Japan and the World: 1853–1945

Few events in Japan’s history have proven as significant as Commodore Perry and his ‘‘black ships,’’ as the Japanese called them. In the years since Perry first arrived, Japan would become the first Asian nation to modernize, attain world power status, lose a disastrous war, and recover to develop a democratic government and the second-largest economy in the world.

The United States was interested in opening Japan for several reasons. The U.S. government wanted to expand Pacific trade, and Japan was considered both an excellent fueling station for China-bound ships and a lucrative potential market. The American government also claimed to be concerned about the fate of sailors who were cast ashore in Japan. During his first visit, Perry presented U.S. demands, including better treatment for shipwrecked sailors and the opening of ports where foreign ships could procure supplies and trade. The commodore then left Japanese waters after promising to return the following spring with a larger and more formidable fleet.

Perry’s ultimatum caused turmoil within the Japanese government, and a debate raged in the months that followed over what the response should be to the Americans. Although some individuals within the Tokugawa government wanted war, most were painfully aware of the military technology gap. When Perry returned in the spring of 1854, the Japanese offered no resistance and reluctantly gave in to almost all of the American demands. The Americans and Japanese signed the Treaty of Kanagawa on March 31, 1854, granting the United States access to the ports of Hakodate and Shimoda to provision their ships and providing for the appointment of an American consul at Shimoda. The treaty did not grant the Americans trading rights, however.

Although numerous gifts were exchanged to celebrate the treaty, Japan’s leaders were in no real mood to celebrate, and debates raged over future policy toward the United States and other Western countries. The Americans were not completely happy with the Kanagawa Treaty either, since the right to trade with Japan was not included, and began almost immediately to demand trading concessions. Antiforeign elements, including Emperor Komei and a group of young samurai, urged the government not to grant trading rights to the United States. Nevertheless, in 1858 the Tokugawa government signed a trade treaty despite these strong objections.

The Harris Treaty, named after the American diplomat who negotiated it, did far more than simply open Japan for trade. It placed Japan, for the first time in history, under the partial control of foreign powers as Americans, and later the Dutch, Russians, British, Germans, and French, obtained both trading rights and the power to determine the tariff amounts for all imports without consulting the Japanese. Also, the United States and European powers were granted the right of extraterritoriality, which meant that foreign residents were subject to their own rather than Japanese law. The shogunate’s decision to acquiesce to violations of national sovereignty, although practical considering Japan’s military weakness, proved to be a major reason for the overthrow of the Tokugawa government a few years later.

By the mid-1800s, the Tokugawa government was in trouble over domestic as well as foreign problems. Although public expenditures exceeded revenues, the government seemed incapable of developing adequate measures to derive more income from business and manufacturing. This chronic revenue shortage forced the government to cut back as much as 50 percent the monies paid to samurai. By the latter Tokugawa period, some samurai were living in such austere circumstances that they were reduced to pawning family armor and even putting babies to death to avoid economic destitution.

Also, increasing numbers of people became unhappy with the class system. Many merchants and manufacturers felt discriminated against because even though rich, they were still considered socially inferior to samurai. Lower-ranking samurai, in turn, were discontented with the system because high-ranking samurai, regardless of their qualifications, were awarded upper-level government positions.

By the 1860s a group of younger samurai and commoners, adopting the slogan sonno-joi, ‘‘revere the emperor and repel the barbarians,’’ were plotting to use the throne as a symbol in an attempt to overthrow the Tokugawa government. Early in 1868, antigovernment forces took over the shogun’s Kyoto palace, and the 15-yearold emperor issued a decree establishing a new government. Despite Tokugawa resistance, there was little support for the old regime, and in 1868 the revolutionaries forced the government army to surrender, ending two and one-half centuries of Tokugawa rule relatively bloodlessly. The new emperor, who from the beginning was a symbol rather than an actual leader, took the reign name Meiji, or ‘‘Enlightened Rule.’’ Meiji has also become the name for the period of Japanese history from 1868 to 1912.

The small group of men who would modernize Japan was unusual in several respects. They were mainly younger, lower-ranking samurai, and many were in their thirties. Despite earlier rhetoric about driving out foreigners, Meiji leaders were mostly pragmatic and understood that knowledge of Western science, technology, and institutions was vital in the development of a strong economy and military. Then Japan could rid itself of the unequal treaties and assume its own destiny.

