Japan Expands into Korea Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Japan sought to expand its imperialistic ambitions and rival the great powers of Europe. Because Korea was considered a logical place for increased economic and political involvement around the world, Japan believed its expansion there could “liberate” Korea from Chinese influences, introduce modern technology to the peninsula, and send a statement to the world that Japan had newfound confidence and global aspirations.

Summary of Event

To satisfy its aspirations for modern statehood, much like that enjoyed by Great Britain, France, and Germany, the new Meiji government in Japan needed to take steps to define its territory. Doing so was considered a way to strengthen political will and to unite Japanese citizens under an umbrella of common national identity. Japan needed to reinvent itself into a modern, democratic nation instead of continuing the old ways of feudalism, shogun rule, samurai warriorship, and clan rivalry. Korea;Japanese occupation of Japan;occupation of Korea Korea;and Japan[Japan] Japan;and Korea[Korea] [kw]Japan Expands into Korea (1870’s) [kw]Expands into Korea, Japan (1870’s) [kw]Korea, Japan Expands into (1870’s) Korea;Japanese occupation of Japan;occupation of Korea Korea;and Japan[Japan] Japan;and Korea[Korea] [g]Japan;1870’s: Japan Expands into Korea[4400] [g]Korea;1870’s: Japan Expands into Korea[4400] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;1870’s: Japan Expands into Korea[4400] [c]Colonization;1870’s: Japan Expands into Korea[4400] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;1870’s: Japan Expands into Korea[4400] Kuroda Kiyotaka Saigō Takamori Enomoto Takeaki

One way for Japan to reinvent itself was by colonization, just as the European powers had done in Asia and Africa. Although Japan was a latecomer in the race toward imperialism, the colonies could still be of benefit as markets for Japanese goods and as resources for raw materials to be manufactured in Japan. Colonies could be populated with new Japanese citizens loyal to both Japan and Emperor Meiji. The new military leaders in the Japanese army and navy Navy, Japanese looked at military expeditions to gain new colonies as a way to strengthen their reputations at home and to gain higher government positions once they returned from service abroad.

Japan’s Japan;modernization of prestige rose with its rapid modernization and its scramble for new territory during the late nineteenth century. During the earlier Tokugawa era and rule by shoguns (1600-1868), Japan defined itself as the territory of the four major islands: Honshū (the mainland), Hokkaidō, Shikoku, and Kyūshū. The country had sought to unify politically the four islands and to add more territory from surrounding islands. The Sakhalin and Kuril Islands Kuril Islands Japan;and Kuril Islands[Kuril Islands] Russia;and Kuril Islands[Kuril Islands] to the north were claimed by Russia Russia;and Japan[Japan] Japan;and Russia[Russia] but were only sparsely populated. The Okinawa Okinawa Islands to the south were linguistically distinct from Japan though culturally related to both Japan and China. Okinawa had its own king and political structure, but it was weak and easy prey for the larger neighbor to the north. Japan made a move to annex Okinawa and subjugate the islanders under Emperor Meiji, after negotiations and limited conflict with Taiwan and China.

Japanese admiral Enomoto Enomoto Takeaki Takeaki had successfully bargained with Russia in 1875 to gain control over the Kurils by “giving back” Sakhalin in exchange for sole ownership of the Kuril Islands. Inhabitants on the Kuril Islands and Okinawa Islands would be considered subjects of Japan. The bargain with Russia marked the first major pact Japan had struck with a Western power that also had treated Japan as an equal. With new islands to control in 1875, Japan was eager for more colonies.

The next three obvious targets for Japanese territorial ambition were Taiwan, Korea, and China. A Japanese military force battled the Taiwanese in 1874 in response to a massacre of Japanese fisherman who had blown off course and drifted to Taiwan. Japan decided to punish the Taiwanese for their rash act. The success of this expedition and easy victory inspired confidence at home in the new Meiji government and the new military. Although more Japanese soldiers died from tropical disease Diseases;tropical than gunfire in the battle with Taiwan, the Meiji government used the victory as a stepping-stone to greater goals. China lost prestige in the conflict over Taiwan because Taiwan was considered Chinese culturally and politically. China acknowledged that Japan, because of its victory in Taiwan, had dominion over Okinawa Okinawa . As a result, Japan had begun to feel more powerful and free to continue its imperial conquests.

The rivalry with China set the stage for Japanese expansion into Korea. Japan wanted the rest of the world to know that it had a modern government and a well-equipped army and navy. Japan saw itself as the one to bring modern industry and technology to Korea, which was being held back by a complacent Chinese government and stagnant Confucian cultural ways. Japan believed it had to take the lead in Asian development and expand its territory and not wait on the conservative regimes of Korea and China. Japanese government leaders wanted their country to be seen as a progressive, industrial, and imperial power. Some Japanese believed Japan was obligated to expand its influence and prevent European nations from further colonization.

Early Japanese diplomatic missions to Korea in 1873 had returned empty-handed. The Koreans had not respected Japan as much as it respected China. China was a much older civilization than was Japan, and most of the culture of Korea and Japan was Chinese in origin. Japan discussed engaging in a military intervention into Korea like the one it had engaged in Taiwan. Japan also wanted to “liberate” Korea from stifling Chinese influence. The plan was canceled, however, over fear of inciting a British counterreaction.

