In the nineteenth century, Japan experiences a dramatic shift from the conservative, isolationist policies of the shogun-dominated Edo period to the rapid and widespread drive to modernize and engage with the rest of the world that characterizes the Meiji Restoration. During the first half of the century, decades of fiscal and social disruption caused by the growth of a market economy and a complex monetary system in a country that is still officially based on agriculture, which supports both the farming and privileged but unproductive samurai classes, continues to weaken the country in general and the Tokugawa regime in particular. Increasingly aggressive intrusions by Western powers not only puts pressure on Japan but convinces its political leaders that the Seclusion Policy has both limited the country’s participation in technological advances and worldwide changes and has also handicapped the economy by restricting its involvement in global trade. Taking advantage of the disruption caused by these internal and external crises, in 1867 several powerful daimyo (regional warlords) band together and overthrow Shogun Yoshinobu (1837–1913), forcing him to resign authority. Marching into the imperial capital Kyoto, they “restore” Emperor Mutsuhito (1852–1912) to power and establish the Meiji (“enlightened rule”) Restoration.
In the name of Emperor Meiji, numerous striking and far-reaching social, political, and economic changes are legislated through a series of edicts. Japan also opens its borders, sending several high-ranking expeditions abroad and inviting foreign advisors—including educators, engineers, architects, painters, and scientists—to assist the Japanese in rapidly absorbing modern technology and Western knowledge. Throughout the century, however, the drive to Westernize is paralleled by continued isolationist tendencies and a desire to resist foreign influences. Eventually, as has happened numerous times in the nation’s history, after the Japanese assimilate what has been borrowed, they use these imports to formulate a new but distinctly Japanese modern society.
After two centuries of harsh rejection of international contact (Seclusion Policy), limiting all exchange to trade with only Chinese and Dutch merchants and representatives confined to the port city of Nagasaki, the shogunate establishes an office to translate foreign books. This act recognizes Japanese intellectuals’ growing interest in Western learning (initially termed “Dutch Studies,” or rangaku) and focuses on topics such as medicine, science, economics, foreign policy, the military, and painting.
Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) produces his extremely popular series of forty-six polychrome woodblock prints entitled Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. These images combine a traditional emphasis on landscape imagery, especially focusing on Japan’s most sacred and famous peak, with attention to common people depicted in a lighthearted manner, reflecting the interests of fashionable ukiyo-e pictures.
One of the most famous artists of the Edo period, Ando Hiroshige (1797–1858), completes his well-known Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido. In these representations of famous sites along the road from Kyoto to Edo, Hiroshige employs Western techniques of recession and perspective.
Carrying an invitation from U.S. President Millard Fillmore to establish trade and diplomatic ties with the United States, Commodore Matthew Perry and a fleet of four “Black Ships” arrive in Edo Bay. After they leave their message, the ships depart, promising to return for an answer in one year’s time. This ultimatum, as the Japanese perceive it, intensifies the government’s internal debate regarding the continuation of the Seclusion Policy.
The shogunate signs the Harris Treaty, negotiated by the first U.S. consul to Japan, Townsend Harris. This agreement opens eight Japanese ports to American merchants, provides foreigners with extraterritoriality rights, and gives the United States “most favored nation” trade status. Because the treaty gives the U.S. privileges significantly unequal to the ones granted to Japan, and because it sets a precedent for other agreements signed with Western powers, the Harris Treaty is bitterly resented in Japan and inspires numerous riots and protests.
The Charter Oath (Gokajo no Goseimon) and Constitution (Seitaisho) are signed by Emperor Meiji. These documents seek to establish the primary principles of a new government. Although the Constitution is abandoned as unworkable in the following year, it, along with other related edicts, institutes such important innovations as replacing the old shogunate and bakuhan institution with a prefectural system under a central power, the elimination of the samurai class, the establishment of compulsory primary education and universal military service for men, and the formation of judicial, executive, and legislative branches of government.
The capital is officially moved from Kyoto to Edo, which is renamed Tokyo, or Eastern Capital.
