HAW History Special: From Meiji to the Fall of Singapore


Written by: Sit Jie Ren (19-I4), Dillon Phang (19-I4)

Designed by: Jo Yeoul (19-A2)

The Meiji Restoration was a historically significant event in Japan’s history. It effectively transformed Japan from a shogunate in the 1800s, to an empire by the 1940s. As part of Humanities and Aesthetics Week, we will be exploring this event and how it has affected the world as we know it today.

As a result of the Genpei War of 1180, the Emperor of Japan was effectively reduced to a symbolic head, and administrative power rested with the Shogun, which was a military dictatorship held by the Minamoto bloodline. Following the Sengoku Jidai period, the title was eventually held by the Tokugawa clan, which descended from the Minamoto bloodline. Japan then entered a golden period of peace and isolation under the Tokugawa Shogunate, with foreign ships limited to Nagasaki Port, until the appearance of Admiral Matthew Perry in 1853 (Asia for Educators, 2009).

Admiral Matthew Perry was an American Admiral sanctioned to lead an expedition to Japan, in a bid to secure American trading interests in Asia. Japan’s elite remained divided on this issue, with the Shogunate signing the Treaty of Kanagawa with the Americans, which opened Japanese ports to America, while Emperor Komei ordered the expulsion of foreigners in Japan (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2019). This culminated in the Boshin War.

Boshin War

Following the death of Shogun Tokugawa Iemochi in 1866, he was succeeded by his 28 year old son Tokugawa Yoshinobu. Emperor Komei’s death followed soon after, being succeeded by the 14 year old Emperor Meiji. Under external pressure, Tokugawa Yoshinobu soon resigned his dictatorial authority to the Emperor, and declared that he would act on Imperial orders in future. However, clans opposed to the Shogunate were insufficiently satisfied with this arrangement, as the Shogunate would be preserved as a prominent figure in Japan’s elite. As a result, two of these clans, Satsuma and Choshu, formed the Sat-Cho alliance, which was loyal to the Emperor, and occupied the Imperial palace in Kyoto in 1868 (Pletcher, K., n.d.). Emperor Meiji then declared a full restoration of Imperial authority. Tokugawa Yoshinobu refused to accede to the declaration.

The events finally culminated in a clash between both forces near Toba and Fushimi, where the Sat-Cho alliance was granted an Imperial banner, with an Imperial relative being named commander in chief. This effectively elevated them to the status of an Imperial Army, which greatly weakened the morale of Shogunate forces. A decisive Imperial victory followed, with Shogunate forces retreating to Osaka Castle.

Tokugawa Yoshinobu, shaken by the appearance of the Imperial banner, fled Osaka Castle to Edo aboard Shogunate warship Kaiyō Maru. Shogunate forces surrendered Osaka Castle to the Imperial forces following the news of the Shogun’s retreat, which had been a symbolic power base of the Shogunate. Any hopes of western support for the Shogunate effectively vanished when an Imperial declaration declared that they would continue to recognise and abide by the international treaties signed by the Shogunate (Kawai, 2019). 

The Shogun effectively surrendered when Imperial forces surrounded Edo, and any remaining pro-Shogunate forces were quashed in Ueno and Aizu the very same year. Edo was then remained Tokyo and made the new Imperial capital.

Rise of Japanese Empire & Relevance to WWII

As a result of Meiji Restoration, the power of the country now lay in the hands of the Emperor. The Imperial faction did not pursue its aim of expelling foreigners, but instead shifted the country’s focus towards modernisation and imperialism, aspiring to attain parity with western powers. By 1872, the country had built its first railroad, and by the 1880s all major cities were linked by telegraph lines. The country changed many of its practices and adopted western practices. This can be observed in their introduction of an European-style banking system in 1892, and adopting a criminal and civil code similar to that of France and Germany. The intention of these actions was to be gain respect from European powers and be considered as a counterpart, which would enable them to revise the unequal treaties previously signed (Encyclopædia Britannica, n.d.).

Their desire to be recognised as a world power attests to the increase in aggression internationally through its increasingly expansionist policies. This is observed in the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895, where Japan defeated China and was granted rights enjoyed by European powers in China, as well as gaining the territories of Korea and Formosa (Taiwan) (Encyclopædia Britannica, n.d.). Japan similarly defeated Russia in the 1904 Russo-Japanese War, an European power, further raising their prestige on the world stage. Their expansionist mantra culminated in 1931, when they invaded Manchuria, before invading the rest of China in 1937 in an attempt to subjugate China and bring it under the aegis of the expanding Japanese Empire (Encyclopædia Britannica, n.d.). Japan also invaded Southeast Asia, including Singapore, to acquire resources to support and further its war efforts in China. In order to prevent American involvement and intervention in its Southeast Asian campaign, Japan bombed Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941, which ironically provoked an American declaration of war. Japan was eventually defeated by Allied forces in 1945, and the Japanese Empire ceased to exist (Encyclopædia Britannica, n.d.). 

Hence, we can observe there are real and tangible connections which can be drawn between the restoration of the Meiji Emperor in 1868, and World War II, which by extension shaped our modern world. Thus, the impacts of the Meiji restoration are profound, and still relevant to our modern context.

*Shogunate – Effectively a military dictator of Japan


For more in-depth reading about this issue, feel free to access the following links.

Encyclopædia Britannica (2019). Treaty of Kanagawa. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/event/Treaty-of-Kanagawa

Asia for Educators (2009). Commodore Perry and Japan (1853 – 1854). Retrieved from http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/special/japan_1750_perry.htm

Pletcher, K. (n.d.). Meiji Restoration. Encyclopædia Britannica, Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/event/Meiji-Restoration

Encyclopædia Britannica (n.d.). Japan: The emergence of imperial Japan. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/place/Japan/The-emergence-of-imperial-Japan

Encyclopædia Britannica (n.d.). Japan: The rise of the militarists. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/place/Japan/The-rise-of-the-militarists

Encyclopædia Britannica (n.d.). Japan: World War II and Defeat. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/place/Japan/World-War-II-and-defeat

Kawai, A. (2018). The Meiji Restoration: The End of the Shogunate and the Building of a Modern Japanese State. Nippon.com, Retrieved from https://www.nippon.com/en/views/b06902/the-meiji-restoration-the-end-of-the-shogunate-and-the-building-of-a-modern-japanese-state.html


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