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For over six-hundred years a series of Shogun dynasties had dominated Japanese politics, with the Emperor reduced to a largely symbolic role. Yet, in 1866, the leaders of two feudal domains in Japan, Satsuma and Chōshū, formed an alliance to overthrow the Tokugawa shogunate and restore the Emperor to power. While it was often uneasy, the Satsuma-Chōshū Alliance was strong enough to defeat the Shogun’s forces in the Boshin War.

European ideals influenced the restoration of Emperor Meiji, resulting in marked changes in Japanese society and politics. An oligarchy took up the reigns of power on behalf of the Emperor and began instituting a programme of reform and modernisation. As such, on 2nd August 1869* the Emperor abolished the feudal caste system or Shinōkōshō.

The Shinōkōshō divided the populace into various castes: the samurai or military aristocrats; the farmers; the artisans; the merchants. The peasants and members of the Imperial court existed outside this system, which followed Confucian thinking: the wise ruler at the top; directly beneath him is the farmer who produces wealth; then the artisan who transforms the wealth; and lastly the merchant who merely distributes it. The oligarch’s programme of modernisation resulted in the development of Japan as a capitalistic industrialised power with imperial ambitions.

To learn more see Bill Gordon’s essay Tokugawa Period’s Influence on Meiji Restoration at the Wesleyan University website.

* By the traditional Japanese calendar the date was 25th June 1869.

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