Pink Sakura Cherry Blossom Flower in Japan flag symbol

The Fast-Paced Modernization of Japan

Japan during the 17th through the 19th century adopted a policy known as that isolated the whole country from the outside world, known as the “Sakoku” years. During sakoku no Japanese could leave the country on penalty of death, and very few foreign nationals were permitted to enter and trade with Japan.  Sakoku literally meant “chained country.”

Sakoku (鎖国) was a policy enacted by the Tokugawa shogunate (the last feudal Japanese military government) under Tokugawa Iemitsu through several policies and edicts from 1633 to 1639 and had remained effective until 1853 when the Perry Expedition forcibly opened Japan to Western trade. The rationale of the shogunate behind the implementation of sakoku in Japan was to remove any religious and colonial influence, primarily from Portugal and Spain, considered a threat to the shogunate. With Japan having no contact with he outside world caused the country to fall behind in progress. It however only took 40 years for the then backward nation to become a first world leader in technology.

The Tokugawa Shogunate was already facing challenges which Western change seemed to solve. Members of the Satsuma han seized the palace in the name of the Emperor and abolished the Shogun. Imperial rule was restored on the 3rd of January 1868. From this arose a new centralized government with the Emperor as Japan’s symbolic head. The city of Edo, renamed to Tokyo became the capital.

Four main factors that sped up the modernization of Japan

Circa 1890- 1900 - Ainu Men in Hokkaido

  • Japan’s geography – is considered to be a huge assets in modernizing the country to Western standards in less than half a century. Japan being an island nation was free from fighting off wars and attempts of a take over by neighboring nations. This lack of conflict from the outside enabled the samurai class to focus their efforts as bureaucrats. This resulted in a “peace-dividend”, farmers no longer had to grow crops to feed armies giving them greater incentive to be productive. The threat of enemy encroachment did not exist sso bridges ab roads could be built. Another advantage of Japan’s geography with some islands being difficult to reach is the preservation of local crafts known as kogei. Traditional Japanese crafts began to incorporate foreign technology. Kogei became popular export products with an increase in production which helped boost trade and enabled local craftsmen to keep their jobs.
  • Centralized government – Japanese territory was consolidated into a single authority and converted the government into an increasingly “public” political structure. A group of five samurai from the hōshū domain are considered to be the leaders in the successful change in the Meiji era. These five samurai travelled secretly to Britain to study Western technology and bring the knowledge back to Japan. The introduction of prefectures administered by governors appointed by the central government was an important factor in rapid modernization.

Japanese pottery master posing in workshop

  • Investment in education – Maiji Japan focused heavily on education. The new government began building public schools to provide education for all. Universal literacy was a goal of great importance. Citizens were able to choose their own careers and learn the skills necessary to be included in a new and modern workforce. Educated citizens were also able to travel abroad to further their education and bring back the knowledge to boost innovation in Japan. 
  • Sense of nationalism – Japanese have a strong sense of nationalism. Aside from the Aini and Ryukyuans, the entire population of Japan spoke only one language and followed similar customs. The whole country supported the changes during the Meiji Restoration. The people understood that what was happening at the time was a great leap forwards. The threat of interference from the West helped unite the people. This gave the Meiji government the confidence to enact reforms that could be painful.