Black Ships in Edo Bay

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The Opium Wars, with the UK’s aggression against China, represents the most familiar example of western imperialism in East Asia. While less violent, the story of foreign influence in Japan in the third quarter of the 19th Century is arguably as important. With the arrival of Commodore Perry’s ‘Black Ships’ on behalf of the US Navy, Japan transformed from a feudal society governed by a warlord to a modernising, soon-to-be democratic nation.

First, it is important to consider the Japan in which those Black Ships arrived. While the Emperor was in power, this power was in name only: since 1603, Japan had been ruled by a Shogun, a warlord from the Tokugawa family, and his central government, the bakufu, from the de facto capital in Edo (now Tokyo). The country was also divided into a number of different feudal domains, called han, ruled by lords called daimyo.

Japan did have previous contact with the European powers. They had first established trade with the Portuguese from the mid-16th Century who, in conjunction with the Spanish, had converted a small number of Japanese to Christianity. Initially, these Christians had been allowed freedom of religion, but this changed after 1615, when Christian samurai had fought for the Toyotomi family, the enemies of the Tokugawas during the Sengoku (warring states) period: the Tokugawa bakufu turned to a policy of persecution.

In 1639, the Tokugawa bakufu introduced the sakoku (closed country) policy, effectively cutting themselves off from the outside world. No Japanese could leave the country, and all foreign trade was restricted solely to the port of Nagasaki. The only states with which Japan had any trade relations were Korea, the Ryukyu Islands (now the southernmost islands in modern-day Japan), China and Holland, and they only had diplomatic ties with the first two. For 200 years, Japan was isolated from the outside world.

Then, in 1853, four ‘Black Ships’, commanded by the American Commodore Perry, arrived in Edo Bay. In a very literal example of gunboat diplomacy, Perry demanded that the Japanese government establish diplomatic and trade relations with the US – else, he would burn Edo to the ground.

Japan’s knowledge of the outside world was limited, but they were aware of the aggression and technological superiority of western imperial powers due to the Opium Wars with China a decade prior; to them, the threat seemed credible. This knowledge was again used as leverage by the US when negotiating the terms of their 1858 trade treaty, threatening to trade and traffic opium in Japan just as the UK had in China. Furthermore, there was little the bakufu could have done to fight back: the extent of their military fortifications to counter these ships were a few stationary guns constructed along the Edo coastline which would be entirely ineffective even if they worked – which they did not. Additionally, Edo was a city of over a million people built almost entirely of wood: it was both incredibly valuable and vulnerable.

With this in mind, the bakufu had no choice but to officially end the sakoku policy of the preceding two centuries. After signing the Harris Treaty with the USA in 1858, five more trade treaties with other imperial powers followed that same year, all following the same template as the first, and all on terms highly unfavourable to Japan. They greatly restricted the ability of Japan to impose import taxes, which was the most damaging of the terms, but there were more humiliating terms too, such as foreign citizens in Japan being subject only to their country’s laws and only able to be tried with a judge from their native land. These treaties, along with similar treaties forced upon China, are known as the ‘Unequal Treaties’.

The treaties were uniquely devastating to Japan. Having been isolated from the world for over 200 years, they were bullied and humiliated as soon as they returned to the international fold. The ruling class, the samurai, still saw themselves as a warrior class at heart; to surrender meekly to foreign demands without a fight was unacceptable.

Despite the bakufu government being compelled to sign these treaties and end sakoku, the backlash was huge. The general samurai population was uninformed about the realities of the situation, and so many advocated vociferously for infeasible policies. 19 of 61 consulted daimyo recommended starting what would be a futile war. The reaction afterwards manifested in a number of ways, one of them being the sonno joi movement, popular among younger, often lower-ranking, men of the samurai class. Sonno joi (revere the Emperor, expel the barbarian) was a nationalist and xenophobic creed, but most of all it was anti-bakufu: to revere the Emperor meant to restore him to power; and the hated foreign incursions in Japan were seen as the fault of the bakufu too.

One example of sonno joi ideas in action was the 1862 murder of an English trader, Charles Richardson, by one of the samurai bodyguards of the daimyo of Satsuma, a han in which the mantra was particularly popular at grassroots levels. The murder was clearly motivated by xenophobia, and it was carried out not by a government official but by a rogue samurai.

Despite its popular appeal and the anger that existed within Japan over the handling of the end of isolation, sonno joi remained outside the political establishment – only in Choshu, a feudal domain in the far southwest, were its ideas clearly adopted. In June 1863, Choshu bombarded western trade vessels off their coast and demanded that they all leave Japan: this action was not supported by the Tokugawa government or indeed by any other warlords, but on the directive of the Emperor. It could not be more clearly aligned with sonno joi ideas.

