The Beginning of Japan’s Rush from Backward Nation to World Power
When Queen Victoria assumed the imperial crown of India, still farther to the east, in an archipelago of islands known as Nippon, or the Land of the Rising Sun, a new phenomenon was about to emerge on the world scene. Nippon, or Japan, as it was soon to become known, had been a secret land for many centuries. It had kept itself cut off from the rest of the world, except for a few Dutch traders and some Buddhist monks who brought their religion from Korea.
It had an emperor who was considered by his people to be a god, and people who considered themselves to be the children of the Sun-goddess. They believed that their country was the fairest on earth, since it had been created by the gods; and themselves to be the chosen people of the gods, since they had been put there to inhabit it.
In the middle of the nineteenth century they were still a feudal state. But though their emperor was their Grand Seigneur, they were ruled by self-appointed tenants-in-chief, called shoguns. Below the shoguns were the lesser orders of tenants, the daimio, or barons, and the samurai, or knights, the hereditary bearers of arms. Below them came the farmers, the merchants, the peasants and the serfs. Their economy was tied to the rice production.
They were not an inspired people. They had taken their language, their form of writing, their philosophy, even one of their religions, from the ancient civilization of China. They had been torn by civil wars for more than four hundred and fifty years, until, in 1600, the power was seized by a family called the Tokugawa, who, at the end of fifteen years of ridding themselves of their enemies, brought real peace at last to their country.
With peace, the Tokugawa shoguns reorganized the basis of their power, not on armed force, but by controlling the economy; by making the emperor even more of a recluse than he had ever been before, holding him completely incommunicado from ail the daimio; and by clipping the power of the daimio by various means. Peace brought inevitable changes to the social structure of the country, for it had a direct effect on the role of the samurai, the fighting-men. Since the samurai were allowed to follow no other profession but arms, and since there was no longer any opportunity for practising their profession because of the restrictions laid upon the daimio, their employers, they found themselves with nothing to do. The shoguns, therefore, encouraged them to turn to scholarship, and this, in turn, gave rise to an intellectual class, destined to produce a highly refined and artistic civilization.
Under the Tokugawa, the merchants began to flourish as never before. Soon the wealth of the country began to flow into their hands, and strict sumptuary laws had to be introduced to control them. But these laws they managed to evade, even as they evaded paying their taxes.
These new developments could very easily have undermined the authority of the shogunate, and the Tokugawa shoguns realized this. Fearing most of all the conjunction of the internal changes with the few outside contacts they had, in 1639 the shogun closed Japan to all foreigners except the Chinese and the Dutch.
Now, while the peace which the Tokugawa shoguns brought to the country provided suitable conditions for the development of a national culture, the strict closure of Japan to all foreigners had a restricting influence on the general development of the nation. For at this time Western culture was bursting into full flower, and the exclusion of those European merchants who had just begun to take an interest in this strange country denied to Japan the inevitable influences which they would have brought with them.
Eventually the country ran into financial difficulties. Forced loans were levied on the merchants, and the coinage was debased, thereby creating inflation. The economy was soon completely undermined, and the sufferings this brought with it led to peasant uprisings.
In fact, everything was against the shoguns, and gradually a movement was created to end the exclusion of Western merchants, which was seen to be the cause not only of the economic disasters now falling on the nation but of the general retarding of the nation’s medical, scientific, artistic and military resources. But even without this internal movement, outside factors and influences would ultimately have broken down the barriers.
In the late-eighteenth century the Russians were becoming more and more active on their Pacific seaboard and in Kamchatka, Sakhalin and the Kurile Islands. Then, Western trade with this part of the world began to expand, making Japan’s position even more anomalous, and her potential importance was further accentuated by the appearance of the steamship in the middle of the nineteenth century, with its need for bunkering facilities. But it was the Chinese defeat in the first Anglo-Chinese War which marked the beginning of a new phase.
The shoguns were impressed, and, though still determined to keep their country closed, in 1842 they did at least open up specific ports to foreign ships for taking on water and supplies.
The necessity for opening up Japan had been in the minds of the Americans ever since 1815, but it was not until 1846 that Commodore Biddle arrived in Edo Bay to attempt negotiations. The Japanese construed his politeness for weakness, and the Commodore’s mission failed.
