Realizing the Meiji Dream, 1890-1905

Realizing the Meiji Dream, 1890-1905

Background Information.

Through the early Meiji years (1868-1890), Japan tried to convince the West to revise the unequal treaties saddled upon them in the 1850s by restructuring both its government and society. After the promulgation of the new Meiji Constitution in 1889, the Japanese government applied the lessons of imperialism, turning to international affairs in order to further convince the Western powers that Japan was becoming a “modern” nation. It worked. By mid-1894 the Western powers signed treaties which provided for the gradual elimination of the unequal treaties. 1899 marked the end of extraterritoriality and 1911 brought tariff autonomy.

Several factors shaped Japanese imperialism:
  1. In contrast to the haphazard spread of Western imperialism, Japanese imperialism was planned and based more on strategic concerns;
  2. Japanese imperialism drew upon notions of sacrifice for the imperial throne to inculcate nationalism among its people; and
  3. Japan’s wars against the Chinese and Russians set up unrealistic expectations of national gain. International diplomatic interventions such as the Triple Intervention and the Treaty of Portsmouth frustrated these expectations, and helped to fuel racist popular nationalist images that government leaders used to convince the Japanese people to associate their interests with fellow imperialists.

Learning Goals.

  1. Students will enumerate some of the major motives for Meiji imperialist policies;
  2. Students will contrast Meiji imperialism with contemporary Western imperialist impulses; and
  3. Students will describe the effects of military conflicts such as the Russo-Japanese and Sino-Japanese wars on overarching national attitudes towards Japanese imperialist policies.


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 4.  Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.
  • Standard 7.  Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.
  • Standard 11.    Respond to literature by employing knowledge of literary language, textual features, and forms to read and comprehend, reflect upon, and interpret literary texts from a variety of genres and a wide spectrum of American and world cultures.

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 37Understand 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 42.  Understands major global trends from 1900 to the end of World War II.

Key Concept.

Despite the outward dissimilarity of the motivations for Japanese imperialism at the turn of the 20th century, the nation’s policies were—as with Western imperialism—the result of an interest in gaining international authority.

Essential Question.

How and for what reasons did Japanese imperialism during the Meiji Period change the nation’s standing in the international community?

Primary Source.

Thought Questions.

  1. What does the Japanese government’s willingness to enter into foreign adventures during the Meiji period tell us about its leaders’ assessment of Japan’s economy and society?
  2. What set of domestic and international factors influenced the Japanese political leadership’s decision to become imperialists and pursue overseas colonies?
  3. What groups in Japan and in the wider world opposed the Japanese government’s pursuit of imperialism?



Focus Activity Ideas.

Ask students to write a short response or list of their initial perceptions of general motives for Japanese imperialism, to be revisited at the conclusion of this lesson.

Main Lesson Activity Ideas.

  1. Through a lecture or other means, provide the students with background information regarding the motives and nature of Japanese imperialism. (Good sources to prepare a brief lecture include Pyle, The Making of Modern Japan, 2nd Edition, pp. 134-146, or McClain, Japan: A Modern History, pp. 285-295. Give a short lecture about the primary motives of Meiji imperialism, e.g., nationalist equality with the West, economic expansion, and strategic concerns, to preface a discussion of primary source documents.
  2. In the context of a broader class discussion about the meaning of imperialism, ask students to give some historical and contemporary examples, and to list some general motivations for imperialism that may or may not be applicable to Japan;
  3. Ask students to study a map of Japan and Japanese expansion showing dates of each expansion (see page 196 of Andrew Gordon's textbook A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present for a good map);
  4. Comparative Timeline Activity: Have students construct a timeline illustrating the process of Japanese Imperialism. (The Timeline of Religion and Nationalism in Meiji and Imperial Japan or the Timeline of Modern Japan in our resources section can help them get started.) Have students construct parallel timelines for other imperialist powers. This activity can be divided up among students or groups, with each group responsible for tracing the course of England, France, Germany, or the United States. Use the comparative timelines to prompt the student to consider similarities and differences in the timing and location of Japanese imperialism in comparison to the other nations, and note these comparisons in a chart or document. Have students refer to this document as they discuss similarities and differences between different versions of imperialism either later in this unit or when studying imperialism in a different context.
  5. Research and Share Activity: The suggested study questions below strike at some of the most important issues surrounding the development of Japanese imperialism between 1895 and 1905. Divide the students into groups, and assign each group to answer one or more of the study questions below, and then present their answers to the class. As a follow up activity, students can be asked to complete a short in class writing assignment incorporating the information and concepts from at least two of the study questions. If you have access to Pyle's The Making of Modern Japan, the section entitled “Imperialism and the New Industrial Society” will be helpful:
    1. What were the motives for Japanese imperialism? Explain Mark Peattie's observation that "No colonial empire of recent times was so clearly shaped by strategic considerations.” (quoted in Kenneth Pyle's The Making of Modern Japan, page 135).
    2. Describe the political situation within Korea in the 1880s and early 90s. How did China and Japan react to this situation?
    3. What was the Triple Intervention? What motivated it and what was the Japanese response?
    4. What was the significance of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1902?
    5. President Theodore Roosevelt said of the Russo-Japanese War that "even the Battle of Trafalgar could not match this" (quoted in Kenneth Pyle's The Making of Modern Japan, page 141). The Battle of Trafalgar was a decisive turning point in the British effort to defeat Napoleon's expansionist goals in Europe. What were some of the different reasons that made the Russo-Japanese war so important?
    6. How did the Russo-Japanese war heighten political awareness among ordinary Japanese people?
  6. Primary Source Document Discussion:

    Setting the scene:

    Study Goto Yoshikage's print depicting the Imperial Diet in 1890 (Property of Boston Museum of Fine Arts.) What different features of this scene do you observe? Students might comment on the layout of the Diet and whether it is democratic or authoritarian in appearance, on the western-influenced architecture and dress, on the level of individuation among the members. They might also compare the print with an image of the US Senate or a European parliament.

