Meiji Revolution and the Emergence of the Political Culture of the Literati

  • Author: Hun Park
  • Publication Date: December / 2019
  • Publisher: SNU Press

Most historians have understood the Meiji Revolution from modernist viewpoints emphasizing the ‘Western Impact’ as the determinant of Japan’s transformation toward a modern state. However, we can find out a more influential factor which shook the political stability of the early modern Tokugawa regime. It was the increasing spread of the ‘political culture of Confucian literati’ promoted by the fever of Confucianism study during the former half of the nineteenth century.

As numerous schools and study groups emerged since late eighteen century, many samurai became eager to learn various studies, mostly Confucianism. Lower samurai, who had been warriors of functionaries (吏) remote from political arena, became politicized to take part in political decision making. The author proposes to name this phenomenon as the ‘Samurai’s assumption of the role of Confucian literati (士化)’.

Samurai began to challenge political establishments using the means such as petitions, academic networks and school-based political factions embodied in the ‘political culture of Confucian literati’ which had been established in Song and Ming China and Chosŏn Korea. This way of political situation unexpectedly emerged in the nineteenth century Japan which had originally been a ‘garrison state.’

During the over two hundred years of peace, the majority of samurai became functionaries who had little voice in political decision making. Yet, they started to become  Shi (士) who presented themselves as political activists who are responsible to their own state and society.

The author argues that this samurai’s turn to ‘Shi’ were the most important factor that brought about the great disturbances and collapse of Tokugawa regime during the mid-nineteen century. Even after the beginning of radical westernization, it continued to be influential until the end of the nineteenth century.