At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century Japan experienced an incredible transformation. During a period known as the Meiji Restoration, the island nation transformed from a feudal society to an imperial power with drastic economic effects across a thirty year period.
Since 1600 the island of Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa shogunate. The shogunate organized the nation through a feudal system, with the daimyō (feudal lords) in charge of their local domain.
The samurai were the warrior class who dominated society and had special class privileges. The shogunate had a strict isolationist policy that foreigners were not allowed to enter the country.
While the shogunate worked for many years, Japan quickly fell behind the modern imperial powers, especially the Western nations. This became especially apparent in 1853 when US ships under Matthew Perry visited and forced Japan to sign treaties opening the nation up for trade.
By 1868, the shogunate had lost power, with Emperor Meiji becoming the central ruler. Japan sought to modernize the nation and looked no further than the structure of the Western nations to do so. After some initial resistance in the first decade, Japan enacted rapid changes to their economy, military and social structures.1
The Economic Effects of the Meiji Restoration
The Meiji Restoration led to incredible economic effects as the entire nation rapidly transformed. Imports and exports increased from ~$45M from 1878-1882, to over $440M by 1908-1912 — a ten fold increase.2
To boost the economy Japan abandoned their feudal society and class system. This allowed the freedom of movement and occupation for all citizens and a market based economy emerged. Spurred by public and private investment the nation’s industrial capacity and technology drastically improved.
In the process Japan also reorganized their military. They formed a national military with universal conscription. All males were required to serve for at least 3 years.
They were taught in western organization and armed with the latest western weapons. Their military modernized so fast that within 3 decades they had already won two wars. The first against China, and the second against Russia – stunning the western nations.
The Meiji Restoration was one of the most rapid and impressive transformations in history. It catapulted Japan onto the world stage, helped them defeat Russia in the Russo-Japanese War, and directly led to the inevitable showdown with the Western powers during World War II.
1) Horie, Hideichi. “REVOLUTION AND REFORM IN MEIJI RESTORATION.” Kyoto University Economic Review, vol. 22, no. 1 (52), 1952, pp. 23–34. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43216962.
2) Iroquois CSD