Foreign Relations in Imperial Japan

From the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate to the post-World War II period, Japanese foreign relations were characterized by drastic change. Japan vacillated between rejecting and embracing the West. The early Tokugawa suspicion of Europeans that had undergirded the policy of sakoku persisted until the arrival of Commodore Perry. Under the Meiji and Taisho emperors, however, Western culture and institutions would permeate every aspect of Japanese society. Japanese colonial rule showed that Westernization was capable of serving Japanese exceptionalism, combining the impulses that dictated foreign relations during the Tokugawa and Meiji periods. Finally, the postwar period saw American forms of government and social organization imposed upon a defeated Japanese populace. Thus, in the three and a half centuries between the Battle of Sekigahara and the aftermath of the U.S. Occupation, Japan moved from extreme isolationism to extreme engagement.

A deep suspicion of Westerners pervaded the Tokugawa period. Describing a Christian missionary’s plot to “subjugate Japan” via the “diffusion of his brand of Buddhism,” the author of Kirishitan Monogatari exults that “the Kirishitan religion has been…cast out of our land.”[1] This sentiment reflects the policies of Iemitsu Tokugawa, who between 1633 and 1639 “banned the practice and teaching of Christianity and the travel of Catholics to Japan.”[2] When Christians in the town of Shimabara revolted, bakufu officials killed as many as 37,000 of them. The expulsion of Portuguese traders followed. Honda Toshiaki, writing about purportedly shipwrecked Russians in 1798, remarked, “they were Europeans, whose nature it is to be very cunning” (Duus, p. 49). When daimyo were summoned to render judgment on Commodore Perry’s proposed treaty, Tokugawa Nariaki garnered a majority with a memorial that concluded each proposal for coastal defense with the insistence that “we must never choose the policy of peace” (Duus, pp. 102-106). The prevailing attitude towards Westerners under the Tokugawa shogunate was one of suspicion.

The Meiji period saw a reversal of this outlook. Kume Kunitake’s account of the Iwakura mission conveys a more sympathetic attitude towards Christianity. He notes that “the spirit of religion is extremely fervent” in the United States, Protestantism being “the national religion” (Duus, p. 170). Observing that “on the Sabbath day…no trade goes on,” Kume asks if this might “be what sustains public morals in this country.” In addition to renegotiating the “unfair treaties” of 1858, the Iwakura mission was tasked with studying Western society to determine what made it so powerful. Kume’s nuanced handling of American Christianity reflects this purpose. After the fall of the shogunate, former samurai, fearful lest they give too much power to the people, “pushed aside” the American model of democracy “in favor of the examples of the British and German constitutional monarchies” (Duus, p. 34). They also adopted compulsory education and industrialization, which had by 1910 become such a prominent feature of Japanese society that we find Nagatsuka Takashi alluding to the dismal conditions of urban textile factories in The Soil: A Portrait of Rural Life in Meiji Japan.[3] By the time of the Great Depression, Japanese government had solidified into a two-party parliamentary democracy. Though suffrage was restricted to a scant 1-2% of the population, Hara Kei melded the Seiyukai party into an effective political machine, exchanging its cooperation with the oligarchy for cabinet posts and pork-barrel spending (Gordon, pp. 113-137).

With the rise of Japanese imperialism, the Tokugawa suspicion of foreign culture quickly transmogrified into hostility and oppression. The eminently Prussian policy of conscription led the forces of the emperor Meiji to victories over the Satsuma insurgency (1877), the Chinese (1894-1895), and the Russians (1904-1905). By 1910, Japan had annexed Korea as a colony (Gordon, p. 120). On the one hand, the Japanese were acting as every Western imperial power already had. Substantial portions of the multinational force called upon to suppress China’s Boxer Rebellion were Japanese. On the other hand, Japanese colonial rule sought to forcibly assimilate supposedly inferior societies into Japanese culture. This is evidenced by Kajiyama Toshiyuki’s The Clan Records, in which the Japanese colonial administration’s attempt to eradicate Korean names leads to the suicide of a feudal landlord.[4] The myth of Japan’s colonized peoples rejoicing in the benevolent rule of their overlords, apparent in Nogi Harumichi’s enthusiasm for building a “Greater East Asia Co-Porsperity Sphere,” did not mesh with reality.[5]

Japan would come to embrace Western culture again during and after the U.S. Occupation. The Pacific Century: Reinventing Japan chronicles the dictatorial fashion in which Japan’s new constitution was thrust upon the defeated nation. The committee of American bureaucrats whom General MacArthur appointed to draft the document not only provided for “the civil liberties of the American Bill of Rights” (Gordon, p. 229). Beate Sirota also fought for provisions guaranteeing equality of the sexes when it came to inheritance rights and marriage (Gordon, p. 324). This was an about face from Prime Minister Tojo Hideki’s paeans to the place of the women in the Japanese home and epitomized the American attempts to democratize postwar Japan along American lines (Gordon, p. 213). Quite in contrast to Yoshida Shigeru, General MacArthur believed that Japanese society had to be fundamentally reformed. The “San Francisco System” and the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty (ANPO) secured America’s right to intervene in Japanese affairs. Gordon identifies this as an element in Japan’s “economic miracle” between 1950 and 1975: “America’s continuing military presence and the constitutional limitation on Japan’s own military spared the government from high defense costs” (Gordon, p. 246). Though domestic consumption represented a larger portion of the Japanese economy than many European nations, “export markets were crucial to the economy” (Gordon, p. 247). Japan’s auto industry flourished after the oil shocks of the 1970s created an international demand for fuel efficient cars. These economic trends were reflected in Japanese social mores: “the custom of dating became popular among college youths and young workers in these years, and the word for date (deeto) was imported from English” (Gordon, p. 255). Three and a half centuries after the composition of Kirishitan Monogatari, Western influence had come to stay.


[1] Kirishitan Monogatari (anonymous, 1639), The Japanese Discovery of America: A Brief History with Documents, ed. Peter Duus, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1997. p. 47. Now on, citations from this source will appear parenthetically.

[2] Andrew Gordon, A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present, Second Edition, Oxford University Press, 2009. p. 19. Now on, citations from this source will appear parenthetically.

[3] Nagatsuka Takashi, The Soil: A Portrait of Rural Life in Meiji Japan, tr. Ann Waswo, University of California Press. p. 43. Excerpts appearing in ANS/HIS 341 course packet.

[4] Kajiyama Toshiyuki, The Clan Records: Five Stories of Korea, tr. Yoshiko Dykstra, University of Hawaii Press. pp. 7-46. Excerpts appearing in ANS/HIS 341 course packet.

[5] Nogi Harumichi, “I wanted to build Greater East Asia,” Japan at War: An Oral History, Haruko Taya Cook and Theodore F. Cook, New Press, 1993. pp. 50-55 and 105-113.


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