The Meiji leaders first established their authority throughout Japan, which meant drastic governmental reform. By 1871, the Meiji government had transformed the old domains into new administrative units called prefectures. During the Tokugawa years, farmers were allowed to pay taxes in rice rather than money, and rates were based on annual harvests instead of land values, making it impossible for the government to plan expenditures in advance. In 1873, the government began requiring that all taxes be paid in money and basing annual collections on land values rather than harvests. Payments to samurai, a tremendous burden to the Tokugawa government, were first reduced and eventually terminated in 1876, when the government converted them to interest-bearing nonrenewable bonds. The Tokugawa class system was also ended the same year by abolishing samurai privileges.

Economic advancement was also vital for Japan to become equal with the West. Western expert Kanda Kohei wrote early in the Meiji years: ‘‘The nations that depend upon business are always rich while those that depend on agriculture are always poor. Therefore the Eastern countries are always poor and the Western ones always rich’’ (Duus 1976, 83). As they began to shape new economic and political institutions, Meiji leaders systematically studied various elements of American and European economic and political systems. The Meiji government sent representatives abroad to examine institutions and practices ranging from banking to education. The Japanese government also paid foreigners handsome salaries to serve as technical advisers and teachers.

After attempting socialist policies that failed, Meiji leaders sold factories, mines, and shipyards to private businessmen. Meiji leaders systematically studied various economic models and made the decision to adopt a Prussian-style state-directed capitalism, where the government plays a significant role in determining what is produced and allocates capital through control of the financial system. The Japanese rejected the Anglo-American laissez-faire model in which the market largely determines what products are produced and banks and the stock market allocate capital.

Remaining internal trade barriers and most export restrictions were abolished as Japanese businesses were encouraged to sell rice, copper, and raw silk abroad. The government developed a supportive infrastructure through a widespread railroadand telegraph-building program. Japan’s first railroad line, connecting Tokyo and Yokohama, was completed in 1872, and by 1900, 5,000 miles of railroad track had been laid. By 1880, telegraphs linked all major Japanese cities.

By the late 1880s and early 1890s, Japan’s strategy of government-aided business development was beginning to pay off. Tea and silk export profits were providing capital for industrial growth, and textile factories were supplying Japanese needs and earning profits in international markets as well. Even though as late as 1902 only 14 percent of the Japanese workforce was employed in industry, the foundation for a modern economy was firmly in place.

The new government also viewed education as a major priority and recognized several advantages in the creation of a national educational system. More educated people were needed for the new factories and government, and a national school system could promote loyalty and patriotism. In 1872 a national educational system was created and elementary education made compulsory. At first Japanese children were allowed to leave school after 16 months, but by 1886 the required time in school was raised to four years. The highly centralized French system was used as an administrative model, but American curricula, textbooks, and teacher training methods were also influential in the creation of Japanese elementary schools.

The 1870s witnessed a Western craze of sorts, particularly in the cities, as numbers of people wore Western clothes and bought diamonds and gold watches. Some believed that if foreigners could be convinced that the Japanese were becoming ‘‘civilized and enlightened,’’ the Western powers could be cajoled into modifying the unequal treaties. Others even came to believe that the West was a superior civilization compared with Asia, and some pro-Western writers were condescending toward traditional Confucian values and enamored with Western individualism.

The spread of Western ideas had important ramifications for Japanese government and politics. By the 1870s and 1880s, intellectuals had read Western political tracts, and support mounted for the initiation of such foreign institutions as popularly elected legislatures and a written constitution. Although the majority of Meiji leaders viewed such democratic sentiments as a threat to their power, the idea of a constitution was attractive. Those government leaders who favored it thought the creation and adoption of a constitution would give Japan greater status with the West since it would be the first Asian country to develop one. Other Meiji leaders saw a written constitution as promoting national unification and increasing governmental authority.

Japan’s leaders were particularly interested in recently unified Germany’s Constitution. Ito Hirobumi traveled to Germany to study and, after returning to Japan, wrote a constitution that was implemented by imperial decree in 1889, impressing Western nations as predicted. Although the Constitution gave some power to factions other than the Meiji oligarchs, it did not create a democratic Japan. The Constitution provided for a bicameral legislative assembly, or Diet, with power to enact legislation and debate and approve the annual budget. The House of Peers consisted of appointed members whereas the House of Representatives was elected. However, only one percent of the 1890 population, male taxpayers above a set income level, could vote in legislative elections. The cabinet, consisting of several original architects of the Meiji revolution, was quite powerful and for many years determined who would be prime minister. The Constitution, the national school system, and the creation of a merit-based bureaucracy all contributed greatly to a growing government power and nationalism.

