Economic growth, however, brought changes that put strains on the country. Daimyo suffered financial hardship because their wealth was in land. In a commercial economy, money was needed. Daimyo had the heavy expense of maintaining households in both Edo and their own domains.
Lesser samurai were unhappy, too, because they were no longer fighters. Many were government bureaucrats. Even though they were noble, they lacked the money to live as well as urban merchants. Merchants in turn resented their place at the bottom of the social ladder. No matter how rich they were, they had no political power. Peasants, meanwhile, suffered under heavy taxes.
The government responded by trying to revive old ways, emphasizing farming over commerce and praising traditional values. Efforts at reform failed. By the 1800s, many groups were discontent and had little loyalty to the old system.
By the mid-1800s, why did so many groups of people in Japan feel discontented?
While the shogun faced troubles at home, disturbing news reached him from abroad. With alarm, he heard of how the British had defeated China in the Opium War and how imperialists had forced China to sign unequal treaties. Japanese officials realized it would not be long before Western powers sought trading rights in Japan.
In July 1853, a fleet of well-armed American ships commanded by Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay. Perry carried a letter from the president of the United States. It demanded that Japan open its ports to trade.
The shogun's advisers debated what to do. Japan did not have the ability to defend itself against the powerful United States Navy. In the Treaty of Kanagawa in 1854, the shogun Iesada agreed to open three Japanese ports to American ships, where they could take on supplies.
The United States soon won trading and other rights, including extraterritoriality. Britain, France, and Russia demanded and won similar rights. Like the Chinese, the Japanese deeply resented the humiliating terms of these unequal treaties. Some bitterly criticized the shogun for not taking a strong stand against the foreigners.
Foreign pressure deepened the social and economic unrest. As the crisis worsened, many young, reform-minded samurai rallied around the emperor, long regarded as a figurehead.
In 1867, discontented daimyo and samurai led a revolt that unseated the shogun and “restored” the emperor, Mutsuhito to power. He moved from Kyoto, the old imperial capital, to the shogun's palace in Edo, which was renamed Tokyo, or “eastern capital.” The emperor took the name Meiji (MAY jee), which means “enlightened rule.”
The young emperor, just 15 years old, began a long reign known as the Meiji Restoration. This period, which lasted from 1868 to 1912, was a major turning point in Japanese history.
The Meiji reformers, who ruled in the emperor's name, were determined to strengthen Japan against the West. Their goal was summarized in their motto, “A rich country, a strong military.”
In this Japanese woodblock print, Japanese boats go out to meet one of Commodore Matthew Perry's ships in Tokyo Bay.
The new leaders set out to study Western ways, adapt them to Japanese needs, and eventually protect Japan from having to give in to Western demands. In 1871, members of the government traveled abroad to learn about Western governments, economies, technology, and customs.