Saturday, April 30, 2016

Perry Expedition and the Opening of Japan (Part 2): The Empire of Japan

Tokugawa IeyoshiThe United States experienced growth and development by the time of Perry’s Expedition. But what was the condition of Japan. Explore the condition of the home of the samurais before the arrival of the American expedition.

The Empire of Japan

Japan at the time of Perry’s expedition was stagnating. Since 1603, the Tokugawa ruled the country. From 1633, the Islands isolated itself from the rest of the world to alleviate fears of colonization. For centuries Japan survived without too much contact with the rest of the world. But by 1853, Tokugawa Japan was in a bad shape.

Tokugawa Shogunate ruled a Bakufu or a military government in Japan for two centuries from the time of its founder Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1603 until its collapse on 1868. While Tokugawa Shoguns held the reins of power from their capital in Edo, the Emperor residing in Kyoto served only as a symbol. With absolute power, succeeding shoguns preserved peace in Japan resulting in great economic, cultural, and social changes.

Japan economy prospered. Merchants and Samurai’s had roaring trade, while farmers enjoyed bountiful harvest. Domestic trade gave rise to interest in commercial activities, while farmers used their surplus to finance small cottage industries. Moreover, as Japanese enjoyed profits and surplus, they spent in cultural activities such as theaters and plays. The Shogunate also supported education, making Japan one of the most literate countries. Many books on history described Tokugawa Japan as a booming era. If had not been to the Perry expedition, the Shogunate would have economically survived beyond 1868.

Nevertheless, as time went by, the Shogunate began to show cracks within its system. Corruption was an issue in the last years of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century. Samurais, the once proud and valiant warriors, lose touch of their martial skills in an era peace. Moreover, they worked no longer as soldiers but as administrators. Meanwhile, allegations of incompetence as well as squandering for luxuries plagued the high officials within the Shogunate, and even the Shoguns themselves were accused. Especially, a decades before the arrival of the American expedition, famine rattled Japan and rebellions threatened the country. This also led to economic disruptions that brought dissatisfaction. The lack of quick and strong response from the government made it look weak. Intellectuals liked Aizawa Seishisai criticized the Shogunate for its lack of initiative to keep Japan strong and prosperous. 

Another factors to Japan's development was the lack of technological advancement. The closing of the country limited technology transfer to a small island of Dejima in Nagasaki. Dutch Learning or Rangaku barely succeeded teaching Japan modern advancements by the 1850's. Lacking modern technology, Japan's economy and military were no match to the industrialize and modern weapons of the west.

By the time of the arrival of the American squadron in Edo Bay, Tokugawa Ieyoshi ruled as the twelfth shogun. However, his frail health resulted much of the power reside over the chief elder or roju shuza, Abe Masahiro. His rule was uneventful until the arrival of the 1853 American expedition. The pressure of leading Japan to the unknown rested upon his shoulders.

With the Shogunate crumbling from series of ineffective Shoguns and the military and defense stagnated, Japan’s weakness played on the hands of Commodore Perry and other foreigners.

Japan’s Isolationist Policy and Interaction with Foreigners

Isolationism was a significant characteristic of the Tokugawa Shogunate. It began in 1633 by Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu amidst fears of religious, cultural, and political threats from trade and interaction with westerners. For two centuries, the policy remained strong with some exemptions. But by the middle of the 19th century, it faced renewed threats of western imperialism. The policy eventually became the main focus of Commodore Perry’s expedition.

Sakoku (Closed Country) Edict issued by Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu in 1633, came on the midst of growing European incursions in Japan. Decades before the edict, Portuguese, Spaniards, and Dutch sent missions to Japan to trade as well as to spread the Christian faith, especially the Spanish and Portuguese friars coming to the Islands. The Shogunate watched the spread of Christianity in fear and anxiety. They feared that Christianity threatened Japanese culture centered on Shintoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. In addition, they also believed that conversion was a prelude for a bigger threat – colonization. After a rebellion mostly composed of Christians, the Shogunate finally issued the Sakoku Edict, prohibiting Japanese to travel outside Japan and banning foreigners from entering Japan.

Exemptions, however, were given to some. The Chinese, a traditional trading partner of the Japanese, were allowed to come. The Dutch, who simply had commercial interest rather than religious, also received the privilege of being the only Europeans allowed to trade with Japan. But even though the Japanese allowed contact with the Chinese and the Dutch, all activities with these foreigners were confined only to a tiny island of Dejima in Nagasaki. For the next two centuries, Dejima served as a window for Japan to the outside world and vice versa.

Until the 1800’s, the Closed Country Policy remained intact. But with the dawn of the 19th century and the advent of modern technology, the Europeans returned to Asia with vengeance. China, the giant neighbor of Japan, fell like a prey to the European predators forcing it to open ports for trade and made its people addicted to opium. As news of China’s humiliation reached Dejima and Edo, the Shogunate ever more feared foreigners. Foreign ships passing across Japanese seas rose once again, especially those seeking supplies. In 1825, Edo found a way to deter foreign ships from coming close to Japan by shooting them at sight. Many foreign ships experienced this Japanese harassment. But in the 1840’s, the policy of shooting first was relaxed and ships were first given warning to leave the country or head to Dejima Island. The Japanese government sensed foreigners would not leave Japan alone and closed. But the bakufu worried for their country’s independence, especially after the Opium War in China. For many Japanese, they equaled isolationism with preservation of Japanese integrity and independence. But soon enough, they faced a formidable challenge in 1853 in form of America’s Black Ships.

Explore also:

Beasley, W.G. The Modern History of Japan. New York, New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Publisher, 1963.

___________. The Meiji Restoration. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1972.

Bolitho, Harold. “Abe Masahiro and the New Japan.” In The Bakufu in Japanese History, edited by Jeffrey Mass and William Hauser. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1985.

Craig, Fairbank, and Edwin Reischauer. East Asia: The Modern Transformation. Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1965.

Davis, Geo. Lynn-Lachlan. A Paper Upon the Origin of the Japan Expedition. Baltimore, Maryland: John Murphy & Co., 1860.

Franz, Edgar. Philipp Franz von Siebold and Russian Policy and Action on Opening Japan to the West in the Middle of the Nineteenth Century. Munich: IUDICIUM Verlag, 2005.

Fukuzawa Yukichi. The Autobiography of Yukichi Fukuzawa. Translated by Eiichi Kiyooka. New York, New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.

Gordon, Andrew. A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Hawks, Francis. Narrative of the Expedition of An American Squadron to The China Seas and Japan, Performed in the Years 1852, 1853, and 1854, under the Command of Commodore M.C. Perry, United States Navy by Order of the Government of the United States, Volume I. Washington D.C.: A.O.P. Nicholson, Printer, 1856. 

Henshall, Kenneth. A History of Japan: From Stone Age to Superpower. New York, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Jansen, Marius. The Cambridge History of Japan, Volume 5: The Nineteenth Century. New York, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Murray, David. Japan. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1896.

Nitobe Inazo. The Intercourse Between the United States and Japan: An Historical Sketch. Baltimore, Maryland: The John Hopkins Press, 1891.

Williams, S. Well. A Journal of the Perry Expedition to Japan (1853 – 1854) , Edited by F.W. Williams. n.p.: n.p., 1910.

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