concentrate on military problems at great sacrifice to social and political reform. The historical legacy from the Tokugawa society did not permit a social transformation taking place from below through democratic or mass revolutionary process, but only from above, autocratically. The new structure was built from the top downwards, upon the ruins of the old; moreover, the burden of this tasks as far as government revenue was concerned, was shouldered by the agricultural community, at whose expense also the accumulation and centralization of capital was carried out; such being the case, the government had no choice but to retard the tempo of anti-feudal consciousness which was sweeping the countryside. The instrument in all this was autocratic but never so inflexible as to be in danger of cracking. It was only through an absolutist state that the tremendous task of modernization could be accomplished without the risk of social upheaval which might attend the attempts to extend the democratic method in a nation which had merged so suddenly and so tardily from feudal isolation. …(209)

Norman, then, had found an explanation for how the country in which he was born and raised, and loved very much, had become a militaristic and autocratic state: his explanation was rooted in the very nature of the Meiji Restoration. Although the society had been stirred to its very depth by political events both before but especially after the arrival of Commodore Perry, and peasant unrest clearly did its part to weaken the Bakufu, before anything like a social revolution could get underway, one wing of the ruling aristocracy joined forces with merchant houses and rural landlords, to place a coalition of military bureaucrats in charge of the country. Norman would even say that these men, the leaders of the Restoration, rode upon the crest of the wave of agrarian uprsings. By the very nature of this coalition, it was bound to be absolutist and ultimately autocratic, a regime that would suppress expressions of popular will anytime that it threatened the stability of the state structure or the forward advancement of the economy. Playing perfectly into their hands was the existence of a foreign threat (very real and tangible) of colonial exploitation by the western powers, and a potent political symbol (the emperor) that could provide the leadership with a cloak of unchallengeable legitimacy, but a symbol that was also easily subject to manipulation. In other words, the deck was stacked heavily in favor of the state from the very outset of the Meiji era.




Below are a number of links to the topic of the Meiji Restoration. Most are not theoretical nor highly analytical which is why I have us do the readings by George M. Wilson that we will be doing, and the classic article by Thomas Smith. I would also like to have students read the Colin Barker pages on Marxist interpretations of the Restoration as well as from which the above quotation comes. Nevertheless, here are a number of links you may like to peruse: (pre-Meiji stuff)

Let us reflect on a further comment by Colin Barker taken from his pages, already linked on the Syllabus under "Marxism and the Restoration," where he notes:

One possible approach to the characterisation of the Meiji Restoration would be to treat it as a case of revolution, but of a particular kind. The argument for treating it as a revolution is that an existing dominant social class was displaced from power, and an existing set of production relations was replaced by another. Yet the Japanese revolution was not a “social revolution”. Theda Skocpol (1979) makes a useful set of distinctions:

Social revolutions are rapid, basic transformations of a society’s state and class structures; and they are accompanied and in part carried through by class-based revolts from below. Social revolutions are set apart from other sorts of conflicts and transformative processes above all by the combination of two coincidences: the coincidence of societal structural change with class upheaval; and the coincidence of political with social transformation. In contrast, rebellions, even when successful, may involve the revolt of subordinate classes – but they do not eventuate in structural change. Political revolutions transform state structures but not social structures, and they are not necessarily accomplished through class conflict. And processes such as industrialisation can transform social structures without necessarily bringing about, or resulting from, sudden political upheavals or basic political-structural changes. (Skocpol, 1979, p.4)

On Skocpol’s criteria, since the events in Japan lack the element of “class upheaval," they do not amount to a social revolution. Yet they also amount to more than a political revolution, since the Meiji Restoration eventuated in more than a change in the structure of the state alone: the social structure itself was transformed in significant ways, through legal enactment. In Trimberger’s phrase (1978) the revolution in Japan was a “revolution from above”. A section of the existing bureaucracy took over state power, using both force and persuasion; having dispossessed sovereignty from the hands of its former masters, it reorganised state power and wielded it for itself.

This “revolution from above” was more than simply a “coup d’état” or “palace revolution”, for it had a definite social character. The new Japanese state leaders systematically and purposefully destroyed the principal legal and political supports of the previous tributary mode of production and set Japanese society on a new road of development. Trimberger suggests that what occurred in Japan from 1868 onwards may be properly compared with the “revolution from above” led by Kemal Ataturk in Turkey, or with the “military revolutions” in Egypt or Peru. Others have pointed up parallels also with the unification of Germany under Prussian hegemony (Bendix 1967, Landes 1965). More controversially, parallels could also be drawn with Stalin’s industrialisation of Russia–-though there the state and social structure that was reshaped by a section of the ruling bureaucracy was a decayed popular state that had emerged from another full-blown social revolution.

Japan presents us with an example of a transition, accomplished in politics, from a pre-capitalist to a capitalist mode of production, without benefit of a social revolution. What the Japanese case shows is that the process of restructuring the social relations of production in the shift from a “feudal” or “tributary” to a capitalist mode of production need not necessarily involve the active political participation of the lower classes. Indeed, the “social revolutionary” method of transition from pre-capitalist to capitalist relations is, historically, not necessarily the most common form. As Skocpol remarks, “social revolution ... (is) a complex object of explanation, of which there are relatively few historical instances” (1979, p.5). The masses are not necessarily active ororganised agents in the process of transformation that initiates capitalist development.



See Map: was bound to be absoluti_map.htm

If interested, see also the history photography pages: