So if you can remember all the way back to Act 1, China was forced open by the British and had a chaotic, uncoordinated response. Pretty much everyone was unhappy with the situation, but they disagreed on what to do about it. The same thing is going to happen in Japan except that they will be relatively unified in their response. This is one of the benefits of having a smaller nation that is not fragmented into various ethnic groups, like China. And this unified rejection of western imperialism is going to put Japan on the path to dominate Asia in the 20th century.
Tokugawa in decline
In Japan in the 1800s the Tokugawa Shogunate was still ruling the island. There was an emperor, but he was just a figurehead. The real power was with the shogun – or the military leader. He commanded an army of samurai soldiers that were part of the feudal make-up of Japan. Essentially the shogun was just the most powerful of all of the feudal lords – or daimyo. And remember, the Tokugawa had closed off Japan from all outside influence except one port city where the Dutch were allowed to trade and share some cool ideas.
The Tokugawa were already experiencing some issues. For one, their tax revenue was declining. Ugh. Taxes again. The government was collecting taxes on land, which is a problem because 1) Japan at this point has a finite amount of land. And 2) they aren’t tapping into the rising class of wealthy merchants who don’t own land and thus, don’t have to pay much in taxes.
Also, maintaining a massive army of samurai when you’re not fighting anyone is really expensive. And across the island the feudal system was slowly breaking down. The Japanese peasants were resisting being subjugated as farmers and many of them wanted to earn money and status for themselves, totally reasonable.
Matthew Perry’s “Black Ships” Visit Japan
This is the backdrop upon which a guy named Matthew Perry visits Japan. And even though this guy was a slightly overweight Commodore of the 19th century U.S. Navy, I highly encourage you to picture him as the Matthew Perry who played Chandler on Friends. Could Japan BE any more closed?!
President Millard Fillmore – that was one of our presidents names. Millard Fillmore. He wanted to get the U.S. into Asia to compete with the British, French, and Russians. So he tasked Matthew Perry with visiting Japan to negotiate a trade agreement. Matthew Perry decides that the best way to go about this is with a show of superior military force – probably smart considering Japan was led by a military government and had already shown it was very unwilling to accept any foreign economic influence.
So Chandler sets off for Japan with four warships. He makes a big deal of this – sailing through the Pacific making stops along the way. He arrives in Tokyo and delivers two very formal letters from President Fillmore and himself. They both express a very intense desire to create better trading relations with the Japanese that will be mutually beneficial for their economies. There’s definitely some hints at what might happen if they don’t, but these are relatively diplomatic.
Perry leaves Japan and goes to visit China – where the Chinese have just lost to the technologically superior British (a fact the Japanese are well aware of). But, as promised in the letters, he returns six months later, this time with six ships and 100 mounted cannons. This is known as “gunboat diplomacy.” Sure, we have a nice sounding letter, but it’s delivered by a huge warship with guns pointed at your head. And this time, he also delivered a letter that is easily one of my top five primary sources of all time. It’s so gutsy and confident I can’t believe it. Listen to this:
He first says that he can’t believe that they still haven’t opened up to trade with the U.S. and that he fully expects them to do so. If they don’t, the U.S. will be required to take up arms and fight for this right. But here’s the part I love…
“When one considers such an occasion, however, (the occasion that there would be war with the U.S.), one will realize the victory will naturally be ours and you shall by no means overcome us. If in such a situation you seek for a reconciliation, you should put up the white flag that we have recently presented to you, and we would accordingly stop firing and conclude peace with you, turning our battleships aside.”
With this note, he had delivered the Japanese a white flag. So basically, he’s saying: if you don’t agree to all of our demands, you’re going to need this. Because there’s no way you would win in a fight so you might as well just surrender now. Whoa.
And it works. The Tokugawa Shogunate gave in and signed an unequal treaty similar to the one after the Opium Wars. But the difference here is that the Japanese people were unhappy (like in China) and they coordinated a unified response that overthrew the Tokugawa Shogunate and rejected the treaty with the U.S.
