3171 Meiji Opp Bib

Seldom is governmental change met without blowback, and in particular, swift and radical change, that which extends its tendrils into all spheres and stratums of a nation—as transpired with the ushering in of the Meiji era—has a historical proclivity to incite inspired backlash in both peaceful and violent manifestations from those individuals who feel most slighted, or most adversely affected by it. Moreover, by analyzing this blowback as it occurred in Meiji Japan, it is possible to trace the gradual emergence of a Japanese “people” who are bound by a shared, though still nascent, sense of national identity, from a population that had previously been largely segmented by Confucian ethical hierarchy (shi-no-ko-sho), in which individuals identified with their rank rather than with an overarching concept of Japaneseness. In early protestations of the Meiji government, one encounters instances where specific groups and the state are at odds. As more opposition movements arise, however, involving an increasingly large portion of the population, as occurs during the Hibiya riots following war with Russia, a sense of the nation, and of national identity is born, finally actualized—having latently fermented throughout the Meiji era—on account of a mélange of racism from the West and the general nationalist fervor common of wartime.

Chronologically, opposition first arises from peasant and farmer classes in villages whose local autonomy (jichi) and sense of self-purpose is directly compromised by the Emperor’s confiscation of shogunate land following the Boshin War in 1868 and subsequent gradual abolition of the han system, as well as other bureaucratic actions of the nascent central government. In William Steele’s Alternative Narratives in Modern Japanese, the chapter Political Localism in Meiji Japan outlines these initial instances of popular push-back, highlighting governmental seizure of land for taxing as well as the state’s inability to lend a hand in the case of natural disasters as its primary causes. Abolishing the daimyo and their domains for state-managed prefectures saw entire communities of farmers on the peripheries of a revolutionary movement—one which appeared muted and nebulous to them—suddenly slapped by new taxes from the center. In one such case, Steele notes, referred to as “The Incident Before the Gate,” farmers from twelve villages in Shingawa Prefecture marched in protest before the prefectural office in 1870 after their petition against new taxes to be used for a central granary relief system had been rejected. They not only opposed the additional tax burden, but also believed the mandate to be an intrusion on their inherited practice of self-reliance, for they managed emergency storehouses of their own. In response, the government used brute force, killing many. Steele argues that, unrepresented in Meiji politics, farmers protested for self-autonomy at the local level—something they had enjoyed during the Tokugawa period—because the new regime offered little to them besides taxes and other intrusions. The “Incident Before the Gate” involved many who were later to first champion the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement, which would agitate for the establishment of a National Assembly so that those on the peripheries of society could connect to the center, something which could help foster a sense of national identity. Political Localism in Meiji Japan presents strictly agrarian class opposition movements, however, samurai too felt ostracized by the young government.

Rapid modernization and Westernization under the Meiji meant reforms which legally abolished the formerly privileged samurai class by 1876, and in 1877 the frustrations of certain disaffected samurai from Satsuma Domain, ironically one of they key players in the Boshin War, manifest themselves in the Satsuma Rebellion. In Augustus Mounsey’s book The Satsuma Rebellion, Mounsey argues that the celerity with which the Meiji government undertook drastic social and political transformation, even with Japan still just emerging into the modern world, led to growing dissatisfaction amongst former samurai who still remembered and held ties to the old feudal system, and who felt jarred, having fallen from nobility to outlaw in the span of a decade. Saigo Takamori, the leader of the rebellion, having initially abandoned his post in the Meiji government after abhorring the verdict reached during the Seikanron in 1873, died for his rebel cause, though the government posthumously honored him, erecting a statue in Ueno park depicting a yearning Saigo facing the imperial palace. In this way, the Meiji offered a perfect example of their ability to manipulate the past through symbolism, as they remembered not Saigo the rebel, but Saigo the loyalist, thus illustrating their desire to mold the spirit of the samurai into Meiji ideology where they were sword-less citizens like everybody else. Mounsey’s firsthand account of the rebellion, like Steele’s study, focuses on the fact that this opposition movement involved a single disgruntled social class, further bolstering the claim that the population of Japan up to 1877 still lacked a unifying sense of Japaneseness, a sense of national identity. At this stage there was no crossover in the interests of samurai and farmers, nor did either group feel a meaningful connection with the Meiji state. As Mounsey notes often, the Satsuma Rebellion did not in any way represent the nation protesting the state, but rather, presented a discontented periphery group protesting the center, of which they did not wish to be a part. The concept of the nation, it seems, still eluded Meiji Japan, although it was already theorized by Yukichi Fukuzawa years before.

