Read this article to learn about the rise of modern japan and its imperialist power; between 1890’s to FWW!

Japan was the only Asian country to have escaped imperialist control. For centuries, military generals, called shoguns, exercised real power in Japan while the Japanese emperor was a mere figurehead.

For over two hundred years, Japan had been almost totally secluded from the rest of the world. In many respects, the Japanese social system was comparable to the social system of feudal Europe. Around the middle of the nineteenth century, Japan was rudely awakened to the modern world when her independence was threatened.

Imperialism in Japan | Publish with Glogster!

Image Source:


Within a few decades she not only succeeded in warding off the danger of foreign domination but also underwent a process of modernising certain aspects of her society that enabled her to emerge as a world power.

In 1853, Commodore Perry went with a US fleet and delivered an ultimatum to Japan. It was stated that “positive necessity requires that we should protect our commercial interests in this remote part of the world and in doing so, to resort to measures, however strong, to counteract the schemes of powers less scrupulous than ourselves”.

Eight months later, when he returned with a bigger fleet, the Japanese government signed a treaty with the US under which two ports were opened to US ships and some amount of trade was permitted. Similar treaties were then signed by several European countries. In 1863 and
1864, the US and European fleets displayed their military superiority by firing on two Japanese cities. In 1868, the rule of the shogun was ended and a new set of rulers and advisers came to the fore. They ruled in the name of the emperor, whose authority, in theory, was restored. This event is known as the Meiji Restoration, after the title ‘Meiji’ which the new emperor took.

Within less than four decades of the Meiji Restoration, Japan’s economy and political institutions underwent speedy transformation. The Japanese government made heavy investments in industries, the money for which was raised through heavy taxation and by exploiting the peasantry. Subsequently, the industries were sold to capitalists.


Afterwards, government support for starting industries was no longer required as the Japanese capitalists were able to start industries on their own. The process of industrialisation was accompanied by impoverishment of the peasants, who often rebelled.

An increasing number of them migrated to the cities where they provided cheap labour for the industries. By the early years of the twentieth century, Japanese goods, particularly textiles, could successfully compete in the international market with European goods. The demand for Japanese manufactures within Japan was limited due to the extreme poverty of the common people.

In 1889, Japan was given a new constitution. The emperor enjoyed a special position as head of the executive and ministers were appointed by him and were responsible to him. He was believed to be “heaven- descended, divine and sacred; he is pre-eminent above his subjects. He must be reverenced and is inviolable”.

The constitution provided for a parliament called the Diet. Less than three per cent of the population had the right to vote. The Diet enjoyed little power: the ministers were not responsible to it, and even in financial matters, its powers were limited.


The military enjoyed vast powers in the new political system and, in course of time, came to dominate it completely. The army and the navy appointed .army and naval officers, ministers of the army and the navy, and the Diet had absolutely no control over them.

The educational system which was built up made the mass of the population literate within a very short time. It enabled the Japanese to master the technical skills necessary for industrialisation. The educational system was used to promote emperor worship and an attitude of extreme nationalism and chauvinism. Civil liberties and open political struggles were lacking in Japan.

The state was controlled by an oligarchy and the repressive apparatus of the state, notably the police, enjoyed wide powers to control the press and even prevent the holding of public meetings and demonstrations. Political dissent was not tolerated. In spite of severe restriction, however, the first socialist group in Asia was formed in Japan.

Japan as an Imperialist Power:

By the 1890s, Japan had started pursuing her colonial ambitions. These ambitions were primarily directed at China and aimed at establishing Japanese supremacy in East Asia. Later, the object of the Japanese ambition encompassed the entire Asian continent and the Pacific region.

Having built up her armed strength, she went to war with China and defeated her in 1895. She annexed Formosa (Taiwan), which was a part of China, and forced China to recognise Korea, over which she claimed suzerainty, as an independent state.

The Japanese objective in all this was not to secure the independence of Korea but to end the Chinese influence there and to gain a free hand for the subjugation of Korea. In 1905, Korea was made a protectorate of Japan and in 1910 was annexed by her.

In 1899, Japan’s status as a great power was recognised by the US and European countries when they gave up the rights and concessions that they had obtained as a result of the treaties which Japan had been forced to sign with them after 1854.

In 1902, the Anglo-Japanese Treaty or Alliance was signed, and Japan became the first Asian country to enjoy the status of full equality with other colonial powers. The British objective in signing the treaty was to deter Russian designs in China.

The Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) that followed ended in the defeat of Russia. Southern Manchuria was recognised as a Japanese “sphere of influence”. Japan also obtained half of the Sakhalin Island and acquired control of the Liaotung Peninsula. During the First World War, Japan sought to establish her protectorate over China. Though she did not succeed in achieving this aim, she was able to extend her influence there.

The rise of Japan as a great power, even though she was following imperialist policies in Asia, provided an impetus to the growth of nationalism in many Asian countries. Her war with Russia proved that an Asian non-White country could defeat a major European power.

It should, however, be remembered that the main victims of Japanese imperialism were not Europeans but people of other Asian countries. The emergence of USA and Japan as great powers was an indication that the supremacy of Europe would not last long. The First World War hastened the end of European hegemony.