During the 1880s and 1890s, opposition to foreign influences was also increasing. Cultural conservatives worried that Japan was becoming too much like the West. Government leaders used both Shinto and schools to promote Japanese values and patriotism. Promotion of loyalty to the emperor and state became increasingly important. The emperor was described in the 1890 Imperial Rescript on Education as ‘‘being coeval with heaven and earth,’’ and his photograph was placed in every Japanese school. The indoctrination appeared to be working because, as Japan began imperialistic adventures, the government enjoyed enthusiastic support and strong loyalty from the majority of its citizens.

The Japanese government then followed the lead of Western powers and used force to gain territories and foreign markets. Japan engaged in imperialism for several reasons, including a desire for equality with the West, which in 1894 was partially achieved when Western powers agreed to sign treaties ending extraterritoriality. The Japanese government also wanted more East Asian natural resources and markets and feared that if no action was taken, Western powers would gain control of the tottering Chinese and Korean governments and threaten Japan.

Korea, a country that had been loosely controlled by the Chinese empire, was the major cause of the Meiji government’s first foreign war. Because of fear that Korea might be taken over by a stronger Western power, in 1894 Japan went to war in Korea with Korean and then Chinese forces and won a quick victory. In the ensuing 1895 treaty with China, Japan forced China to renounce all claims to Korea, pay a substantial indemnity, relinquish Taiwan, and turn over the Liaotung Peninsula in southern Manchuria. Acting quickly, Russia, along with France and Germany, forced Japan to return the Liaotung Peninsula to China. The Japanese resented the Western action and were even more humiliated when the Russians attained a lease of Liaotung in 1898.

The Japanese viewed Russia, which desired Manchuria and Korea, as a major threat. In 1904, after negotiations over Korea broke down, Japan engaged Russia in war by a surprise attack on the Russian fleet at Port Arthur. Most military observers incorrectly thought Russia would easily win. In a hard-fought struggle, the Japanese army won several land victories, and in May 1905 the fleet under Admiral Togo attracted world attention by defeating the Russians in the Tsushima Strait. Japan and Russia agreed to allow the United States to act as mediator at peace talks in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and the resulting 1905 treaty secured a number of Russian concessions to Japan, including a lease on Liaotung, the southern half of Sakhalin Island, Russian holdings in Manchuria, and freedom of action in Korea. Japan quickly made Korea a protectorate in 1905 and colony in 1910. The Japanese ruled Korea, which had been a sovereign unified kingdom since 1392, until 1945. Although their colonial policies varied, in general, the Japanese were harsh rulers as they attempted to subdue a fiercely independent people with a mixture of force, cooption, and modernization.

During these heady days of empire building, influential leaders and the public began to develop two beliefs that later led to trouble: the feeling that Japan had a mission to protect and civilize ‘‘backward’’ Asian nations and the belief that the Japanese military was invincible.

As the Meiji years reached their conclusion and the new century began, Japan had become a truly important actor on the world stage for the first time in the country’s history. With the exception of the Koreans, most Asians celebrated a nonwhite nation’s victory over a European country. The Europeans and Americans were impressed with Japan’s economic, military, and political accomplishments. Such world leaders as U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt deeply respected the Japanese for their accomplishments but worried that they could become a Pacific rival. Western democratic leaders also had to contend with backlashes against Japanese immigrants in their own countries. In the West, the Japanese were both admired and thought of as the ‘‘yellow peril.’’

In the summer of 1912, the Meiji period ended with the emperor’s death, and Yoshihito, the new emperor, gave the name Taisho, or ‘‘Great Righteousness,’’ to his reign. The Taisho emperor ruled from 1912 to 1926. The emperor was an ineffectual ruler who was physically weak and frequently ill, but Japan economically expanded, experimented with representative government, and was a growing presence in world politics. Yet Japan had problems in the Taisho years. Economic development worked to the advantage of some urban residents while many rural people struggled. Because European powers were preoccupied with World War I, Japan, with a smaller role in the war, began to sell products in Asian countries that had been European markets. However, European partial recapture of those markets after World War I in part contributed to a major Japanese postwar recession. Also, by the 1920s, expansion of heavy industry exhausted Japan’s scarce domestic supplies of such raw materials as coal, increasing the necessity for access to cheap raw materials.

Still, the Taisho and the Showa years that followed were prosperous times for many Japanese, and the standard of living of average families more than doubled. Zaibatsu, or ‘‘money cliques,’’ were in large part responsible for economic growth. A few powerful families used government financial assistance and keen business acumen to build economic empires controlling a variety of enterprises including banking, manufacturing, mining, and foreign trade concerns. Although the zaibatsu served the government’s needs by fueling economic growth, particularly in heavy industries vital for defense, elements of the public became concerned about the great political influence of the zaibatsu and the tremendous concentration of wealth in the hands of a few influential families.

