Looking for sonnō and jōi in early Meiji Nippon

The Meiji Restoration is widely regarded as one of the most important events in Japan’s modern history: as Ma (2005) suggests, the rise of Japanese industry and the emergence of a truly capitalist economy can be traced back to the institutions introduced by the Ishin. As Wilson (1992) underlines, there were several subjectivities behind the occurrence of this historical development –being the sonnō jōi and the shishi one of them. Although there is debate regarding the relative weigh of nationalist and xenophobic ideas in this movement’s mentality, there is consensus regarding their existence and absolute importance. On the other hand, and as was expressed in the Imperial Charter Oath and observed in later reforms, foreign elements and knowledge were to be sought by the early Meiji leadership. This divergence between the ex-post results and ex-ante motivations raises several questions. One of them is whether the Restoration itself can be tagged as a success for the sonnō jōi. This essay, while discussing the movement’s mind-set and the reform path taken by Japan after 1868, aims to show that such was not the case.

Sonnō jōi: ideas and power

According to Hane & Perez (2009), the roots of the movement can be traced back to the domain of Mito, where intellectuals such as Aizawa Seishisai, Yukoku Fujita and Toko Fujita defended ideas that underlined the divinity of Japan, the superiority of its Imperial House and a deep mistrust of Western ways and culture. Essentially -although not entirely-, it was made of samurai warriors -also known as shishi- that lived under traditional values and codes (duty, courage, honour, etc) that lead them to be self-righteous, intolerant and guided by their passions, not reason. They saw themselves as the saviours of their country, those standing with truth and justice in the right side of history. Nonetheless, this perception is not shared by Hane & Perez and Jansen (1995), who coincide to tag them as individuals lacking the vision to distinguish a major role for Japan in the world and, as one could imagine, the program needed to accomplish such aspiration. Shishi used to be, as Jansen summarizes it, modest individuals that were poorly informed about domestic and international issues that, therefore, offered simplistic solutions to the challenges faced by the Japanese society in the second half of the 19th century.

There has been, however and as briefly mentioned above, debate regarding the relative relevance of nationalist and xenophobic ideas in the sonnō jōi mind. In particular, Wilson (1992) downplays the importance of the jōi (expel the barbarians) as he argues that it was just an addition to the sonnō (revere the emperor) made by political thinkers and that –even if recalcitrance towards foreigners existed- the main motive behind those subscribing the movement was a desire to bring Japan back from the chaos that it had been submerged into since the arrival of the West. This vision contrasts with Hane & Perez (2009), as the handle of the foreign threat was a very important issue to the movement itself as (i) it was at the heart of the sonnō jōi rupture with the Tokugawa Bakufu -when the shōgun signed the Harris treaty openly defying the Emperor’s directive and under conditions that would be seen as unequal and (ii) it was a source of friction within the movement. As Hane & Perez suggest, some leaders -such as Yoshida Shōin- were intensely antiforeign, adherent to the notion of Japan's divine nature and opposed to the opening of the country to overseas knowledge –with the notable exception of military techniques[1] (Cotterell, 2011). Others, such as Sakuma Zōzan, favoured –perhaps with pragmatism and after the failure of the 1863 expulsion[2] (Beasley, 1972)- the idea of embracing Western science and technology while retaining elements of inner life regarded as typically Japanese. The latter leaders, for instance, were object to attacks: Zōzan’s support of the country-opening policy costed him his life[3], as fellow sonnō jōi advocates killed him because of that particular policy position. Bearing this in mind, and for the purpose of this essay, the high relevance of nationalist and xenophobic elements in the mind-set of the sonnō jōi will be taken into account while addressing the primary concern of this enquiry.


Whether the Meiji Restoration can be seen as a triumph for the “revere the emperor, expel the barbarian” movement is a complex question. To address it, the coherence between the mind-set discussed above and the policies implemented after 1868 will be assessed. As McClain (2002) suggests, the Ishin was an attempt to centralize power and neutralize alternative forms of it. In the same page, Jansen (1995) underlines that it replaced a decentralized power structure inherited from feudal times with a central State under the aegis of a modern monarch. These modifications, as both Jansen and Tsuzuki (2000) comment, were accompanied by a lack of a clear-consistent idea or guide for reform. However, there were certain notions of what direction should be taken by Japan. These sealed the first steps taken by the new Meiji leadership, in its quest to conquer the dream of domestic prosperity and equality with the West.

