The Consequences of Japans Imperialism

28th January 2011

“Learning a barbarian language is not only a step towards knowing the barbarians, but also the groundwork for mastering them”

Sakuma Shozan in Spring, J.H., 2009 p. 31

The date at which Japans Imperialism began is disputed by historians, some believe that Japans imperialism began during the 1850s with the opening of trade to the west and the restoration of Emperor Meiji to throne, others argue that pre-industrial Japan was incapable of being an imperial nation resulting in the notion that Japans imperialism began 50 years later, around the turn of the century. This paper aims to examine the factors that occurred propelling Japan towards rapid modernization, industrialization and ultimately imperialization. Beginning with the steps taken as a nation during its lead up to being the first non-European imperial nation. Japan after the downfall of the Tokugawa Shogunate was, despite its refined cultural standing, an underdeveloped nation in regard to technological development that, was incapable of standing up to the Western Powers. Under the newly reinstated emperor Meiji, It was the intent of the new government to transform Japan into a democratic state with equality among its citizens. What followed was 50 years of widespread policy and educational reforms. These 50 years it can be argued are as important in the process of Japan becoming an imperial power as the battles they fought for the territory. Japanese expansion in Asia was initiated during a period marked by radical change, of active Western expansion into China and in the environment of international imperialism by European countries.

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Two vastly different countries on opposite sides of the world have had totally different methods of achieving the same goal of becoming international powers. The imperialism of Europe and Japan could not have been more different. Japan had a sophisticated culture but was not industrialized, Until the 19th century it was culturally, socially and geographically isolated and preferred to remain that way. During the 17th Century Japan had outlawed Christianity, and heavily restricted the Portuguese missionaries who had brought it, as they were afraid that it would lead to Western domination. Europe having the influence of the Roman Catholic Church, ensured that everybody became a Christian, they “grew up” differently to the Japanese whose influence came from his or her government. A government that was brutal and caring only for the rapid attainment of power.

The date at which Japans Imperialism began is disputed by historians, some believe that Japans imperialism began during the 1850s with the opening of trade to the west and the restoration of Emperor Meiji to throne, others argue that pre-industrial Japan was incapable of being an imperial nation resulting in the notion that Japans imperialism began 50 years later, around the turn of the century. Regardless of the debate Japan’s rise to power ultimately began in 1853, when the United States sent a fleet of ships under the command of Commodore Matthew Perry to Japan ending the nation’s self-imposed isolation and opening it to trade. Soon after, Britain, Russia, and Holland had all negotiated similar treaties. Like in China, the western powers insisted on taking full control of Japan’s trade and tariff policies and, Like other subjugated Asian nations, the Japanese were forced to sign unequal treaties with Western powers, granting the Westerners one-sided economical and legal advantages in Japan. This intrusion by the West in to the affairs of feudal Japan became the turning point in its dealings with the rest of the world.

The Tokugawa shogunate received heavy criticism and was ultimately overthrown for their part in allowing the western nations into Japan. In 1868, Emperor Mutsushito (Meiji) was restored to the throne. ”Too young to lead the state, the Emperor depended upon a coalition of samurai to rule on his behalf” (Stearns, 2009). Under their rule the reformers carried out a “revolution from above” centralizing the military and political power of the country by moving the capital from Kyoto to Edo, later renamed Tokyo or eastern capital (Simone, 2001) and by dismantling the fundamentals of the Tokagawa system, even ending the privileges of their own social class (Stearns, 2009). Not only had imperial rule been restored to the throne but, Japan had been plotted a course toward rapid modernization. In response to seeing how powerful the West had become, he decided that in order to withstand the imperialistic might of the West, and to become powerful themselves, Japan would need to study the western powers in depth and, as much as possible, adopt western cultures. This movement would later be known as the Meiji Restoration.

It was felt that, in order for Japan to regain independence from the European and American intruders, and to establish herself as a respected nation in the world she would need to close the economic and military gap between herself and the Western powers. An undertaking that Meiji Japan was determined to achieve. Japan chose not to Westernize but rather to modernize and undertook a massive program of modernization where drastic reforms were carried out in practically all areas. The Meiji Leaders chose the best model in each field of technology and administration that would make Japan both powerful and a match for other nations (Morton, 1994). To transform the agrarian economy of Tokugawa Japan into a developed industrial one, Japanese policy makers adopted a global view declaring that, “knowledge shall be sought from throughout the world”( Spring, J.H., 2009, p.31; Morton, 2009). Many Japanese scholars were sent abroad to learn as much as possible about the West, specifically in the study of Western science and languages, while foreign experts taught in Japan since it was believed as uttered by Sakuma Shozan that “Learning a barbarian language is not only a step towards knowing the barbarians, but also the groundwork for mastering them” (Spring, J.H., 2009, p.31). The knowledge that they returned with brought great change to Japan’s feudal system, which was abandoned in favor of a written constitution and the establishment of modern mechanized armed forces.

