Since the morning of January 3, 1868, Japan has struggled to answer one question: What does it mean to be modern and Japanese? It was on that date that a group of mid-level samurai and imperial courtiers announced the formation of a new government to be ruled by the 16-year old Meiji emperor, thus ending two-and-a-half centuries of control by the Tokugawa samurai family.
One hundred and fifty years after the Meiji Restoration, several generations of growth and development have not erased the feeling that Japan remains in the midst of a transformation pitting tradition against modernity. Perhaps even more so today, 25 years since their economy cratered, Japanese people question what kind of society they want, how much to incorporate Western concepts of individualism, how much capitalist disruption to permit, and how to deal with the threat posed by hostile foreign countries—the same questions unleashed by the events of 1868.
The Meiji Restoration upended centuries of domestic stability that began in 1600, following a century of civil war. In that year, the victorious Tokugawa family imposed a political equilibrium among the country’s 250 largely autonomous feudal domains, which were loosely administered from the Tokugawa capital at Edo (modern-day Tokyo). With the connivance of the other great feudal lords, the family froze Japanese society into four Confucian-inspired castes: warrior, farmer, artisan, and merchant. To preserve a political equilibrium, the Tokugawas promulgated a series of maritime restrictions that curtailed, but did not eliminate, trade relations with foreign states.