After the Meiji Light: The Transition to Taisho, 1905-1912

After the Meiji Light: The Transition to Taisho, 1905-1912

Background Information.

Editor’s Note: It will be particularly helpful to have access to either Gordon, Andrew, A Modern History of Japan or McClain, James, Japan: A Modern History to conduct this lesson.

With the revision of the Unequal Treaties, acknowledgement by the West of Japan’s great power status, and its acquisition of a colonial empire, Japan’s wars against the Chinese and Russians seemed to represent the realization of the Meiji dream.  Instead, Japan’s leaders recognized early just how fragile their new great power status was abroad and how precarious popular support for their government was at home.

Learning Goals.

  1. Students will compare and contrast the benefits and obstacles brought about in Japan by the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars;
  2. Students will understand the different reasons why the transition from the Meiji to the Taisho periods can be called a time of uncertainty about Japanese society, Japan's leadership, and Japan's place in the world; and
  3. Students will describe reasons for increased political consciousness and dissatisfaction with governmental policies and actions among the Japanese populace during this time period.


Common Core Standards
College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading

  • Standard 1.  Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
  • Standard 7.  Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing

  • Standard 2.  Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening

  • Standard 4.  Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
McRel Standards
Language Arts
  1. McRel Standard 4Gathers and uses information for research purposes.
  2. McRel Standard 5Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process.
  3. McRel Standard 7Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of informational texts.
  4. McRel Standard 8Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes.

World History

  1. McRel Standard 36Understands patterns of global change in the era of Western military and economic dominance from 1800 to 1914.
  2. McRel Standard 37Understands major global trends from 1750 to 1914.
  3. McRel Standard 38Understands reform, revolution, and social change in the world economy of the early 20th century.
  4. McRel Standard 39Understands the causes and global consequences of World War I.

Key Concept.

The transition from Meiji to Taisho Japan was a period of reflection and uncertainty for the Japanese people and their political leaders.

Essential Question.

In what ways did the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese Wars impact Japanese society and Japan’s economy?

Primary Source.  

Thought Questions.

  1. What set of expectations arose among the Japanese populace during these wars and why was the Japanese government unable to live up to its own wartime propaganda?
  2. What changes to Japanese society led intellectuals to be both proud of its nation’s accomplishments, yet also to be extremely uncertain of the costs of progress during the transition from Meiji to Taisho?



Focus Activity Ideas.

Divide students into small groups and ask them to formulate a response to the following question: In contemporary American society, what recourse does the populace have to express grievances about governmental policies and actions?

Main Lesson Activity Ideas.

  1. Geography Quiz: (3-5 minutes)
    Prepare either a list of ten place names and ask the students to locate them correctly on maps of Japan and East Asia, or one page of ten place names with blank spaces provided and two maps with the places marked on the maps.   Include dots, arrows pointing to islands, and so forth and label A-J for a matching exercise.
  2. Lecture:
    Use an image of the Japanese people meeting in Hibiya Park on September 5, 1905, after the government made public the terms of the Treaty of Portsmouth, as a starting point for a discussion of the significance of the Hibiya Riots.  (During the riots, around 30,000 protesters gathered to call for the government to renegotiate the treaty with Russia.  As the crowd got out of hand and began to destroy government property, the police responded with force, leaving seventeen of the rioters dead.)
  3. Reading:
    The Hibiya Riots signified the growth of a mass political consciousness and the emergence of a nationalist chauvinism among the populace as well as marking the beginning of popular movements against the government.  In short, the Japanese people had reached their limit of endurance and willingness to sacrifice for the government uncritically.  The chapter entitled “New Awakenings, New Modernities” in James McClain’s Japan: A Modern History, is good background reading for this unit, while Andrew Gordon’s subsection “The Era of Popular Protest” (pages 131-35) from his A Modern History of Japan provides more specific information on the Hibiya Riots themselves.
  4. Video clip viewing and discussion:
    View a clip from Meiji: Asia’s Response to the West (Produced by Pacific Basin Institute in association with KCTS/Seattle. 60 minutes.  The Pacific Century.  Vol. 2. 1992.  Videocassette)  to frame a class discussion of the positive and negative aspects of the changes of the modern era for the Japanese people.  Writer Natsume Soseki represents this generation for many Japanese and the short clip from the end of this video communicates his critique of the gains and losses of the Meiji era.  In addition to popular protest, the government also faced criticism from intellectuals who had grown up during the Meiji era and shared the rebellious independence and uncertainties of the many young men who were educated under the new Western-influenced school system, yet were unable to overcome their nostalgia for the secure values and social harmony of the forsaken past.  (An alternative to this video clip might be to work with an overhead of Soseki and a short discussion of his life and quick reading from Kokoro.)

