The Meiji and Taisho eras

By the 19th century the Tokugawa Shogunate was in terminal decline, its power weakened by debt and internal division. After a brief civil war in the early 1860s the Tokugawa regime was overthrown and imperial rule restored. Two years later Edo was taken over in the name of Emperor Meiji and renamed Tokyo.

Determined to close the economic and military gap with the west, the Meiji government (1868-1912) introduced a far-reaching programme of modernisation under the slogan fukoku kyohei ('enrich the country, strengthen the army'). Privileges of samurai rank were abolished, castles demolished and all daimyo lands were standardised into prefectures.

Western experts were brought in to assist in the creation of new heavy industries, railways were built and the armed forces were modernised. Mass education and military conscription were introduced. The Bank of Japan was established, and fiscal policy reformed. However, great care was taken to rely neither on foreign expertise nor on foreign capital; income for investment was raised through taxes on agriculture, and by promoting silk as a major crop. Remarkably, within the space of just 50 years, the Japanese modernisers created a modern industrial state with the military might to defeat China in 1895 and Russia in 1905.

The aftermath of its conflicts with China and Russia left Japan the dominant power in the Far East, with a sphere of influence extending over southern Manchuria, Taiwan (ceded to Japan by China in 1895) and Korea, which was formally annexed as part of the Japanese Empire in 1910.

The death of Emperor Meiji in 1912 ushered in the Taisho era (1912-1926), considered a period of liberal democracy since the weak health of the new emperor prompted a shift in political power from the old oligarchic clique of 'elder statesmen' (genro) to democratic parties within the Japanese parliament.

During World War I Japan allied itself with Britain, making further territorial gains in the Pacific at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. However, in the following year Japan failed to get a declaration of racial equality inserted in the charter of the new League of Nations. This and the Exclusion Act passed by the US Congress in 1924, which prohibited further immigration from Japan into the USA, contributed to the steady deterioration of relations with the west and the rise of xenophobic ultra-nationalism in the decades preceding World War II.