Following the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the ancient court nobility of Kyoto (kuge) regained some of its lost status. Several members of the kuge played a crucial role in the overthrow of the Tokugawa shogunate, and the early Meiji government nominated kuge to head all seven of the newly established administrative departments.
The Meiji oligarchs, as part of their Westernizing reforms, merged the kuge with the former daimyo (feudal lords) into an expanded aristocratic class on 25 July 1869, to recognize that the kuge and former daimyo were a social class distinct from the other designated social classes of shizoku (former samurai) and heimin (commoners). Itō Hirobumi, one of the principal authors of the Meiji constitution, intended the new kazoku peerage to serve as a political and social bulwark for the "restored" emperor and the Japanese imperial institution. At the time, the kuge and former daimyo consisted of a group of 427 families.
All members of the kazoku without an official government appointment in the provinces were initially obliged to reside in Tokyo. By the end of 1869, a pension system was adopted, which gradually displaced the kazoku from their posts as provincial governors and as government leaders. The stipends promised by the government were eventually replaced by government bonds.
Under the Peerage Act of 7 July 1884, pushed through by Hirobumi Ito after visiting Europe, the Meiji government expanded the hereditary peerage with the award of kazoku status to persons regarded as having performed outstanding services to the nation. The government also divided the kazoku into five ranks explicitly based on the British peerage, but with titles deriving from the ancient Chinese nobility:
- Prince or Duke (公爵 kōshaku )
- Marquess (侯爵 kōshaku )
- Earl or Count (伯爵 hakushaku )
- Viscount (子爵 shishaku )
- Baron (男爵 danshaku )
The initial rank distribution for kazoku houses of kuge descent depended on the highest possible office to which its ancestors had been entitled in the imperial court. Thus, the heirs of the five regent houses (go-seike) of the Fujiwara dynasty (Konoe, Takatsukasa, Kujō, Ichijō, and Nijō) all became princes. The heads of other kuge houses (including Daigo, Hamuro, Kumamoto, Hirohata, Kazan'in, Kikutei, Koga, Nakamikado, Nakayama, Oinomikado, Saga, Sanjo, Saionji, Shijō, and Tokudaiji) became marquesses. Also, the head of the Shō family, the former royal family of the Ryūkyūs (Okinawa), was given the title of marquess. When the Korean Empire was annexed in 1910, the House of Yi was mediatized as a kingship (王).
Excluding the Tokugawa, the initial kazoku rank distribution for the former daimyo lords depended on rice revenue: those with 150,000 koku or more became marquesses, those with 50,000 koku or more become counts, and so forth. The former shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, became a prince, the heads of primary Tokugawa branch houses (shinpan daimyo) became marquesses, and the heads of the secondary branches became counts.
The Mōri (Chōshū Domain) and Shimazu (Satsuma Domain) clans were both raised to the rank of prince for their role in the Meiji Restoration; the Yamauchi (Tosa Domain) clan was given the rank of marquess.
As in the British peerage, only the actual holder of a title and his consort were considered part of the kazoku. The holders of the top two ranks, prince and marquess, automatically became members of the House of Peers in the Diet of Japan upon their succession or upon majority (in the case of peers who were minors). Counts, viscounts, and barons elected up to 150 representatives from their ranks to sit in the House of Peers.
Titles and hereditary financial stipends passed according to primogeniture, although kazoku houses frequently adopted sons from collateral branches of their own houses and other kazoku houses to prevent their lines from dying out. A 1904 amendment to the 1889 Imperial Household Law allowed minor princes (ō) of the imperial family to renounce their imperial status and become peers (in their own right) or heirs to childless peers. Initially there were 11 non-imperial princes or dukes, 24 marquesses, 76 counts, 324 viscounts, and 74 barons, for a total of 509 peers. By 1928, through promotions and new creations there were a total of 954 peers: 18 non-imperial princes or dukes, 40 marquesses, 108 counts, 379 viscounts, and 409 barons. The kazoku reached a peak of 1016 families in 1944.
The 1946 Constitution of Japan abolished the kazoku and ended the use of all titles of nobility or rank outside the immediate Imperial Family. Nonetheless, many descendants of former kazoku families continue to occupy prominent roles in Japanese society and industry.
See also 
- Jansen, Marius B. (2000). The Making of Modern Japan. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-00334-7. OCLC 44090600.
- Lebra, Sugiyama Takie (1993). Above the Clouds: Status Culture of the Modern Japanese Nobility. Berkeley, California: University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-07602-0.
- Wakabayashi, Bob Tadashi (1991). "In Name Only: Imperial Sovereignty in Early Modern Japan". The Journal of Japanese Studies 17 (1): 25–57.
- Jansen, The Making of Modern Japan, p. 391.
- Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan, p. 1194.
- Lebra, Above the Clouds: Status Culture of the Modern Japanese Nobility.