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The Meiji Restoration

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First, there are questions concerning the role and relative importance of internal and external factors in the pattern of events. Did the activities of the Western powers prompt changes in Japan that would not otherwise have taken place? Or did they merely hasten a process that had already begun? Similarly, did Western civilization give a new direction to Japanese development, or do no more than provide the outward forms through which indigenous change could manifest itself? Was it a matrix, or only a shopping list?

Second, how far was the evolution of modern Japan in some sense "inevitable"? Were the main features of Meiji society already implicit in the Tempo reforms, only awaiting an appropriate trigger to bring them into being? More narrowly, was the character of Meiji institutions determined by the social composition of the anti-Tokugawa movement, or did it derive from a situation that took shape only after the Bakufu was overthrown? This is to pose the problem of the relationship between day-to-day politics and long-term socioeconomic change. One can argue, paraphrasing Toyama, that the political controversy about foreign affairs provided the means by which basic socioeconomic factors became effective; or one can say, with Sakata, that the relevance of socioeconomic change is that it helped to decide the manner in which the fundamentally political ramifications of the foreign question were worked out. The difference of emphasis is significant.

Finally, have recent historians, in their preoccupation with other issues, lost sight of something important in their relative neglect of ideas qua ideas? Ought we perhaps to stop treating loyalty to the Emperor as simply a manifestation of something else? After all, the men whose actions are the object of our study took that loyalty seriously enough, certainly as an instrument of politics, if not as an article of faith.

528 pages, Hardcover

First published June 1, 1972

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About the author

William Gerald Beasley

17 books6 followers
William Gerald Beasley was Emeritus Professor of the History of the Far East at the School of Oriental and African Studies of London University.

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Displaying 1 - 8 of 8 reviews
Profile Image for Individualfrog.
162 reviews35 followers
July 18, 2020
I am sticking to my guns here: I think it is inexcusable in any book to be boring, regardless of whether it's an academic work or not. This book, like so many academic history books I have subjected myself to, takes a subject matter that could be interesting and at all points refuses to make it so. It's not just the writing, though all these fucking academics seem to have taken some kind of perverse oath to never allow a stylish phrase into their books, as though to prove they are "scholarly", but it's a weird sort of focus, a way of looking past the things that seem interesting to me as though they are an unpleasant acquaintance they are pretending not to see in a crowd. At some point while reading this, contemplating my review, I was going to accuse Beasley of a relentless focus on the trees to the point of pretending the forest didn't exist; but somehow it's worse than that, it's a focus on the spaces between the trees, looking only at the empty air.

Call me some kind of naive autodidact (I am no academic, I got an art degree, as in by painting and sculpting, from a semi-disreputable college, and have made my living in a trade, so feel free to pour your contempt on me, grad students) but to me the Meiji Restoration is interesting as an ambiguity, an ambiguous resistance to Western colonialism, an ambiguous revolution. It is strange that it was something of a bourgeois revolution (Beasley would have it not be a revolution at all, strangely, only because it doesn't particularly resemble European ones) where the revolutionists were not bourgeois or even sans-culotte-like working class, but rather disaffected "aristocrats" (that is, samurai). It is strange that all the revolutionary energy was on the side of men who wanted to "expel the barbarian" and reassert their hereditary position, but the effect was to passionately embrace Western modes of life and to completely abolish all hereditary positions. It is strange that a revolution led by people of several disconnected and scattered domains asserting their power, and who won, led to a total centralization and abolition of the domains. It is somewhat less strange, only because the history of revolutions provides many similar examples, that this revolution is called a "restoration", that the people who want to overthrow the government are called the "loyalists", etc. One might expect that some of this strangeness might be remarked upon, but, presumably due to being in dialogue with other historians about these issues (yes, grad students, I know why you write like this, but journal articles fade and disappear where books last for ages), the strangeness is studiously ignored in favor of unbelievably boring statistics about these things in some way.

Perhaps some of my issues here are simply because this book (which I have seen recommended as "getting dated but still the most recent serious study...this is what I mean by books lasting) is from the 1970s and so is far removed from our contemporary fashions, though honestly postcolonialism etc existed in the 70s, so. Two sentences only, which also happen to be the only two sentences showing any sense of humor or humanity in the book, suggest that the frequently-quoted paternalism of British ambassador Sir Harry Parkes might be problematic. It was cheering to know that this condescension was the one thing which could pierce Beasley's monolithic characterlessness, but still, I think any book written today would almost necessarily be more vocal against Western imperialism, whether "soft" or not.

