The Revolutionary Origins of Modern Japan

The Revolutionary Origins of Modern Japan

The Revolutionary Origins of Modern Japan

The Revolutionary Origins of Modern Japan


Challenging the popular view of the Meiji Restoration as a "revolution from above," this book argues that its main cause was neither the growing threat of the West nor traditional loyalty to Emperor and nation, but rather lay in class conflict and long-term institutional change. The author sees the Restoration as a revolution against feudal privilege carried out from below by a service intelligentsia of minor administrators, priests, scholars, and village officials.

The book focuses on the politically most effective body of activists, those in the domain of Choshu, and on their most important leaders of the 1850s and 1860s: Yoshida Shoin, Kusaka Genzui, and Takasugi Shinsaku. It examines their social and educational background, explores their motives for acting, and follows them through their intellectual and political struggles.

The final chapter explains various heretofore puzzling aspects of the Meiji period (1868-1912) in terms of its revolutionary origins, and concludes by showing that the Restoration, far from being uniquely Japanese, had many of the characteristics we associate with the great revolutions of England, France, and Russia.


The creation of the Meiji Restoration government in 1868, and the sweeping reforms that followed, constitute the most dramatic event in Japan's modern history. Within a decade Japanese leaders established a system of universal education, formed a modern army and navy, and recruited an efficient administrative bureaucracy, both nationally and locally. They developed a network of telegraph and rail communications, and laid the broad fiscal and financial foundations that were needed for rapid industrialization. the Restoration transformed Japan into a modern society by the standards of the day, and rescued her alone among her Asian neighbors from the bondage of colonialism, and from the feudal encumbrances of her own past.

Western scholarship on Japan has been at pains to explain why this amazing transformation happened to take place, and in recent decades a scholarly consensus on the question has emerged. Since it is my purpose to reopen this issue by offering a differing analysis of the Restoration experience, let us begin by examining the basic assumptions of what is now the most commonly accepted view. First, it is argued by scholars that the leading restorationists, those who seized power in 1868 and set about constructing the new regime, were enlightened statesmen motivated by a shared concern over the growing threat of Western power. Since most of them came from the samurai hierarchy's middle and upper portions, and were therefore already privileged under the old order, social and class grievances played little part in bringing them to act.

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