What accounts for Japan’s emergence as a great power?
In the middle of the 1800s, Japan was a perfect example of this divided executive power. There was an emperor who lived in the city of Kyoto but the authority of the royal family had been declining for centuries. Real power was held by a powerful warlord called a shogun. The shogun lived in the city of Edo, which was later renamed Tokyo.
Japan had cut itself off from the rest of the world in the 1600s. Foreigners were not allowed to enter Japan or trade with Japan. On July 3, 1853, an American commodore, Matthew C. Perry , forced his way into Edo Bay with a small fleet of American warships. This opened up Japan to outside influences and set off a tremendous struggle for executive power and for change inside Japan.
Japan Responds to Foreign Power
The Japan that Commodore Perry visited in 1853 was still a feudal society, like Europe 500 years earlier. Feudal lords lived in castles and controlled most of the land. They also virtually owned the peasants who farmed the land. A warrior class of samurai knights were famous for their swordsmanship. The ruling shogun in Edo was the head of a powerful family and the leading warlord. He told the emperor what to do. The Japanese people believed the emperor was descended from the sun goddess, but by 1853 the emperor had become little more than an honored royal hermit.
Perry’s arrival deeply shocked Japan. The Japanese saw immediately that they could not fight the powerful American ships. Perry’s first step was to demand that some Japanese ports be opened for supplying American ships with water and coal. The shogun gave in and agreed.
Other Western powers sent their ships, too, and the shogun gave them similar agreements. Then, in 1858, American diplomat Townsend Harris negotiated a treaty that gave the United States the right to trade freely at several Japanese ports. This treaty greatly favored of the United States. For example, the duties on American imports to Japan were set low. Also, the treaty said that Japanese courts could not try Americans. If they committed offenses against the Japanese, they were to be tried in a special American court under U.S. law.
The shock of foreign demands set off a power struggle in Japan. The Japanese felt humiliated by what they called the unequal treaties. Some of Japan’s most powerful families set up an opposition movement and called on the emperor to resist change. Emperor Komei refused to support the Townsend Treaty. The shogun ignored him, however, and went ahead and signed similar treaties with Holland, Russia, Britain, and France. The shogun was afraid of the Western powers. He had seen the British grab Hong Kong from China, and he hoped the treaties would avoid direct takeover by western powers.
“Honor the emperor, expel the barbarians!” the opposition cried in angry rallies.
Foreigners were attacked. A band of samurai assaulted the British trade consulate. The combined warships of Britain, France, Holland, and the United States bombarded Japanese shore defenses, and open resistance had to stop for the moment.
Japan remained deeply divided. A group of feudal lords from western Japan still opposed the shogun. They supported the emperor and hoped he would throw out the “foreign barbarians.”
Then Emperor Komei died of smallpox. He was replaced on February 13, 1867, by his 15-year-old son, Matsuhito. The rebels at Kyoto used this moment to denounce the shogun and to proclaim the emperor once again the sole ruler of Japan.
The shogun marched an army to Kyoto to remove the boy emperor’s counselors. Armed mainly with swords and crossbows, the shogun’s army was defeated by a much smaller army loyal to the emperor and armed with modern firearms. This defeat marked the end of the era of the shogun.
Many of the boy emperor’s supporters thought he would restore feudal Japan and throw out the foreigners. Just the opposite happened. His counselors realized that Japan had to enter the modern world. They drafted a statement of principles called the Charter Oath and had Emperor Matsuhito proclaim it on April 6, 1868.
The Charter Oath was a remarkable document that guided Japan from feudalism into the modern world. It called for the creation of a representative assembly and encouraged all classes of people “to fulfill their aspirations.” It abandoned feudalism, which it called the “base customs of former times” and called for a Western model of law. Finally, the Charter Oath said that Japan would send people all over the world to learn the path to modernization.
Like the shogun’s men before them, the new leaders recognized Japan’s military and economic weakness. They started a massive national effort to win equal status with the European nations and the United States. Their slogan was, “Wealthy country and strong arms.” They set up a nationwide school system and encouraged the growth of industry. The new leaders still wanted to cancel the unequal treaties, but they realized they would have to become strong first. This was the only way to prevent retaliation by the Western powers.
The teenaged emperor took the title Meiji, which meant enlightened peace. He also moved his capital from Kyoto to Edo and renamed the city Tokyo. The real power was held by a small group of men. These men surrounding the emperor represented Japan’s most important families, and they took Japan from a feudal country to equality with the West in a single generation.
The new leaders of Japan believed that the fastest way to achieve equality with the West was to adopt Western ways. The Emperor Meiji supported this view.
Japan sent special study groups to America and Europe to learn the ways of the West. The most famous of these was the Iwakura Mission, which toured the United States and Europe from 1871 to 1873. The mission was made up of 50 senior leaders, government specialists, and even young students. They met heads of state such as President Grant and Queen Victoria, and they looked at everything from factories to a fox hunt. The Iwakura Mission concluded that Japan needed long-range planning, organization, and hard work to become a modern nation.
Change came fast. The 200-year-old feudal system was quickly replaced by a central state. The emperor issued proclamations that created the new state institutions. These proclamations were actually written by the inner ruling circle of the new leaders.
Over the next three decades, Japan followed the mission’s plan. They brought in foreign engineers and experts called yatoi, which means “live machines.” The British helped to build factories, railroads, and the navy. The French contributed the basis for Japan’s new legal code. The Germans trained the army. The Americans helped design Japanese public education. Over a thousand American teachers came to teach in schools that were open to the children of all social classes.