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Modernization and the Decline of the Samurai

Nino Moscardi

            In most cases, a country’s modernization and rise to power is embraced by both the government and its citizens. However, such was not the case with ancient Japan. Feudal Japan stretching into Tokugawa reign, was mainly governed by a military elite whose responsibilities also extended to civilian affairs. This elite was known as samurai, and they played a momentous role in not only governing the nation, but also influenced cultural and societal aspects of the country, as well as privilege over any other class of citizen. Yet, this hold that the samurai had over the country did not last forever. With the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate, the reigning government since the early 1600’s to the mid-1800‘s, the return of the emperor to power in 1868, and the exposure of Japan’s national weakness due to Tokugawa isolationist policy, the new governing power of the Meiji bureaucrats felt intensive reform was necessary to return the country to its previous glory, which would ultimately bring the samurai to an end during the late 1870‘s. Yet, the decline of samurai caste was not only due to technological advance, as many would think, but also social, political, and cultural reform.

                The country of Japan under the newly reappointed power of Emperor Meiji (meaning “enlightened rule”) faced much change in all aspects of Japanese life. This would come to be known as the Meiji Restoration, the return of Japan from the collapse of the faulty Tokugawa regime to its previous glory, in which modernization would bring the country to speed with the rest of the Western world. However, the Meiji government had several reasons for wanting change. The purpose of restoration meant “having an economics system of industrial capitalism and a political system of liberal or quasiliberal constitutionalism as in the U.S. and other European countries. (Mason 257)” After opening Japanese ports to the rest of the world  and ending its seclusionist policy in the mid 1800’s, the Japanese realized their great inferiority in terms of technology, sciences, and political and economics condition (257). The Meiji also felt it necessary to revise the unfair treaties the Tokugawa bakufu (ruling government) was pressured into signing by the U.S. shortly before its collapse (258). The treaties vastly undermined Japan, allowing other countries to take advantage of its weak status economically by preventing Japan from levying taxes on imports and granting foreigners immunity to Japanese law (264). These treaties would have to be dealt with if the country wished to catch up to its Western counterparts. Thus marked the beginning of the Meiji Restoration.

            Restoration and reform took place on all fronts of Japanese life, but samurai were most affected by political reform. First and foremost, power was placed back into the emperor’s hands, where it had been held by the shogun for hundreds of years. However, the emperor was more of a figurehead. The country was really run by a cabinet of bureaucrats, but nonetheless it restored a sense of national pride (Gordon 69). Many samurai pushed for a form of representative government in order to gain power politically and strip the Meiji oligarchs of their power. Ultimately, Japan would adopt a written constitution, conforming to other party system governments (Lu 327). Before the Constitution, however, the government functioned as a coalition of bureaucrat daimyos (lords) who counseled the emperor. Thus, the class system was reformed to kozoku (nobility), shizoku (samurai, gentry, and soldiers), and all remaining classes to heimin (commoners) who were granted occupational liberty (Turnbull 180-1).

            In 1869, the Meiji continued to drain daimyo of power by convincing them to surrender their lands in return for respect or political influence. Though they were reappointed as governors, the “return of lands” instituted the emperor’s rule over all lands as citizens. The government then pushed the daimyo to appoint skilled men (often of rank) to administrative positions to place domain governments in favorable hands in order to prepare for complete abolition of daimyo domains (Gordon 63). Following through with this in 1871, the government abolished these domains, replacing them with prefectures whose governors were elected. This change meant the governments would collect taxes directly from domain lands (63). This also meant complete structural reform to govern  these new prefectures. Thus, adopted a European style cabinet system headed by a prime minister, and a staff consistent of former samurai mostly, but shied from them in favor of a system of civil service examinations to qualify officials (64). To fight this, many samurai of the Satsuma, Choshu, Tosa, and Hizen provinces appointed themselves authoritative positions and attempted to fortify central government. These conservatives would come to oppose the central government once they realized their last desperate measure to keep samurai an elite was a failure (Lu 314). Because the government had also stripped samurai of hereditary privilege, assumed daimyo power and influence, those few samurai who were appointed government positions angered and frustrated others who were not given the same advantage (Ravina 161).