Life for many employees in large industrial concerns became increasingly good, and some male managers and industrial workers even received the security of lifetime employment. However, women factory workers in large companies and workers in small businesses and industries were subject to low pay in good times and layoffs during bad times. Japanese farmers faced hard times during much of the 1920s and early 1930s. Although a few years were good, from the end of World War I until the 1930s there was a long-term drop in crop prices.

Many rural people and urban working-class people felt bewildered and angry about the rapid social change that seemed to be occurring in Japanese cities. Young people were shedding traditional Japanese habits and values in favor of Western fads and ideas. Many were reading adventure and love story magazines, listening to radios, flocking to Western and Japanese movies, attending baseball games, listening to jazz music, and wearing Western clothes. The pendulum seemed to have swung back again in favor of Western over Japanese culture.

Western ideas influenced politics as well during the Taisho years. Even before the 20th century, political parties developed in Japan, and they continued to grow in influence. From 1918 until 1932, mostly civilian politicians controlled the Japanese Diet, or legislature, with heads of major parties becoming premier and forming governments. Political parties tended to be corrupt, however, and they constantly made deals with local officials and big business. Some Japanese became increasingly dissatisfied with political corruption and in the 1920s began to work for more democratic government. In 1925 Japan appeared to be moving toward democracy when the Diet gave all men the right to vote, regardless of whether they owned property.

Still, there were ominous political trends. Elements from the military and other nationalist groups checked the democratization movement, and the Diet passed the Peace Preservation Law, making it a crime to argue that the present government should be abolished or that private property ownership should be challenged, the same year it approved universal male suffrage. The law enabled police to imprison or harass people who opposed the political status quo.

During the Taisho period, there was considerable internal debate among political leaders over what policy was best regarding imperial expansion and Japan’s relations with the West. Japan fought World War I on the side of the Allied powers and, as a result, acquired German Pacific territories including the Marianna, Caroline, and Marshall Islands and economic privileges in Manchuria and China. Still, factions in the military, particularly young army officers, wanted more. Even though many politicians opposed the army, politicians, discontented rural people, and struggling city dwellers helped to strengthen the power of the militaristic expansionists. Although Japan suffered less than many nations in the 1930s world depression, the event further fueled antigovernment and promilitary sentiments.

Many Japanese disliked advocates of Western-style political institutions for other reasons. The Americans and Europeans appeared hypocritical when they talked of democracy and equality but practiced racism. At the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, the Japanese tried to convince the other major powers to include a racial equality clause in the treaty. However, the Japanese demand for this clause failed primarily because of the opposition of Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Leaders from these democracies were against approving the clause because they feared the domestic political repercussions of declaring an Asian race equal to their largely Caucasian populations. In 1924 the U.S. Congress passed an Exclusion Act that made it virtually impossible for Japanese to immigrate to the United States. Almost all Japanese considered the American law a national insult.

In 1926, the Taisho emperor died, and his son and successor, Hirohito, selected Showa, or ‘‘Enlightened Peace,’’ as the name for his reign. Subsequent events, however, made the reign name choice ironic. By the late 1920s, the Japanese army was taking direct action in defiance of civilian government. Powerful army elements coveted Chinese-controlled Manchuria for its food and natural resources and because it was a buffer zone against the Soviet Union.

In 1928, young Japanese officers of the Kwantung Army stationed in Manchuria bombed a train carrying a local warlord, and the army did little to bring the perpetrators to justice. In 1931, army factions precipitated an even more serious international incident. Army officers blew up part of a railway owned by Japan and, claiming local sabotage, took over Manchuria, and the civilian Tokyo government was helpless in the face of popular support for the action. In January 1932, the army separated Manchuria from China and created the puppet state of Manchukuo, causing world outrage. In early 1933, the League of Nations condemned this aggression, and Japan responded by withdrawing from the league.

The Manchurian takeover and further incidents involving Japanese army units in China strengthened the will of the Chinese government to resist Japanese expansion. Fighting began on the night of July 7, 1937, with a minor skirmish between Japanese and Chinese troops at the Marco Polo Bridge, and quickly expanded into an undeclared but full-scale war between China and Japan.

The Japanese enjoyed several early victories and in December 1937 captured the Chinese capital of Nanjing. In what was to become one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century, Japanese troops murdered, robbed, and raped thousands of civilians in the city. Soon the Japanese army encountered stiff Chinese resistance, and although Japan continued to win victories, it could not score the knockout blow to end the war. Japan had become involved in a quagmire in China.

