Japan's Imperial Strategy. Why did the leaders of the Meiji government in Japan decide to construct a great empire in Asia?

Essay 2015 9 Pages

Orientalism / Sinology - Japanology


The world in 19th century had seen the breakdown and collapse of numerous empires and kingdoms of Europe and Asia: first The Holy Roman Empire in 1806, then the defeat of Waterloo (1815) - which marked the end of Napoleonic Era, moreover, 19th century also witnessed the decline of the Ottoman Empire. On the other hand, this paved the way for other nations like England, France, Russia or China, to rise as new powers. During that time, Japan had dynamic political changes - the hundred-years-peace concreted by the Tokugawa Shogunate could not last any longer as the spread of Western imperialism was becoming larger in Asia. Therefore, the government of the Meiji realized that: Japan should become an Empire and emerge as the paramount Asian power along with her European counterparts, to maintain the balance of power so as to develop its national interests– this was Japan’s Imperial Grand Strategy during early to mid-19th century.

In the beginning, a more detailed background of Japanese history will be provided. Earlier than the road to modernisation of Meiji era or the Tokugawa Shogunate’s peaceable period, the nation herself was damaged with conflict and turmoil of The Sengoku Period (c. 1467 – c. 1603). This was the civil war of Japanese warlords (often calleddaimyo) over power and influence. On the other hand, there was a paradox in Japan’s system of ruling class, unlike her Asian equivalents at that time. For instance, in China, the Emperor was a true head of state and claimed full authorities over the land. Ironically, the Imperial Family in Japan was treated like a puppet and the Emperor only played his religious and symbolic role – no more than a figurehead. Meanwhile, thesedaimyocontrolled taxes, lands, labour charges, and especially, armies. However, it was the Emperor who, truthfully had the ability to choose onedaimyofor the title Shogun (in Japanese “military commander”) – which was symbolized as peak of power by the warlords. Consequently, more and moredaimyoestablished their own laws and called their estates askokkameaning “states” or “countries” (Ponting, 2001). Therefore, the struggle for power was inevitable as Japan was divided and conquered by numerous clans: Oda, Takeda, Uesugi, Hojo, Mori, Shimazu, Tokugawa and so on.

Nevertheless, after nearly 200 years of instability and chaos, reunification was almost reached but halted during Oda Nobunaga and Hideyoshi Toyotomi’s time due to unexpected assassination attempt and failure of Korean naval intervention, respectively. However, Japan (minus the Ryukyu Kingdom which still remained as the tributary state of Ming Dynasty in China) was then reunited by Tokugawa Ieyasu 3 years prior to his victory in the Battle of Sekigahara over Toyotomi’s forces led by Ishida Mitsunari (1600), beginning an era where the Shogun would become thede factoruler of Japan (1603 -1867). Needless to say, in two centuries of disorder and unsteadiness, never before had Japan enjoy a time of stability that lasted for nearly 300 years under the commands of totally 15 Shoguns – all were born in Tokugawa clan, beginning with Tokugawa Ieyasu and ended with the resignation of Tokugawa Yoshinobu following his defeat at the Boshin War (1868 – 1869) to the Satsuma – Choshu Alliance.

To a further extent, in 16th century, during the Warring States Period there was a large number of Christian followers in Japan – of about 300,000 Christians estimated at its peak (Jansen, 2000). Beforehand, Portuguese missionaries - with the first Francis Xavier had made several attempts to spread the idea of Roman Catholicism. However, the most efficient way, according to these Jesuits, was to gain the trust and faith of thedaimyo, then the religion would soon be passed to the commoners (Jansen, 2000). Moreover, preaching to commoners without adaimyo’s permission could result in doubts and uncertainties. As a result, manydaimyobecame Christians, including Kuroda Kanbei – a famous strategic advisor during Sengoku Period. Moreover, Oda Nobunaga took his liking and favour of the West, including Christianity, following by technologies from the West such as gunpowder and muskets – which was widely used on several skirmishes and battles during his rule. In contrast, after reunifying the country, the spread of Christianity and Western values, in the Tokugawa regime’s view, was the threat to the solidity and peace of the Shogunate because Ieyasu himself embraced the principles of Buddhism– as it later became the dominant religion of Tokugawa Japan. Even though Christianity continued to develop until 1610s, it was banned and suppressed by Ieyasu and his third son Hidetada (Higashibaba, 2002).

