Transformation of Japan

During the time period between the 1850s and 1950s, Japan underwent massive changes politically, economically, and socially. Acknowledging the failure of isolation, Japan imitated the West in an attempt to modernize, however, still retaining its own identity. A reorganized and more centralized government allowed Japan to industrialize in half the time it took the nations of Western Europe. Industrialization provided Japan with the tools needed to transform itself from a half civilized and “backwards” society during isolation, to a dominating superpower during WWII.

In 1853 during the Tokugawa shogunate, Matthew Perry, an American commodore, arrived with an army at Edo Bay to coerce the Japanese government to allow the Americans to trade. In 1856, Japan signed a treaty opening two ports to the United States trade. Soon, other nations such as Britain, Russia, and Holland won similar rights. The opening of Japan to the West created opposition among its people and in the 1860s political crisis came into the open. In 1866, civil war broke out. The samurai armed with the surplus of weapons from the American Civil War defeated the shogunate force.

The civil war ended, when the victorious reform group proclaimed Mutsuhito, often called the “Meiji” meaning enlightened one, emperor. The new Meiji government promptly went about making reforms to the political structure. Feudalism was abolished and replaced with a system, similar to that of the French, of nationally appointing prefects, or district administrators. In the 1870s, the samurai class was abolished and a draft was created to produce a new army. Meiji leaders traveled abroad to study economic organization, political institutions, and technological advances.

The bureaucracy was reorganized and opened to men of talent through the civil service exams. In 1889, a new constitution was issued based on German prototype. It recognized the supremacy of the emperor, but limited the powers for the lower house of Diet. Under the constitution, the emperor commanded the military and chose his own ministers. The Diet had power to pass law and budget if both sides agreed. Voting rights were determined by the amount of property owned; leaving the majority of the population the inability to vote.

Japan’s government was centralized and authoritarian, but incorporated business leaders into its governing structure. Economic change due to industrialization in the 1860s produced a modification of foreign policy. Japan entered the race for colonies. Japan became imperialist after 1890 due to the need to pay the new army, search for raw materials and new resources, and avoid Western intrusion of Japan’s possessions. Japan quickly defeated China in the Sino-Japanese War in 1895 gaining territory in northern China. In 1902, Japan allied itself with Britain, demonstrating the arrival of Japan as an equal to the Western powers.

In 1904, Japan won the Russo-Japanese war on account of its superior navy. In 1910, Japan annexed Korea. Economically, Korea was economically exploited. The Great depression called for radical measures, which included military aggression. Japanese military played a major role in setting diplomatic policy. The military was separate from the bureaucracy and adhered to the emperor. The military saw Japan’s liberalism as a threat to traditional Japanese values and customs and the military’s position in the government.

In 1931, the military captured Manchuria without government approval. In 1932, several military officials assassinated the prime minister. As a result, a mildly military government was created as militaristic prime ministers presided. The militaristic prime ministers called for expansion in Asia to create an empire. The demand for wider conquests by the military drove Japan to enter WWII. After WWII, Japan was devastated by war, but the aid of the U. S. allowed them to recover quickly. The Japanese military was destroyed and never recovered its prewar prominence.

The U. S. introduced democratic forms of government. A new constitution was developed, making the parliament the supreme governing body, thus making the emperor nothing more than a figurehead. After the war the Liberal Democratic Party emerged providing political stability between 1955 and 1993. By the 1860s, Japan had established a modern navy with the aid of Western advisors, laying the foundations for industrialization. Land reforms created individual ownership, which helped stimulate expansion of production and the introduction of new fertilizers and equipment.

Old restrictions were done away with to create a national market; these included the abolishment of internal road tax and guilds. Due to the lack of capital, the government was directly involved in setting the conditions for industrialization by funding growing trade and industry. The Japanese government united its country with a railroad and connected its islands with steamships. The unfamiliarity of new technology led to the aid of foreign advisors, however, with limitations through careful government policy.

In 1870, Japan established the Ministry of Industry, a key government agency that supervised economic development. Model shipyards, arsenals, and factories provided experience in new technology. Technical training and education expanded by means to develop a work force. Commercial laws were regularized and banks and post offices emerged allowing Japan to develop on many fronts. Private enterprise rapidly played an active role in the economy, specifically in the textile industry. By 1890s, industrial combines called zaibatsu, served to increase capital for major investment.

Pre-World War I Japan was far from the West’s equal. It depended highly on importing raw materials from the West due to their lack of resources and exporting manufactured goods to the West. After WWII, Japan did not face the Great Depression as heavily as the West because the government increased spending to create jobs and restore buying power. By 1955, Japan’s industries had recovered as they were before the war and emerged as one of the world’s economic giants. During the 1850s and 1950s society changed tremendously. Industrialization led to urbanization.

New technology and medicines reduced death rates. Thus, causing population growth which strained resources. Population growth ensured constant supply of low cost labor which caused tension among the social classes. It also restricted advances in the standard of living, causing problems in crowded cities. During industrialization, Japan became dependent on exporting manufactured goods to pay for machinery and resource imports. This led to low salaries for labor workers. Silk production grew and caused the demand of workers. Sometimes, women were sold by their families as a result.

Due to the abolishment of the samurai and their fixed salaries that were replaced by worthless government bonds, many became poor. However, during industrialization individual samurai, as well as, several peasants were able to find opportunities and thus could gain social mobility. Many Japanese copied Western clothing and hairstyles as an attempt to modernize. Japan adopted the Western calendar and metric system. Education incorporated Western teaching in science and mathematics. Several Japanese converted to Christianity. Despite adopting Western trends, the Japanese managed to preserve their traditional values.

In conclusion, Japan became a world giant equal to their Western counterparts. Isolation ended with forced entry by the West. The Japanese government effectively centralized and laid the foundations for industrialization. Industrialization led to economic growth. Economic growth led to a shift in foreign policy to imperialism. In the stages of imperialism, the military took control of government, thus their entry into WWII. After WWII, Japan was slightly devastated but still was able to recover and situate themselves as a dominant superpower for years to follow.


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