The government brought experts from Western countries to Japan and sent young samurai to study in Europe and the United States.
How did Japan react when it was forced to accept unequal treaties?
The Meiji reformers faced an enormous task. They were committed to replacing the rigid feudal order with a completely new political and social system and to building a modern industrial economy. Change did not come easily. However, Japan adapted foreign ideas with great speed and success.
The reformers wanted to create a strong central government, equal to those of Western powers. After studying the governments of various European countries, they adapted the German model. In 1889, the emperor issued the Meiji constitution. It set forth the principle that all citizens were equal before the law. Like the German system, however, it gave the emperor autocratic, or unlimited, power. A legislature, or Diet, was formed, made up of one elected house and one house appointed by the emperor. Suffrage, or the right to vote, was also limited.
This woodblock print shows the announcement of the new Meiji constitution in 1889, which created a European-style government in Japan.
What other European influences do you see in the print?
Japan then set up a Western-style bureaucracy with separate departments to supervise finance, the army, the navy, and education. To strengthen the military, it turned to Western technology and ended the special privileges of samurai. In the past, samurai alone were warriors. In modern Japan, as in the modern West, all men were subject to military service.
Meiji leaders made the economy a major priority. They encouraged Japan's business class to adopt Western methods. The government set up a modern banking system, built railroads, improved ports, and organized a telegraph and postal system.
To get industries started, the government typically built factories and then sold them to wealthy business families who developed them further. With such support, business dynasties like the Mitsubishi and Kawasaki families soon ruled over industrial empires that rivaled the Rockefellers in the United States or the Krupps in Germany. These powerful banking and industrial families were known as zaibatsu (zy baht soo).
By the 1890s, industry was booming. With modern machines, silk manufacturing soared. Shipyards, copper and coal mining, and steel making also helped make Japan an industrial powerhouse. As in other industrial countries, the population grew rapidly, and many peasants flocked to the growing cities for work.
The constitution ended legal distinctions between classes, thus freeing more people to build the nation. The government set up schools and a university. It hired Westerners to teach modern technology to the new generation.
Despite the reforms, class distinctions survived in Japan as they did in the West. Also, although literacy increased and some women gained an education, women in general were still assigned a secondary role in society.
The reform of the Japanese family system, and women's position in it, became the topic of major debates in the 1870s. Reformers wanted women to become full partners in the process of nation building and to learn skills that would allow them to live on their own.
While the government agreed to some increases in education for women, it dealt harshly with other attempts at change. It took away earlier political and legal rights that women had won. After 1898, Japanese women were forbidden any political participation and legally were lumped together with minors.