Japan's Westernization


Japan underwent rapid economic advancement towards the turn of the millenium. This was necessitated by the changes that had taken place after the arrival of the Americans led by Commodore Perry and subsequent Meiji Restoration in the mid-19th Century. The Japanese have, for long, been known as a people with distinct codes of ethics and cultural activities based on the teachings of Confucianism. They are also popular for their pride. The period after the Meiji restoration was critical as it, for the first time, sought to resort the conflict between the Eastern and Western values. It was a period of reconciling Japan’s cultural identity and national pride with modernization and other Western influences. This essay investigates Japan’s commitment to social reforms and Westernization during this period. It also identifies the steps Japanese took to embrace Westernization. Analysis indicates that Japan’s commitment to reforms and Westernization was undoubtedly strong bar the few people who objected reckoning they ought not to give in to Western influence. Nonetheless, this commitment to reforms was not out of volition, it was forced by situations during the period.

Meiji Restoration

The Meiji Restoration refers to the popular social and political reforms that came with the Japanese patriots in 1868. The events marked the end of the Tokugawa shogunate that had ruled Japan for an upwards of two decades. The Tokugawa shogun had taken power when the Western powers had exerted considerable power over Japan. These included Great Britain, Netherlands, France, Portugal and Spain. The merchants from these countries had dominated all the trade routes in Eastern Asia. The Tokugawa shogunate rode on the popular opinion that Western influence should be rejected to rise to power. When it ascended to power it expelled all foreigners from Japan. The Christians had to recant or get killed. Missionaries were barred from setting a foot in Japan. In fact, it is only the Dutch who were allowed to trade in Japan solely because they showed no interest in colonizing, or otherwise influencing, Japan.

However, as time passed by and as Western influenced deteriorated, the Tokugawa shogunate became complacent. It did not sufficiently man its borders. It did not pursue or promote education as advice by Japan’s founding fathers such as Sunzi. There was, thus, little innovation in defense strategies. The army shrunk considerably as the administration did not expect any wars. It is during this period that the Americans docked at Edo Bay and demanded the right to trade and fair treatment from the Japanese. The Japanese were not aware of the attacks and were forced to comply because their defense system was inferior to that of the Americans. Later on, the people would become dismayed with this act of surrender. These patriots overthrew the Tokugawa shogunate and brought about the reforms led by the titular leader Emperor Mutsuhito.

Reforms and Modernization

The majority of the Japanese population was committed to the social reforms and modernization brought about by the popular revolution. In fact, some of the Japanese, the likes of Sakuma Shozan had committed to Westernization even before the advent of Mutsuhito’s rule. In his letter titled “Reflections on my Errors”, Sakuma Shozan presents his ideology and philosophy of embracing Westernization. His advice to his fellow countrymen was that while Western influence may adversely influence their culture, it was wise to embrace them nevertheless. The basic reason was that embracing Westernization will provide a window into understanding how the Western powers think and operate and this would be invaluable in designing ways to defeat them later on. The idea was to embrace Western science while at the same time retaining the Eastern ethics. Shozan philosophized that the West and the East can co-exist in the same society. The Japanese, however, had to learn to discern the point over which they would not allow Westernization.

Shozan’s letter was meant to persuade the Japanese people to embrace Westernization, though with moderation, and not merely expel all things Western. In fact, it is his commitment to Westernization that led to his troubles and eventual demise. Shozan was thrilled with the Western way of life, he wanted to learn as much about it as possible. In 1854, he persuaded his student to sneak into an American boat and sail away with them, reckoning later on he will relay knowledge about them to him. Unfortunately his student was apprehended and executed. Shozan was jailed for permitting the treacherous act. Even after his release, he still encouraged his fellow Japanese to embrace Westernization and this led to his assassination from radical anti-foreign patriots. Shozan represents a section of Japanese people who saw the flaws of their lifestyle brought about by the Tokugawa shogunate. In the letter, for instance, Shozan questions the wisdom in neglecting education.  He identified mathematical education that the Japanese were neglecting as the basis for all Western educational system. It is what gave them the military might and advantage over them when they first docked at Edo Bay. In fact, he advised that the people of Japan ought to learn foreign languages so that they can better understand the psyche of their colonists.

