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Japan and globalization: how strategic imperatives drive political change. The case of the Meiji era.

The second article of the series on the subject of “how strategic imperatives drive political changes in Japan” is about Meiji Japan. This article investigates the structural changes that took place during the Meiji Restoration to mitigate foreign threats and led the nascent Japanese empire to become a tier one power during the first half of the twentieth century. This astonishing pace of change, Japan’s transformation from a mostly medieval country to being the first Asian country to ever defeat a powerful Western military power with a state-of-the-art navy, would take place in less than forty years. No other country in history has ever accomplished such a quick and extraordinary adaptation to international changes in the balance of power as Japan did in the eighteen hundreds.


The arrival of the black ships of American Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry in the bay of Yokosuka in 1853 was a turning point in Japan’s modern history. After refusing local authorities demands to leave or to proceed to Nagasaki and threatening the use of force if he couldn’t deliver a letter from President Fillmore, Commodore Perry announced that he would come back the year after expecting a reply from the Japanese government. 

The Tokugawa Shogunate, commonly known as Bakufu, was caught completely unprepared to meet such a challenge. Aside from the Mongol invasions of 1274 and 1281 Japan had never faced such a direct existential threat from the sea. Running out of options against such a powerful and technologically superior foe, the Bakufu was forced to abandon its isolationist policy and agreed to sign the first of a series of treaties that would have far reaching consequences on Japan’s approach to the international system of the nineteenth and twentieth century, the 1854 Treaty of Kanagawa. With the entry into force of the treaty, the ships of a Western country were allowed to stop at Japanese ports other than Nagasaki for the first time since 1641.

The reputational damage was catastrophic for the Shogunate. The descendants of Tokugawa Ieyasu had ruled unchallenged for two and a half centuries, but their power was already badly diminished by the time Commodore Perry had arrived in Yokosuka. Growing anti-foreign sentiments and revengeful Tozama’s ambitions to topple the regime, Japanese clans which had been on the losing side at the battle of Sekigahara and were at the bottom of the Edo administrative hierarchy, would later lead to the reestablishment of the imperial house as supreme rulers of Japan. Seeking regime change to face external threats, anti-Shogunate activists began to look to imperial rule, the only authority that had not been unsullied by the inability of the Shogunate to face foreign interferences in the Japanese archipelago.

The victory of the Imperial Court after the 1868 Boshin War, a civil war between the army of the Shogunate and pro-imperial forces, would be the first step into Japan’s drastic structural reforms. At the heart of the imperial faction’s successes were the Satsuma and Chōshū domains which would produce some of the most prominent statists of the Meiji era, commonly known as Genrō or “founding fathers”. Satsuma and Chōshū would form the core of the first strategic bureaucracy centered on the creation of a modern nation-state capable of standing equal among the great political and military powers of that period.

Isolationist policies favored by the Bakufu and some pro imperial anti-foreign Japanese nativists, such as the Sonnō jōi, were therefore quickly abandoned in favor of a path of integration into the Western led international order. As Japan had learned from the Chinese experience during the Opium wars of 1839-1842 and 1856-1860, the adherence to western values was a life insurance policy in a time where the world was divided between colonizers and colonized. The colonizers, mostly European empires, took the ideological pretext of state backwardness for colonial expansion in countries not in line with “civilized standards”. Most of Asia was already colonized at the time of the Meiji Restoration, and the country had no choice but to officially adopt Western standards. In other words, Japan was reforming to look powerful and legitimate in a changing world order. It was a matter of survival, not political convictions.

The adoption of Western models was gradually implemented at every level of the State. The former daimyo and the aristocracy of Kyōto were merged into a European inspired nobility, the Kazoku, while the emperor was moved to Edo, which was renamed Tōkyō. A two-year diplomatic mission was sent in the West to gain knowledge for successful nation-building. The fiefdoms of the daimyos, the han domains, were abolished to favor centralization. A German inspired constitution was adopted and a new educational system with Western style universities at the top was established. Such far reaching reforms were implemented within the span of only three decades. The Grand Strategy goal of the reform process was twofold: First, Tōkyō needed to make preparations for treaty revision and secure Japan from foreign interferences. Second, the country needed to gain the recognition of the West as an equal partner and ascend to imperial status, then seen as the only way to avoid long term foreign predation by hostile powers.

