Sunday, February 13, 2011

Japan on the Brink of Imperialism: Japanese Foreign Affairs in the 19th Century

What are foreign affairs?  Foreign affairs by definition by the Merriam-Webster online dictionary is:

Matters having to do with international relations and with the interests of the home country in foreign countries

            Japan in the 19th century was an interesting example of isolation; this isolation made foreign affairs extraneous.  Japan first made contact with Portuguese traders who were forced off course on their way to China in about 1542 C.E.  Over the next century, traders from Portugal, the Netherlands, France, England, and Spain arrived to conduct business with the Japanese.  The tension that eventually arose didn’t come from the traders, but rather the Jesuit, Dominican, and Franciscan missionaries who tried to convert the Japanese to Christianity.  The Japanese shogunate that were in control of Japan at this time suspected the Western traders and the Christian missionaries to be forerunners of a military conquest.

            During the early part of the 17th century, the shoguante of Japan restricted trade with the outside world to the port city of Nagasaki, mandated that the only traders welcome where the Chinese and Dutch, and removed all foreigners from the country.  Some may view this move as paranoia but I believe that Japan made a wise decision in at least restricting trade, this was an era in which Spain, England, and France were colonizing the world at an alarming rate.  This era of isolation lasted up until the mid 19th century.

              By the 19th century the Far East was a very different place.  China was severely weakened by the Opium trade with Britain and a new threat was rising in the area, the Russian Empire.  More and more foreign pressure was put on Japan to trade, at some point the levee would eventually break and foreign contact would be inevitable, either through war or trade.  Japan, although an isolated state still had its eye on expansion and a weakened Qing China made expansion even more probable. 

            One of the first goals of Japan would be the Kuriles Islands.  These islands were of the northern island of Hokkaido which was under Japanese control.  Russia’s closed land to these islands was the Kamchatka Peninsula and up until 1945, Japan had a upper hand in the claim for these islands but until then this island chain was the center of much controversy.  Taiwan was also a goal for Japan, they finally controlled the island nation in 1895 even though Japan had been attempting to bring it into the fold since 1592.  The ever growing weaker Qing China made the takeover of Taiwan possible for the Japanese.  Korea was also another goal for the Japanese.  Korea came under Japanese control in 1905, again, when the Qing Dynasty was on its last leg and Russia was near the communist revolution as well.

            On July 8th, 1853 four black ships led by USS Powhatan and commanded by Commodore Matthew Perry, anchored at Edo Bay; never before had the Japanese seen ships steaming with smoke.  Matthew Perry brought a letter from the President of the United States, Millard Fillmore, to the Emperor of Japan. He waited with his armed ships and refused to see any of the lesser dignitaries sent by the Japanese, insisting on dealing only with the highest emissaries of the Emperor.  On March 31st, 1854 representatives of Japan and the United States signed a historic treaty.  Negotiations went several months between Perry and Japanese officials on achieving the U.S goal of opening the doors of trade with Japan. 
The Japanese government realized that their country was in no position to defend itself against a foreign power, and Japan could not retain its isolation policy without risking war. On March 31st, 1854 Perry received what he had so dearly worked for, a treaty with Japan. The treaty provided for:
  1. Peace and friendship between the United States and Japan.
  2. Opening of two ports to American ships at Shimoda and Hakodate
  3. Help for any American ships wrecked on the Japanese coast and protection for shipwrecked persons
  4. Permission for American ships to buy supplies, coal, water, and other necessary provisions in Japanese ports.
In conclusion, I think internal strife and relentless foreign pressure caused Japan to end its isolationist view towards the west.  When Japanese society opened its doors to the west and became subject to its influences, it reinvented itself.  This very same reinvention created all the things needed to for Japan to expand in the early 20th century and to become a world power by the time of World War II.   

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