Japan was not formally colonized by Western powers, but was a colonizer itself. It has, however, experienced formal semicolonial situations, and modern Japan was profoundly influenced by Western colonialism in wide-ranging ways.
Japan’s first encounter with Western colonialism was with Portugal in the mid-sixteenth century. The Portuguese brought Catholicism and the new technology of gun and gunpowder into Japan. The latter changed the way samurai rulers fought wars, and accelerated the process of national unification. In the following era, national rulers came increasingly to regard Catholicism as a serious threat to their authority. The Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1868) eventually banned Christianity nationwide in 1613, and persecuted its followers during the 1620s. This experience contributed to the formation of the sakoku (closed nation) policy (fully implemented in 1641 and ending in 1854). Sakoku was a Tokugawa response to the advance of Western colonialism, although its major objective was to consolidate the new regime. It banned Japanese overseas travel and contact with foreigners, and gave the government a monopoly over foreign trade. The only European power that was allowed to trade with Japan was a new Protestant power, Holland, which was strictly confined to the port of Nagasaki in Kyushu. Yet through the study of Dutch materials, the Japanese were exposed to the latest European knowledge in fields such as medicine, botany, astronomy, and geography.
Colonial powers did not challenge the sakoku policy until the late eighteenth century. This challenge first came from Russia, and then from Britain and the United States. In 1825 the Japanese government began pursuing a hard-line policy, by attacking foreign ships other than those operated by the Dutch and Chinese, and by persecuting those who argued for kaikoku, or the opening up of the country to foreign trade. Britain’s victory over China in the Opium War (1839-1842) deepened Japan’s fear of colonization, and a debate erupted among concerned samurais in Japan over how to react to the encroachments of industrialized Western powers in search of markets and raw materials. Although the government acted quickly to strengthen Japan by acquiring the technology and skills of these powers, especially armaments and military strategies, the opening up of the country was now imminent.
Kaikoku, however, did not result from a government policy change, but was forced on Japan by the military might of the new Pacific power, the United States. While Britain was engaged in the Crimean War, the Tokugawa shogunate government gave in to the pressure of Commodore Matthew Perry and his East Indian U.S. Navy Fleet, and concluded the U.S.-Japan Friendship Treaty in 1854. As a result, the ports of Shimoda and Hakodate were opened. The government further concluded a bilateral trade treaty with the United States in 1858 (followed by similar treaties with the Netherlands, Russia, Britain, and France). This incident intensified an already bubbling anti-shogunate movement, as it revealed the shogunate’s incompetence and eroded its legitimacy. Anger over the treaties eventually culminated in the fall of the shogunate and the Meiji Restoration of 1868.
Many who opposed the shogunate’s handling of Western powers were alarmed and outraged by two clauses included in each of the above-mentioned treaties of 1858, clauses they believed gave Japan a semicolonial status. The first denied the Japanese the right to impose tariffs, which damaged the Japanese economy greatly. The second concerned consular jurisdiction. The treaties expanded the number of open ports to include Kanagawa (soon changed to Yokohama), Nagasaki, Niigata, and Kobe, and established settlement areas (kyoryuchi) near the ports for foreigners who belonged to the treaty nations. While their activities were limited to these areas, foreigners were not under Japanese jurisdiction, but under the jurisdiction of their respective consulates. This arrangement had, therefore, a similar effect to extraterritoriality, and created a formal semicolonial space within Japan.
Xenophobia and a wave of violent physical attacks on Westerners characterized the initial Japanese reaction to Western powers in this new era. Many leaders, however, learned quickly that this was not a viable approach, and switched to a pragmatic policy of friendly cooperation. The policy known as kaikoku washin (calling for an open country and friendly diplomatic relations) became the diplomatic orthodoxy of the new Meiji government. This orthodoxy, however, demonstrated the contradictions that were inherent in the international order of the time and intrinsic to Western colonialism. On the one hand, Japanese adaptation of this orthodoxy meant the country’s integration into what some scholars now call an ”international society,” in which common diplomatic codes of conduct were shared and international laws were respected. The policy also marked a new and positive perception of the West—not as barbaric, but as sophisticated, civilized, and modern, a superior model to emulate. The Meiji government employed foreign advisers and imported Western systems, while intellectuals absorbed ideas and customs from the West and spread them to enthusiastic readers. On the other hand, the Meiji elite realized that this ”international society” was based on the military and economic might of member countries. They saw the task of enriching the nation and strengthening the military as an absolute imperative for the new state in order to be a member of this community. Yet, the treaties of 1858 demonstrated that Meiji Japan was still not an equal member.