The most drastic change happened at the military level. The military reforms perfectly underscore how Western ideas were combine with Japanese specificity. One of the most momentum reform was the abolition of the samurai class and the birth of a national army in 1873. The Conscription Ordinance of 1873 abolished all hereditary restrictions on employment so that Japanese citizens drawn from all sectors of society could now join the military. The hereditary stipends of the warrior class were abolished, and a draft was established to meet modern military standards based on mass conscription. In other words, the samurai class was abolished in the name of equal duties for all Japanese people. The edict was therefore a decisive step towards the consolidation of a national identity.

The Conscription Ordinance had a powerful ideological message. It symbolized the transition of power from the samurai government to the emperor, a return to the practices of the ancient Ritsuryō State. The edict claimed that the reforms of 1873 were the restoration of the true relationship between the emperor and its subjects. The emperor was presented as a military leader who would lead the army during the crisis. The edict also claimed that samurai rule wasn’t traditional but a symptom of imperial decline and usurpation of the emperor’s prerogative of military leadership.

This propagandistic interpretation of ancient history was right on one thing, the Ritsuryō State had a conscript army. The conscription was seen a natural return to ancient ways.  By creating a modern national army, the Meiji government was restoring Japan’s ancient practices and centralized State prestige.

The restoration of imperial authority also led to the political reemergence of Japan’s native religion: Shinto. Ancient Shinto myths were reinvigorated to meet the new cultural and political models of the State.

Shinto’s observance had a mostly non-religious character in Meiji Japan. Attending Shinto ceremony was a sign of patriotism and commitment to the country. Shrines were erected as symbols of centralized rule that could promote and strengthen a shared national identity. In colonial Japan, Shinto shrines were places where new subjects could assimilate and learn Japanese traditions to become imperial citizens. In other words, it advanced the idea of the unity of the State.

The establishment of the Yasukuni Shinto shrine is perhaps the most well-known example of Meiji Japan’s political use of native religious sanctuaries. Originally founded by Emperor Meiji to accommodate the spirits of those who died in service for Japan since 1853, the sanctuary is now home to nearly two million and a half souls. In contrast to Japan’s rigid social ranking tradition, all Japanese revered at Yasukuni were considered equal and worshipped as venerable Kami, Japanese divinities. The idea that all citizens were considered equal to serve a higher purpose testified the goal of transforming subjects into citizens in service of the Nation-State’s supreme interests.

The need for a totally native oriented ideology made traditional Shinto-Buddhist syncretism incompatible with the new ideology. The emperor’s divine status as heir to Amaterasu and the uniqueness of the Japanese people as creation of the Kami were at odds with a foreign doctrine imported from Korea in 538. A Shinto-Buddhism separation edict, known as Kami and Buddhas Separation Order, was therefore announced in 1868.

One of the most interesting cases of political use of classical mythology is directly linked to the establishment of the Meiji national currency. In 1871, The Japanese State decided to adopt a state-of-the-art national money copying the US currency system. In copying American banknotes, the Japanese authorities paid close attention to the powerful symbolism of national currencies in the West. The US 10-dollar (US$) bills are perhaps the most prominent example. The banknotes depict the Discovery of the Mississippi by Hernando De Soto, the first European to have met America’s most strategic river. The Congress painting on which the banknotes are inspired reflects the political ideology of the time. A Western colonizer bringing Christianity and civilization to the indigenes of the New World, a clear analogy with Washington’s manifest destiny and divine mandate as “a city upon a hill”. In other words, it reflected the imperial mission of the United States.