In 1633, following the ban of Christianity, Tokugawa Iemitsu instrumented the policy ofsakoku(“closed country” or “period of seclusion”). Thesakokupolicy referred to the segregation policy adopted by the Shogun in handling their relationship with the foreigners. In the opening stage, there was a limitation in foreign trade. Then, this policy proved its efficiency as in 1635, no Japanese was allowed to leave the country. Following by a ban of foreigners reaching the country in 1639, the separation from the outside world was strengthened. However, Japan was not completely isolated, there was still an exception for the Dutch – as they were allowed to build trading post at the artificial island of Deshima, located in Nagasaki, becoming the only European influence in Japan. Meanwhile, the 17th century spread of Western imperialism and colonialism in Asia was massive, however, in some ways Japan was forgotten by European powers. Thus, her plan was later considered as “isolation”, mostly by Westerners or reformers of Meiji era. In contradiction, the implementation ofsakokuwas proved to be very effective as it lasted for 190 years (1633- 1853). Furthermore, during the time of Tokugawa, there were only two, yet small and easily suppressed coups of the samurai in 1651-1652 following by the 1669 Ainu Revolt, was also crushed without difficulty ( Ponting, 2001). Therefore, it could be inferred that, the policy ofsakokuwas the final attempt of the Tokugawa to protect Japan’s cultural values and security from European powers.

Historically, every era or period had its rise, decline and fall. The solidity and seclusion to the outside world established by the Tokugawa was, therefore, not an exception. Pressure from the European powers had never ceased to be weakened despite Japanese’s keen determination of strengthening the seclusion policy in 1825 (Ponting, 2001). In 1844, a letter sent by King Willem II of Netherlands to the Shogun titled “"Recommendation to Open the Country" convinced Japan to discontinue the policy ofsakokuas European powers were getting stronger. In his letter, the Dutch king also informed China’s defeat in the Opium War to the British Empire – which emerged as power in Europe following by the industrial process and the dramatic growth of European population (Beasley, 2013), also, the rise of America ( Ponting, 2001). Moreover, the 1853 unfriendly arrival of Commodore Perry’s voyage equipped with modernised shell guns, capable of destroying everywhere it landed (Millis, 1981), Japan was forced to abandon the policy ofsakokuand agreed to sign the Treaty of Kanagawa opening the port of Shimoda and Hakodate in 1854. Following by the unequal Harris Treaty in 1858, the nation was "opened" to a flood of non-natives and remote impact that went a long ways past anything the Japanese had envisioned when they were managing Perry. The Americans denied Japan levy self-sufficiency. They precluded Japanese powers from indicting outsiders who carried out wrongdoings on Japanese soil (. Japan’s national security was extremely threatened and weakened as people started to question about the Tokugawa’s political presence. Outside vicinity in these ports offered path to the making of slogans, for example, "Expel the Barbarians!” .In addition, her internal pressure was also substantial as two most powerful Japanese domains – Satsuma and Choshu, old enemies of the Tokugawas, descendants to Shimazu and Mori clan that fought on the losing side of Sekigahara Battle, respectively, formed an alliance to challenge the Shogun’s position. Both sides were deeply concerned about Western’s absolute influence to their nation. Consequently, with Yoshinobu’s loss in the Boshin War, the Tokugawa Shogunate fell which paved the way for a new era of change and modernisation – the period of Meiji.