I remain, honestly, having read the book, feeling like I know very little I didn't know already, but maybe that's a bit of post-boring-book bitterness speaking. What I do know now is the names of several fascinating people who were most emphatically not "brought to life" by this book -- absolutely no one gets any description of any kind, they are names and deeds only -- but who did such interesting things they must be interesting people. Shimazu Nariakira of Satsuma, one of the early leaders who wanted to "restore" the emperor's power and expel the barbarian, but also had such a fascination with Western technology that he built a shipyard, put a telegraph line between buildings on his estate, and made Japan's first daguerrotype, and who was eventually deified as a Shinto kami after dying young. Iwakura Tomomi, a Court noble, who from that very conservative and anti-Western millieu became, it seemed to me, the key figure of the Restoration, and led a mission to the West. (I had to look on Wikipedia to discover that this giant of Meiji politics was barely 5 foot 2.) Sakamoto Ryoma, who despite being very low on the samurai ladder, had a very eventful career indeed: heading out to assassinate a Westernizing leader, he was instead convinced by him to join his side; failing to convince the Satsuma and Choshu domains to make an alliance he changed gears to make one indirectly through a trade agreement; for this shipping he founded the Kaientai, a modern fleet called the "first corporation in modern Japan" and also the beginning of the Imperial Japanese Navy; and finally was assassinated by the Shogun's agents just a year prior to the Restoration proper. Nothing about their personalities or them as human beings is in this book at all, but at least I have names to look up, someday.
Profile Image for Gerald Kinro.
Author 2 books4 followers
June 27, 2013
This scholarly work explores the influences, foreign and domestic, that shook Japan out of its feudal government in the mid-19th century and thrust it into the modern world. This one required careful reading as the force lines Beasley describes are many and complex. So many characters were involved in the movement. In simple words things were a mess with lords of different provinces having different motivations all wanting a piece of the sun. Is Afghanistan like that? Beasley, to his credit, tries to simplify it through his writing. Of great assistance to the reader are the two appendices. The first is a glossary of Japanese words. The second is a list of the important players and a brief description of their involvement. I found myself referring to these, especially the second, continuously. I found myself rewarded for reading it and sticking it out.
Profile Image for William.
18 reviews2 followers
August 22, 2018
A very thourogh and detailed discussion of the restoration. I've read a lot of history. This one is on the dry side.
Profile Image for Ricardo.
55 reviews5 followers
July 14, 2020
A must read for those who are passionate about Japan. The Meiji Restoration is the beginning of modern Japan. The author describes and analyzes every stage of this period.
24 reviews
January 12, 2023
I honestly didn't think I would get through this one. I started it almost a year ago and was so incredibly bored that I put it down and started something else. But I came back to it to give it another chance and made it to the end after being enticed by more exciting geopolitical chapters, rather than the earlier chapters that are heavily focused on economics, a subject that does not interest me. Overall the book was not what I expected, and I think that's partially my own fault. I am no expert on Japanese history by any stretch of the imagination. Still, when I see the phrase "Meiji Restoration" my mind usually goes from the ascension of Emperor Meiji, through the Satsuma Rebellion, and into the 20th century with all of the modernization and geopolitics that go with it, culminating in the beginnings of the Japanese Empire. This book very much only deals with the removal of the Japanese Shogunate and the return of imperial rule in Japan - a story that ends in approximately 1873, making it far, far more narrow in scope than I had expected. The "Restoration" itself is, as this book illustrates, the mere act of reforming Japanese society away from the Shogun and towards renewed Imperial rule. Though, that leaves me wondering what the rest of those events I described are referred to as.

The book itself is also just boring most of the time, partially due to a heavy focus on economics that I don't personally enjoy reading about, but also because the whole thing reads like a long-form research paper, that generally sticks to a timeline of events but has a tendency to jump all over the place, leaving me confused. There are also SO MANY NAMES of people and places and I have retained almost none of them, leaving me even further confused. This is also my fault, but still, it detracted from my enjoyment of the book.
74 reviews
May 17, 2021
Beasley provides a detailed and nuanced account of political, economic, and social conditions leading to the start of the Meiji era. The scrutiny afforded to the varied political actors' motives and relations and their guiding ideologies proved captivating. The last quarter of the book, which detailed implementation of various institutions, such as land reform, seemed less engaging than the earlier political intrigue, however.
Displaying 1 - 8 of 8 reviews

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