A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present

By Andrew Gordon | Go to book overview

5
The Samurai Revolution

The “restoration” of the young Emperor Meiji in 1867–68 was little more than a coup d'état. A relatively small band of insurgents had toppled the Tokugawa bakufu. They stated their intent to restore direct imperial rule, but this was not likely to occur. Strong emperors who exercised power directly had been exceptional in Japanese history. Political contenders at the time feared that the rebels from Satsuma and Chōshū would simply form a new bakufu and use the name of the emperor to rule from a narrow base of power. After all, beyond the political upheaval in Kyoto and Edo, little had changed. The islands of Japan were still divided into nearly two hundred relatively autonomous domains. Each maintained its own treasury and army. The samurai were still receiving stipends, which they viewed as a hereditary birthright. The daily life of the countryside and cities had gone through some tumult. But the scattered peasant rebellions were short-lived.

However, if we compare this situation of 1868 in any aspect—political, economic, social, cultural—to that of just a decade later, the changes are breathtaking and fully merit the term revolution. Of course, no society ever totally severs itself from its past, and Japan was no exception. But the range and depth of change were astonishing to observers at the time. It remains so when looking back after 150 years. One of the most insightful contemporaneous observers was a British scholar named Basil Hall Chamberlain. He lived in Japan for over thirty years beginning in 1873. In 1891, he wrote:

To have lived through the transition stage of modern Japan makes a man feel preternaturally old; for here he is in modern times, with the air full of talk about bicycles and bacilli and “spheres of influence,” and yet he can himself distinctly remember the Middle Ages. The dear old Samurai who first initiated the present writer into the mysteries of the Japanese language, wore a queue and two swords. This relic of feudalism now sleeps in Nirvana.

His modern successor, fairly fluent in English, and dressed in a serviceable suit of dittos, might almost be European, save for a certain obliqueness of the eyes and scantiness of beard. Old things pass away between a night and a morning. 1

Although Chamberlain here stresses how unusually swiftly the events of this “transition stage” unfolded, his writing also suggests that Japan's transition was part of a

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