Western intellectual influence

Although Japan had a national seclusion policy, western knowledge managed to seep into the country. Nagasaki was the place where the Dutch were allowed to remain after the expulsion of all other foreigners. Therefore, the Dutch remained the main source of foreign ideas.

In 1720, the shogun lifted the ban on the study of western subjects and on the import of foreign books except those related to Christianity. The government established a center for the translation of western books because it recognized the importance of keeping up with developments in the West. As you know, the Industrial Revolution was taking place in Europe and western technology captured Japanese curiosity. Before long, Japanese scholars were knowledgeable in certain western sciences such as gunnery, smelting, shipbuilding, and Western medicine.

By this time, Japan had become a relatively prosperous and educated country of 30 million people. Japanese were aware of foreign interests in Asia. They saw foreign ships along their coasts and missionaries tried to enter the country. They heard of the British colonizing India, and of the West’s demands of special rights from China. So when Commodore Matthew Perry’s black ships appeared in Tokyo Bay in 1853, the Japanese knew what was coming.

American interest in Japan

There were several reasons for strong American interests in Japan. By the early 1850s, America had expanded its borders to the Pacific, California had been admitted to the Union, and the northwest coast was being opened. Now a Pacific power, America looked for the shortest route to Asia – the great circle route via Alaska. The United States saw that Japan could be used as a way station for those who wished to get in the vast Chinese market. Also, by opening up a trading system with Japan, America could establish trading ports in the Pacific which would establish steady maritime traffic between the East and the West. This was important for America at the time when a new industrial era was beginning.

When Perry arrived in 1853, he insisted on dealing only with the shogun’s top-ranking officials. To them he presented a letter from President Fillmore, requesting 4 things: peace and friendship, free trade, good treatment of shipwrecked whalers, and provision of coal for American ships. Perry was firm and promised to return within a year with a larger fleet to implement the requests. He then sailed away to spend the winter in Okinawa.

The shogun and his officials were thrown into confusion. They knew that if they agreed to the requests, other countries would certainly make the same demands, as they did to China. On the other hand, if they didn’t, the Americans would use force, and force was implied in Perry’s tactics.

When Perry returned in seven months, the dilemma was still unresolved. Under the threat of a seven-ship fleet, a treaty was signed granting the American requests.

The Treaty of Amity and Friendship 日米和親条約, also called the Treaty of Kanagawa 神奈川条約, was signed in 1854. Perry achieved two of his three objectives. He succeeded in getting two coaling ports, Shimoda and Hakodade, for the Navy’s new steamships and in protecting America’s oil workers (the whalers). He did not, however, open Japan to trade. It was not until 1858 that the U.S. Consul at last achieved Perry’s final objective: establishing a commercial treaty.

The Treaty of Amity and Commerce 日米修好通商条約, also called the Harris Treaty, was signed in 1858. Japan agreed to open five ports and cities, including Edo, to American trade. Japan could charge low tariffs on western imports but could not change those duties herself.

The most humiliating thing of all was that Japan was forced to accept extraterritoriality – meaning that westerners could settle in Japan in a territory carved out to be their own; they could maintain troops there and any crime committed within the territory would not be subject to Japanese law. Within two years, Japan was forced to sign similar treaties with the British, the Russians, and the Dutch.

Extra-territoriality was a form of diplomatic immunity, enjoyed by heads of states and embassies in foreign lands. The doctrine was originated by the French jurist Pierre Ayraut (1536-1601). It is not an unusual concept today. However, in those days, the Japanese had never heard of such a concept. Also, the treaties were imposed on Japan by western powers and Japan had no say in its tariff schedules. Mexico was the first to give up extraterritoriality in Japan and recognized Japan’s tariff autonomy in 1888. By 1899 Japan was the first Asian country to free itself of extraterritoriality, and in 1911, Japan had resumed complete control of its own tariff schedules.

In 1860, the shogun sent a delegation to the United States to ratify the new treaty. It was Japan’s first diplomatic delegation to America, a seven-week tour taken by 77 samurai who visited San Francisco, Maryland, Washington, and New York.

The National Learning Movement (Kokugaku) 国学

A movement that began in the 17th and 18th century that called for a revival of early Japanese classics. Japanese scholars rejected Confucius and Buddhist texts as foreign elements that corrupted the natural goodness of the Japanese people. They called for a return to Shinto traditions and to reinstate Japan’s superiority as a “land of the kami,” claiming Japan’s superiority to China for having retained an unbroken line of deified sovereigns. The movement eventually led to the resignation of the shogun and the restoration of power to the emperor. Read the following links:



The end of the Tokugawa regime – 19th century

By now, the shogun had degenerated from the vigorous leaders of the 17th century to a weak ruler. An incident hastened his demise: A British merchant was murdered, apparently by a Japanese and Japan failed to hand over the perpetrator. The British Royal Naval squadron bombarded a Japanese fort and reduced the nearby town to ashes to “teach the Japanese a lesson” and the shogun could do nothing about it. Japanese learned the lesson well as they later chose the British Navy as their model for building the Imperial Navy. The shogun’s helplessness before “the barbarians” doomed him. He resigned in the fall of 1867 and on January 3rd 1868, the court announced the restoration of power to the emperor. Tokugawa rule came to an end under both domestic and foreign pressure.

