What are the characteristics of the Meiji restoration

Meiji restoration

Historical development

Meiji Tennō (official portrait by E. Chiossone, 1888)

In 1868 the rule of the shoguns ended in Japan, the Tennō ended his secluded life in Kyoto and took on a more active role in politics again. By then the shoguns had ruled and the emperor was of little importance to most Japanese, if they were even aware of his existence. Even at the time of the greatest continuity, in the Edo period (Tokugawa period 1615-1867), the shoguns had not dared to depose the Tennō because they needed him to legitimize their rule. What was legitimation through God's grace in Europe, happened in Japan through the Tennō. Therefore, every Shogun was confirmed in office by him.

Ever since Matthew C. Perry and his fleet forced the opening of the country, which had already been weakened by internal and external crises, in 1853, patriotic currents won under the slogan sonnō jōi (“Honor the emperor, drive away the barbarians”) more and more influence and ultimately contributed to the collapse of the system. As a result of the political upheaval, the residence of Meiji Tennō was moved from Kyoto to Edo, the city of the shoguns, which was then renamed Tokyo ("imperial capital in the east"). This was the beginning of the Meiji Restoration, a phase in Japanese history that was characterized by rapid development and provided the conditions for the former feudal state to develop into today's economic nation.

The change of capital was quickly followed by a number of other reforms. Among other things, the privileges of the samurai were abolished and property taxes were converted from levies in kind into a monetary tax in order to provide the new state with the necessary financial resources. There was also a land reform and the introduction of general conscription. So that the country did not sink completely into the chaos of change, the government first tried to stabilize the situation in practice before the new system could be underpinned by state theory. A constitution recognized by the West was an important step towards being seen as an equal trading partner. However, such a constitution did not come into force until 1889, more than two decades after the reforms began. The politicians looked around in the western countries in search of a suitable concept that could serve as a basis for the constitution. Ultimately, the German constitution was found to be the most appropriate. In other important areas, the Japanese government sought its experts in other European countries, for example, when building up a fleet, it was based on England and building up the army on France.

In the course of the Meiji Restoration, the figure of the emperor became a personified Japan in the strongly hierarchical society, so loyalty to him became an important part of "Japaneseism". Such ideas led to the fact that so many Japanese willingly thrown themselves to their deaths for their God-Emperor during World War II.

Religious changes

The nationalist-patriotic movement, which had brought the Tennō back into the focus of politics, was closely interwoven with Shintoist currents, which sought to purify Shinto from Buddhist influences. they wanted saisei itchi bring about - the union of cult and rule. Since the meaning of the Tenno was largely based on the legends of the Shinto, it was inevitably necessary to bring the Shinto back into focus with the Tenno.

Since its arrival in Japan, Buddhism had increasingly assumed religious supremacy and also had a strong influence on Shinto. They wanted to eliminate these influences as quickly as possible in order to return to a "primordial Shinto". In some regions, temples were raided in this context, and cult objects and objects of art were destroyed. The jingikan, the office for shrines, was founded by the government. Its meaning, competencies and name have changed several times over the years. However, it always came down to the fact that the Shinto was directed and organized from a state body. This made him stand out among the other religions widespread in the country.

In order to bring structure into the new system, all shrines were arranged in a hierarchy, at the top of which was the Ise shrine. It was also stipulated that every citizen had to become a member of a shrine community. However, since this regulation had hardly any practical use, it was repealed soon. Around saisei itchi to implement, the Shinto was elevated to the state religion.

[T] he Shinto in its form as the state religion [provided] an ideal matrix of understanding for the modernization of Japan. Thanks to his unique combination of content-related emptiness with an emphasis on the external framework, he affirmed and renewed the views by means of which foreign concepts and systems could be received in Japan without affecting one's own identity.

Lokowandt 2001, pp. 48-51.

Shinto as the state religion only worked to a limited extent, among other things due to the aforementioned “content-related emptiness”. In addition, the idea of ​​a state religion runs counter to the constitution of 1889, which enshrined freedom of religion, mainly as a concession to the West. They wanted to make sure that there was no persecution of the Japanese Christians. So in order to comply with the constitution, the government declared that Shinto is not a religion. However, this declaration did not include the thirteen officially recognized "Shinto sects". They could continue to be practiced as a religion as long as they were constitutional. The Shinto of this time is usually referred to as "State Shinto" because of its instrumentalization by politics.

Changes in technology and science

In science, too, Japan is strongly orienting itself towards the West at this time, and experts from Western countries should help Japan catch up on its development deficit as quickly as possible. These experts were called in Japan oyatoi gaikokujin お 雇 い 外国人 ("employed foreigners"). At the University of Tokyo there were about 100 at the end of the 19th century oyatoi gaikokujin employed.

Japanese gods and modern medicine fight disease together. S.a. Plague gods.

Particularly in medicine, great trust was placed in German scientists. In 1870 the Japanese government asked the Prussian Minister-Resident Max von Brandt to ask his government to send two doctors to Japan. They were supposed to build up the medical school in Tokyo based on the German model within three years. Von Brandt advised his government at the time "To send two senior military doctors because, as they belong to the warrior caste, they would have the prospect of enjoying a higher reputation right from the start". Following this advice, the meanwhile German government dispatched medical officer Leopold Müller and medical officer Theodor Hoffmann to Japan in 1871.

The contracts of oyatoi gaikokujin were usually concluded for two to three years and usually not extended thereafter. In many cases, the Europeans also showed little interest in extending these contracts because they felt uncomfortable in Japanese society. Some oyatoi gaikokujin like the German doctor Erwin Baelz or the Italian printmaker Eduardo Chiossone (responsible for the design of the first Japanese banknotes or the official portrait of Tenno), however, remained in Japan well into old age or until the end of their lives.


  • Germann, Susanne (2006). A Life in East Asia: The Unpublished Travel Diaries of the Doctor, Anthropologist and Ethnologist Erwin Baelz (1849–1913). (Series of publications of the archive of the city of Bietigheim-Bissingen, Vol. 6.) Bonn: Bietigheim-Bissingen. →
  • Gundert, Wilhelm (1943). Japanese religious history: The religions of the Japanese and Koreans presented in a historical outline. Stuttgart: Gundert. →1st edition 1935
  • Kasulis, Thomas (2004). Shinto: The way home. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press. →
  • Lokowandt, Ernst (2001). Shinto: An Introduction. Munich: Studies. →
  • Pohl, Manfred (2008). History of japan. Munich: Beck. →4th ed.
  • Vianden, Heinz and Josef Kreiner (eds.) (1984). "German doctors in Japan during the Meiji period." In: Josef Kreiner (ed.), Germany - Japan. Historical contacts. Bonn, pp. 165-168. →