The Meji period represents the first half of the Empire of Japan during which Japanese society moved from being an isolated feudal society to its modern form. Fundamental changes affected its social structure, internal politics, economy, military, and foreign relations. The period corresponded with the reign of Emperor Meiji after 1868, and lasted until his death in 1912. It was succeeded by the Taishō period upon the accession ofEmperor Taishō to the throne.
The Meiji period saw a flowering of public discourse on the direction of Japan. Works like Nakae Chōmin’s A Discourse by Three Drunkards on Government debated how best to blend the new influences coming from the West with local Japanese culture. Grassroots movements like the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement called for the establishment of a formal legislature, civil rights, and greater pluralism in the Japanese political system. Journalists, politicians, and writers actively participated in the movement, which attracted an array of interest groups, including women’s rights activists.
The elite class of the Meiji period adapted many aspects of Victorian taste, as seen in the construction of Western-style pavilions and reception rooms called yōkan or yōma in their homes. These parts of Meiji homes were displayed in popular magazines of the time, such as Ladies’ Graphic, which portrayed the often empty rooms of the homes of the aristocracy of all levels, including the imperial palaces. Integrating Western cultural forms with an assumed, untouched native Japanese spirit was characteristic of Meiji society, especially at the top levels, and represented Japan’s search for a place within a new world power system in which European colonial empires dominated
The Industrial Revolution in Japan occurred during the Meiji period. The industrial revolution began about 1870 as Meiji period leaders decided to catch up with the West. The government built railroads, improved roads, and inaugurated a land reform program to prepare the country for further development. It inaugurated a new Western-based education system for all young people, sent thousands of students to the United States and Europe, and hired more than 3,000 Westerners to teach modern science, mathematics, technology, and foreign languages in Japan
All images by ARNOLD GENTHE/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS