Feudal Japan

In feudal Japan, the Japanese emperors were once all-powerful, until a period when the shoguns or military generals took over the reins of power from the former, who became religious figureheads. The Japanese Emperor was regarded as a god by the people as he was seen to be the descendent of the Sun Goddess. 

The shogun era dated back to the 12th century when after years of civil war, a warrior family called Minamoto defeated all their rivals and established themselves as the rulers of the Japan, with their leader Yoritomo as the shogun. Directly below the shogun were a group of daimyos or feudal lords who governed a particular region. To ensure their loyalty, these daimyos had to leave family members in the capital Kyoto as hostages.

After the daimyos came the main fighting force comprising of samurais and other warriors, who would till the land during peacetime and help their lord to fight during wars. However, as the scale and complexity of warfare grew in the 15th and 16th centuries, samurais began to adopt a warrior code, which meant that fighting in war was only meant for specialists. From 1588 onwards, farmers were forbidden to carry arms and samurais could carry 2 swords, a lance, a bow and arrows as his weapons. Subsequently, samurais could also carry a musket.

By 1603, the rulers or Japan were the Tokugawa shoguns, who continued to rule for the next 250 years. Under them was the rigid class hierarchy of 

  • daimyos
  • samurais
  • farmers or peasants (As Japan's economy mainly depended on rice cultivation at that time, rice became the official standard of wealth and means of exchange. This was why farmers had a high social ranking in Japan.)
  • artisants
  • merchants

During the Tokugawa period, as law and order had been restored after the years of civil war, samurais served less as warriors but more as civil officials.  From 1543 - 1683, Europeans, such as Portuguese sailors and missionaries and Dutch traders, came into contact with Japan.

However, in 1683, an Exclusion Policy was introduced in Japan to curb the spread of Christianity. Limited numbers of foreigners were allowed to enter Japan and the Japanese were not allowed to leave the islands. They were also not allowed to build any ships large enough to sail to other countries.

Having cut herself from other countries, Japan remained a mystery to the world. This was to last for 170 years until the arrival of an American expeditionary fleet in 1856.


The Emergence of Modern Japan

1. The awakening of Japan 

For many years, a number of countries had been anxious to trade with Japan, notably Britain and the United States. After acquiring California from Mexico, the United States began to look eagerly across the Pacific Ocean for trade opportunities. In 1853, an American expedition led by Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry was sent, with a letter from the US President Millard Fillmore, to negotiate a trade agreement with Japan. Perry's fleet of 4 ships were larger than anything the Japanese had ever seen, and were met with fright and fascination by the Japanese people. The experience could be described as a rude awakening for the closeted Japan.

Subsequently, with superior military might, the Western powers were able to force upon Japan a number of agreements called the Unequal Treaties, giving the foreigners special rights and privileges in Japanese ports. This humiliating experience made the Japanese realise how weak they were compared to the Western powers. By 1858, more and more Japanese ports had been opened up to let the foreigners in.

The samurais particularly resented the foreign presence and wanted to restore the Emperor's power to replace the weak shogun government. Another reason was that many of these samurais were dissatisfied with the old system in which they ended up jobless and poor, compared to the rich merchant class, which had profited from trading. They also felt that the shogun government was too weak to withstand future foreign invasions.

Finally, in 1868, the shogun was forced to resign, with certain groups of samurais establishing a new government in the name of the emperor. This significant event became known as the Meiji Restoration when the Emperor was restored with full political powers. In addition, a Charter Oath was also drawn up with the objective of "seeking knowledge throughout the world". Study teams were sent to foreign countries to learn from their military, industrial, educational and administrative sectors.

Meiji Restoration

2. The Modernisation of Japan

The samurai groups who came to power realised that they must modernise the country and adopt Western ways quickly to forestall a foreign invasion. Besides sending study teams abroad, the new government also welcomed many foreign advisors  to help the country's modernisation. The Japanese were interested in almost anything - harbour works, factories, roads, schools, mints, libraries, industries and other public services.

