Black Ships and the Collapse of Japanese SocietyThe Edo-era (1603 - 1868) was a long period of peace and cultural progress in Japan. Japan was lead by a family of Shoguns who ruled the country with an iron fist. They isolated Japan from the world.
In 1853, American Warships arrived and forced Japan into unfair trade agreements. When word of American success in Japan spread — several European nations sent similar delegations.
Suddenly Japan was flooded with cheap foreign goods. The economy collapsed. Westerners arrived en mass — merchants, foreign legions and missionaries. It soon became clear that the Shogun wasn't prepared to deal with the crisis.
Respect the Emperor, Expel the Foreign Barbarians (尊皇攘夷)As the economy worsened there was pressure at every level of government to fix the problem. Samurai were became divided over the best solution.
Some Samurai wanted to immediately expel all foreigners and tear up the trade agreements.
(Edo-era art print that expresses the Respect the Emperor, Expel the Foreign Barbarian political philosophy)
Skirmishes between Samurai and foreigners became more common. It soon became clear that this was a loosing battle. Foreign governments could punish Japan by shelling its cities from sea. The Samurai had no answer to such military power.
Enrich the Country, Strengthen the Military (富国強兵)Increasing numbers of Samurai sought a more practical solution to the threat of colonization by a Western power. A new strategy emerged — Enrich the Country, Strengthen the Military.
The idea was to cooperate with foreigners. To bring in large numbers of foreign experts to learn western production and military methods.
(above: Samurai diplomats in NYC)
Civil WarSamurai became deeply divided. Proponents of cooperation with the West wanted to get rid of the Shogun and install Emperor Meiji as a puppet leader. Proponents of immediate war with the West supported the Shogun.
A short civil war ensured (Boshin War ~ 1868 to 1869). Supporters of cooperation with the West won. The 15 year old Emperor Meiji became supreme leader of Japan.
Japan in the Meiji-eraAwoken from its long isolation — Japan embarked on an aggressive program of industrialization and westernization.
Feudal era institutions such as the Samurai were abolished. Foreign experts in everything from urban planning to military tactics where aggressively recruited from the far corners of the globe.
The country's economy and military rapidly expanded and modernized. Japan imported raw materials and exported manufactured goods.
Large commercial areas bloomed that sold Western and Japanese goods side by side. Western products and fashions gained acceptance.
Japan established a Western style constitution (Meiji Constitution) and held elections. On paper, the Emperor shared power with an elected Diet (Parliament). In practice, the Genro (a shadowy organization of powerful individuals) controlled the country.
The new Imperial Japanese Army went to war with Russia (Russo-Japanese War of 1904 to 1905). Both countries had imperialist ambitions for Manchuria and Korea. The Western world was shocked when Japan won. The balance of power had shifted in Asia. Japan was no longer defenseless in the face of Western military might. Japan's military was now a threat to Asia and the West itself.