            The military was reformed to resemble a British style system, nixing traditional institutions, including council of domain elders, in favor of a cabinet of departments in which appointment was based on skill rather than rank, abolishing status distinctions among all samurai (Ravina 162-3). The military itself would be composed of conscript armies, which was originally denied but later granted and utilized against numerous samurai uprisings (Lu 314). These conscript armies were not popular among samurai, however, because they feared arming ignorant commoners, which turned out to be terribly inefficient at first (Gordon 66), consisting of “a loose amalgam of domainal armies” divided by region and headed by appointed officials (Ravina 154). Samurai also had to ensure a significant role for their class in a Meiji state, which a conscript army would also deny (Gordon 66). However, this was not the only front reform would occur.

            Economic policy changed drastically during Meiji years as well, affecting samurai monetary policy, wage, and entire economic status. The government felt industrialization was a necessary action, but questions arose as to its implementation. They agreed that Tokugawa attempts had failed, though “within a few years of Restoration the new government had expanded limited Tokugawa experiments with foreign technology into a pervasive and self perpetuating program for economic modernization. (Mason 270)” Reformed industry protected by government felt a sense of national service and loyalty, demanding sacrifice from their employees in return (Lu 345). With the newly disbanded class system, government modernization would bring universities, a national postal system, and importation of new inventions such as the telegraph and a great catalyst for change, the railroad. Traditional industry such as textile and shipping were also met with prosperity (Christensen). The Land Tax Reform of 1873 would see taxes assessed by the value of land, rather than a monetary system based on rice (koku). This promised the treasury a fixed income per year (Lu 315). However, reform was also conducted for the purpose of national security, in order to safeguard the nation from literal predators and also diplomatic invasion (Mason 270).

            Though the nation prospered from this economic recovery, the samurai would suffer greatly. The reason being that a modernized, industrial Japan would be “incompatible with an idle military class.” Thus, in order for the Restoration to work in the long run, the samurai would need to be sacrificed (Turnbull 180). With the abolition of samurai domains, stipends, or salaries, were also reduced, but they still consumed a large chunk (roughly half) of state revenues, which the government had other plans for since they believed samurai held little value with high cost (Gordon 65). Their skills were useless in peacetime, thus stipends were “basically welfare for the well-born” In order to abolish stipends they divided the samurai into upper and lower classes and began to tax stipends and convert them to bonds which paid using interest, cutting samurai income severely (65).

            Afterwards, the Restoration had left around two million samurai, roughly six percent of the population, unemployed. The obvious jobs for them would be military positions, but openings were too limited, so many remained unemployed. The government tried to remedy samurai unrest due to unemployment by paying them a fraction of the pension and letting them live off the interest, though the government had intentions of eventually abolishing the entire class (Turnbull 183). After the slashing of samurai income by roughly 30 to 80 percent, many samurai conducted unorganized rebellions and skirmishes, but would eventually collaborate in Saigo Takamori’s Satsuma Rebellion (Ravina 199). Others would switch to industrial occupations, searching for “justification for assuming the new profession that had been the bane of their class in earlier days. (Lu 345)” This economic change would ensure the samurai class be cast into a downward spiral towards extinction.

            Culturally, reform was significantly morphing Japan into an increasingly Westernized state. “Beginning in the 1870s, government officials, educators, and artists began to explore what it might mean to ‘westernize’ the entire spectrum of cultural life. This sometimes took place on a force fed spirit of ‘whole package’ modernization (Gordon 108). The Japanese fine arts such as art, music of the shakuhachi (Japanese flute) or shamisen (Japanese lute), and theatre were under attack by imported Western ideas. The Meiji spread techniques of Western oil painting, replacing traditional Japanese woodblock printing, though many foreigners flocked to the traditional Japanese style fine arts, they often misunderstood them (Christensen). Reformers also pushed to cut support of Noh and Kabuki theatre, which was being criticized as “decadent and feudalistic.” Though the reforms were intended to replace traditional Japanese music with big band and orchestra music, the shamisen, koto, and shakuhachi actually increased in popularity ( Gordon 108-9). Though threatened by change, most of the fine arts remained intact through the restoration. “Traditional arts such as shodo (calligraphy), sumi-e (ink painting), and Noh drama still remain in their original forms even today. (Michael Baker)” Another great change was the influx of Christian ideals. Though Christianity had been present, brought by missionaries in the early Sengoku period, it was never really recognized and as a whole ignored by most of the population. But with Western standards on the rise, Christianity quickly became an accepted institution (Lu 360).