It was the intent of the new government to transform Japan into a democratic state with equality among its citizens (Morton, 1994). They began by gradually breaking down the boundaries, which existed between the social classes of Tokugawa Japan affecting a type of democracy/imperialism in which the emperor became a more of a figurehead. Actual political power was ceded from the Tokugawa Bakufu to a small group of nobles and former samurai. Other samurai made major losses during this process, since as a result of social reforms they lost all their privileges. In an effort to stabilize the new government, the former daimyo (feudal lords) were required to return all their lands to the emperor. This had been achieved by 1870 and was followed by the restructuring of the country in prefectures (Henshalll, 1999).

During the following period, they built factories, laid railroad track, and started mail and telegraph services. Improvements to transportation and communication networks were effected by large government investments. Henshall writes that, “between 1870 and 1874 one third of the state’s investments were in railway construction alone” (Henshall, 1999, p.76). They also showed direct support toward the advancement of business and industry especially, zaibatsu, large and powerful family businesses (Simone, 2001). Despite the rapid transformation and industrialization of the country, in an era of European and American imperialism, catching up in the military sector was a high priority. To achieve this the government announced the introduction of conscription and the establishment of a new army and navy. By 1883 men were conscripted to serve a 12-year term in the military. The military forces were modeled after the Prussian and British forces respectively (Simone, 2001).

Although the regular population was already highly literate, by global comparison at the time, they initiated systems of compulsory education and opened a military academy, as well as numerous colleges and universities. Reforms in the education system, again following Western methodology and ideals, were reformed after the French and later after the German systems (Morton, 1994). Other reforms included the establishment of basic human rights and freedoms, religious freedom being granted in May of 1873. Following the years of intensive westernization, a return to more conservative and nationalistic feelings was observed to be occurring throughout the nations educational institutes. Traditional principles of Confucianism and Shinto, including the worship of the emperor began to, once again, become increasingly emphasized (Henshall, 1999).

Aside from the changes in domestic values and practices, Japan’s relations with its neighbors also altered in response the policies introduced during the Meiji Restoration. It was the intention of the Meiji leadership to transform Japan into what they referred to as ittou koku, a first-class nation. This was to include all the prestige and power associated with the possession of foreign territories (Upshur, 2005). Japans first expansion was into Hokkaido transforming the Ainu people from simple hunter-gatherer tribes into preindustrialized agriculturalists. The northern Island of Hokkaido provided a valuable source of farmland and plenty of lumber for the rapidly progressing Japanese nation.

During the 19th century, the Western powers of Britain, Germany, America, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Russia, and Italy all amassed a number of overseas territories. More often than not the acquisition of these territories was through military means. The Meiji administration, having developed a firm understanding of the history of Western imperialism, which began during the 16th century, aspired to join the Western powers in demanding rights and privileges in other Asian countries. However, the Japanese government realized that before any attempt could be made in asserting its demands upon the Western Powers the country needed to modernize and strengthen its military first.

In 1895, after Japans initial intensification and restructuring of its military, the countries leaders realized that they still had not achieved the same levels as the imperialist Western powers. They recognized that Japan as a smaller force would need to control strategic points such as the Liaotung Peninsula in southern Manchuria to ensure the defense of Korea. Control over Korea represented an essential element in the protection of Japan against Western countries due to the two countries’ geographical proximity and due to Korea’s having borders with both China and Russia.

In 1894-95 the Japanese engaged the Chinese in the Sino-Japanese War as a result of conflicts of interest with China in which, they sought natural resources and trading rights on mainland Asia, motives which also brought them into conflict with Russia. Japan defeated China, and as a result acquired Formosa (Taiwan) as well as forcing China to pay a large indemnity (Henshalll, 1999). The Western powers were astonished by the strength shown by the Japanese. So much so that Russia, France and Germany united to force Japan to make land concessions to China. Although Japan captured the Liaotung Peninsula in the Sino-Japanese War, She could not stand up to the combined power exerted by these nations, during what is known as the Triple Intervention (1895), forcing Her to give up Her position in Southern Manchuria. This led Japan to a rapid increase in military expenditures between 1895 and 1904, and intensifying their rearmament of both the army and navy. In 1898 Russia established a presence in Port Arthur on the tip of the Liaotung Peninsula further increasing Japan’s sense of insecurity.