Then, on 8 July, 1853, Commodore Perry sailed into Edo Bay with a strong squadron. Going ashore with an impressive guard, he presented a letter from President Fillmore demanding trading rights, bunkering stations and protection for shipwrecked American sailors. Remaining with his squadron in the bay for a week so that the Japanese should have no doubts about American strength, he then sailed away, announcing that he would return in the spring of 1854 for an answer.
The American letter caused considerable consternation at the shogunate. So perturbed were the authorities that they sent a translation of it to each daimio, asking for opinions.
The daimio advice was that the demands should be resisted to the last degree, short of war. But when Perry returned in 1854, and made it quite clear that it was either a treaty or war, the Japanese yielded; and on 31 March the Treaty of Kanagawa was signed.
Once Japan was opened to trade, it could only be a matter of time before foreign cultural influences made themselves felt. This process was hastened by the willingness of young samurai to risk death for a chance of acquiring knowledge, for an edict of 1636 forbidding all Japanese to leave Japan was still in force. For when they could see and touch the products of civilization, the samurai were convinced of what they had already suspected themselves, from their study of foreign books, that there was much missing in their own country.
Within a short time the Americans, English and French had insisted on wider treaties. These, signed in 1858, granted to the United States, France and England the right to establish supply bases for their navies at Yokohama, Hakodate and Nagasaki.
Their signature was the sign for outbursts of anti-shogun and. anti-foreign feelings, which were soon translated into actions. Those daimio who, secretly, had long been opposed to the Tokugawa shogunate, defied the shogun’s orders and went direct to the immured emperor. Foreigners were attacked, and British and American officials assassinated. In 1863 the U.S. Legation in Edo was burned down.
In June of that year the shogun, who had been summoned to Kyoto by the emperor, was compelled to issue an imperial order to drive all the foreigners out of the country. One daimio, the Lord of Choshu, attempted to obey the order and fired on ships passing through the Straits of Shimonoseki, which were in his demesne.
The British retaliated immediately by bombarding the capital of Satsuma. The following month, September, an allied fleet destroyed the Choshu forts. Impressed by this, the Satsuma and Choshu daimio began to agitate for a policy of Westernization.
Under the pressure of these events the shogun was deprived of much of his authority. The process was continued until, in November, 1867, the ruling shogun, who had not long succeeded to the shogunate on the death of his father, handed his resignation to the young Emperor Meiji.
In early January, 1868, direct imperial rule was re-established and the former shogun was ordered to surrender his desmesnes. The new regime spent the first years in making numerous changes in the administrative structure. The senior posts were divided among the court nobles and daimio, but the actual exercise of power came into the hands of a very capable and ambitious group of samurai. Thus, from the very beginning of her modern history, we see that the military clique had great power in Japan, On 6 April, 1868, the emperor, in an ancient ritual, announced a Charter Oath to the nation’s ancestral gods and goddesses. This oath was entirely revolutionary in its concepts, and paved the way for the reforms which were rapidly effected. Its fifth clause by implication forbade anti-foreign feelings and activity, and directly foreshadowed a policy of Westernization.
Important among the first reforms were those reorganizing the social structure. Those permitting freedom of movement throughout the country, and those guaranteeing to all men of whatever class equality before the Law were the most important for the Japanese. The military caste-system was also abolished, and this made it necessary for new armed forces to be developed. It was in this sphere that Western ideas were first adopted.
The religion which the Japanese had invented to meet the requirements of their beliefs about themselves, and which was peculiar to Japan, was known as Shintoism. As has been mentioned briefly earlier, the Japanese claim to be of directly divine descent. This cult was started by Jimmu, who made himself the first emperor in 660 B.C. Jimmu claimed to be the great-great-great-grandson of the Sun-goddess, who was herself the daughter of the Creators of Heaven and Earth.
The emperors of Japan, including the present emperor, have all, therefore, sprung from divine parentage. The people themselves were also of divine descent, though in lesser degrees, since they were descended from the retinue of the grandson of the Sun-goddess, who had accompanied him when he came down to Mount Taka-cliiho. Since Japan was the first country to be created, this automatically made it the most beautiful country on earth, the country chosen by the gods before all others, and, therefore, together with the person of the emperor to be revered by its inhabitants.
These ideas, as with the Hebrew concept of the Chosen People, were kept flourishing by the national religion which sprang from them. Shintoism, which means The Way of the Gods, was accepted with unquestioning faith by all classes and ranks of Japanese. Its basic principles were ancestor-worship and nature-worship. So deeply ingrained in the national character did Shintoism become that when Korean missionaries brought Buddhism to Japan in the sixth century a.d. they decided to assimilate Shintoism rather than attempt to replace it. This was a brilliant move, for it made possible, two centuries later, what was the most wholesale and most amazing conversion in the religious history of mankind. The Japanese Court and the people en masse accepted Buddhism, and at the same time continued to practise Shintoism.