Saigo Takamori was not the only one to bow out of government over the Seikanron debates, only to later lead an opposition movement against the Meiji. Itagaki Taisuke, also of the samurai class, did his part protesting the central government by leading the relatively successful Freedom and People’s Rights Movement of the 1880’s and forming Japan’s first political party, the Liberal party, in 1874. The party and movement, finding inspiration in Rousseau’s natural rights theory, together agitated for both civil and natural individual rights, pushing robustly for the creation of elected legislature in the form of a National Assembly as well as the reduction of centralized taxation. In chapter six of Marius B. Jensen’s Cambridge History of Japan, Jensen asserts that wide-reaching implications wrought by the Land Tax Reform of 1873 served as perhaps the primary factor in the foundation of the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement. Jensen continues, articulating how the movement found solid footing due to a growing popular sentiment—one that originated in the West—that there should not be taxation without representation. He also emphasizes, however, that the movement reduced tension almost solely between the middle classes and government, as even after the establishment of the Imperial Diet in 1890 as the Rikken Jiyuto, franchise remained limited due to landholding stipulations put forth by the Land Tax Reform Act. Nonetheless advancements made by the Liberal Party and Freedom and People’s Rights Movement helped disseminate, at least, the idea of “the people” to Japan, as well as narrowly expanded the franchise through its provocation for the creation of a house of representatives. The party and movement set the stage for further development of a sense of national identity among the disparate social stratums of Japan.

Furthermore, the movement created an entire atmosphere of discontent in the early 1880’s, a particularly revolutionary and rebellious phase of the Meiji era. The language of natural rights and social contracts had by then become fixtures on the tips of Japanese tongues, something Eiko Maruko Siniawer asserts immensely influenced the Chichibu Incident of 1884. He argues that while direct reasons for the large-scale peasant revolt were economic, as the Land Tax Reform Act—aggrandized by the deflationary Matsukata fiscal policy—plummeted the price of rice, there existed nonetheless an emerging democratic spirit during the decade, which, behind-the-scenes played an enormous role in the Chichibu and other uprisings of the 1880’s, some of which the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement organized and led. The rebellion itself remains notable for its scope (5000 – 10,000 peasants), its quickness to rally others, and most importantly the extent to which it was crushed. Marching to Tokyo, it met its demise at the gunpoint of the Meiji police. Once the dust cleared, Meiji government found another three thousand individuals guilty in their arrests, sentencing the revolt’s seven ringleaders to death. There had been peasant rebellions in Japan since the 1860’s, however, for the first time, argues Siniawer, was a peasant rebellion so large and well organized that the government had to make a poignant and bloody example of it. Amidst an atmosphere of democratic ideals the people of Japan were beginning to recognize their power, in numbers, as a subversive and political force, and this realization threatened the Meiji government. Not yet had a clear, non-theoretical nation coalesced by 1884, however, the Chichibu Incident and the general rebellious spirit of the 1880’s lucidly illustrate the beginnings of a motivated people of both low rank and high banding together to protest the state.

In the end it took a war to create the nation as we have defined it in Japan, a disparate people nonetheless bound by an overarching and nebulous concept of Japanese National identity. With people from all ranks and spheres of life joining the war effort against Russia in 1904, whether by fighting, producing, or simply paying burdensome wartime taxes, naturally, argues Shumpei Okamoto in The Emperor and the Crowd: the historical significance of the Hibiya Riot, a chapter in Conflict in Modern Japanese History: The Neglected Tradition, a dominating sense of nationalism would pervade the zeitgeist. Japan’s first armed conflict with the West, the Russo-Japanese War put the accomplishments of the Meiji era to the test, and Meiji passed. The Portsmouth Treaty which ended the war, however, due to intrusion by the Tripartite Intervention of Russia, Germany, and France, left the Japanese feeling slighted. They felt racist tendencies led to unfavorable terms in the treaty, and they were not all wrong. Because the war involved such a large portion of the population, Okamoto alleges, and because the Portsmouth Treaty struck a chord, in race, which all Japanese shared regardless of class, the Hibiya riots of 1905 in protest of the Meiji government for accepting the treaties’ supposedly insulting terms broke out in Hibiya Park, Tokyo—its composition resembling a cross-section of the Japanese population. Those who were not represented planned it. In the Hibiya Riots, one truly sees a nation protesting its state. For the first time did an action of the Meiji state provoke widespread protestation across the whole of society. Occurring during a time of incredible nationalist zeal, the acceptance of the Treaty of Portsmouth by the emperor’s Katsura cabinet did not solely insult the agrarian classes, nor the samurai, but Japaneseness itself, and Okamoto additionally notes that the Japanese people felt that such humiliating terms reflected poorly on their emperor. It is clear then that by 1905, members from all strata of society, even those previously occupying peripheral spots in the social order, now felt a personal connection with the center, with the state which in warfare and foreign relations, whether candidly or not, projected and protected their sense of excellence and outwardly represented the internal war-effort undertaken by the entirety of the Japanese population. It was simply because they came from Japan, the uprising masses thought, that they were slighted by the West, and certainly the Emperor’s regime, the entity which incessantly strove to project itself as the encompassing symbol of all of Japan, should not, on a point of national pride, have accepted such terms. Furthermore, one cannot discount the effect the popular rights movements of the 1880’s had on developing the unifying sense of nationalism and a national identity which solidified, it seems, during the Russo-Japanese War. That the riots broke out in the heart of Japan’s capital, moreover, illuminates the centering effect the war had on the population. Finally, due to a common enemy in the West, does the concept of the nation emerge into reality. The sense of a shared national identity that had been developing since the Restoration first took root, at last manifested in actuality, contends Okamoto, able to do so largely thanks to both the war effort’s call for mass popular involvement, as well as its intrinsic ability to tug at heartstrings of ethnic and cultural pride.