    Discussion Topics:
    1. What main themes do you see running through Soseki’s take on modern life?
    2. Why would Soseki lament the isolation and alienation of the individual in urban Japanese society?
    3. Most Japanese peopledid not want to go back to life under Tokugawa rule, but what does Soseki tell us is being lost in Japan’s headlong rush to modernize?
  5. Additional reading and discussion:
    Jun'ichiro Tanizaki’s Naomi provides a rich source for a discussion of the changes in Japanese culture during the Taisho period.  Tanizaki wrote Naomi in 1923-24, following his move out of Yokohama after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.  Set in the alluring world of Taisho-era Tokyo, with its nightclubs, movies, and modern, westernized styles, the story is a dissection of the power relations between a man and a woman with whom he is obsessed.

    Guide to specific selections from the novel:
    Pages 3- 6 describe the start of the relationship.  In pages 60-70 Tanizaki brilliantly satirizes Japanese attempts to adopt western customs set in the context of a ballroom dancing lesson.  Pages 104 - 112 witness the protagonist's humiliation and subjection to his westernized wife's desires at a sleepover with some of her younger male friends.

    Discussion or writing topics:
    For discussion, the class could be spit into three groups, with each group working on one question, then reconvening to discuss all three questions; alternatively, each group could be assigned one of the three passages and asked to answer all three questions based on their passage, then reconvene for shared reading and discussion.
    1. On the basis of these passages, how would you describe the way the protagonist (Joji) sees Naomi?
    2. What is Tanizaki implicitly criticizing in these passages?
    3. Do you see these passages as allegorical?
  6. Concluding discussion:
    To end class, place images of General Nogi Maresuke and Emperor Taisho (Yoshihito) on an overhead or create a PowerPoint slide.  First, relate General’s Nogi’s story of military service to Emperor Meiji and his and his wife’s subsequent ritual suicide upon the Meiji Emperor’s death on September 13, 1912.  Then, discuss Emperor Taisho’s childhood bout of meningitis that caused him to be mentally incompetent.  A quick overview of how this disease marked him for life, followed by a discussion of the numerous antics that finally led the government to replace him in 1921 with the prince regent, will give students a feel for the great divide that characterized not only these two major figures but symbolized the uncertain transition ahead for the Japanese government and its people.  (For further information on Genera Nogi see the “New Awakenings, New Modernities” chapter in James McClain’s Japan: A Modern History, pages 316-17.  For additional information on the Taisho Emperor, see Andrew Gordon’s textbook A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present, pages 161-62.)

    Discussion topics:
    1. After studying the biographies of General Nogi and the Taisho Emperor, what general sense of things to come do you think the Japanese people experienced with the end of the Meiji period in 1912?
    2. Do you think that they felt confident about the future of their nation?  Why or why not?

Summative Activity Ideas.

  1. Critique:
    Using Soseki’s prose as a model, have each student write a short comment on a controversial issue in modern American popular thought, describing this issue’s positive and negative ramifications in contemporary culture.
  2. Research Essay:
    Assign a textbook-based research essay based on the following question: What unprecedented events and trends characterized the Taisho period? Students can be prompted to think about:
    1. Japan's new international position;
    2. The weakening of the old Meiji leadership;
    3. The development of political parties;
    4. The women's movement;
    5. Economic and social modernization and the gap between rich and poor;
    6. The development of mass media; and
    7. The growing pace of public protest.
  3. Analysis - Essay and/or Discussion:
    Ask students to study the table in A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present (page 132), and to describe the various opinions, trends and policies that they perceive in these events and their outcomes during the late Meiji and the Taisho periods.



Topic,Art; Theme,Culture; Topic,Geography; Topic,History-Modern; Theme,Imperial Japan; Unit,Imperial Japan 1890-1945; Type,Lesson Plan; Topic,Literature; Topic,Popular Culture; Grade Level,Secondary; Subject Area,Social Studies; Topic,War & Conflict;
Meiji, Taisho, War, imperial Japan