The Meiji Restoration (明治維新; Meiji Ishin), also known as the Meiji Ishin, Revolution or Renewal, describes a chain of events that led to a change in Japan's political and social structure. It occurred from 1866 to 1869, a period of 4 years that transverses both the late Edo (often called Late Tokugawa shogunate) and beginning of the Meiji Era. Probably the most important foreign account of the events of 1862-69 is contained in A Diplomat in Japan by Sir Ernest Satow.
The formation in 1866 of the Satcho Alliance between Saigo Takamori, the leader of the Satsuma domain, and Kido Takayoshi, the leader of the Choshu domain, marks the beginning of the Meiji restoration. These two leaders supported the emperor and were brought together by Sakamoto Ryoma for the purpose of challenging the ruling Tokugawa Shogunate (bakufu) and restoring the emperor to power.
The Tokugawa bakufu came to an official end on November 9, 1867, when the 15th Tokugawa Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu "put his prerogatives at the emperor's disposal" (Beasley, 52) and then resigned his position 10 days later. This was effectively the "restoration" (Taisei Hōkan) of imperial rule, although Yoshinobu retained considerable power.
Shortly thereafter in January 1868, the Boshin War (War of the Year of the Dragon) started with the Battle of Toba Fushimi in which an army led by forces from Choshu and Satsuma defeated the ex-shogun's army and forced the Emperor to strip Yoshinobu of all power. Some shogunate forces escaped to Hokkaido, where they attempted to set up the breakaway Republic of Ezo, but this came to an early end in May 1869 with the siege of Hakodate, Hokkaido. The defeat of the armies of the former shogun (led by Hijikata Toshizo) marked the end of the Meiji Restoration; all defiance to the emperor and his rule ended.
The leaders of the Meiji Restoration, as this revolution came to be known, claimed that their actions restored the emperor's powers. This is not in fact true. Power simply moved from the Tokugawa Shogun to a new oligarchy of the daimyo who defeated him. These oligarchs were mostly from the Satsuma Province (Okubo Toshimichi and Saigo Takamori), and the Choshu province (Ito Hirobumi, Yamagata Aritomo, and Kido Koin.)
These were leading figures in the Meiji Restoration when the Japanese emperors retook power from the Tokugawa shoguns. Some of them went on to become Prime Ministers of Japan.
Reference and further reading
Beasley, W. G. The Rise of Modern Japan: Political, Economic and Social Change Since 1850. St. Martin's Press, New York 1995.
The names of the Meiji Oligarchists were taken from: Murphey, Rhoades. East Asia: A New History. Addison Wesley Longman, New York 1997.
Further reading: A Diplomat in Japan by Sir Ernest Satow ISBN 4925080288
Akamatsu, Paul. Meiji 1868: Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Japan. Trans. Miriam Kochan. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.
Beasley, W. G. The Meiji Restoration. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1972.
Craig, Albert M. Chōshū in the Meiji Restoration. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961.
Jansen, Marius B. and Gilbert Rozman, eds. Japan in Transition: From Tokugawa to Meiji. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986.
Jansen, Marius B. The Making of Modern Japan. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000.
Wall, Rachel F. Japan's Century: An Interpretation of Japanese History since the Eighteen-fifties. London: The Historical Association, 1971.