Overthrow of the Tokugawa
In the four years between Matthew Perry’s arrival and the end of the Shogunate, the Japanese economy was destroyed. Cheap foreign goods flooded the market and collapsed local industry. The influx of gold and silver threw off their tax structure and led to massive inflation.
People had been frustrated with the corrupt shoguns who lived a lavish lifestyle for a while but this was the last straw. A group of nobles, samurai, merchants, and peasants joined together to support the Emperor and overthrow the shogunate, restoring power back to Emperor Meiji.
This instituted a new era in Japanese history called the Meiji Restoration. This lasted from 1868 to 1912 and it is the reason why Japan went from being a feudal island nation to a global imperial powerhouse in half a century.
The Meiji Restoration
Remember the Self-Strengthening Movement in China? It was what some of the Confucian scholars wanted to do to push out the British – build up their industry and military from within so they could compete. The Meiji Restoration is that – but successful. The Emperor and his supporters undertake reforms in basically every aspect of Japanese life.
They create an almost universal education system (for girls, too!) that emphasizes literacy, science and technology, and patriotic loyalty to Japan. In just 45 years, the literacy rates jump from 35% to 75% for men and 8% to 68% for women. 8 to 68%. That’s insane.
The Japanese also totally reformed and westernized their military. They eliminated the samurai and created a military draft. And they brought in western advisers to help them build up a navy that would soon dominate the Pacific. Over the span of twenty years, Japan wins wars against both China and Russia. So if anyone thought that traditional land-based power was still the way to go, tiny Japan has thoroughly proven them wrong.
Meiji Government Reforms
And, amazingly, they also reformed the government. I say this because, in the past, we’ve seen that absolute rulers basically never willingly give up power to create a new constitutional government. The only other example we’ve seen is King Pedro of Brazil willingly sharing power with the Creoles, but that was because the alternative was probably a bloody slave revolt. But in Japan, the Emperor creates a parliamentary system with two houses – the higher house for the former nobles – that were elected. Only about 1% of the population could vote, but still.
The new constitution was presented to the people as a gift from the Emperor, who would control the military and was the only one who could change the constitution. This was a similar set-up to the new German state – with the Kaiser in charge of the military and a parliament in charge of the government. It’s not a coincidence that both countries are going to rise to become the leading military powers soon after.
The Japanese also copied the Chinese and created a merit-based government bureaucracy with a civil service exam to enter the government. It’s like they were able to sit back and watch all the other powers of the world set up and try different things. Then they just pick and choose exactly what they want to be successful. It’s like that friend who plans their wedding by going to other people’s weddings and just taking the things they like. Ooh a cupcake tower! Ooh a photo booth! Mason jars!
The most important part of this reform is massive industrialization. They double down and the government focuses most of its time and resources toward encouraging economic growth. They create new banks, build railroads, factories, and mines. They allow private businesses to lead the way in a lot of this, but they are closely monitored by the government.
I can’t imagine what that must have felt like to be living in Japan at the time. Every aspect of your life is changing – it must have been incredibly exciting for some and overwhelming for others. There is a Japanese anime show set during the Meiji period. It’s called Ruruoni Kenshin and it’s available on Netflix. Episode 3, “Swordsman of Sorrow”, addresses this tension between those who want to keep the traditional ways and those who want to modernize. It’s pretty great. But if you watch, make sure you do subtitles and not dubbing – because the dubbed translations are truly terrible.
There’s a document I showed my students one time that I now for the life of me can’t find. I might have made it up. But it was a Japanese man writing about how, if someone left Japan and traveled the world for a few decades and then returned home, would he recognize anything? Or would he think he had ended up in some new foreign lands? It’s a really beautiful piece of writing that captures that feeling of change and nostalgia for the past. But Google has failed me and I can’t find it. If one of you finds its, send it to me through my blog and you’ll be my favorite listener of all time.