In 1871, the feudal system was also abolished to pave the way to establish a strong central government. The daimyos were pensioned off, while the special privileges of samurais were abolished, with many going into business and trade. The removal of the class system also allowed Japan to fully utilize her people's talents, instead of being bound by class restrictions. 

In 1872-73, Japan began to modernize her armed forces and make military service compulsory for all young men. A naval training school was set up. Modern warships were also purchased from the West until Japanese shipyards could build their own. Technical schools were set up to equip the people with the necessary skilsl for the development of industries.

To instill nationalism in its people, the Japanese government introduced a national educational curriculum that emphasised the Japanese culture and language, as well as the godly status of the Emperor. There was a portrait of the Emperor in every school. If it is lost or damaged, the headmaster would be dismissed.

In 1889, a new constitution was introduced. Although a bicameral parliament now existed, there was limited democracy as real power resided mainly in the Cabinet.

Modernization of Japan

3. Rapid economic development

With the help of foreign experts, Japan quickly established telegraphic and postal services, greatly improving both its internal and external communication lines. Railway lines were also built, such that journeys which used to take weeks were now completed in days. Newspapers could be read free of charge in towns or village centres, providing people with information about the rapid changes taking place in the country.

Agriculture was modernised with the introduction of irrigation and fertilizers. The traditional silk and textile industries were also mechanised. Merchants and bankers provided the capital required for these efforts, forming the basis of future zaibatsu or financial empires.

To facilitate economic development, the Ministry of Industry was formed in 1870. Foreign technology was imported through the invitation of foreign experts or specialists. The country's infrastructure and industrial base were built up in lightning speed. Industrial development supported Japan's military build-up as the government knew that the country first had to be rich in order to have a strong army. 

The reason why Japan was able to achieve such results in such a short time was mainly due to its strong central government which was united in its objective to strengthen the country.

Modern Society

4. Rapid population growth

As a result of Japan's modernisation, its population also experienced a rapid increase. In 1870, the population was 30 million, while it jumped to 46 million in 1900. This was partly due to the new medical knowledge and public amenities and services which helped to prolong the average lifespan. The population growth helped to provide labour for Japan's industries. On the other hand, it also became an influencing factor in Japan's foreign policy, as it began to adopt an expansionist approach.

Japan's world map

5. Foreign policy of an emerging industrial power

The Japanese leaders both feared and admired the Western powers. Their ultimate aim was to change the Unequal Treaties, which they saw as a national humiliation. It was only in 1893 when Japan had grown strong enough did it succeed in ending the twenty years of special privileges accorded to the foreigners.

Subsequently, Japan began to adopt an imperialist foreign policy for various reasons.

(i) To emulate the West. By following Western imperialism, Japan sought to win the Westerners' respect through the use of force to acquire foreign territories. Moreover, at that time, no other Asian country, including China, was able to resist the modern Japanese military, making them tempting targets.

(ii) Increase in population and shortage of food. By 1904, Japan's population had increased beyond 50 million. Food supply became a key problem, given the shortage of arable land on the mountainous island. (Only 14% of Japan's land was arable.) Most of its vital food supplies had to be imported. Moreover, when the Japanese government encouraged its people to emigrate to other countries, the United States and European nations passed discriminatory laws to keep the Japanese out.

(iii) Need for raw materials. Japan itself lacked the raw materials required for modern industry. It had no coal, iron, oil or rubber in her home islands. 

(iv) Need for markets. When Japan tried to pay for its imports with its own cheap exports, foreign countries often passed tariff laws to keep out Japanese products. Given the restrictive trade practices in other countries at that time, Japan needed to expand its own trade and look for overseas markets for the products from the home industries. Hence, a possible solution was to acquire its own colonies.

Given the above reasons, Japan's attention was turned to Manchuria, its nearest source of iron and coal. Before the end of the 19th century, Japan had successfully established a foothold in the Korean peninsula and defeated the Chinese forces. These events marked the rise of Japan as an Asian power, barely 40 years after the island first opened up to the world. Many Japanese also began to believe that their country had a special mission in Asia.