The word “restoration” suggests an ongoing careful process of development and not a sudden overnight change, so for the purposes of this essay I have looked at the role of foreign intervention in effecting the government change, and also in the rebuilding of society after the Meiji government was established. According to Marius Jansen, “Historians have grouped these developments under the term Meiji Restoration. “1 I have described key events during this time, which were direct or indirect results of Japans contact with the west, and then I have attempted to assess the significance of the outcome.
Under the Tokugawa Shogunate, Japan was effectively isolated from the rest of the world for over 200 years, by a Sakoku (closed country) policy. This was to keep out the corrupting influence of Christianity, prevent foreign trade (apart from granting the Dutch limited trade) and Japanese travel abroad. Things changed in the 19th century as the USA trade in the Pacific increased and they began to show an interest in Japan not just for trading but also for a supply of coal in the east for steamships and to ensure shipwrecked sailors in the area received good treatment.
Unfortunately for Japan, she was situated directly in the path of US shipping lanes. In 1854 Commodore Matthew C. Perry arrived from the USA with a fleet of warships. This blunt show of force was a deliberate attempt to threaten the Japanese into complying with what was essentially an ultimatum. It worked; to the Japanese, the US steamships appeared as “Floating volcanoes”. 2 They were forced into signing the treaty of Kanagawa in 1854 thus ending the isolationist policy.
This in turn sparked off other nations interests in Japan. Further trade access was granted to the US in 1858, and treaties of commerce were also signed with Britain, France, the Netherlands and Russia. These became known as the unequal treaties, because the foreign powers were granted more rights than Japan. Japan in the 1850’s had become a subjugated nation.
Elements within Japan, mainly from the western provinces, existed during the Tokugawa rule, i. e. efore the events of the 1850’s, who advocated contact and learning from the west, for example, the western military scientist Sakuma Shozan cited Japans military inferiority when he argued that Japan must learn from the west, or would become a victim of colonialism. He put forward ideas on building a navy and coastal defences. 3 The Opium Wars with Britain and China prompted military studies based on Western techniques; some students believed that this was the way to make Japan a force to be reckoned with. This was during the 1840’s, when the Tokugawa authorities were beginning to pay attention to these ideas.
As they grew concerned about foreign imperialist aggression in other countries, and in the light of the Opium Wars, it became clear that Japan was militarily inferior to the countries of the west. Previously, Japanese dissidents with similar ideas had been persecuted, now the way of thinking had changed. It was these elements that sharply criticized the Tokugawa for signing the treaties. The signing served as proof its inability to meet other countries on equal terms and triggered nationalist unrest, people wanting to revise the treaties, under the slogan Sonno-joi (revere the emperor, expel the barbarian).
The opposite way of thinking was summed up in the slogan Kaikoku, or “open the country”. These crucial events bear out the argument that foreign intervention had a key role in the installation of the Meiji government. The position of the Tokugawa government had been one of steady decline in the second half of its era, due to higher taxes causing unrest among the farming population, and a breakdown of the traditional social hierarchy. The government might have survived these problems on their own, but when the factor of external pressure was added, its weaknesses were exposed.
Foreign intervention was the final nail in the coffin. When the industrially and militarily advanced western nations finally confronted Japan, the result was that the weaker nation had to bow to external demands. The western powers were not prepared to take no for an answer. A main characteristic of the Meiji period was the emergence of Japan from her isolation. This came with the realisation of how far behind the western nations she had fallen during that time, militarily, socially and economically. Japan had entered the world order, but on terms defined by the “barbarian”.
The key aims of the restoration were her development into a modern industrial nation and a revision of the unequal treaties. It was recognised by the authorities that the logical, and fastest, way to do this was to learn from the most powerful nations, especially after the return of the learning mission of 1873, which visited, and took ideas from, some of the worlds most advanced countries. According to Marius Jansen, “Nothing distinguishes the Meiji period more than its disciplined search for models that would be applicable for a Japan in the process of rebuilding its institutions. 4 Foreign intervention continued to play a role up to the next century but this time it was not forced on Japan, it was deliberately invited. Foreign experts in matters such as Military, education, transport and government were brought to Japan as advisors, assisting the country in building up its infrastructure. Japan’s naval victory against Russia in 1905 indicates that this build-up was done quickly and successfully, and seemed to consolidate her new status as a contender on the world stage.
However, the role of foreign intervention this time may not have been quite as important as before, so it’s important to consider other, non-western influences. Bill Gordon argues that certain elements of the Tokugawa period had already laid the foundations of Japan’s modernisation during the Meiji era. These elements included economic developments such as roads and large cities (trading centres) already in place, a unified economy, and growing financial markets, stimulated by the consumer demands of the samurai class.
Family businesses were established, such as Mitsubishi and Konoike, precursors to the powerful zaibatsu of the Meiji era. Gordon also cites a common social background and a high standard of education, both achievements of the Tokugawa period and carried over into the Meiji period, as important for paving the way for the subsequent modernisation. He believes that foreign emulation actually interfered with the reform period, due to tensions arising over what should be emulated, and what should be left in its traditional form. 5
Cultural borrowing was a short-lived phenomenon, but did it interfere with progress? During the Meiji period, the Japanese adopted some of the trappings of western civilisation, such as dress, interior design, ballroom dancing, eating beef and men cutting their hair short. 6 This was an attempt to gain credibility with western nations, but towards the end of the 19th century, was gradually abandoned in favour of the traditional. This xenophile behaviour shows an eagerness to catch up with foreign nations, and could have facilitated progress rather than interfered with it.
In any case, by the turn of the century, Japan had in place only those aspects of foreign civilisation that were deemed necessary, and had struck a balance between the traditional and the modern. Richard Perren also believes that during Japan’s isolation, an infrastructure existed which her modernisation was built upon. This was to help the smooth transition from a pre-modern to a modern society. According to Perren, Japan before 1868 “was a relatively advanced pre-industrial economy.
For an underdeveloped country it was already well provided with a basic infrastructure by the time the process of modernisation began in earnest”… Much of Japan’s growth after 1868 was built upon the foundations of its pre-modern economy”7 To conclude, foreign intervention in the 1850’s seems to have been the main force behind Japans emergence from isolation, of which the Meiji restoration was partly a result. But there were other reasons, such as Japan’s inability to meet force with force, and a significant number of voices calling for the adoption of western ways. And Japans subsequent (unfair) exploitation by the foreign powers made her people anxious to equal those powers – to “restore” their society.
Japan’s use of foreign models to help realise these ideas of restoration in the ensuing years demonstrates how foreign intervention still played a role – although, for the reasons I have described, not as important a role as before. It may have been possible for the Japanese people to restore their society without taking ideas from abroad, but it’s hard to imagine them doing it as quickly. Foreign intervention was, therefore, fully responsible for the speed of modernisation, and only partly responsible for modernisation itself.