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10-08-2015, 16:26

The Meiji Restoration: A Revolution from Above

The Meiji Restoration was one of the great success stories of modern times. Not only did the Meiji leaders put Japan firmly on the path to economic and political development, they also managed to remove the unequal treaty provisions that had been imposed at mid-century. Japanese achievements are especially impressive when compared with the difficulties experienced by China, which was not only unable to effect significant changes in its traditional society but had not even reached a consensus on the need for doing so. Japan’s achievements more closely resemble those of Europe, but whereas the West needed a century and a half to achieve a significant level of industrial development, the Japanese achieved it in forty years. The differences between the Japanese and Chinese responses to the West have sparked considerable debate among students of comparative history. Some have argued that Japan’s success was partly due to good fortune; lacking abundant natural resources, it was exposed to less pressure from the West than many of its neighbors. That argument, however, is not very persuasive, since it does not explain why nations under considerably less pressure, such as Laos and Nepal, did not advance even more quickly. One possible explanation has already been suggested: Japan’s unique geographical position in Asia. China, a continental nation with a heterogeneous ethnic composition, was distinguished from its neighbors by its Confucian culture. By contrast, Japan was an island nation, ethnically and linguistically homogeneous, which had never been conquered. Unlike the Chinese, the Japanese had little to fear from cultural change in terms of its effect on their national identity. If Confucian culture, with all its accouterments, was what defined the Chinese gentleman, his Japanese counterpart, in the familiar image, could discard his sword and kimono and don a modern military uniform or a Western business suit and still feel comfortable in both worlds. Whatever the case, as the historian W. G. Beasley has noted, the Meiji Restoration was possible because aristocratic and capitalist elements managed to work together in a common effort to achieve national wealth and power. The nature of the Japanese value system, with its emphasis on practicality and military achievement, may also have contributed. Finally, the Meiji benefited from the fact that the pace of urbanization and commercial and industrial development had already begun to quicken under the Tokugawa. Japan, it has been said, was ripe for change, and nothing could have been more suitable as an antidote for the collapsing old system than the Western emphasis on wealth and power. It was a classic example of challenge and response.