If the Meiji Restoration had failed, the World Wars could have unfolded very differently in Asia
What precipitated the overthrow of the 260-year-old Tokugawa shogunate in Japan in favour of the young Emperor Meiji?
The most common point for talking about the Meiji Restoration is the arrival of the “black ships” [from the United States] under Commodore Perry in 1853, when they sailed into Uraga harbour, near Edo
[the former name for Tokyo]. It was a fairly graphic demonstration of a Western power’s capacity to enter into the inner precinct of Japan without any consequence. Perry said he would come back in a year’s time and get a response from the Japanese in terms of whether they would open the country or not. And when they did come back, the Japanese acquiesced to a point, and opened up some ports to the Americans.
At the time, the Tokugawa shogunate had lost one of its main reasons for existing, which was maintaining the policy of isolation. So in this one major event you find the bakufu [the Shōgun’s officials] exposed as actually not having the technical wherewithal to repulse the westerners. And perhaps even worse actually letting them land, and in several years’ time setting up a trade agreement with the Americans. From this point, the position of the shogunate becomes untenable.
Imperial and shogunate forces clashed from 1868-1869. How bloody was the Boshin War?
There were conflicts, but I think it’s actually remarkable how limited the conflicts were. Probably one of the most pivotal was just south of the capital, when the shogunate sent forces to take a letter to
[Emperor Meiji, who was in league with the western rebels]. They were met by forces of the Satsuma and Chōshū clans, and repulsed over several days. The shogunate forces were not a match for the combined expertise and determination of the new players in the game.
The most bloody and prolonged fighting happened on the north east of the country, where the Aizu clan was determined to pursue the conflict further. But I think if you consider the degree of what was at stake, it’s remarkable that there was not more loss of life.
What were some of the major ways the Meiji Restoration changed the country?
Within three years of the Restoration, the clans were abolished and replaced with the nomenclature of prefectures. Also you have the beginning of the breaking down of a traditional caste system.
For centuries the warriors, the samurai, were in a position of authority. As a caste they were at the top of the social order. And it is often said they had the authority to dispatch anyone of an inferior caste just for a perceived slight. So that’s the second thing that really begins to get undone in the wake of the restoration.
Did the Restoration end the Japanese policy of seclusion and did this change the country’s standing with the rest of the world?
I don’t think it changed the notion of isolation completely. From 1853 onwards, the shogunate had been forced to open ports, and been forced to do trade deals with various nations. The moment that they did treaties with one nation, other nations claimed the same provisions. And by the time you get to the mid to late 1860s, the shogunate itself is developing quite a tight relationship with the French government, and there are substantial missions being sent from Japan to Europe. So even by 1868, which was the year of the Restoration, the shogunate navy was in fact relatively modernised.
To say that natural isolation was still going to be something that you could go back to, I think that was probably unrealistic and a fait accompli that was accepted by both the shogunate and the western clans that toppled them. I don’t think either would think keeping the Western powers out was an option.
What would have happened if the Meiji Restoration had failed?
The single largest legacy of the shogunate continuing would be that they would be hard pressed to implement reforms. The transition from having a patchwork of clans to a unified nation state where the entire country is under one government, I think that would have been more difficult to implement.
The other thing is the shogunate would have struggled to accept the kind of homogenising of the national populous that happened under the Restoration government [such as disestablishing the privileges of the samurai class]. I don’t think the shogunate would have been able to push that through, so I don’t think they would have been able to create the kind of military force that could project into other parts of Asia quite as effectively.
They could have certainly had geopolitical conflicts with China, the Korean peninsula, and conceivably with Russia as well. But it’s really a moot point just how far they could have succeeded, not just transforming the military but also the fabric of the nation.
“If you consider… what was at stake, it’s remarkable that there was not more loss of life”
Would the shogunate have been able to keep control?
I think it would be tenuous. It would have emboldened the Western powers to get more involved. Even if the shogunate managed to hold on, I think it would mean that Japan would not have been so successful at modernisation.
To what extent did the Restoration cause Japan to modernise and would the shogunate have resisted this?
Both the shogunate and the Restoration forces recognised the need to modernise the military hardware. The question was how far you take some of these reforms.
There is the famous phrase, ‘wakon-yōsai’, that means ‘Japanese spirit, Western learning’. That seems to have been implemented in a pragmatic way throughout the early stages of the Restoration. Especially in the first 10 years following Restoration, there’s a very complex process of negotiation, almost bit by bit, where people are trying to sort out how far you can adopt certain things from Western culture and still stay Japanese.
I think there is a realisation after time that you could still cut your hair, wear Western clothes, and nonetheless pursue the original aims of preserving the integrity of the country.
Could Japan still have won the 1904 Russo-japanese war without Restoration’s widespread modernisation?
Under the [shogunate], would they have been able to develop the military prowess to trouble the Russians? It’s possible. Russia was a fairly powerless state in terms of international situation and governance, and the shogunate did already have a record for developing a fairly strong naval presence.
The more serious question that plays further along is what would have happened to Japanese relations with other
Western powers. The Satsuma clan had a relationship with England that was very strong and certainly filtered into the development of the navy and commerce.
The French influence probably would have stayed with the shogunate, but of course there was the Franco-prussian War in the early 1870s. It probably would have meant, because of their
antagonism with the English, that [Japan] could have come quicker to an alignment with the German-speaking nations. Instead of having a strong English influence, they would have had a much more Germanic influence, and that would have interesting implications for World War I. Japan came into the war on the side of the English, the Allies, but it would be interesting to conject what Japan’s role in World War I would have been had it in fact sided with Germany.
“That would have chastened aspirations for military expansion”
How might this have affected Japan’s more substantial role in World War II?
If they had ended up being strong enough to be taken seriously as a power in the confrontation with Russia in the early 20th century, and then struck up an alliance with Germany in World War I, what that implies is they might well have been on the losing side. That probably would have chastened aspirations for military expansion thereafter, and it might have led to a greater or earlier desire to remain neutral. So that could have meant Japan would not have been in the position it was, in the 1930s, where it had Korea, Manchuria, this broad web of territories and influence, it would have had quite a distinct complexion.
Overall, what would a failed Meiji Restoration have meant for Japan?
The fundamental issue here is that the shogunate’s premise of existing and structure made it inherently weak and vulnerable. It’s highly debatable how long they could have held that position unreconstructed. Every compromise they made in terms of the structure of the government and the introduction of new reforms would have made it look more self-contradictory and weak, and ripe for further attack.
interview with… Dr Alistair swale Dr Alistair Swale is currently a senior lecturer in screen and media studies at the University of Waikato, New Zealand. He is the author of The Political Thought Of Mori Arinori: A Study In Meiji Conservatism and The Meiji Restoration: Monarchism, Mass Communication And Conservative Revolution.
Samurai from the Chōshū clan in western Japan consider battle plans during the Boshin War
The restored Japanese Emperor Meiji, in 1888
Prince Tokugawa Yoshinobu was the last shōgun to rule Japan