The other book my dad sent along, this is actually a compilation of some chapters from Volume 5 of the Cambridge History of Japan, and Jansen is the editor, as each chapter was written by a different author (although Jansen did write the third chapter, concerning the actual Restoration).
So the book is a bit more focused than the last one I tried, sticking pretty much to the mid-1830s up to the death of the Emperor in 1912, which helps. I didn't feel nearly as overwhelmed with information as I did in The Making of Modern Japan. Also, that book was trying to draw a throughline for the development of Japan as a nation up to the present, while this is more concerned with what drove the movement to remove the shogunate, as well as the subsequent actions and reactions within the country in the immediately following decades.
One thing that had been tripping me up was that I had a misconception of the conflict as being more like the American Civil war, this big continuous violent conflict that tore the country in half, except that in Japan's case, the rebellious side triumphed. But I don't think that's the case. There was sporadic fighting, and there was certainly some communication between major figures of influence in the domains who were tired of the Tokugawa shogunate, but I'm not sure it was ever a nationwide battle. For one thing, the shogunate wasn't really strong enough of a central authority to do that. It had seemingly focused more on trying to keep the domains as individuals, limiting communication and cooperation between them, so it could maintain a weak upper hand. But that left it not only poorly equipped to gather loyal forces readily, but ill-equipped to meet the challenge of pushy Western nations wanting to exploit, er I mean, trade with Japan.
I also had a misconception that the people pushing to remove the shogunate were hoping for some greater liberty for the people, and that may have been true for some of the people fighting, but it seems to have really boiled down to one group of people with land, wealth and influence thinking they should be running things instead of the current group of people with land, wealth and influence. Certainly the Meiji government had no qualms about taxing the crap out of poor farmers, or using the police to effectively silence dissent whenever it started to get too loud. I guess they learned those lessons about modern states from the Western powers quickly.
The last chapter, which dealt with the Meiji government's foreign policy for 30 years or so, did a good job demonstrating how much interwoven Japan's foreign and domestic situations were. When some Okinawan fisherman were stranded on Taiwan and killed by native people there, the government eventually took punitive action (at the cost of like 4500 soldiers' lives, most from tropical illnesses), but did so after two years, at least in part in response to domestic pressures. Forming alliances with Britain, or making boundary agreements with Russia showed the government was a respected part of the international community, which lent legitimacy to it back at home.
'Although most modern states at that time were monarchies, the Japanese case was unique in that the imperial institution was consciously used to create a centralized bureaucratic system. By identifying the new arrangements as rule by the sacred emperor, an aura of sanctity was accorded to them. Japan's armed forces and bureaucrats would be "the emperor's soldiers and officials," making them perhaps less vulnerable to partisan attacks than might have been the case in other societies with shorter periods of dynastic history. By combining a newly created bureaucracy, civilian and military, with the prestige of a fifteen-hundred year-old institution, the Meiji leaders succeeded in giving modernization almost instant legitimacy.'