Following this, Japan’s propensity toward militaristic intensification increased as government leaders recognized the need to ensure the defense of the country against Russia and other Western powers. The advanced technological achievements and superior military and naval power that Japan recognized as belonging to the Western nations, created a fear of being invaded by Western countries such as Russia (Morton, 1994). Additionally with China as a weak neighbor, both militarily and economically, Japanese leaders feared that the rivalries for control by the Western powers could result in Chinas collapse. If this were to occur the result would lead to profound implications for the security of Japan.

According to Duka, Several ultra nationalist groups and writers, such as the Black Dragon Society and Kita Ikki, increasingly gained support through their popular views that Japan should takeover all leadership in Asia (Upshur, 2005 p 852). Furthermore he writes that if necessary, they felt that Japan should engage in a righteous war to expel the foreign powers. “Many of these ultranationalist groups believed that the moral purity of the Yamato race and Japan’s unique ancestry as descendants of the sun goddess Amaterasu entitled the Japanese to such a leadership role in Asia” (Duka, C. 2008, p.248). In the late 19th century, following Fukuzawa Yukichi’s writings of Japans Mission in Asia many Japanese leaders developed the belief that their country had a “manifest destiny” to aid in the freedom of other Asian countries from Western imperialist powers and to lead these countries to collective strength and prosperity. Yukichi wrote that:

“Our country must not fail to protect them militarily, guide them culturally, and show them the way to arrive at the stage of modern civilization. If unavoidable our country may even threaten them by force to ensure their progress” (Fukuzawa in Matsumoto, S. p. 167).

Fukuzawa Yukichi among other late 19th century writers supported Japans expansion into foreign territories and the associated ideals of Social Darwinism and the promotion survival of the strongest cultures by a process of natural selection.

Possible as a result of these ideals and the continuing tensions with Russia, In 1904 Russia and Japan stood face to face at war, and in 1905, for the first time, a non-Western country, Japan, had defeated a European Power. The repercussions of this perceived power reversal were felt worldwide as colonies saw that with Western technology, the weapons of the West could be used against the colonizers (Morton, 1994). This served to bolster Japan’s belief in its destiny to lead Asia. Many members of the Japanese government from this point looked to turn expansion into a systematic goal based on the reasons of security, national pride, resources for further industrialization, land allocation associated with overpopulation, and new markets for manufactured goods (Upshur, 2005). These goals were often not mutually exclusive. Japan during this time had shown that she was capable of, and was rapidly emerging as a world-class power combining western technology and methods while still maintaining its traditional cultural values.

Japanese expansion in Asia was initiated during a period marked by radical change, of active Western expansion into China and in the environment of international imperialism by European countries. Russian expansion during the 19th century, had already led to its annexing of large quantities of Chinese territory, in including the acquisition of Vladivostok, and other border regions between China and Russia. The Trans-Siberian railway from Moscow to Vladivostok, built during the 1890s, served to further Russia’s penetration into Manchuria. Russian activities in China and Korea conflicted with Japanese intentions to expand into these regions and presented Japan with feelings of immediate threat from the European powers (Morton, 1994).

Despite the many similarities to Western Imperialism during the 19th Century, Japanese imperialism differed in that it was the first non-Western imperial power. It is also different in that it achieved its ascension to imperial status after being confronted with the notion of colonization by the West. The protection of its interests necessitated that Japan side with the Western powers and imitated their actions toward other Asian countries. Like Western powers, Japanese imperial interests were driven by Social Darwinism, racism and a newly developing national identity. Imperial expansion in Japan went hand in hand with its growing sense of nationalism. Japan saw Imperial expansion as its best chance to earn Western respect ensuring its own security and survival as a nation. It was also seen as a mean of providing the materials necessary for continued development and of a means to bring ‘civilization’ to the other countries in Asia, It was the Western technology adopted by Japan that allowed them to become fully industrialize in less than 50 years. By the end of the Meiji Restoration, the Japanese no longer held the fear of being imperialized by the Western Powers, but rather, they set out to be practitioners’ of imperialism themselves.


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