THE EMERGENCE OF JAPAN FROM ISOLATION IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY ©

Text and Web-site by James Bowen, Convener, Pacific War Historical Society. Web-site established May 2002 and last updated 14 May 2010.

The arrival of Commodore Perry in Japan in 1853

In 1853, Commodore Matthew C. Perry sailed a small American steam-powered naval squadron into Yedo (later Tokyo) Bay. The mission entrusted to him by the President of the United States was to persuade Japan to open ports for trade and to cease cruel treatment of ship-wrecked American seamen.

Commodore Matthew Perry arrives to meet the Shogun of Japan in 1853

Commodore Perry found a rigidly conformist, technologically backward, military-feudal, and largely agricultural society that had been almost totally closed to the outside world since 1638. Japan's nominal ruler was an emperor (the Mikado) residing with his court nobles at Kyoto, but the real power in Japan at this time was exercised by the shogun, a military dictator residing at Yedo (now Tokyo), who was supported in power by an elite warrior class, known as samurai and numbering about two million. The main form of social organisation in Japan at this time was feudalism, a system in which landholders receive and hold their lands from a person of superior status in return for allegiance and performance of services. In Japan at this time, the person of superior status was the shogun or his provincial clan lords, called daimyo.

The emperor's advisers at Kyoto strongly opposed opening Japan's ports for trade with the United States, but the shogun appreciated the superior military technology available to the foreigners. Despite opposition from the emperor's advisers, and with the intention of buying time for Japan to strengthen itself to resist the power of foreign "barbarians", the shogun reluctantly agreed to open two ports for limited trade and to prohibit cruel treatment of ship-wrecked seamen. This agreement was formalised in the Treaty of Kanagawa or Perry Convention which the shogun signed in 1854.

Although Japan modernised rapidly as a nation after the arrival of Commodore Perry, and largely as a response to a perceived need to protect Japan from foreign military power, Japanese thinking had been conditioned by seven hundred years of dictatorship by the samurai warrior class, and deeply ingrained samurai military attitudes would prove much more resistant to change. In order to understand the aggressively militaristic policies pursued by successive Japanese imperial governments between 1894 and Japan's attack on Australia in 1942, it is necessary to examine some aspects of Japanese society prior to, and following the arrival of Commodore Perry. In particular, it is necessary to examine the ingrained militarism, aggressive nationalism, and denial of genuine democracy which laid the foundations for Japan's military aggression.


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