From the late-eighteenth century it had been a revival of Shintoism which had been one of the chief factors working for the overthrow of the shogunate. To concentrate the loyalty of the people on the emperor and government, there could clearly be no better device than a religion which was as ancient as the race and in its dogmas so ready-made to achieve this object.
But to be most useful to the regime Shintoism had to be lopped of its Buddhist outgrowths, and an attempt was made to do this. It was soon discovered, however, that the two religions were completely interlocked in the average Japanese mind and the attempt was dropped lest Shintoism should be harmed. Instead, the authorities began attempts to establish a new State religion in which the emphasis was placed on the divinity of the emperor. These attempts were extremely successful. By 1930 the new religion, known as State Shintoism, had more than 15,000 priests and more than 100,000 shrines, the chief of which was the Grand Shrine at Ise, dedicated to the Sun-goddess. By his attendance at these shrines the loyalty of the average Japanese was measured.
State Shintoism had three basic tenets; and it is these which must be constantly borne in mind in any consideration of Japan’s activities from the Meiji Reformation of 1868 down to 1945. The tenets were:
The emperor is divine.
The gods have Japan under their special protection. Therefore, its people and its very soil and every institution pertaining to it are superior to all others.
These attributes place upon Japan a divine mission to bring the whole world under one roof, so that all humanity may share the advantages of being ruled by the divine emperor.
In (3), in a nutshell, is Japan’s foreign policy from the early twenties at least, to her defeat in 1945. To the fulfilment of this policy, which, put without frills, was one of world domination, her domestic policy was geared from the moment of awakening.
When Commodore Perry presented his ultimatum in 1853 Japan was two hundred and fifty years behind Western civilization in almost every facet of national existence, and particularly so in her economic and industrial structure.
In the last years of the shogunate, and before 1860, a shipbuilding yard and an arsenal had been established. By 1866 English cotton-spinning machinery and technical instructors had been imported, and a beginning had been made on the famous Yokusuka Naval Yard. The Meiji leaders took over these establishments, and added developments of their own, silk reeling, tiles, cement, woollens and bleaching powder, all of which were intended to be guides for future private enterprise.
Almost at a wave of a wand, it seemed, such an amazing advance had been made in the textile industry, mainly owing to cheap machinery and cheap female labour, that Japan was supplying one-quarter of the world’s cotton-yarn exports within a few years. An almost comparable advance was made in the heavy industries and the manufacture of machine tools. The merchant navy was expanded steadily, and the shipbuilding industry was capable of building warships before the outbreak of the First World War.
Side by side with these industrial and economic developments, the Army and Navy, under expert foreign tuition, had been transformed into fighting services equal to those of any Western power. The institution of these services rounded off the picture, so that we see in Japan the amazing phenomenon of a medieval state emerging as a modern industrial and military power within the space of a single generation.
Her new condition naturally produced for Japan a number of serious considerations. Overriding all was the injunction laid upon them by the third tenet of State Shintoism, to “bring the whole world under one roof, the Japanese roof.
Turning her attention to those powers closest at hand, she launched her initial attack on China, and had so subdued that vast country by 1941, and had built up a war-machine so formidable in all its arms, that she felt confident that she could drive the Americans and British out of the Pacific. So in December, 1941, she struck at Pearl Harbour.
In less than one hundred years from Commodore Perry’s ultimatum, she had grown from a backward nation to one of the most fantastic of twentieth-century world powers. Had Commodore Perry been able to foresee Pearl Harbour he might have had second thoughts before sailing into Edo Harbour on 8 July, 1853.
- Black Ships & Samurai Commodore Perry and the Opening of Japan (1853-1854), by John W Dower
- A short timeline of Perry’s life
- Perry Visits Japan: A Visual History
- Matthew C. Perry at Find a Grave
- Kitahara, Michio. Commodore Perry and the Japanese: A Study in the Dramaturgy of Power, 1986
- Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan, by M.C. Perry, at archive.org
- “Diplomacy Far Removed: A Reinterpretation of the U.S. Decision to Open Diplomatic Relations with Japan | Bruce Makoto Arnold”. Academia.edu. 1970-01-01. Retrieved 2015-03-09.