Initial opposition movements to the Meiji government arose from grievances held by specific groups who felt ostracized and exploited by the state. The 1880’s brought about a new atmosphere of democratic virtue, and by the turn of the 20th century, the Russo-Japanese War served as an all-encompassing cause to which all segments of society lent a hand and thus felt connected to in both victory and the subsequent rebellion that grew out of it. Paradoxically, it is through protesting their state, that the Japanese first became a “people.”

Annotated Bibliography

Steele, William. “Political Localism in Meiji Japan.” Alternative Narratives in Modern Japanese History. London: Routledge, 24 July 2009.

Steele’s focus in the chapter “Political Localism in Meiji Japan” is at the intersection of local interest and national transformations at a grassroots level. Using the individual case of Yoshino Taizo, whose efforts tried to promote local autonomy (jichi), although not always pronounced in the national historical discourse, Steele confirms Yoshino’s contribution to modern Japanese political development. This local autonomy, jichi, was originally a characteristic of villages in the periphery of the central Tokugawa government; and was not expressed as this term, but as “ideas and institutions of self-administration, self-reliance, and self-protection [that] characterized village governance,” (p.135). One of the first examples of groups opposing the state happens in 1867 in Tokumarugahra, when the bakufu planned to take land from six local villages to expand military training grounds. Although the villagers protested the plans, their petition was ignored. When the bakufu went to take the land, the villagers were determined to defend their lands, and consequent livelihood, and were ready to die for it (p.136). The term, jichi, is actually an example of a new vocabulary that categorized opposition to the state which had to be used against the central government’s attempt to implement bureaucratic local administration, in which only officials of the state had the opportunity to hold. The changes, as a result of the Meiji government’s goals, adversely affected the recently abolished domains. Alterations to the previous Tokugawa system included: “a centralized system of taxation, a new centralized educational system, and a system of central military conscription,” (p.137). As the local jichi was compromised with the establishment of the Meiji Regime, the locals discontent grew over the new central government’s inability to come to the rescue and assist with natural disasters and famines. The first set of hostilities between the two groups was “The incident before the gate,” where farmers’ unrest over Meiji policing (the particular incident here was taxes) culminated and resulted in numerous casualties. Many leaders and founders of the local Progressive Self-Government Party and the national Liberal Party were involved in this incident. Steele presents the conflict between political localism of the periphery and the strong central nation-state. At the regional level, new political ideas were expressed that contributed to the opposition politics that, “sought the establishment of a national assembly and the encouragement of political participation at the national level,” (p. 134).

This chapter is taken from the Alternative Narratives in Modern Japanese History, the content of which spans the all too familiar accounts of Japanese history from the 1850s to the 1890s. However, Steele’s goal for this book is to offer a broader historical account of modern Japanese history by introducing, “other actors, other places and other dimensions of social and political activity,” (p. 1). Steele states that historical narrative is a construction, and the narrative, if taken from a different perspective, (including narrations from below, at the local level) provides a broader and more comprehensive view of Japan as a nation-state, and of national events.

William Steele’s “Political Localism in Meiji Japan” offers a look at how discontinuous the splendor of the state and the splendor of the social and political unity of all members of the villages on the periphery really were; and how that discontinuity resulted in opposition toward the central Meiji government. This source is valuable to this argument because by showing how new political ideas originated in these local systems one can see how both local and national political parties were reacting to this “transition period” in 1868, as it is so often called. In the following decade, it is these political parties, particularly the ex-samurai class of Tokugawa era(who were now idle with the universal military conscription), that will prelude to and manifest themselves as Meiji era rebellions such as the Saga, Shinpuren, Akizuki, and Hagi Rebellions.



Mounsey, Augustus H. The Satsuma Rebellion. Washington D.C.: University Publications of America, 1979. Print.

Mounsey’s book provides a detailed, firsthand account pertaining to the events that led to the Satsuma Rebellion and its consequences after its conclusion. Being a British diplomat in pre-modern Japan during the Meiji era, Mounsey was directly influenced by the actions of the rebellion. This gave Mounsey the ability to examine the interconnected struggles of pre-modern Japan’s internal politics, as well as exploring the motives and aspirations of their principles. Mounsey illustrates the individual engagements of Saigo Takamori and other individuals in public affairs, as well as spelling out a narrative of the Satsuma clan as they attempt to prepare for the Restoration of 1868 and its effects on the Rebellion.

Mounsey’s account of the Rebellion led him to the conclusion that due to the fact pre-modern Japan was in seclusion for centuries, it was only natural that an outcome, such as the Satsuma Rebellion, would occur after an abrupt change in governmental systems. The deeply rooted ties between the old governmental system and individuals of the era led Mounsey to believe that reactionary struggles, comprised from the amalgamation of feudal systems, was one of the main reasons for reactionary intervention by the Rebellion.

Mounsey, focusing on both the federal institutions and the individuals, allows for a more comprehensive analysis of the Satsuma Rebellion. The analysis of integration between the individual and state permits Mounsey the ability to distinguish institutions of power and their extensions of authority. To focus furthermore on Meiji extensions of authority, Mounsey is able to itemize the accusations against Meiji institutions of power. With this, Mounsey is able to focus on the individuals’ accusations, pinpointing specific allegations, i.e., power of the country being too largely concentrated in the central government. Mounsey promotes the discussion of constitutional questions, as well as promoting the enhanced interpretation of Japan’s assimilation to European institutions through individual state analysis. Mounsey’s conclusion presents the difficulties of individual and state governmental changes as Mounsey and others analyze the remodeling of Japanese governmental and societal institutions.


Jansen, Marius B. The Cambridge History of Japan. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989. Print.

Jansen’s book offers an individual level of analysis on the opposition movements in early Meiji.  In chapter 6, Jansen focuses on the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement, analyzing the interactions between the individual and the state (e.g. Aikokukōtō and Sekiyōsha). As Jansen analyzes the reactionary courses individuals took against the reestablishment of imperial rule during the Meiji Restoration, he is able to expose the agenda of the opposition forces. Jansen investigates the transformation of political, social and economic institutions and attempts to understand their interests and social character. With this, Jansen points out that the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement and the new Meiji state were only able to reduce friction between the middle class and government, leading to the government’s destruction of lower class individual protests.

Jansen describes the reformation of the Meiji government as succumbing to the military and economic pressures of Western imperialism, hastening the modernization of pre-modern Japan. The combination of external pressures and internal economic instability, created from the collapse of the Tokugawa economic power from commercial treaties imposed by western empires, led to unrest by shizoku and peasant farmers. As the emperor resumed power, new tax reforms were implemented to reestablish economic power within the empire. Jansen’s individual level of analysis allows for the interpretation that this new feudal tax system was one of the main factors in the foundation of the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement. The privatization of landholdings gave individual farmers increased responsibility as centralized taxation prompted increased enforcement, strengthening the position of the state government.

With the new reestablished power of the Meiji government, the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement also pursued a government that would grant them full political rights that represented the the individual, rather than the strengthening of principles of the national government. Other than the revision to the centralized taxation, the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement pushed for the institution of civil rights, knowing that other westernized nations assumed this enterprise and were able to develop individual rights. Through Jansen’s book, we can establish that the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement, through the improvement of individual political and social character, influenced and set into motion the creation of a representative government and constitution. With Jansen’s individual level of analysis, the individual actors, rather than the movement itself, led to the success of the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement.



Siniawer, Eiko Maruko. Ruffians, Yakuza, Nationalists : the Violent Politics of Modern Japan, 1860-1960. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008. Print.

Siniawer details the events of the Chichibu rebellion and the events leading up to them in his article. The Chichibu Rebellion was one of a number of rebellions in the 1880s started by members of the rural society, such as farmers and peasants. Their grievances were mainly their living conditions and poverty for which they blamed and targeted the Meiji state in part. The Konmingun, which means “Poor People’s Army,” was the name of a group of such disgruntled rural people whose main grievance was the Matsuka deflation. This heightened the poverty of the rural populations by making money, not rice, the only way to pay taxes. Siniawer mentions that the push towards industrialization left rural citizens feeling like they were being slighted by new economic policies and forced into making unwelcome changes. These sentiments can be traced back to the rural uprisings of the 1860s; however, new and old grievances alike were exacerbated by the harsh economic changes.

The Chichibu rebellion was the largest and most effective of the 1880s revolutionary “phase”; prior uprisings were less organized, smaller, and easily repressed. Hard economic times made revolutionary ideology more attractive, and though the rebellion started as but a gathering of a thousand people, it grew and spread to neighboring prefectures. Chichibu was important not only because of its scope and success in amassing a gathering, but also because of the time period; Siniawer notes that the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement was an influential revolutionary movement at the time that added to the support for rebellions like Chichibu.

Throughout the text, Siniawer seems to be viewing those who started rebellions as illegitimate, and seems hesitant to recognize any actual change in the thoughts and hearts of Japanese people, attempting, instead, to blame the uprising on the changing times. This seems to belittle the grievances of a struggling lower class. Dismissing their complaints and uprisings as people simply maladjusted to change is an oversimplified view of this incident.

The Chichibu rebellion was an important turning point in the legitimization of the people and consolidated them into a nation instead of simply a group of disgruntled peasants. Though the people had not realized their full potential as a political body with the ability to go against the State. The response of the Meiji government was to attempt to delegitimize the movement by bringing up their personality and past as gamblers, or bakuto, and condemning the use of violence as a response. However, this type of response that attacks the actual people of a movement instead of addressing the ideology behind it shows an uncertainty as far as ideological superiority. The Meiji state was threatened by the legitimate grievance presented by a well organized, largely supported, and unified Nation; a Nation that had begun to move against them.

Okamoto, Shumpei. “The Emperor and the Crowd: the historical significance of the Hibiya Riot.” Conflict in Modern Japanese History: The Neglected Tradition. Ed. Tetsuo Najita and J. Victor Koshmann. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982. 258-275. Print.

Okamoto’s article on the Hibiya Riot highlighted both the underlying problems in late Meiji imperialism and also offered insight into how the expansion of the Japanese state spurred on the mobilization of a consolidated force called the state. The problems start with the Portsmouth Treaty at the end of the Russo-Japanese War, though the actual cause is disputed. The people of Japan had heard reports of their military victories, and expected a substantial gain in territory and also a large indemnity from Russia on account of the scale of their victory.  However, when it turned out that the gains from the Portsmouth treaty were much less than expected, the Japanese people felt slighted and called the terms of the treaty humiliating.

The Riots began as a peaceful rally in Hibiya Park on September 5th, organized by the Rengokai (an activist group) to demonstrate the people’s desire for the emperor to take action against the treaty terms. Police response was strong, barricading the park, stationing police to guard the park and prevent entry, and even detaining leaders of the Rengokai the morning of the rally. Some thirty thousand people gathered at Hibiya Park for the rally, and overpowered the police to go through with the it, which concluded peacefully. After the rally, small groups broke off to protest elsewhere; 2,000 people headed towards the imperial palace and upon arrival were interrupted by the police mid-national anthem, which led to an outbreak of violence. Clashes spread to other parts of the city, causing casualties on both sides and mass destruction of property such as police stations, private residences, and Christian churches. Government response was strong, dispatching the imperial guard and first division of the army on the night of the 5th, with a state of martial law being declared for Tokyo the next morning. Riots did not end until the 7th, leaving around one thousand dead, bringing to light weaknesses of the Meiji state, and establishing the masses as a legitimate political force.

Okamoto presents several options for why the treaty caused such a problem, including the trying taxes and economic stress of wartime on the people, perception of the treaty as a slight against revered emperor Meiji, and the misinterpretation of the political situation facing Japan. The high taxes had led to a disgruntled and generally socially deprived population, and hearing that there would be fewer gains was perceived to be no respite for the Japanese people who worked hard to fund the war. Also the general feeling towards the Emperor was good, but the public opinion of the Katsura cabinet, who negotiated the treaty, was much worse, and the people believed it was their fault for agreeing to such humiliating terms which would reflect badly on the Emperor. Lastly, a potential cause was misreading of the political situation. Japan’s victories were not expected to continue, and many political officials considered the terms of the treaty to be fair, considering the actual position of Japan, as opposed to that perceived by the public.