IN January 1868 some young samurai and their merchant sympathisers overthrew Japan’s Tokugawa shogunate and with it seven centuries of feudal rule. The so-called Meiji restoration was the cue for such rapid industrialisation and modernisation that not even China’s more recent reforms have matched it. The effect was to vault Japan into the ranks of the world’s great powers. Today the government of Shinzo Abe is making much of the anniversary. For the prime minister, the proud story of the Meiji restoration is a lesson in how people should embrace modernity and change, while revering tradition. Many Japanese, however, are uncomfortable with this interpretation.

Before American warships showed up in 1853 in Edo Bay and demanded trading rights for their country, Japan had for over two centuries been a closed land. The ships’ arrival laid bare the inadequacy of the samurai warrior class. As Western pressure for trading rights and treaty ports grew, younger samurai bitterly criticised the military government for giving in to it. The hotheads began plotting for change. The slogan with which they launched their coup was “revere the emperor, expel the barbarians”. For the first part, they called on tradition. They put the imperial line, whose members had for centuries been living as ciphers in Kyoto, back into the centre of the polity. They brought the 12-year-old emperor, Mutsuhito (pictured, seated, when older), to Edo, which they renamed Tokyo, or Eastern Capital. He chose meiji (“enlightened”) as the name for his rule. Hence the Meiji restoration.

It was actually a revolution, though. Far from expelling the barbarians, the new leaders embraced everything foreign. The “Charter Oath” of April 1868 that formally ended feudal rule decreed that “knowledge shall be sought throughout the world”. Some 50 officials set off on a tour of America and Europe to learn about administration, trade, industry and military affairs. On their return, and with foreign help, they threw their country into a race to catch up with the West, building railways and roads, pursuing land reform that redistributed the old feudal estates, establishing a Western-based system of education, and building a modern army. In 1889 the Meiji constitution, modelled along Prussian lines, enshrined both representative government and reverence for the emperor. Together, these were potent steps. In 1895 Japan humiliated China, East Asia’s traditional power, in a brief war fought over influence in Korea. In 1905 it did the same to Russia. Japan had previously feared the snuffing out of its independence by Western powers. In the Social Darwinian parlance of the day, it risked being served as meat at the Western imperial banquet. After the Russo-Japanese war it ended up joining the high table.

It all went to Japan’s head. There was no clear break, as there was in Germany with Hitler’s rise to power, between the enlightened Japan that the Meiji reformers built and the militarist one that in 1937 launched into total war. The seeds of Japanese aggression and atrocities were sown in the emperor worship and glorification of the armed forces that were essential elements of the Meiji world. This is the unspoken problem with those who, like Mr Abe sometimes, refuse to face up to the wartime past. It risks pulling on a thread to the point where the Meiji narrative of national redemption itself comes into question. And then what is there left to be proud of? Better to burnish the myth. Some conservatives in Mr Abe’s party even miss the Meiji constitution’s putting of family before individual, and emperor before all. Yet many Japanese find little that is nostalgic in an era when women and other groups faced harsh treatment. Mr Abe is the most forward-looking of Japan’s recent prime ministers, keenly aware of the challenges of a shrinking population and a China on the rise. But he struggles to harness Meiji nostalgia to the cause.