Schools History Project Essay Competition

Posted by SJV - Tuesday 9 June 2020

Joe Crouch in Year 12 has submitted a stunning essay to the Schools History Project competition, the theme of which was “If 1066 was seen to be the most important date in English history, what would be the equivalent in another country?”. The national competition is run in association with leading historian Peter Frankopan, and Joe’s full essay is reproduced below.

Rich’s History teacher, Mr Marks, says: “During these strange times, I wanted to provide my History students with the opportunity to develop their research skills, practise their extended writing and extend their understanding of the wider world outside of the curriculum we teach at Sir Thomas Rich’s. I invited students to take part in the essay competition run by the Schools History Project in association with the world-leading historian Peter Frankopan, with the remit being that the essay could be no longer than 800 words and should be both geographically and chronologically ambitious.

“One of the many wonderful things about working at Rich’s is the joy of teaching students with inquisitive minds, and I am impressed as to how they continually surpass expectations - and this competition has been no exception! There were many notable essay entries from Rich’s students, with high degrees of sophistication from all year groups, but the standout essay (which has been submitted to the competition) was by Joe Crouch, who examined the Meiji Restoration of 1868.”

Joe comments: “I’ve always been intrigued with how the economic powerhouses of today have come to be, which becomes particularly interesting with the question of Asia, where Japan’s economic superiority is a notably modern phenomenon. Historical investigation allows us to trace back to the origins of these modern economies. With the case of Japan, the Meiji Restoration of 1868 is a remarkably interesting event, as it led to a distinctively unique and radical shift in the nation’s economic and political structures, and is widely regarded as the birth of modern Japan.”

Essay: If 1066 is said to be the most important date in English history, what is the equivalent in another country?

By Joseph Crouch

Japan today is the third largest national economy in the world (1) and is considered by many to be one of the most advanced countries. As historians, we must ask ourselves why it is that Japan was operating as a traditional, medieval-orientated feudal society as late as 1850, and was completely shut-off from the globalising, industrialising economic opulence of the Western world, yet stands today, a little over 150 years later, as a member of the G7.

With its distinct variant of Capitalism and market-oriented economy, Japan exerts significant influence on the international community, as a major source of global capital, to which many would attribute to its remarkable growth in the 20th century (2). The source of Japan’s prosperity however can be traced back further, specifically to the second half of the 19th century, where the nation began its journey towards modernisation. A single year saw the end of the technologically backward and economically stagnant Tokugawa Shogunate, and a series of unquestionably revolutionary national reforms; this year being 1868, the date of the Meiji Restoration. If 1066 is to be considered the turning point in English history, then 1868 is most definitely the watershed of Japanese history. What followed the Meiji Restoration was, in essence, the opening up of Japan.

Since 1603, the Tokugawa government held sovereignty in Japan. The military stratocracy was led by the Tokugawa Shogun, while daimyos (powerful samurai feudal Lords), acted as the government’s vassals, ruling most of Japan from around 300 feudal territories, or han (3). Upon the restoration of Emperor Meiji in 1868, the new rulers attempted to create a strong, centralised state, nominally unified under the Emperor, with a significant focus on modernising on the Western model. This ideology was not only a landmark change for Japan, but was one which would have international importance, as Japan was the first Asian state to model its modernisation process on Western powers, further exemplifying the year of 1868 as a momentous date within the context of global history. Following the restoration, Japan sought to replace the traditional hierarchical order based on Confucian values under a dominant China, with a newer one, based on modernity (4).

The formation of the intellectual group, the ‘Meiji Six Society’ in 1873, aimed to promote modern ethics and ideas through an ‘enlightenment’ of civilization - a direct product of the restoration’s forward-thinking. The primary way in which the new government under the Meiji Emperor would seek to revolutionise and modernise Japanese society, was through the abolishment of the ‘four divisions’ of society which formed the hierarchy of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

In order to achieve such a radical change, the Meiji oligarchy set out the profound goal of abolishing the Samurai: an immensely powerful and historically significant class of Japan, totalling 1.9 million. The Samurai were instrumental members of society, asserting a practical monopoly of military force, as well as having been figures of cultural and political significance since the 12th century. Consequently, their fall under national jurisdiction in 1869, shortly followed by their abolishment from society completely, draws to the historian’s attention the significance and revolutionary nature of the Meiji Restoration. The notion made by the Samurai’s collapse in power echoes the idea of strict obedience to a chain of command, over authority of the individual, epitomising the restoration’s key concept of ‘centralisation’.

However, centralisation and nationalism as central principles of reform under the Meiji Restoration are highlighted most, in the major and abrupt reforming of the economy which took place. The market before the restoration was essentially monopolised by the national government. As soon as the Meiji period began, vast economic reforms were directed at the goal to open up to the world and industrialise. The construction of Japan’s first railroad in 1872, coupled with telegraph line linkage to all major cities in 1880 and the encouragement of private firms by governmental financial support, set the conditions for immense industrial growth in Japan – a change which would finance Japan’s rise to global military prestige, enabling victories in both the Sino and Russo-Japanese wars just years later (5). Perhaps the greatest example of nationalisation after 1868 was the introduction of a national army in 1871, strengthened by universal conscription just two years later (6).

Following the Meiji Restoration, Western cultures were encouraged, all feudal class privileges were abolished, and businesses were eventually privatised – the jump start to capitalism was now underway. Japan welcomed Western influence, often cooperating with specialist foreign experts. The Meiji Period was completely imbued with change in all areas, including agriculture, taxation, banking, trade and industry. The sheer contrast between pre- and post-Meiji Japan was so apparent, that the date of 1868 stands out as one of the most transformative years of change to a society of the late modern era, and was, fundamentally, the birth of modern Japan.

1. Inman, James (January 21, 2011). "China confirmed as World's Second Largest Economy". The Guardian, London.

2. BBC News – Japan country profile – 1 May 2019.

3. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica (2016). ‘Han’ Japanese Government unit.

4. Shih, Chih-yu (2011). “A Rising Unknown: Rediscovering China in Japan’s East Asia” China Review.

5. Matsuyaka, Y Tak (2009). “The Japanese Empire”.

6. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica (2020). ‘Meiji Restoration’.