Perhaps the first document that outlined the course of new reforms was the Imperial Charter Oath: containing five articles, it called for (i) the establishment of deliberative assemblies, (ii) the commitment of all classes with the administration of the State, (iii) freedom to pursue one’s aspirations, (iv) breaking with customs that went against the “just laws of Nature” and (v) the pursuit of knowledge from abroad in order to strengthen the base of power of the Empire. Following (iv) and (v), the new Meiji administration set up several missions[4] whose aim was to learn from abroad the best practices regarding science, technology, industrial development and political organization. McClain (2002) suggests that one of the most important was the Iwakura Mission, which consisted of 49 high-rank officials and 58 students, lasted almost two years (initially, it was expected to last just seven months) and visited over 20 countries and territories in the Americas, Europe, Asia and the Middle East. It had the double objective of renegotiating the unequal treaties signed by the Tokugawa Bakufu and increase the Japanese knowledge of the West to push modernization ahead. As it was evident that the former target could not achieved in the short term[5], the latter became the focus of the entire trip, with Meiji officials concluding that political reform and industrialization should be at the heart of the reform agenda.

The particular bias mentioned above paved the way for the organization of other missions with more specific aims. For instance, and according to Ma (2004), following the Iwakura Mission, a group of sericultural experts was sent to Italy in 1873 to learn the most advanced technologies in silk farming and weaving. The visit resulted not only in increased appropriation of frontier techniques but also in the beginning on the first Japanese system of technological innovation, diffusion and education as the experts -while studying in a specialized sericultural institute- realized the relevance of research for industrial purposes. Similarly, and as Tsuzuki (2000) tells, a mission led by Itō Hirobumi –who would eventually become the first Prime Minister of Japan- was sent to Europe in order to study different Constitutional architectures and propose one that would serve Japan’s need well. The result from that inquiry would be known as the Meiji Constitution, which was proclaimed in 1890 and lasted until 1947.

All this implies, of course, a open embracement –not to say an active pursue- of foreign elements in the earliest steps taken by the Ishin leaders in matters of public policy. Later Western-borrowed institutional developments, such as the establishment of the Bank of Japan or the provision of essential public goods such as infrastructure (Goldsmith, 1998), would confirm the practice of taking the best from abroad to strenghten the country. In this regard, the contrast with the sonnō jōi ideas discussed above is evident as many of the shishi openly rejected Western culture, beliefs and institutions. Thus, if there was a victory for them in the Meiji Restoration, it would be fair to state that the jōi was not part of it.


As was briefly mentioned above, the Ishin is usually associated with the centralization of power under the figure of the Emperor. Although there is consensus regarding the significance of the Imperial figure in the reviewed literature, it should be stated that there is room for nuance: the fall of the Tokuwaga Bakufu and the restoration of the Emperor, were accompanied also by the rise of the Meiji oligarchs. These individuals, essentially from the Satsuma and Chōshū domains and legitimated by Imperial backing (Wilson, 1992), became the rulers of day-to-day issues in Japan: shortly after the events in 1868, many of them became members of the Dajōkan, which reported to the Emperor, acted as the Council of State and had executive and legislative functions (Cheng, Rosett & Woo, 2003). In short, they were running Japan.

This political outcome did not please everyone. As one political observer of that time -quoted in Tsuzuki (2000)- complained, the political organization that emerged after the Restoration looked like a new shogunate. It also has been argued by Tsuzuki that the new leaders manipulated the image of the Emperor for their own political interests. Thus, the resulting balance of power in early Meiji Japan was not, as Wilson (1992) suggests, an actual restoration but a situation where both the Emperor was personally powerless –the oligarchs ruled using his mandate- and the source of legitimacy –and political power- that allowed those who governed in his name to suppress opposition and build a new nation-state in a Western way. Was this what the shishi had originally in mind? It would be hard to defend such position. As Deal (2006) notes, they wanted the Emperor to claim back his role as direct ruler of Japan. As has been shown, such was not the case.

