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Japan Meets the West 1853-1905

The date was July 8, 1853; the place, Yedo, a sprawling collection of wooden houses overlooking an arm of the Pacific Ocean. Yedo, later known as Tokyo, was the chief city of the Japanese islands, off the east coast of Asia. It was larger than London or Paris, but since Japan had been out of touch with the rest of the world for centuries, few foreigners knew it. Yedo was also the residence of an official called the shogun, who theoretically governed the country in the name of the emperor. As they stared out at the bay that day, the people of Yedo could hardly believe what was happening before their eyes. In spite of a strong wind blowing seaward, four black ships were moving steadily toward them, trailing streamers of black smoke. Panic seized the onlookers and they rushed to defend themselves.

The strange craft turned out to be warships from a distant land called the United States. They were commanded by an officer named Matthew Perry. Perry had not come to attack Yedo; instead, he bore a friendly letter from the American president to the Japanese emperor. He asked the shogun’s representatives to deliver it and sailed away, promising to come back. The following February, Perry returned, this time with seven black ships. The officials who greeted him enjoy the whiskey and other liquors he gave them and marveled at working models of a telegraph system and a steam locomotive. After a round of parties, talks began between the visitors and their hosts and on March 31, 1954, a treaty was signed between Japan and the United States.

Although this treaty opened only two small Japanese ports to American traders, it was of great importance, for it cleared the way for many other treaties between Japan and the Western powers. Soon, ships from several countries began calling at Yedo and other large seaports. Japan’s long isolation was over and within a few years its leaders had begun to transform it into a modem industrial state.

More than three centuries before, in 1542, Portuguese traders making their way north from India and China had come upon the Japanese islands. For almost a hundred years after that, European merchants and missionaries were active in Japan, but in 1640 the shogun forced them to sail away. Only a few Dutch merchants were allowed to stay, confined to the port of Nagasaki under strict control. These few Dutchmen were Japan’s only link with the West and through them, the Japanese learned a little of what was happening elsewhere. The outside world knew practically nothing of what went on in the sealed-off island empire.

Under the Tokugawa shoguns, who ruled from 1603 to 1867, the Japanese enjoyed almost unbroken peace after centuries of fighting. The great lords, daimyo and their knights, the samurai, settled down on their estates, but many spent much or most of their time in Yedo and other cities. There, they freely spent the money they received from their lands. The craftsmen and merchants who supplied their wants prospered and the cities grew rapidly. In 1723, Yedo had half a million people and in 1800, more than a million. By then, some rich merchants were able to buy titles of nobility, while many noblemen were very poor. Trade, rather than land, had become the road to riches in Japan.


All this time the emperors lived shut away in the old Japanese capital, Kyoto, subsisting as best they could on meagre sums doled out by the shoguns. The Japanese believed that their emperor was divine — the Son of Heaven – and therefore above the hurly-burly of this world. This belief was an important part of Shinto, the “way of the gods.”

Shinto, the oldest Japanese religion and the only one that had originated in the islands, was based upon worship of nature. It stressed honour, loyalty and devotion to the emperor. In the Tokugawa period, Shinto revived and grew stronger, while Buddhism, the religion that had come from India by way of China, lost ground. As a result, many Japanese began to ask themselves whether the shoguns really had the right to rule them. Wasn’t the emperor the only true source of power?

When Commodore Perry appeared, a number of the emperor’s subjects were glad to see their country opened up to the world. Among them were debt-ridden noblemen who hoped to put their lands to new uses more profitable than faming, merchants who wanted to sell Western goods and scholars eager to learn about Western science and medicine.

For a time, the Japanese got on well with the newcomers. As they came to understand more about the West, however, they saw that the treaties put their country at a disadvantage. Like the treaties with China, the ones with Japan forbade the government to raise tariffs above a low rate. They allowed foreigners to live by their own laws, immune from Japanese laws. Altogether, the treaties bound Japan to conditions which no Western country would have permitted on its own territory.


A proud and civilized people, the Japanese resented being treated as inferiors. They began to hate the foreigners and the shoguns who had signed the humiliating treaties. The leaders of this movement were two powerful noblemen of the western islands, the lords of Choshu and Satsuma. These lords had never fully submitted to the shoguns at Yedo. They dreamed of over throwing them and rallying the nation behind the emperor. Then they would drive out the foreigners and restore Japan to its former glory.

In 1862 some Englishmen accidentally broke a rule of politeness, one of the innumerable small rules that governed Japanese behavior. They were set upon by followers of the lord of Satsuma, who killed one of them. The British government demanded that the shogun punish the culprits. When it became clear that he lacked the power to do so, a British fleet bombarded the capital of Satsuma with its guns.

Soon afterward, the lord of Choshu, who had mounted antique cannons on the heights above the straits of Shimonosaki, tried to revenge his fellow nobleman. He ordered his men to fire on passing ships. The British, French, Dutch and American governments immediately protested, but once again the shogun proved unable to discipline a subject. The foreign governments sent an allied naval force to the straits to destroy the forts and shipping of Choshu and fined the Japanese government three million dollars.