Subsequent to coming to control, the pioneers of the Meiji government, shaped in 1868 after the ruin of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the leaders considered national security and guard to be the top need keeping in mind the end goal to avoid oppression by the Western forces as Japan's safety was damaged during the humiliating sign of “unequal treaties”. The nationalistic approach of fukoku kyōhei (rich nation, solid military)further stressed Japan's objectives to build up the nation economically to make up for lost time with the Western forces and to expand its military quality to guarantee its presence as an autonomous nation, in particular, this was an ambitious move constructed by Meiji leaders. Therefore, Japan's pioneers tried to make the nation a mechanical and military force keeping pace with the Western radical forces. Yamagata Aritomo, Field Marshall of Japanese Imperial Army acknowledged Prussian political thoughts, which supported military development abroad and dictator government at home. The Prussian demonstrate additionally downgraded the thought of regular citizen control over the autonomous military, which implied that in Japan, as in Germany, the military could form into a state inside of a state, in this way practicing more noteworthy impact on governmental issues all in all (Martin, 1995). There are three stages in Japanese's move to a modernised military association based on German models (Beasley, 1972). The principal stage, which endured from 1853 to 1870 was a protracted time of experimentation with new structures and included wide variety among an extensive number of association. The second stage (1870-1878), the focal government set up a solitary, brought together hierarchical model for the armed force and the naval force. Both establishments experienced serious association building, which concentrated on inside structures and forms. The third and last stage (1878-1890), consideration was moved to the courses in which the military associated with the political and social environment, as for guaranteeing the supply of required assets and expanding the military's independence and adequacy. The armed force and the naval force quickly turned into the biggest scale associations in Japan, and their interest for assets went about as a noteworthy jolt in the advancement of different frameworks, from the zaibatsu commercial enterprises to the general mandatory instruction (Tang, 2015). The administration interest in private businesses to help the nation's military development brought about the establishing of organizations, for example, Mitsubishi, Mitsui, and Sumitomo, which are still in presence today. Furthermore, the Western idea of Social Darwinism, with a definitive mastery of the world by the most grounded countries, fit well with conviction of numerous Japanese that they were the picked individuals of Asia and a celestially supported race, as, the Emperor was embraced as a descendant of the Sun God Amateratsu according to the Shinto faith, strengthening this belief (Segal, 2015). Yukichi Fukuzawa, one of Japan's instructive pioneers, oligarchs and organizer of one of Japan's most persuasive daily papers, communicated Japan's initial imperialistic longings in 1882, "We shall someday raise the national power of Japan so that not only shall we control the natives of China and India as the English do today, but we shall also possess in our hands the power to rebuke the English and to rule Asia ourselves"(Nester, 1996). The Japanese individuals additionally had certain ambitious qualities that bolstered the nation's quick monetary development and imperialistic extension.

To outline, the driving force behind Meiji’s development of an empire laid on these elements: Japan's significant mindfulness toward national security taking after by its grip of the imperialistic practices, specifically, military's model of Western powers, and most imperative, Japanese national convictions and ambitious characteristics. Therefore, Japanese imperialism, drew heavily on the theory of nationalism as it implied that the indispensable part of the state in imperialistic behaviour as a nation hopes to boost its impact, reputation, and wealth in admiration to various countries (Gordon, 2003).

An empire, to a large extent, was defined as a substantial, composite, multi-ethnic or multinational political unit, more often than not made by conquest, and partitioned between a predominant focus and subordinate, now and then far off, peripheries (Howe, 2002). Japan, during Meiji Period directly involved in two wars: The Sino- Japanese War (1894-1895) and the Russo – Japanese War (1904 -1905) and claimed decisive victories, surprisingly. However, a closer look in Japan’s victorious military intervention and demonstration to emerge as an Asian imperial power should be taken. The Meiji Restoration in 1868, concluded with the Emperor’s announcement: “Let's attack Korea." (Mauriello, 1999). Korea, in particular, occupied a strategically important geographic position just to the west of the southern part of Japan. Predictably, Korea was to be vanquished, possessed, exploited, and utilized as a base for Japanese military advance into China and past until Japan's position as a celestially upheld race was restored. In fact, Japan did provoke Korea into attacking her gunboat of Un'yō during the 1875 Ganghwa Island Incident (Beasley, 1987). With the open fire from the Koreans, Japanese army, under Admiral Inoue Yoshika’s command replied with their powerful naval force. In addition, Meiji leaders requested an expression of remorse and, similarly as they had been compelled to acknowledge of the port bargain framework through American military extreme demonstration, Japan forced Korea to sign the Treaty of Ganghwa on 26 February 1876. This settlement opened three Korean ports to exchange and perceived Korea as an autonomous state despite the fact that, beforehand, Korea was still considered the vassal state of China. This implied Japan could now start abducting Korea into her circle of influence.



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Title: Japan's Imperial Strategy. Why did the leaders of the Meiji government in Japan decide to construct a great empire in Asia?