In an almost identical fashion, the Meiji government chose to heroically portrait the legendary empress Jingū on its 10-yen (¥) banknotes. The choosing of empress Jingū, portrayed as a military figure at the head of an army of Yamato era soldiers, perfectly reflected the imperial ideology of the time. According to Japanese mythology, the gods ordered Jingū to conquer the Korean Peninsula while being pregnant. Her own son, later deified as Hachiman, the divinity of war, accepted not to be born until she was done fighting, to allow his mother to complete her conquest on the mainland and return to Japan. The connection between the 10 US$ banknotes and 10 ¥ notes is therefore significant. As with the American conviction that their right to rule the New World was divine, Meiji government officials believed their gods had given them the right to occupy the Korean Peninsula. In other words, Japan borrowed on Western models and symbolism to further its own agenda as an imperial power.

Aside from political symbolism, Tōkyō quickly learned the ways of Western diplomacy to advance its own interests in East Asia. Japan hired Western advisers to make sure its colonial claims on strategic borderlands, such as Taiwan and Korea, made sense in Western capitals, drawing explicit parallels between Western colonial imperialism and Japanese imperialism. The main goal was to secure peripheral areas with weak political authorities that could fall to hostile powers avoiding potential diplomatic disputes.

One of the most prominent cases was the hiring of Charles LeGendre, an American diplomat who had previously served in China. With the Western colonization threat on its periphery in mind, Tōkyō hired LeGendre to legitimize Japan’s position for colonizing Taiwan.

Historically speaking, the concept of border was unsystematic and heterogeneous in East Asia. For instance, the lord of Tsushima Island, nominally a subject of the Tokugawa Shogunate, was permitted to enter into a tributary relationship with Joseon Korea, creating a dual allegiance that didn’t fit the Western understanding of border. This unsystematic approach to State borders had allowed political stability in Asian politics. However, the transition to a new system of borders brought by Western imperial powers required Tōkyō to assert direct sovereignty over its borderland. The fact that Chinese authorities sticked to the old concept of border, refusing to assert direct administrative control over the entire territory of Taiwan was both a threat and an opportunity for Japan. LeGendre warned China that such ambiguity would justify foreign colonization of the island, creating a precedent for the future Japanese annexation of Taiwan in 1895. Therefore, by adopting Western standards Japan could hope to deal with the West on roughly equal terms and extend its influence on the international stage.

The official recognition of Japan as a great power would come after its military successes over Qing China in 1895 and Imperial Russia in 1905. The success over China would give Japan control over Korea, a strategic borderland in Japanese military thinking, while the defeat of Imperial Russia would have major repercussions on the international system for decades to come. Not only the military campaign would be a bloody precursor of World War I, but the humiliating defeat suffered by Russia would accelerate the demise of the Tsarist imperial regime, paving the way for Soviet ascension. Such military victories would accelerate the process of treaty revision but also lead to overconfidence in military means to solve international disputes. Such a zero-sum approach to Grand Strategy would later bring Japan on a collision course with the future hegemon of the twentieth century, the United States of America.


With its victory over imperial Russia, Japan completed its shift from a potentially colonized country to an imperial power. Increasing British-Japanese alignment against Russian interests in East Asia, coupled with Tōkyō’s military successes, allowed Japan to receive Western recognition and finally become a junior member of the “club of imperial powers”. One of the key strategic goals of Meiji Japan, namely treaty revision, was finally accomplished. In 1911, six years after the Russo-Japanese war, Japan fully recovered customs duty autonomy.

As had happened with the Ritsuryō State, such far reaching transformations had been driven by globalization and changes in the balance of power. For the first time in history, China had not been the cultural and institutional model or the dominant power in East Asia. A nearly two thousand years of diplomatic and political practices that had regulated State relations were suddenly caught unable to respond to Western colonial expansion. Japan needed structural changes to adjust to this new environment. To face such transformations Japan looked at the past. As with the Ritsuryō State’s inspiration of Chinese models, the move to Western institutions remained profoundly Japanese. Brilliant learning and local adaptation of Western practices and technology, such as the use of Western concepts of national sovereignty or the making of a state-of-the-art navy to further its strategic goals, were the key to Japan’s success in the international arena. Japan was reforming to survive in a changing world order. This logic behind Japan’s approach to Grand Strategy imperatives is as valid today as it was in Ritsuryō and Meiji Japan.

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