Japan was the only Asian country to have escaped imperialist control and till middle of nineteenth century, Japan was following policy of seclusion from the outside world.
Around the middle of the nineteenth century, Japan was forced by America to open her markets for American trade. Later, similar trade concessions were also acquired forcibly by other European powers. These commercial concessions were taken forcibly from Japan by displaying military might. It was considered as national humiliation and a threat to her independence by Japanese.
As a reaction to it, within a few decades Japan not only succeeded in warding off the danger of foreign domination, but also underwent a process of modernizing certain aspects of her society that enabled her to emerge as a world power.
In 1868, Meiji Restoration happened and within a short period of time (less than four decades) of the Meiji Restoration, Japan’s economy and political institutions underwent speedy transformation. The Japanese government was aware that to make Japan a modern and strong country, the process of industrialization needs to be taken on a larger scale.
They were also aware that western style of industrialization could not be possible in Japan since capitalist class in Japan was not strong enough and they also lacked necessary required resources. That is why the Japanese government took the initiative and undertook the process of Industrialization themselves. Government made heavy investments in industries, the money for which was raised through heavy taxation. 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 industrialization was accompanied by impoverishment of the peasants. When it became hard for them to sustain themselves in rural areas, these rural folks started migrating to the Japanese cities where they provided cheap labour for the industries. Japan witnessed rapid industrialization and by the early years of the twentieth century, Japanese goods, particularly textiles, could successfully compete in the international market with European goods.
An important point to note is that the demand for Japanese manufactured goods within Japan was limited due to the extreme poverty of the common people.
In 1889, Japan was given a new constitution by Emperor Meiji. The constitution provided for a parliament called the Diet but powers of this parliament were limited.
As per this new constitution, the emperor was the head of the executive and enjoyed a special position. The ministers were appointed by him and were responsible to him and not to the parliament. In financial matters too, the powers of Parliament were limited.Universal adult suffrage was not granted to the citizens of Japan and less than three percent of the population had the right to vote.
A significant development which later played a crucial role in Japanese imperialism is that the military enjoyed vast powers in the new political system and, in course of time, came to dominate it completely. For instance, the army and the navy appointed army and naval officers and even ministers of the army and the navy. An unfortunate development of this period was that the Diet had absolutely no control over army and navy.
The Japanese educational system also played its part in making Japan an industrial nation within a short period. The educational system made the majority of the population literate within a very short time which in turn enabled the Japanese to master the technical skills necessary for industrialization. This same education system was also responsible for some political developments in Japan which affected whole East Asia because educational system was used as an instrument to achieve political objectives. It promoted emperor worship and an attitude of extreme nationalism and chauvinism.
Civil liberties and open political struggles were found lacking in Japan. As mentioned earlier, voting rights were held by only a small section of wealthy and aristocratic population (only three percent of population had voting rights). The state naturally was controlled by an oligarchy and they wanted to maintain a tight hold on state of affairs. 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 Japan but in spite of such severe political restriction, it is worthy to note that the first socialist group in Asia was formed in Japan.
By the 1890s, Japan had become a powerful nation in East Asia and had started pursuing her colonial ambitions. Initially, these ambitions were primarily directed at China as Japan wanted to establish her supremacy in East Asia. Later, the Japanese ambition encompassed the entire Asian continent and the Pacific region.
China was going through a period of internal turmoil during the second half of the nineteenth century and was in no position to offer a strong resistance to the modern and disciplined Japanese army. To achieve her imperialistic ambitions in China, Japan went to war with China and defeated her in 1895. As a result of this outcome Japan annexed Formosa (Taiwan), which was then under control of Chinese ruler. Japan also forced China to recognize Korea, over which she claimed suzerainty, as an independent state.
The Japanese objective was not to secure the independence of Korea but her intentions were to end the Chinese influence there so that she can have a free hand in dealing with Korea. Objective of Japan was the subjugation of Korea. To achieve this objective first in 1905, Korea was made a protectorate of Japan and then later in 1910, Korea was annexed by her.
In 1899, Japan got a significant recognition of her power and new global status when the US and European countries 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.
Increasing Japanese Clout
The First decade of twentieth century further increased global standing of Japan. First 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 were, for last one century, averse of Russian designs in Asia and the British objective in signing the treaty was to deter Russian designs in China . The Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) that followed the Anglo-Japanese treaty ended in the defeat of Russia. This victory further increased Japanese prestige, global standing and also played a part in military forces strengthening their position in Japan. Japanese gains from this victory were significant.
Southern Manchuria was recognized 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, 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 and provided a moral boost to the nationalist struggles going on in different parts of other Asian countries against the European colonial powers. Japanese victory over Russia also exposed the hollowness of racist propaganda of superiority of White race.
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.