The visit of Commodore Perry to Japan and the signing of a treaty of commerce with the United States formed a great turning-point in the history of that ancient empire. Through its influence the mikado came to his own again, after being for seven centuries virtually the vassal of the shogun. So long had he vanished from sight that the people looked upon him as a far-off spiritual dignitary, and had forgotten that he was once the supreme lord of the land. During all this time the imperial court had been kept up, with its prime minister, its officials and nobles,—with everything except authority. The court dignitaries ranked, in their own conceit and their ancient titles, far above the shogun and daimios, the military leaders, but they were like so many actors on the stage, playing at power. The shogun, with the power at his command, might have made himself the supreme dignitary, but it was easier to let the sleepy court at Kioto alone, leaving them the shadow of that power of which the substance was in the shogun's hands.
Yet there was always a risk in this. The sleeping emperor might at any time awake, call the people and the army to his aid, and break through the web that the great spider of military rule had woven about his court. Some great event might stir Japan to its depths and cause a vital change in the state of affairs. Such an event came in the visit of the American fleet and the signing of a treaty of commerce and intercourse by the Tai Kun, or great sovereign of Japan, as the shogun signed himself.
For two centuries and a half Japan had been at peace. For nearly that length of time foreigners had been forbidden to set foot on its soil. They were looked upon as barbarians, "foreign devils" the islanders called them, the trouble they had caused long before was not forgotten, and throughout the island empire they were hated or despised.
The visit of the American fleet was, therefore, sure to send a stir of deep feeling throughout the land. During this period of excitement the shogun died, and the power was seized by Ii, the regent, a daring and able man, who chose as shogun a boy twelve years old, imprisoned, exiled, or beheaded all who opposed him, and was suspected of an intention to depose the mikado and set up a boy emperor in his place.
All this aroused new excitement in Japan. But the opposition to these acts of the regent would not have grown to revolution had no more been done. The explosion came when Ii signed a treaty with the foreigners, a right which belonged only to the mikado, and sent word to Kioto that the exigency of the occasion had forced him to take this action.
The feeling that followed was intense. The country became divided into two parties, that of the mikado, which opposed the foreigners, and that of the shogun, which favored them. "Honor the mikado and expel the barbarians," became the patriot watchword, and in all directions excited partisans roamed the land, vowing that they would kill the regent and his new friends and that they were ready to die for the true emperor. Their fury bore fruit. Ii was assassinated. At the moment when a strong hand was most needed, that of the regent was removed. And as the feeling of bitterness against the foreigners grew, the influence of the shogun declined. The youthful dignitary was obliged by public opinion to visit Kioto and do homage to the mikado, an ancient ceremony which had not been performed for two hundred and thirty years, and whose former existence had almost been forgotten.
This was followed by a still more vital act. Under orders from the mikado, the shogun appointed the prince of Echizen premier of the empire. The prince at once took a remarkable step. For over two centuries the daimios had been forced to reside in Yedo. With a word he abolished this custom, and like wild birds the feudal lords flew away. The cage which had held them so long was open, and they winged their way to their distant nests. This act was fatal to the glory of Yedo and the power of its sovereign lord. In the words of the native chronicler, "the prestige of the Tokugawa family, which had endured for three hundred years, which had been as much more brilliant than Kamakura in the age of Yoritomo as the moon is more brilliant than the stars, which for more than two hundred and seventy years had forced the daimios to take their turn of duty in Yedo, and which had, day and night, eighty thousand vassals at its command, fell to ruin in the space of a single day."
In truth, the revolution was largely completed by this signal act. Many of the daimios and their retainers, let loose from their prison, deserted the cause of their recent lord. Their place of assemblage was now at Kioto, which became once more populous and bustling. They strengthened the imperial court with gold and pledged to it their devotion. Pamphlets were issued, some claiming that the clans owed allegiance to the shogun, others that the mikado was the true and only emperor.
The first warlike step in support of the new ideas was taken in 1863, by the clan of Choshiu, which erected batteries at Shimonoseki, refused to disarm at the shogun's order, and fired on foreign vessels. This brought about a bombardment, in the following year, by the ships of four foreign nations, the most important result of which was to teach the Japanese the strength of the powers against which they had arrayed themselves.
Meanwhile the men of Choshiu, the declared adherents of the mikado, urged him to make a journey to Yamato, and thus show to his people that he was ready to take the field in person against the barbarians. This suggestion was at first received with favor, but suddenly the Choshiu envoys and their friends were arrested, the palace was closely guarded, and all members or retainers of the clan were forbidden to enter the capital, an order which placed them in the position of outlaws. The party of the shogun had made the mikado believe that the clan was plotting to seize his person and through him to control the empire.
This act of violence led to civil war. In August, 1864, the capital was attacked by a body of thirteen hundred men of the Choshiu and other disaffected clans. It was defended by the adherents of the shogun, now the supporters of the mikado. For two days the battle raged, and at the end of that time a great part of the city was a heap of ashes, some thirty thousand edifices being destroyed by the flames. "The Blossom Capital became a scorched desert." The Choshiu were defeated, but Kioto lay in ruins. A Japanese city is like a house of card-board, easily destroyed, and almost as easily rebuilt.
