(JAPAN from TOKUGAWA to MEIJI – continued)

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JAPAN from TOKUGAWA to MEIJI (5 of 5)

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Imperialism to 1900

Japan had a dearth of raw materials and was importing raw materials from elsewhere in Asia and exporting finished products. By industrializing, Japan was able to dominate in the sale of manufactured goods, especially textiles, to those areas abroad that it was closer to geographically than were the Western powers. And Japan remained determined to assert itself as a great nation and not to suffer domination by the West as was China. One of the oligarchs running Japan in the name of Emperor Meiji, Fukuzawa Yukichi, in 1885, described Japan's need to be a leading power in Asia and to behave "in the same way as the civilized countries of the West are doing." He added: "We would do better to treat China and Korea in the same way as do the Western nations."

Militarily, Japan benefited not only from its rapid industrialization but also by being an island nation, and by having as a neighboring military rival a crippled power – China. And Japan had an advantage over Europe and the US regarding Asia by being geographically closer to targets of imperial interest.

Japan's naval ensign

Naval ensign, from 1889

Japan had another ingredient useful for imperial expansion – arrogance – a view of their country as the land favored by the Gods, the land that others should recognize as superior. This was expressed as early as 1868 when Japan sent to Korea an announcement of the Meiji restoration. The announcement implied that Japan's monarch was superior in status to Korea's monarch. Diplomacy would have been served by Korea smiling at Japanese arrogance and accepting the announcement. Instead the Koreans rejected it, and Japan's militant patriots and supporters of Meiji rule considered Korea's response an affront to Japan's national dignity, and exchanges in the months that followed failed to mollify the irritation felt by both sides.

In the 1870s, Japanese warships, with troops, threatened the Koreans and struck at Korea's port city of Pusan and at Kanghwado island. Japan was proving its perceived superiority militarily, and in 1876 Korea signed a treaty, drafted by the Japanese, that granted the Japanese in Korea extraterritoriality (exemption from the jurisdiction of local law), exemption from tariffs and recognition of Japanese currency at ports of trade.

In 1878 a branch of Japan's Daiichi Bank was established in Pusan, which encouraged more Japanese merchants to do business in Korea. Japanese merchants purchased rice, soy beans, cattle hides and alluvial gold at low prices and sold these in Japan. Exports from Japan to Korea were mainly Japan's reselling of European, especially English, and American commodities.

By the 1890s, with Russian expansion in mind, Japan's military strategists were looking upon Korea as a zone of defense. In 1894, a war was approaching between Japan and China regarding Korea. Korea had xenophobes as did Japan, and in July in southern Korea a peasant and anti-foreign rebellion, the Tong-hak rising, occurred. note97

Korea's king called on China for help in suppressing the riots. China landed a force of 2,000 in Korea. Japan objected, claiming that this violated an agreement in 1885 – the Tianjin Convention. In Japan, patriotic activists claimed that Japan's national honor was at stake, and public opinion in Japan agreed with the super-patriots. Japanese soldiers took control of Korea's royal palace. By the end of September, 1894, Japan's army was in control of most of Korea and its navy was in control of the Yellow Sea (Huang Hai). Korea's king, Min, found refuge in the Russian legation. Some Japanese were involved in the assassination of Queen Min, who had been making overtures to China and Russia. And the Japanese forced out of Korea's government those who favored China.

Japanese army divisions crossed northward from Korea into Manchuria. Three divisions moved southward in Manchuria and captured a Chinese naval arsenal and fortress at the tip of the Liaodong Peninsula, at what is today Lushun – to be known as Port Arthur. Japan's army occupied Weihaiwei, on the Shandong Peninsula. China's antiquated military was overwhelmed by Japan's modern forces, and China in 1895 signed the Treaty of Shimonoseki. This ceded to Japan control over Lüshun (called Port Arthur by Westerners) and nearby Dalian on the Liaodong peninsula, at the southern tip of Manchuria. It ceded to Japan the island of Taiwan and permitted the Japanese to live and trade in China.

A group of leading Taiwanese, aided by rebellious Chinese officials, defied the Japanese and declared Taiwan a republic – Asia's first independent republic. Japan sent in troops and within a few months crushed that independence, Taiwan becoming part of Japan's empire.

Meanwhile, in 1894 in London, Japan had signed a new commercial and navigation treaty – the Aoki-Kimberley Treaty – with Britain. Power had brought Japan respect from a fellow imperial power. The treaty abolished extraterritorial rights for the British in Japan and provided reciprocity in most favored nation treatment. The US followed this with a similar agreement, and Russia and Germany established similar agreements in 1895, with France and the Netherlands joining them in 1896.

Britain welcomed Japanese imperialism as a counter to Russian expansion. The US government instructed its representatives to make no statement unfavorable to Japan. France and Germany supported Russia, and Russia saw Japan's gains as a threat to her rail line through Manchuria to China.

Pressure from Russia, France and Germany – the so-called Triple Intervention – resulted in Japan returning its gains in Manchuria and the Shandong peninsula to China, but China was also a loser in the transactions. With some bribing of Chinese officials, Russia acquired a 25-year lease at Lüshun (Port Arthur), Germany acquired control over Jiaozhou Bay at the south of the Shandong Peninsula. Britain leased Hong Kong for 99 years and took control of Weihaiwei in the north on Shandong, agreeing to stay there as long as the Russians remained at Lüshun. France also took control of a piece of the Shandong peninsula and took control of Guangzhou (Canton) in southern China. The Japanese public went from exultation over their country's victories to bitterness. And the Triple Intervention inspired the Japanese to further build the strength of its military and to improve its manufacture of military equipment.

Russia improved its ties with Korea, including the sending of a military mission there. In 1898, Russia and Japan agreed to refrain from interference in Korean politics and to consult with each other before sending military or financial advisors to Korea – seven years before the outbreak of war between these two countries.


The Rise of Modern Japan, by W G Beasley, 1990

Modern Japan: a historical survey, by Mikiso Hane, third edition, 2001

A History of Japanese Economic Thought, Tessa Morris-Suzuki, 1998

Copyright © 2003-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.