Nov 092013


On this date in 1867 the Tokugawa shogunate in Japan came to its official end, when Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the 15th Tokugawa shogun “put his prerogatives at the Emperor’s disposal” and resigned 10 days later. Thus began the Meiji Restoration, also known as the Meiji Ishin, Revolution, Reform, or Renewal, when 15 year old emperor Meiji was restored as ruler of Japan.  Of course it was not as simple as all that – history rarely is.

The Tokugawa shoguns (hereditary military leaders) had ruled Japan since 1600 when Tokugawa Ieyasu seized control from the emperor.  Emperors continued to exist thereafter but had no power. When Westerners think of “typical” Japanese culture – arts, cuisine, samurai, geishas – they are thinking of the Tokugawa period. The culture had rigid codes of conduct and was strictly isolationist from other cultures.  For 250 years these policies worked, but cracks appeared in the 1850’s when the intrusion of Western ships, notably Commodore Perry’s arrival, made it clear that isolationism had left Japan far behind the rest of the world in many spheres, including technology.  After considerable debate among the powerful there was some (not universal) agreement that the shoguns should relinquish power to the emperor who would then open up Japan to modern influences.  The official end of the shogunate was not the end of the story, however.  People holding a lot of power under the old system were not going to give it up without a fight.

Movies such as “The Last Samurai” (pitiful oversimplification) characterize the rebellion of the supporters of the old shogunate against Meiji’s faction as a cultural war, and to some extent it was.  What is frequently overlooked is that even in the 1850’s Western influences had crept in.  Some samurai wore Western clothes and carried rifles. It was not all about kimonos versus suits — old culture versus new.


What the samurai stood to lose more than their old cultural ways was hereditary privilege which gave them power, wealth, and prestige.  So war was inevitable. In January 1868, the Boshin War (War of the Year of the Dragon) started with the Battle of Toba-Fushimi in which imperial forces defeated the ex-shogun’s army. The following map shows how long and protracted the war between those loyal to the emperor and those to the shogun was after that first battle. It wended its way all around Japan.  And . . . both sides used guns (although many of the shogun supporters used spears and swords).


The Meiji oligarchy that formed the government under the rule of the emperor first introduced measures to consolidate their power against the remnants of the Tokugawa period.  In 1868, all Tokugawa lands were seized and placed under imperial control, thus placing them under the prerogative of the new Meiji government. In 1869 even the lands of daimyo (feudal lords) loyal to the emperor were taken away, thus creating, arguably for the first time, a central government in Japan which exercised direct power through the entire realm.

Throughout Japan at the time, the samurai numbered 1.9 million. (For comparison, this was more than 10 times the size of the French privileged class before the 1789 French Revolution.) Most samurai did not work, but were paid fixed stipends through direct taxation of the peasants. Their upkeep presented a tremendous financial burden on the economy, so the oligarchs took action.  There was also a desire on the part of the oligarchs to break the cultural backbone of the feudal system which had as rigid a hereditary class system as the Indian caste system. The oligarchs embarked on a slow and deliberate process to abolish the samurai class. First, in 1873, it was announced that the samurai stipends were to be taxed on a rolling basis. Later, in 1874, the samurai were given the option to convert their stipends into government bonds. Finally, in 1876, this commutation was made compulsory.

To reform the military, the government instituted nationwide conscription in 1873, mandating that every male would serve in the armed forces upon turning 21 for four years; followed by three more years in the reserves. One of the primary differences between the samurai and peasant class was the right to bear arms; this ancient privilege was suddenly extended to every male in the nation. Furthermore, samurai were no longer allowed to walk about town bearing a sword or weapon to show their status as in former times. This led to a series of riots from disgruntled samurai. One of the major riots was the one led by Saigō Takamori, the Satsuma Rebellion, which eventually turned into a civil war. This rebellion was, however, put down swiftly by the newly formed Imperial Japanese Army, trained in Western tactics and weapons, even though the core of the new army was the Tokyo police force, which was largely composed of former samurai. This sent a strong message to the dissenting samurai that their time was indeed over. There were fewer subsequent samurai uprisings and the distinction became all but a name as the samurai joined the new society. The ideal of samurai military spirit lived on in romanticized form, however, and was often used as propaganda during 20th century wars of the Empire of Japan.

However, it is equally true that the majority of samurai were content despite having their status abolished. Many found employment in the government bureaucracy, which resembled an elite class in its own right. The samurai, being better educated than most of the population, became teachers, gun makers, government officials, or military officers. While the formal title of samurai was abolished, the elitist spirit that characterized the samurai class lived on.

Besides drastic changes to the social structure of Japan, in an attempt to create a strong centralized state defining its national identity, the government established a dominant national dialect, called hy?jungo, that replaced local and regional dialects. It was based on patterns of the Tokyo samurai classes and eventually become the norm in the realms of education, media, government and business.

Meiji in his 50's

Meiji in his 50’s

As part of the Meiji reformations, the Emperor lifted the ban on red meat and promoted Western cuisine, which was viewed as the cause of the Westerner’s greater physical size. The cuisine known as yōshoku was thus created, and as a result of its origins, relies on meat as a common element, unlike the typical Japanese cuisine at the time, based on fish and poultry. Many yōshoku dishes are barely distinguishable from Western counterparts with little more than a slight Japanese twist. They are now considered as Japanese as sushi and are immensely popular, especially at home. Hayashi rice, for example, is a basic stew of beef, onions, and mushrooms in a demi-glace served with rice. It is considered comfort food, much like mac and cheese is in the U.S. However, yōshoku varies greatly in terms of how much Japanese cuisine has influenced the original over the years.  Omurice, for example, is indeed an omelet, but barely.  It consists of some kind of fried rice wrapped in a thin sheet of fried beaten egg and bathed in a sauce such as ketchup or demi-glace.

I’m not a big fan of yōshoku in general.  I’ve had it a few times in Tokyo when I needed a cheap and quick lunch (an indifferent curry and rice and hayashi rice), but ate with little gusto.  I do like Nikujaga, however.  It’s sort of an Irish stew (beef, potatoes, onions, beans, and carrots), but in a sweet soy sauce.  You should use heavily marbled beef if you can, if not use tenderloin. Shirataki are thin, transparent rice noodles. Dashi is the simmering stock of choice because it blends well with the soy.  Dashi is made from dried bonito flakes and kelp, and is the absolute backbone of Japanese cooking. You can get a powdered form in Asian markets. If not you can use beef stock, but it should be thin with low sodium. One important feature of this dish is that the vegetable pieces are big, much bigger than Western norms.



1 tbsp vegetable oil
8 ounces beef sliced thin
1 onion, peeled and cut in thick slices
4 potatoes, peeled and cut into large chunks
1 carrot, peeled and cut into large pieces
4 fresh shiitake mushrooms stems removed and quartered
½ cup sake
2 cups dashi or thin beef broth (low sodium)
2 tbsps sugar
3 tbsps soy sauce
5 oz bag shirataki drained and rinsed
3 ozs green beans, ends trimmed and left whole


Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a heavy pot.

Working in batches, sauté the beef until lightly browned on both sides. Set the beef aside.

Sauté the onions until they are soft, then add the potatoes, carrots, and shiitake mushrooms, and sauté for another 3 minutes.

Add the sake and bring to a rapid boil for about 1 minute.

Turn down the heat to medium, add the dashi, sugar, soy sauce, shirataki, green beans, and beef.

Simmer, partially covered until the potatoes and carrots are well cooked (about 30 mins).

Serves 4-6