About the authors
Robert Hellyer researches and teaches Japanese history at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.
David Leheny researches and teaches Japanese politics and international relations at Waseda University in Tokyo.

The origins of the Japanese nation-state trace back 150 years. What can its persistence teach us about the global order? (Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg News)

On Jan. 3, 1868, a cadre of samurai staged a coup at the Imperial Palace in Kyoto, setting Japan on a course to become Asia’s first nation-state. Japanese are not widely commemorating the event today, even though the coup, which began the dramatic transformation of the Meiji Restoration, should rank in global history alongside Bastille Day or July Fourth as a point of national origin.

Stopping to consider this anniversary’s uncelebrated relevance highlights not only the remarkable course of national creation in Japan but also, more importantly, the tenacity of the modernizing nation-state, and its accompanying zealous commitments to sovereignty, as a global political form that continues to influence geopolitics today.

The samurai who staged the coup that day toppled the nearly three-century-old Tokugawa regime. Their alliance of feudal domains from western Japan then went on to defeat an ill-organized resistance in a brief civil war. Upon their victory, they led a new government with the young Emperor Meiji at its head.

Initially, this government formed around a ruling oligarchy that “restored” the emperor’s political role, ultimately signaling a desire to govern by reviving imperial political structures employed in an ideal, ancient past.

But they soon changed course, sensing the need for even bolder change, given the rising tide of European imperialism that many feared might make Japan a European colony. A group of leaders embarked on a nearly two-year diplomatic mission to Europe and the United States to learn firsthand about the ascendant West. Seeing the industrial and military power contained in the modern nation-state, they returned keen to implement that model at home.

With breathtaking speed, the oligarchs initiated reforms that dismantled the politically diffuse feudal state in which samurai lords ruled over semi-independent domains and pledged personal loyalty to the Tokugawa shogun. Drawing inspiration from Western political structures, the leaders eliminated the domains, reorganizing Japan into regional administrative units headed by governors appointed by the new central government. They also eliminated the samurai class, who had served as the administrators of the domain governments, and instead developed an extensive central bureaucracy that acted in the name of Meiji, whose portrait was placed in schools.

The coup leaders, who had worn kimono — skirts — in 1868, soon donned Western-style suits and smoked cigars to present themselves as members of the ruling elite of the “civilized” world.

Japan, under a freshly christened rising sun flag and governed from a new capital at Tokyo, aimed to resemble the Western nations then building colonies among its Asian neighbors.

Unlike leaders of the French or American — or the later Russian or Chinese — revolutions, the men behind the Meiji Restoration are not remembered for establishing new ideological strains of democracy or socialism. In fact, they only grudgingly implemented limited democratic institutions in 1889 when a new constitution created a bicameral legislature.

They instead focused on modernization, a hazily defined drive toward a future already made visible in the West, with cultural, economic and political dimensions.

They aimed to achieve this goal through state-led encouragement of a national, collective effort. Remarkably and sometimes tragically successful, this effort soon made Japan an industrial and military rival of even the most powerful Western states.

During World War II, Japanese leaders claimed that their imperialism spread the fruits of modernization and national independence among benighted Asian neighbors, a claim that still appears with dismaying regularity in Japanese popular discourse today. As with European empires, rhetoric rarely matched reality, and failed to mask the often exploitative nature of Japanese rule that forced men and women from colonial territories to labor in mines and factories in support of the imperial war effort.

Defeat in 1945 brought the breakup of the empire and several years of U.S. military occupation. Under American tutelage, the nation-state at the core of the vanquished empire was reframed along democratic lines with Hirohito, Meiji’s grandson, made a constitutional monarch. A new constitution, written under American guidance and, as yet, never amended, continues to serve as the guiding national document.

And herein lies both the ambivalence and relevance of the uncelebrated Jan. 3.

Many left-leaning Japanese and Western scholars lament the Restoration as more a transition of power among elites than a democratic or anti-colonial revolution. Some of their more conservative counterparts, by contrast, feel compelled to emphasize the Restoration’s triumphs in unifying political authority and allowing Japan to avoid colonization. And Japan’s subsequent path, becoming the first non-Western state to industrialize and aggressively build an empire, has left enduring scars in its regional relationships and in national debates over history, memory and truth.

Together the imperial past and the loss in World War II have made historical commemoration a fraught topic in Japan: what ought we celebrate, and why?

Around the centennial in 1968, many Japanese took a greater interest in the Meiji Restoration, thanks especially to a popular book presenting Sakamoto Ryōma, a key figure in events leading up to the coup, as a forerunner of the high-speed economic growth that made Japan one of the world’s top economies. For many Japanese today, Sakamoto, assassinated by pro-Tokugawa forces a scant few weeks before the Jan. 3 coup, remains the embodiment of the Restoration’s key lesson: the commitment to nation-building and modernization above personal ambitions and local needs.

As 2018 begins and Japan prepares for the final year on the throne of the soon-to-abdicate Emperor Akihito, the memory of the Meiji Restoration remains complex. The central government plans to hold official sesquicentennial commemorations in September, but there is little chance of a unifying celebration with nationwide fireworks and widely shared discussions.

We will probably see in 2018 more references to the legacies of modernization, which have recently emerged as a prominent theme in the memorialization of historical sites. Many recent additions to Japan’s UNESCO World Heritage list are famous sites of industrial development, such as abandoned silk reeling factories and coal mines. Attracting visitors from around the world (including many from Asia), they represent a historic shift in political and economic forces in which Japan was a key actor — perhaps the central one.

This transformation was justified less by the incomplete, and often hypocritical, language of democracy and equality employed by Japan’s European and American counterparts than by the presumption that the modern nation-state possessed its own intrinsic value. This endures, especially in Asia. After all, the European dream of borderlessness has never held much sway among Asian countries whose sovereignty remains paramount in local importance and where economic development has become a foundation of government legitimacy.

In the wake of the resurgent nationalism embodied by America First and Brexit, the Meiji Restoration’s legacies seem ever more relevant across the globe. Its 150th anniversary, in all its momentous ambivalence, may be the most emblematic marker of today’s global structure: led by nation-states whose modernizing projects imagine collective futures firmly inscribed within political boundaries.