Luckily, the Meiji Restoration managed to get rid of the Westerners’ tyranny and brought a period of prosperity. Central among its approaches towards achieving economic growth and development was embracing Westernization. The government had been bewildered and impressed in the same measure by the American’s military might. They had large army sizes and big guns. After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the Japanese started copying the ship models from the West. They copied even the guns and went ahead to innovate even better models. Their military strength was demonstrated when they fought and defeated China and Russia in 1895 and 1905 respectively. Under the Tokugawa shogunate they had weakened militarily so much that they could not offer much resistance to China which at the time retained the monopoly of producing gun powder. Their artillery was wrongly designed, manufactured and placed. The army was also weak and centralized in one area of the country only leaving the other areas exposed to attacks from an enemy. Their studying of the Western artillery and military strategies as advised by Shozan ultimately led to the growth of the military might.

Acceptance of the Western influence was not spearheaded by individuals only; the government was also committed towards adopting Western technologies and other influences. This commitment was inspired by curiosity and fear. After the Meiji Restoration, the government led by Emperor Mutsuhito made it an almost divine patriotic duty to imitate the West. The Japanese were expected to absorb Western ideologies in all spheres of life from science and technology, military, leadership practices, architecture, fashion and even etiquette. The government spearheaded their adoption with zeal in the hope that it will bring them to be at par with their Western enemies. As such, democracy was adopted even though at the time the elective posts were still dominated by a chosen few. The government did away with the imperial families, the likes of Tokugawa and Ashikaga shogunates, which had ruled over Japan for centuries on end. As a result, social unrests caused by warlords and criminals reduced drastically affording the Japanese a chance to develop themselves economically, politically and socially.

The government also offered subsidies and protection to enterprises and entrepreneurs who adopted Western technologies. The subsidies were meant to spur innovation so that whatever the Japanese produced would be better than what they adopted from the Western powers. In his ‘Letter to Mitsubishi Employees’ Iwasaki Yataro asserts that it is the government that offers protection in their bid to compete with foreign merchants. Yataro suggests that had the government wanted it would have banned all the Western ships from docking and trading in Japan. However, the government permitted regulated trade so that the Japanese firms can still have exposure which enables imitation. Yataro in his letter commends the government for the support and a change of policy from that of seclusion to trading with foreigners. He demands hard work from his employees so that they can repay the government’s efforts to promote innovation and maritime industry’s growth. He also wants to repay the public’s confidence in Mitsubishi. The government ensured that Mitsubishi experiences growth and learns from Western traders such as the Pacific Mail Company of the United States by providing a well-regulated business environment.

In its commitment to reforms and Westernization, the government even resorted to radical measures at times. For instance, the administration used censorship devices to silence most of its critics. It is evident that not all the people embraced Westernization. Some were apprehensive of its influence. The popular notion was that it eroded the Japanese culture. It led to a loss of core values and led to vices such as corporate greed and the likes. The subtle critics of the government’s move to westernize used the print media to dissuade other people from the overzealousness with which they had taken to Western ways. One such critic was Honda Kinkichiro who was a cartoonist. His cartoons used to portray the Westerners and Japanese collaborators in bad light and this led to his ban and potential incarceration. Another popular cartoonist faced with the same plight was Kobayashi Kyochika. Thus, the government actively participated towards Westernization through limiting the spread of contrary ideologies.

There were also other people who used violence to stall the reforms and Westernization that were being adopted after the Meiji Restoration. Such individuals perpetrated violence against the foreigners and their Japanese followers. The spate of violence against Westerners began in 1880 in Edo and spread to Osaka and other major cities. The perpetrators were fed up with Western influence. However, this was necessitated by economic or political reasons since in both spheres Japan had made gigantic steps in the right direction. The majority of the population had shifted into the middle class and had a political voice. The patriots perpetrated violence to remind the government that in their bid to Westernize they had diluted the ideals of the Japanese people. Eventually, the government instituted measures to ensure that it strikes a balance between Westernization and preservation of essentials of Japanese culture. The Japanese, therefore, learned the Western science but still retain their cultural values. This is the case to date and is one of the factors that have propelled Japan to prosperity.


In conclusion, it is evident that the Meiji Restoration brought about reforms and a preference for Western ideologies, technologies and sciences. Prior to the revolution, the incumbent Tokugawa shogunate had barred Westerners, and their influence, from Japan through self-imposed seclusion. The new government that deposed the Tokugawa shogunate embraced Westernization. The government made it the duty of every citizen to embrace Westernization. It also provided subsidies and protections to entrepreneurs who used Western technologies to innovate. On those who resisted Westernization, the government used force in some instances in form of censorship and incarceration. Except for a few rogue patriots, the Japanese were fully committed towards reforms and Westernization even though inspired by fear and curiosity rather than awe. Westernization catapulted Japan to economic prosperity it enjoys to date.

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