Education About Asia: Online Archives

Remembering Restoration Heroes in Modern Japan

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Just as the American Civil War lives on in historical fiction, television series, and movies, so too does the Meiji Restoration of 1868 continue to evoke memories of heroism, pride, and tragedy. In the centuries preceding the Restoration, Japan had been split into domains ruled by military lords (daimyō), with the head of the Tokugawa family as the country’s nominally leading warrior (shogun). During this time, the emperor and court nobles lived in Kyoto, but they possessed little political power. In the first half of the nineteenth century, domestic politics, economic problems, social change, and pressures from the West weakened the Tokugawa regime. These trends coincided with a new intellectual movement that recognized the importance of the emperor in Japanese history. Several powerful daimyō used the newfound legitimizing force of the emperor to overthrow the Tokugawa regime, “restoring” him as the symbolic ruler of Japan in 1868. Portrayals of these nation-defining events change throughout time, reflecting the views of society during specific historical moments. Whether in the call for greater political participation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, reaction to Japan’s growing imperial aspiration in the 1920s and 30s, celebrating the economic boom of the 1960s, or expressing apprehension during the troubled 1990s, people have looked to the Meiji Restoration for models and solutions to contemporary problems.