The Meiji Restoration in 1867-1868 marked the end of the Tokugawa shogunate and of samurai rule, and the "restoration" of the Emperor of Japan to true political power. One of the most significant events in Japanese history, it marks the beginning of the Meiji period, which saw dramatic changes and developments throughout nearly every aspect of society, as Japan rapidly Westernized and industrialized in a myriad of ways.
Numerous scholars have debated the meanings and connotations of both the Japanese word ishin (the standard term in use in Japan today), and the English word "restoration," which has become very much the standard translation of the term.
Ben-Ami Shillony has pointed out that at the time, the terms fukko (lit. "return to the old") and chûkô (revival, resurgence) were used to refer to the restoration of Imperial power, while ishin (or isshin, as it was often rendered at that time) was used to mean innovation or reform, and was used to refer not to the restoration of Imperial power, but to the many social, cultural, and structural changes which came in its wake. Shillony thus argues that ishin today, in Japan, retains this connotation of innovation, renovation, or reform, and that "restoration" is therefore misleading.
Scholars have also debated the nature of the events, including whether the Meiji Restoration should be considered a "revolution," and if so, how it compares to other major historical revolutions around the world. Thomas Smith has characterized the events of 1867-1868 as an "aristocratic revolution," pointing out that, unlike the American and French Revolutions, and unlike the Communist Revolutions in Russia and China, the Meiji Restoration was not led by commoners or peasants, but by samurai. This was not a reaction against oppression, or the result of a great popular push for human rights or civil liberties, but rather, members of the elite seeking to replace one samurai government with another samurai government. It was only after the dust settled and the Meiji government began to be established that decisions were made to abolish the samurai class, and the daimyô domains. We must remember, too, that with the establishment of the European-style peerage, many elites remained members of a distinct elite class into 1945, and that while a parliamentary system was put into place, the ability to vote was restricted to wealthy landowners - a group comprising roughly 1% of the population. It was not until 1925 that universal male suffrage (above age 25) was granted, and not until 1946 that women gained the right to vote.
- Ben-Ami Shillony, "Restoration, Emperor, Diet, Prefecture, or: How Japanese Concepts were Mistranslated into Western Languages," Collected Writings of Ben-Ami Shillony, Synapse (2000), 67-69.
- Thomas C. Smith, "Japan's Aristocratic Revolution," in Smith, Native Sources of Japanese Industrialization, University of California Press (1988), 133-147.
- Conrad Schirokauer, David Lurie, and Suzanne Gay, A Brief History of Japanese Civilization, Wadsworth Cengage (2013), 180.