  7. Document Comparison: Compare and contrast the following two documents:
    1. An excerpt from Prime Minister Yamagata Aritomo's 1890 address to the Diet:

      The independence and security of the nation depend first upon the protection of the line of sovereignty and then the line of advantage… If we wish to maintain the nation's independence among the powers of the world at the present time, it is not enough to guard only the line of sovereignty; we must also defend the line of advantage ... and within the limits of the nation's resources gradually strive for that position. For this reason, it is necessary to make comparatively large appropriations for our army and navy.”
      (Translation from Hackett, Roger F. Yamagata Aritomo in the Rise of Modern Japan, 1838-1922. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971, pp. 138.)
    2. The Imperial Rescript on Education (available for view at
      Discussion Topics:
      1. What sense do you get from these two documents about the nature of Japanese imperialism at the end of the twentieth century?
      2. What are some of the defining elements of Japanese imperialism? (Possible answers: domestic concerns, worries about Western imperialists in East Asia)
      3. In what ways did Meiji imperialism differ from yet also resemble Western imperialism?
      4. According to the Rescript on Education, what is the source of the Emperor's authority?
      5. What are the Rescript's prescriptions for social relationships? (Students can be reminded of the five classic relationships of Confucianism: husband and wife, parent and child, older and younger brother, friend and friend, and ruler and subject.)
      6. What are the predominant values embodied in the Rescript?
      7. If one had internalized the values of the Rescript, how would one understand a newspaper report of Yamagata's address to the Diet in 1890?
  8. Reading and Analyzing a Poem:

    Read Akiko Yosano's poem, "Do Not Offer Your Life" (in Kenneth Pyle's The Making of Modern Japan (page 143). What different reasons does the poet give to her brother as she tries to convince him not to fight? What does Yosano think about the Emperor? Do you think her poem speaks to us today?
  9. Analyzing Visual Images:

    Present some of these postcards, depicting the Russo-Japanese War, to the class: Japanese soldier facing rising sun, Japanese soldiers taking a rest, People dancing under lanterns, Map of Japan, Japanese naval officers. (Many additional examples can be accessed through searching the Leonard A. Lauder Collection of Japanese Postcards at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). Working individually or in groups, students can prepare to present a postcard image to the class, describing what it shows, what it says about the war and Japanese perceptions of the war, and the about the increased political awareness of the Japanese public.
  10. Video Clip Viewing and Discussion: (10-12 minutes + discussion)
    View clip from Meiji: Asia's Response to the West (on the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) followed by a discussion.

    Discussion Topics:
    1. Compare and contrast Japanese popular attitudes before and after the Sino-Japanese War toward the Chinese. In what ways did changing popular attitudes toward the Chinese build up public expectations concerning the government's overseas military activities (a useful primary source to draw on here would be Fukuzawa Yukichi's “Good-bye Asia (Datsu-a),” 1885, in Lu's edited work, Vol. II, pages 351-53).
    2. Compare and contrast the significance of the Russo-Japanese War for the Japanese government and the Japanese public. In what ways did the expectations developed among the populace both support and yet also clash with government efforts to win the war?
    3. In what ways can we view these two wars as the beginning of Japanese imperialism and the onset of an imperialist attitude toward Asia and Asians? (Peter Duus' article entitled “The Takeoff Point of Japanese Imperialism” in Japan Examined: Perspectives on Modern Japanese History is an accessible secondary source that deals with this question, particularly in regard to the Russo-Japanese War.)
  11. Analyzing Contemporary Images of the War:
    1. Look at some of woodblock prints of the Sino-Japanese War that were widely circulated at the time (from Louise Virgin et al., Japan at the Dawn of the Modern Age: Woodblock Prints from the Meiji Era).
    2. What messages are conveyed by the publicly available images of the Sino-Japanese War?
    3. How does the public imagery of the war fit with the thinking in Fukusawa's Datsu-a?
    4. How did pubic feeling about the war conflict with government policy, as expressed in the Treaty of Portsmouth?
  12. Geography Activity:

    When discussing Japanese imperialism, it is useful to make constant reference to times and places (using, for example, projected or enlarged images of the maps to be found in Kenneth Pyle's The Making of Modern Japan (page 142), Andrew Gordon's textbook A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present (page 191), and James McClain's Japan: A Modern History (page 313), in order to familiarize students with locations for specific events. A variety of historical maps in our resources section, such as the Map and Timeline of WWII in the Pacific or the Map of Asia in 1941 are also useful documents for this exercise.

    Ask students to develop a list of the countries and places and events they need to be able to locate to understand this period.

    Base a geography quiz on this list and constantly refer back to it.

Summative Activity Ideas.

  1. Revisit the lists that students generated at the beginning of class specifying their perceptions of general motivations for national imperialism and have them discuss or write about how one of their ideas was confirmed or refuted by the preceding lesson.



Theme,History; Topic,History-Modern; Theme,Imperial Japan; Type,Lesson Plan; Topic,War & Conflict;
Meiji, imperial Japan, war, government