In the nineteenth century, Japan experiences a dramatic shift from the conservative, isolationist policies of the shōgun-dominated Edo period to the rapid and widespread drive to modernize and engage with the rest of the world that characterizes the Meiji Restoration. During the first half of the century, decades of fiscal and social disruption caused by the growth of a market economy and a complex monetary system in a country that is still officially based on agriculture, which supports both the farming and privileged but unproductive samurai classes, continues to weaken the country in general and the Tokugawa regime in particular. Increasingly aggressive intrusions by Western powers not only puts pressure on Japan but convinces its political leaders that the Seclusion Policy has limited the country’s participation in technological advances and worldwide changes and also handicapped the economy by restricting its involvement in global trade. Taking advantage of the disruption caused by these internal and external crises, in 1867 several powerful daimyo (regional warlords) band together and overthrow Shōgun Yoshinobu (1837–1913), forcing him to resign authority. Marching into the imperial capital Kyoto, they “restore” Emperor Mutsuhito (1852–1912) to power and establish the Meiji (“enlightened rule”) Restoration.
In the name of Emperor Meiji, numerous striking and far-reaching social, political, and economic changes are legislated through a series of edicts. Japan also opens its borders, sending several high-ranking expeditions abroad and inviting foreign advisors—including educators, engineers, architects, painters, and scientists—to assist the Japanese in rapidly absorbing modern technology and Western knowledge. Throughout the century, however, the drive to Westernize is paralleled by continued isolationist tendencies and a desire to resist foreign influences. Eventually, as has happened numerous times in the nation’s history, after the Japanese assimilate what has been borrowed, they use these imports to formulate a new but distinctly Japanese modern society.