Besides, and as Tsuzuki (2000) underlines, the 1870’s were years of discontent for the samurai class. Not only their ideas had been left out of the power array following the Restoration but also the oligarchs started executing a plan to create a modern army that would exclude the warrior class and –as fiscal pressures mounted- finished their stipend with a one last time payment. As was previously mentioned, the Ishin was about neutralizing alternate forms of power. The long-standing samurai, shishi included, would be no exception.


The Meiji Restoration was one of the most important historical developments of recent Japanese history: it marked the beginning of modern Japan. One of the groups behind its occurrence was the sonnō jōi, made essentially of violent samurai warriors and famous for its radical positions regarding the introduction of foreign elements in the Japanese society. As the new leadership took early steps toward reform, it became relatively clear that these actions did not answer to the shishi’s original ideology: On one hand, knowledge from abroad was actively sought and embraced in several fields while transforming domestic political and economic institutions. On the other, although the Emperor was made again head of state, the actual rulers of the country were a small group of powerful individuals that eventually used the Imperial divinity for their own political interest. Furthermore, later policies implemented by the Meiji oligarchs marginalized the samurai warrior class. Thus, the Meiji Restoration cannot be assessed as a victory for the sonnō jōi movement –at least in the way that it was originally conceived.


Beasley, W. G. (1972). The Meiji restoration. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Cheng, L., Woo, M. Y., & Rosett, A. I. (2003). East Asian law: Universal norms and local cultures. London: Routledge-Curzon.

Cotterell, A. (2011). Asia: A concise history. Singapore: John Wiley & Sons (Asia).

Deal, W. E. (2006). Handbook to life in medieval and early modern Japan. New York NY: Facts On File.

Goldsmith, R. W. (1998). The takeoff into sustained economic growth, 1886 - 1913. In Meiji Japan. London: Routledge.

Hane, M., & Perez, L. G. (2009). Modern Japan: A historical survey. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Jansen, M. B. (1995). The Emergence of Meiji Japan. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Ma, D. (2004). Why Japan, Not China, Was the First to Develop in East Asia: Lessons from Sericulture, 1850–1937. Economic Development and Cultural Change, 52(2), 369-394. doi: 10.1086/380947

Ma, D. (2005). Between Cottage and Factory: The Evolution of Chinese and Japanese Silk-Reeling Industries in the Latter Half of the Nineteenth Century. Journal of the Asia Pacific Economy, 10(2), 195-213. doi: 10.1080/13547860500071451

McClain, J. L. (2002). Japan, a modern history. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.

Perez, L. G. (2013). Japan at war: An encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Tsuzuki, C. (2000). The pursuit of power in modern Japan, 1825-1995. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wilson, G. M. (1992). Patriots and redeemers in Japan: Motives in the Meiji Restoration. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


[1] Interestingly, this was the sort of policy positions that triumphed in Qing China after the arrival of the West. The divergent path of reform –and results- between Japan and China confirm the notion that the attitude towards foreign knowledge was not a minor issue.

[2] Beasly (1972) affirms that the failure of expulsion transformed the sonnō jōi to the extent that they were not any more what they used to be. In this regard, this essay deals with the tension between the ideas of the original movement and the eventual outcomes that followed the Restoration. As Perez (2013) notes, some shishi transformed themselves from violent samurai to important and pragmatic Westernizers.

[3] Hane & Perez (2009) underline that, ultimately, the notoriety and political power of the sonnō jōi was linked to its readiness to use force against those who disagreed with the movement’s position.

[4] It is worth noting that the Iwakura Mission was not the first Japanese embassy. The first one was sent to the United States in 1860.

[5] McClain (2002) affirms that the United States government made it clear to the mission that such renegotiation could not take place until Japan had shown to the World that it was a civilized and modernized nation. The way to accomplish that would be drafting and proclaiming a Constitution.

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