This was particularly striking as the Emperor had possessed little political power since the 12th Century. While before some daimyo had been more hostile to the Shogun’s government than others, they all accepted its supremacy. Now Choshu was following the orders of the Emperor over those of the bakufu, an idea that would have been unthinkable before the arrival of foreign influence to Japan. Thus, it is clear that foreign influence extended not just to new questions of foreign policy but to new fault lines of internal politics.

The reaction of the foreign powers to the Choshu bombardment was to demand reprisals against the offending han, to be carried out by the Edo-based bakufu. This would have enormous ramifications. In 1864 and 1866, the armies raised by the Shogun’s government were resoundingly defeated by Choshu. The defeat of the Tokugawa army showed that the bakufu was not the supreme military power within Japan it was once thought to be.

This, too, was attributable to foreign influence. Successful economic reorganisation in the 1830s and 40s had made Choshu, already a rather large domain, a richer one. They used this wealth to develop the infrastructure necessary to manufacture foreign armaments, which they used to great effect to combat that bakufu forces. 

After the failed reprisals against Choshu, Satsuma was one of the han that turned on the bakufu. During the 1860s, a number of nationalist, reform-minded lower- or middle-ranking samurai (hirazamurai) were promoted within the Satsuma government to placate the restless public, the foremost among them being Okubo. With the attack on Choshu, this faction was able to convince the rest of the Satsuma government that the bakufu would threaten their feudal autonomy.

A new alliance was formed between Satsuma and Choshu, referred to as the reformists. The coalition was not founded on the idea of sonno joi – indeed, Satsuma had welcomed the end of sakoku. Instead, it was on the slightly more moderate philosophy of fukoko kyohei (enrich the country, strengthen the army), which hoped to imitate the Western model of modernisation. While the mention of a need for militarisation made it clear they felt Japan had to be able to defend itself from malicious foreign actors, such as those that had forced the Unequal Treaties upon them, this was not inherently xenophobic but rather nationalistic and patriotic.

However, the crux of the partnership was a desire to overthrow the Tokugawa bakufu and restore the Emperor to power. Both were motivated by foreign influence: Choshu more directly, having wanted to rebel since the end of sakoku; Satsuma more indirectly, with its key officials motivated by a desire for reform but only able to convince their colleagues after the bakufu’s foreign-demanded reprisals on Choshu. Furthermore, both of the philosophies that had inspired their respective feudal governments had an emphasis on Japanese nationalism, a concept that was previously unnecessary for an isolated country.

By 1867, the reformists felt confident that they could ask the Shogun to resign his position, enlisting Tosa, one of the more moderate han that still had amicable relations with the Edo government, to deliver the message. In November 1867, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the reigning Shogun, complied, resigning the position of Shogun without naming an heir, killing the institution and, purportedly, giving the reformists what they wanted. Many more moderate reformist han, such as Tosa, advocated that his resignation be accepted.

However, the Choshu and Satsuma han shrewdly recognised that the terms of the resignation would see the Tokugawa family hold on to the land that belonged to them as Shoguns: they would then be the most powerful family in Japan and extremely influential in any new government. On 3 January 1868, a contingent of men from Satsuma and Tosa, with the assistance of radical nobles at the imperial court and an army from Choshu, entered the Emperor’s palace in Kyoto, the ancient Imperial capital, and declared an ‘Imperial Restoration’, with Emperor Meiji as the new head of government – hence, the ‘Meiji Restoration’.

The modernisation of Japan proceeded from the Meiji Restoration. The new government lived up their self-identification as reformists: the currency was unified; the tax system was reformed; Japan industrialised rapidly with significant support from the government in its early stages. They ended the feudal system of han that had helped bring them to power in the first place. It also committed in 1881 to establish a constitutional, (partially) representative democracy, with an assembly to be convened by 1890.

However, even as Japan progressed internally, the question of foreign policy continued to loom large. Thoughts of sakoku-style isolationism were gone, but they remained disadvantaged in their dealings with the outside world by the Unequal Treaties, to which they were still bound. Finally, in 1894, Britain agreed to a revised treaty on equal terms. The other imperial powers quickly followed suit.

40 years after the Black Ships of Commodore Perry sailed into Edo Bay, Japan had established equal relations with the outside world at last. In that time, Japan had transformed from a late feudal society to a successfully modernising and industrialising nation. This radical change was in no small part brought about by the shock of isolation’s end and the first trickles of modernisation from the western powers, as foreign policy and influence came to redefine every aspect of internal politics.

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