On discovering that the shogun did not really rule Japan, the Western powers did something which outraged Japanese pride even more than the bombardments of Satsuma and Choshu. They sent a naval force to Kyoto itself and threatened to demolish the old capital unless the emperor set his seal on the treaties signed by the shoguns. Such disrespect toward the Son of Heaven was hard for the Japanese to bear and they remembered the incident with bitterness long after the foreigners had forgotten it.

Many Japanese now came to the same conclusion: to deal with the West on equal terms and save their country for themselves, they would have to learn the secrets of Western power, but first, Japan had to be unified. The reformers, led by the lords of Choshu and Satsuma, forced the shogun to abdicate in 1867 and restored the emperor to full authority. The next year a new emperor came to the throne; his name was Mutsuhito, but in keeping with Japanese custom his reign was given a name, too. It was called Meiji. The Meiji era, which ended with Mutsuhito’s death in 1912, was the great era of the westernization of Japan.

Japan became a modern country. By imperial decree, the feudal system of land ownership was abolished. The great lords gave up to the emperor their control over the samurai and the ordinary people. The laws were rewritten to cover all Japanese equally, regardless of class and cruel punishments were done away with. A new national army was established, modeled on the Prussian army; later, a navy, modeled on the British navy, came into being. The government minted coins, printed paper money, stamps and took over the collection and delivery of mail. It set up a public school system and before long the great majority of Japanese could read and write.

In religious affairs, the government discouraged Buddhism, and took over Buddhist monasteries and lands. It favoured Shinto, which strengthened national feeling and reverence for the emperor. In 1889 it published a constitution. This document set forth the rights and duties of Japanese subjects and provided for a parliament like that of Britain, with an upper and a lower house. It also stressed the supreme and eternal authority of the emperor. The emperor did not actually rule, any more than he had before, for the real power was held by political leaders.

Many of these political leaders belonged to noble families whose lands had increased greatly in value with the growth of industry. Industrialization was going on at a feverish pace, even faster than it was in the United States and Germany. The Japanese bought their first steamship from the Dutch in 1858. They built their first railroad, between Tokyo and Yokohama, in 1872. By the end of the century, trains ran throughout the islands and Japanese ships plied the oceans of the world. Japan’s foreign trade, which had hardly existed in 1854, mounted to two hundred million dollars a year. Its population rose from 33,000,000 in 1872 to 46,000,000 in 1902.

As Japan’s industry and population grew, its leaders felt the same pressures to expand that had pushed the European powers into building empires. The industrialists wanted new sources of supply for their factories and new markets for their products. The generals and admirals wanted to test their new army and navy in action. All patriotic Japanese were eager to show the West that they, too, were a great power. Out of these pressures came the Japanese attack on China in 1894. Their swift victory and their capture of Korea and Formosa filled the Japanese with rejoicing.

They were not so happy, however, when the Russians, French and Germans forced their troops to leave another conquered territory, the Liaotung Peninsula and when Russia leased it, soon afterwards, from China. The peninsula, with Port Arthur at its tip, was the key to vast and sparser populated Manchuria, which the Japanese longed to control, but the Russians also wanted Manchuria. They did not like having a strong power on their East Asian flank, in a position to menace Port Arthur and their own new port, Vladivostok. At the same time, unrest in the European part of Russia made the government anxious to stir up a crisis that might distract the people’s attention from their own grievances. For all these reasons, war between Russia and Japan became more and more likely as the twentieth century began.


War did indeed break out in 1904, when the Japanese Navy attacked Port Arthur. Both sides sent huge armies into Manchuria. The Battle of Mukden, in which 640,000 men took part, was the greatest battle in history up to that time and the Japanese won it. Meanwhile, the Russians had sent their fleet from the Baltic Sea all the way around Europe, Africa and Asia, on a voyage that lasted several months. No sooner had it arrived in Tsushima Strait, between Korea and Japan, than the Japanese Navy attacked and sank it. This stunning Japanese victory cut the Russians’ supply line from the west and astonished the world.


The President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, now offered to help the warring powers to work out their differences. In 1905 Russian and Japanese dignitaries met in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, half-way around the world from where the fighting had taken place. By the Treaty of Portsmouth, Japan recovered Port Arthur and the Liaotung Peninsula. It gained a favoured position in Manchuria, although Manchuria remained, in theory, subject to the emperor of China. Japan was recognized as the “protector” of Korea and it received from Russia the southern half of the island of Sakhalin.

The Russo-Japanese War was the first war between great powers caused by competition for undeveloped lands. More important, it was the first war since ancient times in which non-whites had defeated whites. As news of it spread, the yellow and brown-skinned peoples of Asia took heart. Japan’s defeat of Russia showed that the Europeans were not gods. In China, the East Indies, India and other countries, people began to ask themselves a significant question: if the Japanese could force out a Western power, why can’t we?

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