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Early Developments

In the early sixteenth century, a feudally organized Japan came into contact with Western missionaries and traders for the first time. Westerners introduced important cultural innovations into Japanese society during more than a century of relations with various feudal rulers. But when the country was unified at the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Tokugawa government decided to expel the foreign missionaries and strictly limit intercourse with the outside world. National seclusion--except for contacts with the Chinese and Dutch--was Japan's foreign policy for more than two centuries (see Seclusion and Social Control , ch. 1).

When the Tokugawa seclusion was forcibly breached in 1853-54 by Commodore Matthew C. Perry of the United States Navy, Japan found that geography no longer ensured security--the country was defenseless against military pressures and economic exploitation by the Western powers. After Perry's naval squadron had compelled Japan to enter into relations with the Western world, the first foreign policy debate was over whether Japan should embark on an extensive modernization to cope with the threat of the "eastward advance of Western power," which had already violated the independence of China, or expel the "barbarians" and return to seclusion. The latter alternative--although it appealed to many-- was never seriously considered. Beginning with the Meiji Restoration of 1868, which ushered in a new, centralized regime, Japan set out to "gather wisdom from all over the world" and embarked on an ambitious program of military, social, political, and economic reforms that transformed it within a generation into a modern nation-state and major world power.

Modern Japan's foreign policy was shaped at the outset by its need to reconcile its Asian identity with its desire for status and security in an international order dominated by the West. The principal foreign policy goals of the Meiji period (1868-1912) were to protect the integrity and independence of the nation against Western domination and to win equality of status with the leading nations of the West by reversing the unequal treaties. Because fear of Western military power was the chief concern of the Meiji leaders, their highest priority was building up the basic requirements for national defense, under the slogan "wealth and arms" (fukoku kyohei). They saw that a modern military establishment required national conscription drawing manpower from an adequately educated population, a trained officer corps, a sophisticated chain of command, and strategy and tactics adapted to contemporary conditions (see The Modernization of the Military, 1868-1931 , ch. 8). Finally, it required modern arms together with the factories to make them, sufficient wealth to purchase them, and a transportation system to deliver them (see The Emergence of Modern Japan, 1868-1919 , ch. 1).

An important objective of the military buildup was to gain the respect of the Western powers and achieve equal status for Japan in the international community. Inequality of status was symbolized by the treaties imposed on Japan when the country was first opened to foreign intercourse. The treaties were objectionable to the Japanese not only because they imposed low fixed tariffs on foreign imports and thus handicapped domestic industries, but also because their provisions gave a virtual monopoly of external trade to foreigners and granted extraterritorial status to foreign nationals in Japan, exempting them from Japanese jurisdiction and placing Japan in the inferior category of uncivilized nations. Many of the social and institutional reforms of the Meiji period were designed to remove the stigma of backwardness and inferiority represented by the "unequal treaties," and a major task of Meiji diplomacy was to press for early treaty revision.

Once created, the Meiji military machine was used to extend Japanese power overseas, for many leaders believed that national security depended on expansion and not merely a strong defense. Within thirty years, the country's military forces had fought and defeated imperial China in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), winning possession of Taiwan and China's recognition of Korea's independence. Ten years later, in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5), Japan defeated tsarist Russia and won possession of southern Sakhalin as well as a position of paramount influence in Korea and southern Manchuria. By this time, Japan had been able to negotiate revisions of the unequal treaties with the Western powers and had in 1902 formed an alliance with the world's leading power, Britain. After World War I, in which it sided with the Western Allies, Japan, despite its relatively small role in the war (with little effort it gained possession of former German territories in the Pacific), sat with the victors at Versailles and enjoyed the status of a great power in its own right.

Between World War I and World War II, the nation embarked on a course of imperialist expansion, using both diplomatic and military means to extend its control over more and more of the Asian mainland. It began to see itself as the protector and champion of Asian interests against the West, a point of view that brought it increasingly into conflict with the Western powers (see Diplomacy , ch. 1). When its aggressive policies met firm resistance from the United States and its allies, Japan made common cause with the Axis partnership of Germany and Italy and launched into war with the United States and the Western alliance (see World War II , ch. 8).

After Japan's devastating defeat in World War II, the nation came under an Allied occupation in which the United States, as the principal occupying power, was charged with the demilitarization and democratization of the state. Major changes were made in political, social, and economic institutions and practices. During the seven-year occupation, the country had no control over its foreign affairs and became in effect the ward of the United States on the international scene. It adopted a new constitution whereby, in Article 9, the "Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes" (see The Postwar Constitution , ch. 6).

Data as of January 1994

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