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Meiji Restoration Social Changes

Heritage from Meiji Era

Meiji Restoration Social Changes

Social changes during Meiji Restoration

“Social changes” during Meiji Restoration is expressed with a special and generic term is Japan. The term is “Bunmei Kaika”. Its literal translation is “blooming of civilization” but it actually is a coinage by Fukuzawa Yukichi as the translation of the English word “civilization”.

To the people during the Meiji Restoration, “social change” was synonymous with modernization and Westernization and Japanese people readily accepted such drastic social changes. In the days of Meiji Restoration it was believed that the way to modernization and Westernization was to deny the old things of the previous era regarding them as barbaric and uncivilized. In an effort to adopt the Western culture, “Bunmei Kaika” became a slogan during this period of Meiji Restoration.

In some sense, the worship of Western civilization even created a sense of inferiority toward Japanese traditional culture, and there was also a tendency to dismiss traditional Japanese culture as old habits. This was the negative effect of social changes.

The whole Japan became interested in Western culture and began to actively adopt it. The followings are the social changes brought during the period of Meiji restoration.

Foundation of companies

Many companies known worldwide today were founded during Meiji Era. Examples of these companies are: Toshiba, Noritake, Nintendo, Nippon Express, Hitachi, Shiseido, IHI.

Modernization of the system

・Conscription system (Draft System) – The government also called it “blood tax”. There was no military in Japan in Edo Period.  

Communication and Transportation

・Telegraph- When the telegram system first started, many people didn’t understand what it was and when they heard that messages travel through the wires, some people thought that the telegrams were delivered “physically” through the wires. Some even thought that telegrams were delivered through the power lines in the form of letters, and waited at the feet of the nearby transmission tower all day for telegrams to arrive, bringing their lunch, laying out a mat and sitting there. There were also those who mistakenly thought they could deliver parcels to distant places by telegraph and hung parcels on the transmission towers.  These sound like urban legends, but these stories were recorded.

・Postal system – Postal system was first started in 1871 between Tokyo and Osaka. Then the system spread nationwide in 1872.

・Railroad – In 1872, the railroad between Shimbashi and Yokohama was opened, and steam locomotives began to operate.

・Horse-drawn carriages (street car) – Railroad cars pulled by horses traveled over the railroad tracks. In 1882, the first horse-drawn carriage railroad opened in Tokyo. It was later converted into train transportation system.

・Rickshaw -“Jinrikisha” is a vehicle invented in Japan based on the Western horse-drawn carriage.

・Steamship- Japan’s leading shipping company today, Nippon Yusen Kabushiki Kaisha was founded in 1885.

Banning of “mixed bathing” by law

During Edo Period, mixed bathing in public bath was common. Shogunate government tried to ban it a number of times but there was a strong opposition from public bath industry because the fuel cost would be doubled if the bathrooms for men and women were separated and they never succeeded in banning. Mixed bathing at public bath was surprising in the eyes of Westerners and Meiji government attempted to ban it in early Meiji Era regarding it as a bad habit that must be abolished. The government enforced local ordinances in various regions but it was not until the end of Meiji Era which was nearly 40 years later that mixed bathing was diminished.

Architecture & Cities

・Western-style architecture – Brick architecture

・The Meiji government built Western-style buildings and used the media to promote it to the public.

・Gas lamps – Gas lamps greatly changed the nighttime scenery of cities. In areas such as Ginza gas lamps were installed on both sides of the roads, and lamps became popular in private homes. Thanks to these changes, the streets became brighter at night and people could stay active until late at night.

・Ginza- Ginza was the center and the symbol of the Bunmeikaika.

Although it was decades or over one hundred years after Meiji Era, the first MacDonald’s restaurant, the first Starbucks store and the first Apple’s retail store in Japan are all in Ginza.

Ginza at night time

・Pseudo-western architecture

・Government-owned factories

・Tomioka Silk Mill (started operation in 1872)-The Meiji government also focused on the construction of Western-style factories in order to promote modernization. During this period, Japan’s first factory, the Tomioka Silk Mill, which was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014, was built.

Names of people

In 1875, an ordinance was promulgated requiring the use of surnames by all people. This was followed in 1898 by the adoption of the same surname for married couples under the Civil Code.

Clothing Culture

・An order was issued to cut off samurai style hair. “Zangiri-atama” is a hairstyle in which the “chonmage”(topknot) is cut off and kept short. In 1871, the Meiji government issued an “order to cut the topknot” urging the people to stop wearing chonmage. The Emperor of Meiji and other high-ranking government officials also had their haircut short. The reason why the government forced people to change their hairstyle was because the chonmage was seen as a barbaric custom in the eyes of Westerners.




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