top of page



Japan in the Age of Imperialism




This unit examines the events and issues of the Meiji Restoration. It does so not just in terms of what the Meiji Restoration meant to Japan, but also how it affected other countries in the Pacific region.The very name for the Meiji Restoration itself is controversial. The textbook chapter refers to Meiji as one of the five great revolutions of modern times, yet there are those who would not call it a revolution at all. In Japanese it is called Meiji Ishin. The word Ishin really means a renewal, rather than a restoration. Another word in Japanese used to suggest the great cultural changes that went on at that time is yonaoshi. This literally means a change in the world, a change by reconstructing and correcting the world around you. The debates about the nature of the changes that took place in nineteenth century Japan will continue, but the larger questions have to do with the long-term impact on Japanese society and Pacific Asia. Japan's neighbors came to be both inspired and threatened by its modernization, but could not immediately emulate its success. Some reasons why this was so are noted in the textbook, but they too continue to be debated.


Specifically, this chapter asks, "Why was Japan able to modernize so much more successfully than China?" As we follow the course of Japan's development, we begin to see that what may have been deemed the disadvantages of Tokugawa society were, in fact, advantages, for behind the gates of the Shogun's closed country (sakoku) lay a society capable of rapid change. Here are some factors that may have been critical.


  • Geography: Japan's smaller size made it easier for a strong central government to control regional rivals. China's government had to expend enormous resources in subduing widespread and sometimes far-off rebellions at a time when its authority was weakening. In addition, Japan's Far East location, furthest from Europe by means of traditional maritime routes, had the effect of insulating the country from the West.

  • Western Interference: The imperialist powers initially by-passed Japan in favor of the profit they knew could be gained in China. From the outset there was far less impulse to interfere in Japan's internal affairs than in China's. Thus, Japan's modernization occurred at an auspicious "moment in time.''

  • Receptivity: For the Chinese, more than two thousand years of assumed cultural superiority was a habit hard to break. Perhaps only the Western colonizers themselves exceeded them in this conceit. Japan, by contrast, had assimilated outside influences from China and Korea periodically. Cultural borrowing was not anathema to the Japanese. They were, in fact, capable of carrying it to great heights.

  • Leadership: The administrative talent of the samurai class proved critical to the emergence of Japan as an industrial nation. They offered an "alternative leadership" to the Shogun and the daimyo. Used to competition and valuing traits that included boldness and daring, they were able to take risks and seize opportunities that laid the foundations of large modern businesses as well as modernized military forces. China's leadership, by contrast, remained a unitary edifice of the monarchy and the scholar-gentry, neither of which wished to upset the equilibrium by defying their traditional (and usually successful) "defensive" response to barbarian invaders. They believed Westerners could be contained in the treaty ports and used, much as they had co-opted foreign intruders throughout much of Chinese history on the far-off frontiers of Central Asia.


There is also a continuing theme from the previous chapter that will surface periodically throughout this book. That is the insistence by the West that Asian societies become "involved" in global affairs, partaking of the open trading system, offering ports and markets or joining worldwide political alliances. Although ultimately Japan was the most adaptive in its response to challenges from the West in the mid-nineteenth century, its initial reaction to the arrival of the foreigners was similar to that of China and Korea: "Expel the barbarian!"









Video: "The Meiji Revolution"




After reading Chapter 3 (and viewing the video if possible), you should have a basic understanding of the following concepts.


  1. At the time of Perry's mission, the Tokugawa Shogunate was already declining. The additional pressure from outside forced Japan to change.

  2. At the end of the Qing dynasty, China's internal turmoil inhibited the development of an effective response to the incursions of the Western powers.

  3. Korea unsuccessfully tried to keep its borders closed to the outside world. After going to war with China, then Russia, Japan forced Korea into an unequal relationship, and eventually annexed it.

  4. The Western powers served as catalysts for inevitable change in Asia; they were not the cause of change.


KEY CONCEPTS AND TERMS This is a list of important terms, people, and places that you should understand from reading the text. 






Fukuzawa Yukichi




Kanagawa, Treaty of

Kanghwa, Treaty of

Kapsin Coup

King Kojong

Li Hongzhang


Queen Min

Matthew Perry

Qing Dynasty

Russo-Japanese War

Ryukyu Islands


Shimonoseki, Treaty of

Sino-Japanese War


Taiping Rebellion


Townsend Harris

Yamagata Aritomo








1. Look at the list of Key Concepts and Names for this chapter. Find all place names, then locate each place on the maps in the text. Note in particular military interaction between the West and Japan and China.


2. Commodore Perry's impressions of Japan were, in part, of a society that was frozen in time. But how isolated was Japan? To what degree was it already changing and to what degree was Perry's visit responsible for changing it further?


3. Regular Western contact and trade with China came sooner than with Japan. However, the pattern of Western interactions with the two countries was completely different. Why? What factors effected each countries' ability to handle pressures from the West?


4. How did the Russo-Japanese War effect Japan's status in Asia? In Europe? In Japan itself?


5. Where did the initial resistance to Tokugawa rule begin? Why did it begin in those areas?


6. If Japan was an example to the rest of Asia in its resistance to Western colonial expansion, how can we account for Japanese imperialism in Korea and China?


7. Who was Ito Hirobumi? What was his role in Meiji Japan?


8. What was the Kapsin Coup? Was it successful? What was its effect on regional relations?


9. Who was Li Hongzhang? What were his views on "modernization?" How successful was he?


10. What were the political factors in Asia (and Europe) that led Great Britain and Meiji Japan to ally with one another?


11. What events led to the first Sino-Japanese War? What effect did this war have on Sino-Japanese relations? What effect did it have on relations between Japan and Korea? What effect did it have on Western perceptions of Japan? of China?


12. Who was Fukuzawa Yukichi? What were his accomplishments?


13. How did events in China in the mid-nineteenth century influence Japanese thinking about how to handle the West? What was Korea's response to the West? How did it respond to attempted incursions by the West? Why?


bottom of page