They just desired the transfer of authority from Edo to Kyoto while maintaining all of their feudal prerogatives. The individuals who wanted to bring an end to Tokugawa rule did not have a new government or a new society in mind when they began their movement. Instead, a significant shift in perspective took happened. In the midst of changes that were far more revolutionary than had been anticipated, the emperor emerged as a symbol of national unification for the whole country.
The first major change occurred in 1868 with the proclamation of the Charter Oath. This was a broad declaration of the goals that the Meiji authorities wanted to accomplish in order to promote morale and obtain financial support for the new government. The replacement of “evil customs” with “just laws of nature” and an international search for knowledge to strengthen the foundations of imperial rule were the five provisions of this document. The establishment of deliberative assemblies was also one of these provisions, as was the involvement of all social classes in the running of state affairs. Other provisions included freedom of social and occupational mobility. The taking of the Charter Oath marked the beginning of the end of the bakufu’s monopoly on political power and ushered in a new era of more democratic involvement in governance. In order to put the Charter Oath into effect, a constitution consisting of eleven articles was drafted. In addition to establishing a new Council of State, legislative bodies, and systems of ranks for nobles and officials, it capped the length of time an official could remain in office at four years, permitted public voting, established a new taxation system, and mandated the establishment of new rules for the administration of local affairs.
The government of Meiji gave assurances to the world’s superpowers that it would honour the ancient treaties that had been negotiated by the Bakufu and made an announcement that it would conduct its affairs in line with international law. To signify the beginning of a new period in the annals of Japanese history, Emperor Mutsuhito chose the reign title Meiji, which translates to “Enlightened Rule.” Mutsuhito’s reign was to last until 1912. The capital was moved from Kyoto, where it had been located since the year 794, to Tokyo (Eastern Capital), which was the new name for Edo. This was done to add more drama to the establishment of the new government. The majority of daimyo willingly handed up their property and census records to the emperor in a step that was essential to the establishment of the new administration. This act demonstrated that both the land and the people were subject to the emperor’s authority over the realm. After having their hereditary positions validated, the daimyo were elevated to the post of governor, and the central government took over responsibility for their administrative costs as well as the payment of samurai stipends. In the year 1871, the han were replaced by prefectures, but the central government maintained its role as the ultimate source of power. The new ministry were filled by officials from the old han that were considered to be the most favourable, such as Satsuma, Choshu, Tosa, and Hizen. As a new governing class emerged, the bakufu appointees, daimyo, and older court nobles were replaced by court nobles who had fallen out of favour and lower-ranking samurai who were more radical in their ideology.
Inasmuch as the objective of the Meiji Restoration was to reinstate the emperor to his former position of preeminence, attempts were made to construct a Shinto-oriented state that was quite similar to the state that existed one thousand years before. It was decided to create an Office of Shinto Worship, which would hold a position even higher in significance than the Council of State. Both the divine heritage of the royal family and the kokutai concepts of the Mito school were stressed when they were adopted by the Mito school. A seemingly little but very crucial action was taken by the government to assist Shinto instructors. In spite of the fact that the Office of Shinto Worship was downgraded in the year 1872, by the year 1877, the Home Ministry controlled all Shinto shrines, and certain Shinto sects were granted governmental recognition. At long last, Buddhist control over Shinto was removed, and the religion’s properties were returned to their previous state. Buddhism saw a decline as a result of official support of Shinto, but it also had a renaissance of its own. Christianity was also made legal, although Confucianism continued to play an important role in Chinese society as an ethical theory. On the other hand, more and more Japanese thinkers began to identify with the ideas and practises of the West.
The Meiji oligarchy was a privileged group that wielded imperial authority, often in a tyrannical manner. Historians refer to this newly established governing elite as the Meiji oligarchy. The members of this class were kokugaku believers and felt that they had constructed a new order that was just as majestic as the one that had been established by Japan’s original founders. Okubo Toshimichi (1832–78), the son of a Satsuma retainer, and Satsuma samurai Saigo Takamori (1827–77), who had allied themselves with Choshu, Tosa, and Hizen in their efforts to topple the Tokugawa, were two of the most influential members of this movement. Both Okubo and Saigo were elevated to the position of imperial councillor and held high-ranking positions after their victories. Kido Koin (1833–1777) was a native of Choshu, a pupil of Yoshida Shoin, and a conspirator together with Okubo and Saigo. He rose through the ranks to become minister of education and chairman of the Governors Conference, and he advocated for constitutional governance. Iwakura Tomomi (1825–83), a native of Kyoto who had opposed the Tokugawa and was to become the first ambassador to the United States, and Okuma Shigenobu (1838–1922), of Hizen, a student of Rangaku, Chinese, and English who held various ministerial portfolios before eventually becoming prime minister in 1898, were also prominent figures during this time. Okuma Shigenobu was a student of all three languages.
In order to realise the objectives of the new order, the Meiji oligarchy devised a plan to dismantle the Tokugawa social order by implementing a number of political, economic, and social changes. Bakufu earnings had previously been dependent on taxes levied on Tokugawa and other daimyo holdings, loans from affluent peasants and urban merchants, restricted customs duties, and the hesitant acceptance of loans from outside the country. The new government financed harbour improvements, lighthouses, machinery imports, schools, overseas study for students, salaries for foreign teachers and advisers, modernization of the army and navy, railroads and telegraph networks, and foreign diplomatic missions in order to generate revenue and develop a solid infrastructure.
In the midst of challenging economic conditions, which were made clear by an increase in the number of instances of agricultural unrest, demands for social change emerged. In addition to the old high rents, taxes, and interest rates, the average citizen was faced with cash payments for new taxes, military conscription, and tuition charges for compulsory education. The people need more time for engaging in worthwhile activities while also addressing the societal wrongs of the past. In order to accomplish these changes, the traditional Tokugawa class structure of samurai, farmers, artisans, and merchants was eliminated by the year 1871. Despite the persistence of long-standing biases and status awareness, however, everyone was legally considered to be on an equal footing. The government really had a role in maintaining social differences by naming new social divisions. The previous daimyo were elevated to the aristocracy, the samurai were elevated to the gentry, and everyone else was classified as commoners. The pensions of the daimyo and the samurai were paid in one single payment, and the samurai eventually lost their right to have exclusive claims on military posts. Former members of the Samurai class went on to pursue careers as administrators, teachers, army officers, police officials, journalists, academics, colonists in the northern sections of Japan, bankers, and businesspeople, among other professions. These activities helped alleviate some of the dissatisfaction that a big number of people were feeling; some people made enormous profits from them, but many others did not succeed and offered substantial resistance in the years that followed.
In addition, during the years 1871 and 1873, a collection of land and tax regulations that would later serve as the foundation for contemporary fiscal policy were adopted. Private ownership was made legal, titles were distributed, and lands were valued according to their current fair market worth. Taxes were paid in cash rather than in kind, as they had been in the days before Meiji, and the rates were somewhat reduced.
The Meiji leaders were unfazed by the opposition, and they persisted in modernising the country by constructing railroads, shipyards, munitions factories, mines, textile manufacturing facilities, factories, and experimental agriculture stations. In addition, they established telegraph cable links that were sponsored by the government to all of the major cities in Japan as well as the mainland of Asia. Because the authorities were very worried about the safety of the country, they made enormous efforts to modernise the military. Some of these efforts included constructing a massive reserve system, a small standing army, and mandatory service in the militia for all adult males. Foreign military systems were studied, foreign advisers were brought in, and Japanese cadets sent abroad to European and United States military and naval schools.