Times & Places

Meiji period (1868-1912)

The Meiji period (1868-1912), named for the reigning emperor Meiji, was a period of change in Japan. Prior to 1857, Japan experienced limited contact with foreign visitors and the outside world for over two centuries, a policy maintained by the military government of the shogun (the Japanese army's commander-in-chief) and his samurai warriors. After foreign powers induced Japan to reopen ports to the outside world and sign trade treaties, civil war broke out in the country, and a reform group rose to power. This group served as the catalyst of the Meiji Restoration and abolished the hereditary dictatorship of the shogun, returning power to the emperor.

During the Meiji Period, which transferred power from the former military government to the emperor, several edicts appeared that stripped the samurai of their power. They were ordered to relinquish lands to the emperor, forced to turn in their weapons, and subjected to heavy taxation. Former military domains were transferred to appointed and later elected officials, and the emperor maintained central power. This reduced many former samurai, who had previously been prolific patrons of the arts, to poverty, causing changes to Japanese metalworkers’ inspiration and patronage.

After reopening communications and trade with foreign entities, Japan strove for modernization equivalent to leading European and American countries. Trade flourished, and the government encouraged participation in industrial exhibitions that showcased the artistry and quality of Japanese goods. After the Vienna Exhibition in 1873, Japanese metalwork saw a revival as foreign demand increased, and the government encouraged the reproduction of earlier pieces for export. With this return to earlier subjects and styles, a renewed interest in Japan’s ancient culture occurred. For example, the 19th-century sculpture Takenouchi no Sukune Meets the Dragon King of the Sea depicts a legend that looks back to the third century CE [1993.86.11.FA].

Adapted from

DMA Connect, 2012.

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