The Iwakura Mission, led by aristocrat Iwakura Tomomi (1825–1883), departs to the West to renegotiate existing trade treaties. Although not diplomatically successful, the group gains much information about Europe and the United States. One of their insights is a recognition of the importance of museums for the dissemination of national cultural ideas. As a result, the first Japanese public museum is opened in the same year at the Yushima Seido Confucian shrine.
Morita Kanya (1846–1897) builds a new kabuki theater, inaugurating a modern and more socially respectable phase of this dramatic art form.
Japan switches from the lunar calendar system used in mainland Asia to the Western calendar. The new year is now celebrated on January 1.
The government ban on Christianity, enacted in the first half of the seventeenth century by Tokugawa Ieyasu, is repealed by the Meiji government. The repeal of this ban is important for Japanese relations with Western nations, especially in light of the persecution of a Christian community in Nagasaki in 1865, which had generated unfavorable international publicity for the Japanese government.
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839–1892) makes a triptych of woodblock prints illustrating the assassination of Ii Naosuke (1815–1860). Sensitive to changing trends in art, Yoshitoshi’s pictures exemplify the period’s expansion of ukiyo-e imagery to include pictures that are more bizarre, such as ghosts and demons, and sensational, namely illustrations of battles and other dramatic current events that are often used to illustrate newspapers.
The Meiji government establishes the Technical Fine Arts School (Kobu Bijutsu Gakko), which is part of the University of Technology and later becomes the Tokyo Institute of Technology. Numerous foreign architects, painters, and sculptors, notably the architects Vincenzo Ragusa (1841–1928) and Giovanni Cappelletti (died ca. 1885) and the painter Antonio Fontanesi (1818–1882), are employed to instruct Japanese students in Western art techniques and media. These individuals influence the development of Japanese art and architecture through the next several decades.
Educator and collector Ernest Fenollosa (1853–1908) arrives in Japan and, together with Okakura Kakuzo (Okakura Tenshin, 1862–1913), revives domestic interest in Japanese art after a period of great fascination with Western art.
The British architect Josiah Conder (1852–1920) builds the Tokyo Imperial Museum, which exemplifies the Western style of architecture that he teaches to his students as a professor at Kobu Daigakko (later Tokyo University). Conder is also influential in his capacity as a consultant to the Ministry of Engineering and designer of more than fifty major commissions in Tokyo. His imposing brick and stone structures introduce a dramatically different kind of building to the Japanese urban landscape and exemplify the country’s efforts to Westernize.
Futabatei Shimei (Hasegawa Tatsunosuke, 1864—1909), in his early twenties, publishes Floating Cloud (Ukigumo), considered Japan’s first modern novel with realistic, psychologically complex characters and a colloquial language style. Futabatei is one of a number of highly talented and enthusiastic young men who dedicate themselves to the study of Western subjects—in his case, Russian literature—and the modernization of Japan in the Meiji period.
The Constitution of the Empire of Japan (Dai Nihon Teikoku Kempo) is presented to the Japanese people by Emperor Meiji. The document, which seeks to satisfy conflicting political agendas, begins with a declaration of the power of the unbroken and divine Japanese imperial line and, by extension, a recognition of the unique character of Japan (the concept termedkokutai). However, the emperor’s authority is curtailed by the Constitution itself and the power of his ministers. Further balancing imperial might is the establishment of an independent judiciary and the ability of the Diet to initiate legislation. This Constitution, which remains in effect until 1947, guarantees the Japanese population certain freedoms, such as that of speech, publication, religion, property rights, and protection from illegal arrest.
The Tokyo School of Fine Arts (Tokyo Bijutsu Gakko) opens. The school’s emphasis on Japanese traditional arts rather than on Western art epitomizes the country’s renewed interest in native culture and is part of an effort to seek a modern Japanese form of artistic expression. In the same year, Japan’s premier scholarly art historical journal Kokka (National Flower), which is still produced and highly regarded today, begins publication.
The Sino-Japanese War begins when Japan and China intervene in a Korean rebellion. Japan quickly defeats China and gains territory, establishing its position as an imperialist power. However, European nations force Japan to return some of its new claims, although it maintains control of Taiwan.
“Japan, 1800–1900 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=10®ion=eaj (October 2004)