             Many samurai had adopted a mentality that Westerners were evil, including everything they brought with them. The Tokugawa acceptance of Westerners, matched with its faulty government and pressure from the West, including signing of unequal treaties and forcing open the country’s ports, was the means for the Emperor’s regaining of power (Thach). Most samurai who were in opposition of the now deficient Tokugawa bakufu and bitter towards the influx of Westerners adopted a policy of “sonno-joi,” meaning “Revere the Emperor, Expel the Barbarian.” Numerous samurai factions, including the shishi (Men of Higher Purpose), were created to rebel against both the Tokugawa and the Western foreigners themselves (Thach). Ultimately, Western imperialism would end up destroying the Tokugawa bakufu, allowing the Meiji government to prosper, however, anti foreign sentiment and “sonno-joi” slogan, though diminished, would remain until the very last days of the samurai (Thach).

            Samurai would also face opposition in terms of social conditions and environment, which would drastically change due to Meiji reform and modernization. Following the toppling of the Tokugawa in 1867, and with the majority of Japanese following the newly reappointed Emperor, citizens were easily influenced by government standards and amendment (Michael Baker). “The abolition of feudalism made possible tremendous social and political changes. Millions were free to choose their occupation and move about without restriction. (Meiji Restoration and Modernization)” Prior to the Restoration, civilian and military affairs were homogenous, for the samurai served as officials for both. Reform would see to it that this practice be abandoned in favor of conscript armies to answer military calls and domestic officials and police to handle civilian concerns (Lu 315).Seeing that education was the key to Western power, the country saw to it to establish free public education and by the end of the Restoration, nearly all younger generations were enrolled, a system that was non-existent preceding Meiji rule (Christensen). This public education system produced highly skilled workers, providing a blessing to national industry and governmental manpower (Lu 305). The 1870’s and 80’s saw a sort of “social renovation” in the form of freedom movements and people’s rights lobbies. The answer to the problem many believed was in a Constitution that would be adopted from Western powers (Gordon 82). The government also encouraged select women to participate in programs or support. This was met with debate on women’s rights outside the government, which all women and many intellectuals supported. Though the government supported reform, however, they feared women’s power rising too quickly and barred them from certain functions, including some government positions, but would later relax this policy, allowing for limited freedom (90).

            Samurai rights would go the opposite direction however, for they faced a government who felt they were no longer necessary. By 1876, the Meiji had banned the samurai carrying of swords in public, and the warrior class was drained into a bureaucratic status (Christensen). Samurai lashed back with rights movements, for they were frustrated at being neglected in the decision making process, a feeling they weren’t used to (Gordon 85). Traditional customs of samurai were also abandoned, including samurai attire, the signature topknot of samurai status, and even the tea ceremony. These were now thought of as out of date and irrelevant (Turnbull 183). The last straw came when the government vetoed a Korean invasion after Korean refusal to revise a centuries old treaty. To samurai, this invasion was vital because it would help samurai regain their importance (Meiji Restoration and Modernization). The war with Korea would have resolved all the samurai’s problems, restoring them to their traditional positions as top of the social caste, and also reinstating them as a military elite, however the government vetoed the call for war on the grounds that a war would stunt both international trade and industrial growth and the country was not yet fully established as a modernized power (Lu 325). This refusal by the government led to the Satsuma Rebellion led by Saigo Takamori, in which the remaining samurai, mainly of Satsuma and Choshu provinces, held their final battle against a nation that no longer needed them (Turnbull 185).

            Reforms of the Meiji influenced by Western imperialism had shifted the country’s political, economic, social, and cultural policy, and ultimately led to the demise of the samurai class. The government had felt that a military elite was no longer necessary in a time of peace, and that catching up to the Western powers was of vital importance. Thus, endless reforms were conducted in order to modernize. Though successful, they extinguished the flame of a once prominent class of warriors, but the samurai will always be remembered as one of the most renowned contemporaries in history.

Works Cited

Baker, Michael . Online interview. 19 Feb. 2005.

Caiger, J.G., and R.H.P. Mason. A History of Japan. North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle, 1997. 

Christensen, Maria. Meiji Era and Modernization of Japan. 12 Jan. 2005
<http://www.samurai- archives.com/tme.html>.

Gordon, Andrew. A Modern History of Japan. Oxford, NY: Oxford UP, 2003. 

Lu, David. Japan: A Documentary History. Armonk, NY: East Gate, 1997. 

Meiji Restoration and Modernization. Columbia University East Asian Curriculum Project. 12 Jan. 2005 <http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/japan/japanworkbook/modernhist/meiji.html>.
Ravina, Mark. The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2004. 

Thach, Marcel. Sonno-Joi. 12 Jan. 2005 <http://www.samurai-archives.com/snj.html>.

Turnbull, Stephen. Samurai: World of the Warrior. London, England: PRC, 1982.