This conflict was followed by a march in force upon Choshiu to punish its rebellious people. The expedition was not a popular one. Some powerful feudal lords refused to join it. Of those mustered into the ranks many became conveniently sick, and those who marched were disorganized and without heart for the fight. Choshiu, on the contrary, was well prepared. The clansmen, who had long been in contact with the Dutch, had thrown aside the native weapons, were drilled in European tactics, and were well armed with rifles and artillery. The result was, after a three months' campaign, the complete defeat of the invading army, and an almost fatal blow to the prestige of the shogun. This defeat was immediately followed by the death of the young shogun, who had been worn out by the intense anxiety of his period of rule.
He was succeeded by the last of the shoguns, Keiki, appointed head of the Tokugawa family in October, 1866, and shogun in January, 1867. This position he had frequently declined. He was far too weak and fickle a man to hold it at such a time. He was popular at court because of his opposition to the admission of the foreigners, but he was by no means the man to hold the reins of government at that perilous juncture of affairs.
In fact, he had hardly accepted the office when a vigorous pressure was brought upon him to resign, in which a number of princes and powerful noblemen took part. It was their purpose to restore the ancient government of the realm. Keiki yielded, and in November, 1867, resigned his high office of Sei-i Tai Shogun. During this critical interval the mikado had died, and a new youthful emperor had been raised to the throne.
But the imperial power was not so easily to be restored, after its many centuries of abrogation. The Aidzu, the most loyal of all the clans to the shogun, and the leaders in the war against the Choshiu, guarded the palace gates, and for the time being were masters of the situation. Meanwhile the party of the mikado was not idle. Gradually small parties of soldiers were sent by them to the capital, and a quiet influence was brought to bear to induce the court to take advantage of the opportunity and by a bold movement abolish the office of shogun and declare the young emperor the sole sovereign of the realm.
This coup-d'etat was effected January 3, 1868. On that day the introduced troops suddenly took possession of the palace gates, the nobles who surrounded the emperor were dismissed and replaced by others favorable to the movement, and an edict was issued in the name of the mikado declaring the office of shogun abolished, and that the sole government of the empire lay in the hands of the mikado and his court. New offices were established and new officials chosen to fill them, the clan of Choshiu was relieved from the ban of rebellion and honored as the supporter of the imperial power, and a completely new government was organized.
This decisive action led to civil war. The adherents of the Tokugawa clan, in high indignation at this revolutionary act, left the capital, Keiki, who now sought to seize his power again, at their head. On the 27th of February he marched upon Kioto with an army of ten thousand, or, as some say, thirty thousand, men. The two roads leading to the capital had been barricaded, and were defended by two thousand men, armed with artillery.
A fierce battle followed, lasting for three days. Greatly as the defenders of the barriers were out-numbered, their defences and artillery, with their European discipline, gave them the victory. The shogun was defeated, and fled with his army to Ozaka, the castle of which was captured and burned, while he took refuge on an American vessel in the harbor. Making his way thence to Yedo in one of his own ships, he shut himself up in his palace, once more with the purpose of withdrawing from the struggle.
His retainers and many of the daimios and clans urged him to continue the war, declaring that, with the large army and abundant supplies at his command, and the powerful fleet under his control, they could restore him to the position he had lost. But Keiki had had enough of war, and could not bear the idea of being a rebel against his liege lord. Declaring that he would never take up arms against the mikado, he withdrew from the struggle to private life.
In the mean time the victorious forces of the south had reached the suburbs of Yedo, and were threatening to apply the torch to that tinder-box of a city unless it were immediately surrendered. Their commander, being advised of the purpose of the shogun, promised to spare the city, but assailed and burned the magnificent temple of Uyeno, in which the rebels still in arms had taken refuge. For a year longer the war went on, victory everywhere favoring the imperial army. By the 1st of July, 1869, hostilities were at an end, and the mikado was the sole lord of the realm.
Thus ended a military domination that had continued for seven hundred years. In 1167, Kiyomori had made himself military lord of the empire. In 1869, Mutsuhito, the one hundred and twenty-third mikado in lineal descent, resumed the imperial power which had so long been lost. Unlike China, over which so many dynasties have ruled, Japan has been governed by a single dynasty, according to the native records, for more than twenty-five hundred years.
The fall of the shogun was followed by the fall of feudalism. The emperor, for the first time for many centuries, came from behind his screen and showed himself openly to his people. Yedo was made the eastern capital of the realm, its name being charged to Tokio. Hither, in September, 1871, the daimios were once more summoned, and the order was issued that they should give up their strongholds and feudal retainers and retire to private life. They obeyed. Resistance would have been in vain. Thus fell another ancient institution, eight centuries old. The revolution was at an end. The shogunate and the feudal system had fallen, to rise no more. A single absolute lord ruled over Japan.
As regards the cry of "expel the barbarians," which had first given rise to hostilities, it gradually died away as the revolution continued. The strength of the foreign fleets, the advantages of foreign commerce, the conception which could not be avoided that, instead of being barbarians, these aliens held all the high prizes of civilization and had a thousand important lessons to teach, caused a complete change of mind among the intelligent Japanese, and they quickly began to welcome those whom they had hitherto inveterately opposed, and to change their institutions to accord with those of the Western world.