Many Japanese leaders, such as Saigō Saigō Takamori Takamori, argued for an invasion of Korea to strengthen Japan’s image at home and abroad. Saigō, however, was suspicious of the Western values championed by other Meiji bureaucrats. In frustration over the canceled invasion, Saigō returned to his native province of Satsuma in 1877 and led a rebellion against his own Meiji government. The Satsuma Rebellion pitted the national army of Japan (which had superior training and modern weapons) against Saigō’s army of traditional samurai Japan;samurai Samurai . The national army easily defeated Saigō Saigō Takamori , and he committed ritual suicide on the battlefield.

Meiji government leaders viewed the Korean issue in different ways. Some, like Saigō, supported the political movement, known as the Seikanron debate (1873), which favored an armed invasion to liberate and improve Korea. In 1875, Japan had arranged for a high-level diplomatic venture to Korea to make clear Japan’s aggressive foreign policy. To add seriousness to the mission, the diplomats traveled with three navy gunboats, but the Koreans were unimpressed with the Japanese show of force and fired upon one of their ships in Kanghwa Bay. Japan responded with a coastal bombardment, which led to the need for another diplomatic mission.

Kuroda Kuroda Kiyotaka Kiyotaka, the main diplomat to Korea after the conflict, regarded his mission to Korea as similar to the mission of Commodore Matthew C. Perry, who had helped “open” Japan to the West in 1854. Three gunboats escorted Kuroda, and he negotiated the Treaty of Kanghwa Kanghwa, Treaty of (1876) (1876), which authorized Japanese expansion onto the Korean peninsula. The treaty not only stated that Korea was independent and free from Chinese meddling; it also authorized the opening of three Korean ports for Japanese trade and established Japanese jurisdiction over Korea.


Japan’s drive to expand into Korea was a major move that would culminate in the global disaster of World War II (1939-1945). Japan’s gaining a foothold in Korea had freed Korea from dependence on China and made a statement about Japan’s strength and modernization. When Japan began to administer Korea, it made secret plans to invade China and bring its own version of “improvement” to the innocent citizens of Manchu province. In this relationship, Japan emerged as dominant and Korea as a weak and dependent state. Japan had endured such humiliation on the other side of the table in previous treaties with European powers during the 1850’s. Now the tide had turned.

Historians argue that Korean expansion was not one piece of a larger plan to colonize all of Asia, but, instead, more of an effort to legitimize and shore up the authority of the new Meiji government at home. However, it seems clear that Japan also had imperialistic plans and wanted to acquire territory for more than political reasons.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dudden, Alexis. Japan’s Colonization of Korea: Discourse and Power. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2005. Includes a bibliography and an index.
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    xlink:type="simple">Jansen, Marius B. The Making of Modern Japan. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. Emphasis on Japan as a political entity emerging from Sekigahara and Tokugawa institutions that focused on domestic issues and moving through foreign relations and reform in education, industry, and culture toward modern statehood.
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    xlink:type="simple">_______, ed. The Emergence of Meiji Japan. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Major chapters on Tokugawa culture, the Meiji Restoration, opposing forces in Japanese society, and Japan’s move toward imperialism and militarism.
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    xlink:type="simple">Kim, Ki-Jung. “The Road to Colonization: Korea Under Imperialism.” In Korean History: Discovery of Its Characteristics and Developments, edited by Korean National Commission for UNESCO. Elizabeth, N.J.: Hollym Press, 2004. Part of the Anthology of Korean Studies series. Explores the history of Korea under Japanese colonialism.
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    xlink:type="simple">Lew, Young Ick. “Japanese Challenge and Korean Response, 1876-1910: A Brief Historical Survey.” In Korean History: Discovery of Its Characteristics and Developments, edited by Korean National Commission for UNESCO. Elizabeth, N.J.: Hollym Press, 2004. Part of the Anthology of Korean Studies series. Explores the history of Korea under Japanese colonialism from the time of the Treaty of Kanghwa to 1910.
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    xlink:type="simple">Pyle, Kenneth B. The Making of Modern Japan. Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1996. Analysis of the political reform during the Meiji period that allowed for Japan’s transformation into a modern nation rivaling nations of the West.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Strand, Wilson. “Opening the Hermit Kingdom: The Many Attempts to Open Korea to Western Trade in the Nineteenth Century.” History Today 54, no. 1 (January, 2004): 20-29. A readable examination of how Korea was faced with modernizing forces that wanted to open its ports to Western trade.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Totman, Conrad. A History of Japan. London: Basil Blackwell, 2000. Explores Japan from ancient times, including its geographical and natural features. Extensive consideration of Japan’s political, cultural, and social issues, from the industrial age to the end of the twentieth century.

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Japan’s Meiji Restoration

Promulgation of Japan’s Charter Oath

Former Samurai Rise in Satsuma Rebellion

Korean Military Mutinies Against Japanese Rule

Kabo Reforms Begin Modernization of Korean Government

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Categories: History