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Meiji period

(1868-1912). The reign of Emperor Meiji and the beginning of Japan's modern period. It started on October 23, 1868, when the 16-year-old emperor Mutsuhito selected the era name "Meiji" ("enlightened rule") for his reign; the emperor himself is therefore posthumously known as Meiji. The period commenced with the collapse of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the sweeping reforms attendant upon the Meiji Restoration; it was followed by the Taishï¿ Period (1912-26). The Meiji period saw Japan's transformation from a feudal polity into a modern industrial state, along with its emergence from isolation into the ranks of major world powers. During the early years of the Meiji period, feudal domains were abolished, the samurai class was phased out, a national education program was implemented, and major institutions (military, banking, industrial production, taxation, etc.) were transformed along Western models. In 1889, a new constitution was approved. The constitution invested the emperor with full sovereignty, declaring him "sacred and inviolable". In spite of its emphasis on the emperor, however, the constitution marked a genuine step toward popular participation. Japan's victories in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), along with Japan's annexation of Taiwan (1895) and Korea (1910) brought international recognition of Japan's sphere of hegemony in Northeast Asia. But with inroads by Western liberalism and the fear of unrest in the now-industrialized urban centers, Meiji leaders started focusing on upholding Japan's "traditional" institutions. Emperor Meiji, now associated with success in war and always the symbol of modernization, was therefore raised to new heights of reverence. Textbooks in the compulsory school system course in ethics increasingly emphasized national and military heroes as models. The family systems, formally established by an 1898 supplement to the Civil Code, took the samurai family as the norm for the entire nation. The commonwealth was now described as a "family state" in which political and familiar loyalties reinforced each other. The Home Ministry undertook to place the native cult of Shinto at the service of the government. The Meiji period thus left succeeding generations of Japanese with an ambiguous heritage. By the time of the emperor's death in 1912, Japan stood as a model of rapid and largely successful modernization. In less than half a century it had developed from an isolated, semifeudal society into a modern state that had secured for itself a prominent place in the world community. At the same time, the rapidity of this change had left a number of difficult social problems unresolved and a tendency toward authoritarian solutions that threatened its fledgling constitutional order. Historians' interpretations of the Meiji period, therefore, vary according to their assessment of the conflicting elements of the Meiji legacy; they are unaminous, however, in seeing it as the foundation of Japan's modern experience. (adapted from Japan: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. Tokyo: Kodansha, 1993)

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