The United States by this time was increasingly using economic weapons in an attempt to get Japan out of China. In the summer of 1938, the United States placed an embargo on shipments of war material to Japan. In the fall of 1940, after Japan moved into French Indochina to gain vital rubber and oil supplies, the United States stopped exporting scrap iron and steel to Japan. In the summer of 1941, the U.S. government, in response to further Japanese advances into Indochina, froze all Japanese assets in the United States. Also, the U.S., British, and Dutch governments ended oil exports to Japan. Although Japan attempted negotiations, the oil embargo, which cut off 90 percent of Japan’s oil supply, pushed Japan toward a decision to fight the Western powers.

In the late fall of 1941, high officials of the Japanese government, in a last attempt to avoid war, proposed to Washington that Japan withdraw from Indochina if the United States ended the oil embargo and assisted in peace negotiations with China. The U.S. government responded that it would agree to nothing less than Japanese withdrawal from China, Manchuria, and Indochina. The Japanese government found the American demand unacceptable and secretly decided on war.

On Sunday, December 7, 1941, Japanese aircraft carrier–based planes carried out a successful surprise attack on the U.S. Pacific fleet moored in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The attack, which sunk or severely damaged 19 naval vessels and killed more than 2,000 U.S. sailors and soldiers, resulted in the United States’ declaration of war against Japan on December 8. Many Japanese realized the decision to attack was a bold gamble since Japan possessed much less wealth than the United States. Japan hoped for a quick war and that victories in the Pacific and the conquest of Europe by Japan’s ally, Germany, would cause the Americans to negotiate an end to the war with the ensuing peace settlement, leaving Japan dominant in Asia.

The Japanese people accepted this strategy in part because of a popular belief that Japan was a moral alternative to the materialistic West for all of Asia. The Japanese government early in the war formulated the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere. According to this plan, victory was only the first objective in attaining the goal of building a strong and unified Asia and Pacific community under Japanese leadership. At first, Japan achieved impressive victories and by the spring of 1942 had conquered Singapore, the Dutch East Indies, and the Philippines. The Japanese also established island bases throughout the southwestern and central Pacific in such places as Guam, Wake Island, and the Solomon Islands. The Japanese seriously underestimated American determination and economic might, however, and by May 1942 the tides of war were already beginning to turn. In June 1942, a Japanese attempt to finish the U.S. Pacific fleet for good backfired when Japan lost four valuable aircraft carriers at the battle of Midway. In 1943 and 1944, the Americans defeated Japanese imperial forces in several Pacific island campaigns.

The war between the United States and its allies against the Japanese was bloody, bitter, and tinged with racism on both sides. Japanese were taught to view the Americans and British as ‘‘foreign devils’’ with no morals. Most Japanese soldiers considered fighting to the death preferable to the indignity of surrender.

Twenty-seven percent of Allied troops who surrendered to the imperial Japanese military died in captivity compared to only 4 percent of Allied prisoners who surrendered to the Germans. In the United States, racism was one reason why few Americans objected to the government’s forced internment under armed guard of more than 110,000 Japanese Americans for portions of or the entire war years. The United States was at war with Germany and Italy, but the government didn’t intern German or Italian Americans.

By the summer of 1944, U.S. forces captured the island of Saipan, allowing American planes to conduct regular bombing raids on the Japanese home islands. In October 1944, U.S. forces under General Douglas MacArthur began retaking the Philippines by landing at Leyte Gulf. Japan’s situation was desperate, but the Japanese military fought on and civilians persevered even as American bombing raids on the home islands intensified. In one night alone in March 1945, the firebombing of Tokyo left 78,000 people dead and 43,480 wounded. By 1945 young Japanese kamikaze, or ‘‘divine wind,’’ pilots were engaging in suicide missions while civilians were training with sharpened spears to resist to the death the expected U.S. invasion of Japan.

At the July 1945 Potsdam Conference, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union, which was then not yet at war with Japan, reaffirmed their previous demand of unconditional surrender and threatened complete destruction if Japan refused. Just a few days later, on August 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, killing an estimated 100,000 people. Three days later, a second U.S. bomb killed an estimated 75,000 people in the city of Nagasaki. By then the Soviet Union had also declared war on Japan and sent troops into Manchuria. The Japanese government, undecided whether to surrender, was finally persuaded to do so by the emperor. On August 15, 1945, Hirohito addressed the nation by radio for the first time ever with the news that the war was lost. Japan’s drive for empire in China and the Pacific resulted in nearly 3 million Japanese deaths.