This is an earlier version of this page that is no longer being updated.

Go to World History II-14 for the current page

Describe the major developments in Japanese history in the 19th and early 20th centuries.


Focus Question: What were the major developments in Japanese history in the 19th and early 20th centuries?

The Meiji Restoration of 1868

Meiji Emperor, 1873
Meiji Emperor, 1873

Emperor Meiji initiated many new reforms:
    1. Political revolution in late 19th century led to industrialization
    2. Signified end of Tokugawa Era
    3. Emperor Meiji returned to Tokyo and regained power
    4. Actual political power was transferred from Tokugawa Bakufu to a small amount of nobles and former samurai
    5. Meiji pushed to reform economy and military to “keep up” with western countries
    6. Reforms effect religion: human rights was now considered a religious freedom
    7. Government created an educational system modeled after the French and German models


lessonplan.jpgClick here for lesson plans and resources on the Meiji Restoration from Asia for Educators
Multimedia.pngClick here for a Crash Course video on nationalism and the Meiji Restoration (Japan section starts at 4:54)

lessonplan.jpgClick here for a summary of the Meiji Revolution and understanding their politics.

lesson_plan_icon.jpgClick here to for a lesson plan the Meiji Revolution and Modernization from Columbia University.

The Abolition of Feudalism

    1. Started by Meiji attempt to decentralize feudalism system
    2. Ended complicated class structure
    3. Starting in 1869, Lords began to turn their land over to the Emperor and others began to do the same
    4. Standardized the various “domains” administration, creating “governors”
    5. 250 former “domains” were redone into 72 prefectures and three cities
    6. After redistricting the domains, “governors” were eased out of political power

The Borrowing and Adaptation of Western Technology and Industrial Growth

U.S. and Japanese currency, 1873
U.S. and Japanese currency, 1873

The Meiji Restoration brought about an adaption of various Western institutions and ideologies
A. Legal system
B. Educational structure
C. Constitutional Government along parliamentary lines

The following developments summarize Japan's societal shifts during the Meiji Era:
1. Japan became an industrial country because it was seen as a sign of strength
2. The already-existing treaties with western countries limited Japan’s economic success until after the turn of the century
3. Schools’ philosophies and methodology were based on western ideals
4. Then schools put an emphasis on ethics and created a nationalist education, a European ideal
5. Army was modeled after Prussia’s and the Navy was modeled after Britain’s
6. Currency was reformed and a national bank was created in 1880s
7. 1889: European-style constitution was created
8. 1872: first railway was created from Tokyo to Yokohama

However, in 1898:
"The last of the 'unequal treaties' with Western powers was removed, signaling Japan's new status among the nations of the world. In a few decades, by creating modern social, educational, economic, military, and industrial systems, the Emperor Meiji's "controlled revolution" had transformed a feudal and isolated state into a world power."
For more in depth analysis visit:

Japan’s Growing Role in International Affairs

Sino-Japanese War Image, 1902
Sino-Japanese War Image, 1902

1. Sino-Japanese War (1894): Japan defeated China, making Japan the first non-western imperial power. Japan was rewarded with right to Taiwan/Pescadores Islands.

  • As Western aggression increased in Japan, Japanese leadership increasingly began to emphasize the need to defend Japan’s “Line of Interest”
    • the line around the country and surrounding areas that was viewed as critically important in terms of preserving the nation’s independence.
  • By the 1890s, Japanese leaders began to view control of Korea as being within Japan’s Line of Interest and hence vitally important to Japan’s self interests.
  • In 1894, Japan went to war with China over a dispute about political influence in Korea.
  • Much of the world thought that Japan was suicidal for taking on China, but in 1895 they proved the world wrong and emerged victorious.
  • This victory marked the beginning of Japan’s colonial empire as they acquired Taiwan as a colonial possession as part the indemnity settlement.

primary_sources.PNGClick here to read the Treaty of Shimonoseki.

Multimedia.pngClick here to watch a short video about the Sino-Japanese War from 3 Minute History
Multimedia.pngClick here to watch war footage of the Sino-Japanese War

2. Russo-Japanese War (1904): Japan was trying to fight westernization by expanding its borders of control, and showed that a non-western country could defeat a western power. Japan annexed Korea in 1910.
Multimedia.pngClick here for a video of Theodore Roosevelt announcing that the United States will be a mediator between Russia and Japan during the Russo-Japanese War.
Multimedia.pngClick here to watch a short video about the Russo-Japanese War from 3 Minute History

3. Joined allied forces in WW1 in 1914

Multimedia.png Woodblock prints were widely circulated throughout the war. These were used as a sort of "news form." However, most of the woodblock artists drew what they believed had happened during the battles since they did not actually witness the skirmishes.

