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The Meiji Restoration

Japan Opens Up

The first Europeans to come knocking on Japan’s door were the Portuguese and Dutch traders in the 1500s. The Japanese called these strange visitors ‘Nanban’- southern Barbarians because they arrived in Japan from that direction.  The Japanese didn’t think much of these tall, hairy, and by all accounts- smelly Nanban, but they did like their guns (actually an early form of musket called an arquebus), modern ships, and cannons that would give them a military edge over their enemies. The Japanese even picked up a few cooking tips when they adopted tempura (battered and fried meats and veggies) from the Portuguese. The Japanese rulers called Shogun befriended the European merchants and allowed them to set up trading posts and to preach Christianity.

The Europeans were highly impressed by what they saw in Japan. Most of what 16th century Europeans knew of the island they called Cipangu was from the writings of Marco Polo- and most of that was pure fiction because he hadn’t made it to Japan either. What the Europeans saw was a highly ordered society ruled by a military class of warriors called Samurai. The mountains and hills had been carved out to grow rice.

Fast forward to the 1850s. The Europeans and Americans were busy carving up China and Southeast Asia into what they called Spheres of Influence. We call them trading monopolies today. While the rest of the world was quickly coming under the influence of the West those Japanese were still stubbornly maintaining their isolationist ways.

The Americans were expanding across North America and by the 1850s had created an empire that spread from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Americans saw that steamships would soon be crossing the Pacific to bring exotic Asian goods and resources back to California. Americans saw big profits in trading with Japan and they were not going to take no for answer. Before there was an oil boom westerners used whale blubber to light their oil lamps. Whaling was a multi-million dollar business and Americans had spread into the North Pacific to hunt the pods (that’s what a group of whales is called). Whaling was a dangerous job on its own but add to the fact that sailors who were unlucky enough to be shipwrecked in Japan often ended up as hostages.

In 1837, an American businessman tried sailing into Japan to drop off three Japanese sailors who had been shipwrecked in China. Rather getting a warm welcome, the businessman and his Japanese companions were greeted with gunfire. The Japanese were deadly serious about keeping the nanban out. But if at first you don’t succeed try a few more times and then bring a big warship with 72 guns. 

That is exactly what Commodore Matthew Perry did in 1853 when he sailed into Tokyo Bay with four steam ships blowing thick clouds of smoke into the air. The Japanese had never seen such technology and realized a losing battle when they saw one. After weeks of negotiations the Japanese reluctantly agreed to accept a letter from President Millard Fillmore to the Japanese Emperor demanding that the Japanese sign a treaty of friendship- or else. Perry sailed off to China and promised to return the next year to collect the signed treaty. The Japanese realized that they couldn’t beat the United States in a war and reluctantly agreed to sign a treaty that opened up Japanese ports to allow American ships. It didn’t take long for American and European merchant ships to begin pouring into Japan to trade.

 The population of Japan was larger than any country in Europe. Its Buddhist universities were also larger than any in Europe. What seemed to fascinate the Europeans the most was the Japanese obsession with cleanliness. Almost every visitor to Japan wrote about the ritual baths that the Japanese took daily. By comparison those silly nanban bathed at most once a week. 

However, by the 1600's Japanese shoguns were becoming alarmed by how much their society was being changed. Most alarming were the number of Japanese converts to Christianity who were now saying that their first loyalty was with Jesus Christ- not the emperor or the Shogun. By the 1630's, Europeans were told that they were no longer welcome in Japan and to make sure that everyone took the order seriously- they executed any nanban found in Japan afterwards. This began the period of Japanese isolation that would close off Japan from the outside world for the next 200 years.

The Meiji Restoration


The Japanese quickly realized that their years of isolation had left their technology hopelessly outdated. Japan was stilled ruled by the samurai who fought using swords and old fashioned European guns. The only cannon that the Japanese had were the wooden type invented by the Chinese centuries before. In the spirit of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” the Japanese set about to completely transform their isolated feudal society into a modern imperial power. The Japanese first rebelled against the samurai ruling class in what is known as the Meiji restoration. Now that the emperor was the real leader with real authority Japan set a course for change unlike anything the world has ever seen.


The emperor sent people abroad to study in European universities and bring back anything that could bring Japan into the 19th century. Railroads, steamships, and factories were built.  Telephone and telegraph lines were thrown up almost overnight. Japan adopted its first ever Constitution complete with a western-style parliament called the Imperial Diet (but this diet wasn’t concerned how good Japan looked in a swim suit- no, the focus was on beefing up). The Japanese court system was changed to look more like France and Great Britain. Throughout the big cities modern Japanese men and women began wearing western style clothes.  The Japanese spent enormous amounts of money updating their armies and navies.


By the 1890s, Japan had transformed itself in just 40 years from a backward agricultural country to a mighty industrial nation. Now that Japan all that Japan lacked were the natural resources like oil and coal to power its factories and steam ships. But no worries- Japan solved that problem by looking to the Europeans as well. What Japan lacked in raw materials it would gain by taking over its neighbors particularly Russia, China, and Korea.  Of course we know that this story ends with the end of World War II and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Back then, Japan’s economy was full speed ahead.


Perry's Black Ship's arrive outside of Tokyo Harbor 

Commodore Matthew Perry & a Japanese drawing of Commodore Perry. The resemblance is eerie. 

Emperor Meiji, ruled Japan from 1867 to 1912 and ushered in most of the reforms that made Japan an industrialized nation

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