This unequal relationship with the West was manifested at the treaty ports, such as Kobe and Yokohama. Westerners who lived in the foreign settlement at these port cities (the largest group was British, followed by Americans and then continental Europeans) were mainly business people. Although they were restricted in their movements, they were beyond the Japanese laws. They enjoyed great advantages in business dealings and lived materially privileged lives. Non-Western foreigners, namely the Chinese, played a crucial role as mediators in this semicolonial relationship. While China did not have a formal treaty with Japan until 1871, many
Western business people came to Japanese ports from China, and brought Chinese servants, foremen, and compradors (business mediators). Soon, independent Chinese traders and workers of various types began arriving at the port cities, in such numbers that the Chinese quickly became the biggest foreign group in these cities. Significantly, it was Chinese tailors, artisans, and carpenters who initially introduced European clothing and European houses to Japan. The disputes in these foreign settlements, therefore, often involved Chinese mediators, who came to dominate day-to-day business. Significantly, it is various Chinatowns, as much as the few remaining Western buildings, that remind contemporary Japanese of the port cities’ semicolonial experiences.
Repealing the two problematic clauses in the 1858 trade treaties was a major goal for the new Meiji government. Their quest was to overturn Japan’s semicolonial status and make the country an equal of the Western powers. The Meiji government embarked on radical domestic reforms designed to make Japan a strong, civilized, and modern nation-state. Among their goals, the establishment of a modern legal system was a top priority. Yet, while persistent negotiations, drastic reforms, and rapid economic development were significant in the process of achieving a repeal of the two clauses, the demonstration of Japan’s military might and its increased prestige as an empire were probably most significant. After the Japanese victory over China in 1895, Japan succeeded in repealing consulate jurisdiction in 1899. And after Japan’s defeat of Russia (1905) and annexation of Korea (1910), it recovered tariff rights in 1911. The year 1911 not only marked the end of Japan’s semicolo-nial phase, it also saw the consolidation of the Japanese empire in East Asia.
Western colonialism’s influence on Japan was profound and wide-ranging, and modern Japan was shaped through a constant negotiation with this influence. This was evident not only in relation to the nation’s key infrastructure and institutions, such as the legal system, the constitution, the Diet, the bureaucracy, the educational system, the police, transportation, the army, and the navy. It was also profoundly manifested in countless aspects of everyday life, including literature, arts, religion, architecture, music, food, hairstyle, clothing, customs, and even the standard of beauty. The implications of this were complex. Although the concepts of liberty, human rights, democracy, and socialism were introduced through the literature of Western powers, so too were the concepts of imperialism, Social Darwinism, and German-style statism. For many Japanese, these Western systems, institutions, technologies, ideas, and customs were superior to Japanese ones, whereas others saw them as detrimental to Japan. The division between these two camps was far less clear than is often assumed, and both sides were motivated by their own political agenda. Nevertheless, this binary understanding of the world often influenced the way major issues were framed in modern Japan. During the Pacific War, for example, Japanese propaganda painted the Japanese empire as a moral force fighting against the evil empires of the West, and liberating Asia from Western colonialism.
After 1945 the United States emerged as the most dominant foreign power for Japan, and its impact was and still is wide-ranging and profound. The U.S.-led occupation after the Pacific War also marked the first formal foreign rule of the nation. The desire to challenge the legitimacy of this occupation, however, was found only among an extremist minority. Many Japanese embraced U.S.-imposed democratization and demilitarization, and the new constitution of 1946, especially its pacifist clause, came to define the ideals of Japan’s postwar democracy. Over time, however, progressives became increasingly concerned about an antidemocratic turn in U.S. policy, resulting from Washington’s determination to keep Japan firmly in the anticommunist camp. Even after Japan regained independence in 1952, some continued to decry ”U.S. imperialism,” particularly in relation to the U.S. military bases spread across Japan and the U.S. occupation of Okinawa (not returned to Japan until 1972). The U.S. ambassador to Japan in the early 1960s, Edwin Reischauer, later called Okinawa ”the only ‘semi-colonial’ territory created in Asia since the war.” While American bases at Okinawa paid most dearly for Japanese militarism, experiences at American bases in other Japanese cities have also added a significant layer to the Japanese memory of Western colonialism.