Although this conflict was the main battle, the Sino-Japanese War wouldn't be the last skirmish between China and Japan.
  • The Boxer Rebellion (1889-1901).

primary_sources.PNGThe Boxer Rebellion, Fei Ch'i-Hao, 1900

For an United States history perspective, see U. S. Marines in the Boxer Rebellion from the National Archives
  • First Battle of Shenghai (January 28-March 4, 1932)
  • Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945)

Multimedia.pngClick here to watch a documentary on the Second Sino Japanese War.

Multimedia.pngClick here to watch a youtube video of the Second Sino Japanese War.

Russo-Japanese War:
  • Both Russia and Japan wanted control of Korea and Manchuria.
  • Russia convinced China to lease a port to them that was located in South Manchuria.
  • Russia also had use of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, which gave them even more control in Manchuria.
  • The Russo-Japanese War began after Russia broke its promise to remove troops from Manchuria.
  • On February 8, 1904 Japan attacked Russian troops in their Manchurian port.
  • The Battle of Tsushima allowed the Japanese to take the upper hand in the conflict.
  • When it was time for peace negotiations, President Teddy Roosevelt acted as mediator.
  • The negotiations took place in Portsmouth, NH from August 9 to September 5, 1905.
  • In the Treaty of Portsmouth, Russia agreed to leave Manchuria and give the land back to China and recognize Japan's control of Korea.
For a full summary, click here.
Multimedia.png Visualizing the Russo-Japanese War from MIT video

primary_sources.PNGSee The Treaty of Portsmouth and the Russo-Japanese War, 1904-1905 from the Office of the Historian, U. S. Department of State

World War I:

U.S. Department of State background note on post WW1 Japan:

"The postwar era brought Japan unprecedented prosperity. Japan went to the peace conference at Versailles in 1919 as one of the great military and industrial powers of the world and received official recognition as one of the "Big Five" of the new international order. It joined the League of Nations and received a mandate over Pacific islands north of the Equator formerly held by Germany.

During the 1920s, Japan progressed toward a democratic system of government. However, parliamentary government was not rooted deeply enough to withstand the economic and political pressures of the 1930s, during which military leaders became increasingly influential

Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931 and set up the puppet state of Manchukuo. In 1933, Japan resigned from the League of Nations. The Japanese invasion of China in 1937 followed Japan's signing of the Anti-Comintern Pact with Nazi Germany the previous year and was part of a chain of developments culminating in the Japanese attack on the United States at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941.

During the Imperial period of 1910-1945, migrations of Koreans and residents of other Japanese-held territories to Japan created ethnic minority groups within Japan that struggled for recognition and equality.

Female_Rose.png Women's Suffrage and Political Rights in Japan in early 20th century
-1872: Established new foundation for education and made education required for boys and girls
-Women united in groups to achieve the right to vote (which came in 1945). Ichikawa Fusae was a feminist leader in the New Women's Association and wrote the following in a 1920 article regarding women's rights: “Aren't we [women] treated completely as feeble-minded children? Why is it all right to know about science and literature and not all right to be familiar with politics and current events? Why is it acceptable to read and write but not to speak and listen? A man, no matter what his occupation or educational background, has political rights, but a woman, no matter how qualified, does not have the same rights...If we do not understand the politics of the country we live in, we will not be able to understand conditions in our present society."
-Lesson plan resource: The Role of Women in Japan - studied through the use of Japanese literature and compared to US women's roles
-Another lesson plan idea would be to have students reflect on the Ichikawa quote above and draw comparisons to the US Feminist movement during the time, paying attention to similarities and differences in women's oppression as well as activist movements. Teachers can find more info about Ichikawa & the Japanese Suffrage movement in the article Women's Rights, Feminism, and Suffragism in Japan, 1870-1925 by Barbara Molony.

external image Red_apple.jpgTeaching tools: Powerpoint slideshow of Japan's Meiji Restoration period, westernization, and progression into imperial power in the 20th century.

external image 200px-Hebrew_timeline.svg.pngClick here for a brief timeline of Japan's rise to modernization.

Gay_flag.svg.pngprimary_sources.PNGClick here to read the google book What is Masculinity? Historical Dynamics from Antiquity to the Contemporary World.

Works Cited:
  1. Meiji Restoration:
  2. The Decline of Feudalism:
  3. Japanese History:
  4. Japan and the West: The Meiji Restoration (1868-1912):
  5. U.S. Department of State, background notes on Japan:
  6. About Japan, a Teacher's Resource: