What factors led to the collapse of the Tokugawa government and the Meiji Restoration in 1868?

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The Meiji Restoration was the Japanese political revolution that saw the dismantling of the Tokugawa regime. The leaders of the Meiji Restoration were primarily motivated by longstanding domestic issues and new external threats.

The revolutionaries tended to be young members of the samurai class who harbored generations-old grudges against the...

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The Meiji Restoration was the Japanese political revolution that saw the dismantling of the Tokugawa regime. The leaders of the Meiji Restoration were primarily motivated by longstanding domestic issues and new external threats.

The revolutionaries tended to be young members of the samurai class who harbored generations-old grudges against the Tokugawa regime. Since the age of warring states was brought to an end in 1603, the samurai had been relatively powerless and without purpose as they were subordinate to the ruling Tokugawa clan. In fact, by the mid-nineteenth century, Japan's feudal system was in decay. Although there was peace and stability, little wealth made it to the people in the countryside. Class restrictions meant that the samurai were not allowed to be anything other than warriors. Without wars to fight, the samurai often found themselves pushed to the margins and outpaced by the growing merchant class. This led to a rise in competing factions among the samurai and other classes. In essence, Japanese society was becoming a pressure cooker of discontent. By restoring the supremacy of the Emperor, all Japanese had a rallying point around which to unify, and the movement was given a sense of legitimacy.

External causes came from recent contact with westerners. Now that generations of isolation had come to an end, the Japanese were growing increasingly concerned that they would end up like China. The Japanese were very much aware of how China was losing sovereignty to Europeans as it clung to its ancient traditions. This convinced the leaders of the Meiji Restoration that Japan had to modernize quickly in order to become formidable enough to stand against western forces. Furthermore, with China on the decline, Japan had the opportunity to become the most powerful nation in the region. Many felt that this could only be accomplished if the old Tokugawa system was dismantled in favor of a more modern one.

Finally, this was also a time of growing Japanese nationalism. Known as kokutai, a common Japanese sense of pride was moving throughout the archipelago. As the Shogun signed more and more unfair treaties with western powers, a growing element of Japanese society felt that this was undermining Japanese pride, culture, and soverignty. To rectify this, they sought to topple the shogunate and restore the power of the emperor.

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By the middle of the nineteenth century, Tokugawa Japan was a society in crisis. There were persistent famines and epidemics, inflation, and poverty. Masses of people, including peasants, artisans, merchants, and samurais, became dissatisfied with their situation. The Tokugawa shogunate and its bloated bureaucracy were unresponsive to the demands of the people.

The unequal treaties that the Western powers imposed on Japan in the 1850s contributed to the diminished prestige of the Tokugawa government, which could not stand up to foreign demands. The influx of cheap foreign products after the opening of trade with the West undermined Japanese cottage industries and caused much discontent.

Young samurai leaders, such as Takasugi Shinsaku, sometimes visited China. In Shanghai and other major Chinese cities, they witnessed the humiliation of local Chinese people and the dominance of Westerners with their different lifestyle. They took this as a warning, an indication that Japan under the Tokugawa, like China under the Qing dynasty, was on its way to becoming a colony of the West—unless they could organize the overthrow of the Tokugawa regime and introduce a comprehensive reform program. Upon returning to Japan, Takasugi created a pro-emperor militia in his native Choshu domain and began plotting against the Tokugawa government.

From the eighteenth century onwards, elements of Western learning were available to Japanese intellectuals in the form of “Dutch studies.” Some of the teachers and students of Dutch studies gradually came to believe in the superiority of Western science and rejected Confucian ideology. At the same time, Japanese nationalism was spreading, and with it, Shintoist religious teachings were gaining popularity; both of these strengthened the position of the emperor against that of the Confucian shogun.

The leaders of the pro-emperor, anti-Tokugawa movement and the Meiji revolution were nationalists who deeply resented foreign influence, but most of them gradually came to the conclusion that comprehensive modernization would be essential for preserving Japanese independence.

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Commodore Perry's arrival in Japan in 1853 resulted in factors that led to the collapse of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The opening up of Japan to western trade sent economic shockwaves through the country, as foreign speculation in gold and silver led to price fluctuations and economic downturns. In addition, domestic industries collapsed after facing international competition, and the Japanese economy was in dire straits as the Japanese faced high unemployment.

In this atmosphere, the Shogun, then the leader of Japan, invited the daimyo, or the local feudal lords, to a Council of State, setting up an opportunity for them to rebel. The shogunate, a system of feudal lords called daimyo, had been unstable for years. The samurai, or warrior class, had little reason to exist after the Tokugawa pacified Japan. The farmers under this system, who had to pay a 50% tax on their crops to support the shogun and the daimyo, were restive. The stage was set for rebellion.

After the shogun signed treaties with foreigners, many nationalist Japanese, particularly those in the provinces of Satsuma and Choshu, felt the shogun should be replaced, as they felt he was powerless. The anti-foreign sentiment was directed against the shogun as well as against foreigners in Japan. The Satsuma and Choshu clans united to bring down the shogun, and in 1867, they did so. In the following year, they restored the emperor, Meiji, to the throne in the Meiji Restoration. During this period of the Meiji Restoration, Japan rapidly modernized and became a military power. 

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There were two main factors that led to the erosion of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the Meiji Restoration.  First, there was the rise of the merchant class and the decline in the power of the samurai that came with it.  Second, there was the pressure from the West, epitomized by the "opening" of Japan by Commodore Perry.

As the Tokugawa era came to a close, the merchant class in Japan had become very powerful.  They were very rich and the samurai class depended on them for money.  This went against the formal hierarchy in which merchants were the lowest rung.  This disparity between the formal system and reality eroded the foundations of the Tokugawa government.

Second, the intrusion of the West, in the form of Perry, severely shook the foundations of Japanese society.  The country, which had thought itself superior and invulnerable, was badly shocked by the fact that the West was stronger than Japan.  This led to political upheaval as various factions pushed for various different solutions to the issue.

Overall, then, Japan's feudal society had been eroding for some time.  When Perry "opened" Japan, the structure of Tokugawa government was given a push and its eroded foundations were revealed.  This led to the fall of the Tokugawa and the Meiji Restoration.

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