Fifteen-year-old Emperor Mutsuhito assumed the reign name of Meiji (Enlightened Rule). His reign was characterized by Japan’s successful transformation into a modern state. 

As a young man, Mutsuhito was tutored in all kinds of knowledge: Japanese and European history, Chinese classics, French and German law, and for a brief while, the German language. One of his tutors, Motoda Nagazane, who lectured him on the Confucian Analects, left a deep influence on him, both as a scholar and a human being. Some outstanding former samurai were added to this group of tutors to bring the samurai spirit into the palace. Mutsuhito occasionally had sake parties with them and discussed with them various battles such as the Franco-Prussian war which was in progress at the time, and the rise and fall of various countries.

Mutsuhito was a capable ruler, much loved and revered by his people. In his role as supreme commander of the military force, he was conscientious and dedicated. He attended military meetings from morning till night. Unfortunately, the hard work and anxiety of the war years left him looking older than his age, and his fatal illness at that time was said to have resulted from his exhaustion. He died on July 30th, 1912.  His death symbolically brought to an end the era of Japan’s successful transformation into a modern state.

The Meiji Transformation (1868-1912) was a period of westernization and modernization.

1.  The transformation of feudal Japan into a modern industrialized state with a parliament.

2.  The country’s emergence as a world power through military adventures abroad.

An overseas study program was launched. This time, not to China but to the West. The most able young men were chosen to go overseas to learn all they could of western technology and methods: to England, the navy; to France, bureaucracy; and to Germany, the military.

Foreign technicians were brought to Japan to assist in a crash program of modernization. From America came postal, agricultural and educational advisors. Germany sent doctors and army technicians. France supplied experts in law. England aided in naval and merchant marine, railroads, telegraph system, banking and engineering.

Read about the Iwakuri Mission of 1871 in this unit’s article “Venturing into a New World.

Under the slogan “A rich country and a strong military,” the Meiji government adopted modern production methods and established universal conscription. Western uniforms were issued to the army and navy.

Under the slogan “Civilization and Enlightment,” western ideas and values such as political liberty and equality were adopted. So was the Gregorian calendar. Telegraph and postal services were implemented and the construction of railways started. People were encouraged to wear western clothes and eat western food, samurai were ordered to cut off their topknots and stop wearing swords. In fact, many Japanese went to the extreme of regarding their own tradition as old-fashioned and useless and took the slogan of “Civilization and Enlightment” to mean the wholesale imitation of anything western.

The government carried out a movement to educate everybody. The Education Order of 1872 stated that “education is the key to success in life and no one can afford to do without it.” It set a goal of universal literacy: “In a village, there shall be no house without learning; and in a house, no individual without learning.” Using the West as example, the country was divided into higher school districts, each with its supporting network of middle and lower schools. The Tokugawa School for Western Studies – Kaiseijo was transformed into the future Tokyo University.

The Meiji Constitution, proclaimed in 1868, declared that all classes, high and low, were to unite in vigorous effecting affairs of the state; it permitted the common people to pursue their individual callings; sought to break off “evil customs” of the past; and stated the desire to seek knowledge throughout the world to strengthen the foundations of imperial rule.

The Constitution was a royal gift from the emperor to the people. By today’s standard, it was a highly authoritarian constitution perhaps because it was modeled after Bismarck’s Germany. It gave the emperor almost absolute power, declaring him “sacred and inviolable.” He commanded the armed forces, made peace and declared war. All ministers reported to him rather than to the newly-created Diet (Parliament). The armed forces also reported directly to the emperor instead of to the prime minister, and so could act free of Parliament control. The military was therefore, a virtually separate government. In schools, children were taught to recognize the sanctity of the emperor, to obey and to sacrifice gladly to the State in the event of war.

In 1900, Mutsuhito signed an Imperial Ordinance which decreed that the Cabinet be made up of both civilian ministers and military officers on active duty (generals and admirals). And since the law required that the prime minister resigns if he could not fill all cabinet posts, the military was able to influence the government by simply refusing to provide an officer for a ministerial post, thereby blocking the formation of a cabinet and the prime minister would have to resign. This provision greatly facilitated Japan’s slide into militarism and eventually, to World War II.

After the transformation, all social classes were affected by the change:

  • All land was reverted in name to the emperor.
  • The daimyo surrendered their domains and were appointed governors of their former estates.
  • All citizens are now free to have a family name, to mount horses, to move, to buy and sell land, and to intermarry.
  • Merchants welcomed the change. It meant a higher status that matched their new wealth. The outcaste category was abolished in 1871. 
  • The samurai class was eliminated. No more warrior-aristocrats, they were now ordinary subjects. Their special privileges were taken away, their legal status, dress, surnames, and form of address disappeared in the new egalitarianism of a society without class. Many of them now lived in poverty since they received only fixed stipend from the government and were not allowed to trade. And when the government threatened to cut their stipends, the result was a series of samurai revolts (movie: The Last Samurai).  

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