Japan: Modern Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

In the years from 1600 to 1930, Japan underwent three major shifts in political leadership: The Tokugawa period was followed by the era of the Meiji Restoration, and then, shortly before 1930, the nation saw the triumph of military ultranationalism over constitutional government.

Political Considerations

In the years from 1600 to 1930, Japan underwent three major shifts in political leadership: The Tokugawa era (Japan)Tokugawa period was followed by the era of the Meiji RestorationMeiji Restoration, and then, shortly before 1930, the nation saw the triumph of military ultranationalism over constitutional government. The Tokugawa era, or “period of Great Peace,” marked a turning point for Japan after centuries of Civil wars;Japancivil war that had divided the archipelago as families struggled against one another for power around landed estates called shoen. After the military failures of two “pretend” Shoguns shoguns Oda NobunagaOda Nobunaga (Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi HideyoshiToyotomi Hideyoshi Toyotomi Hideyoshi), Japan was finally dominated by a powerful political Daimyos (Japanese warlords) daimyo lord named Tokugawa IeyasuTokugawa Ieyasu Tokugawa Ieyasu. The shogun used the alternate attendance system in order to “capture” rival daimyos by forcing each to maintain two residences, one at home and one in the new capital city of Edo (later called Tokyo). He also created an elaborate bureaucratic structure under a “tent” government called the Bakufu government (Japan) bakufu, which helped to make policy and personnel decisions, and supervised the some 260 daimyos who still presided over Feudalism;Japan feudal Japan. Daimyos were divided into inside (fudai) and outside (tozama), with the former receiving political favors for their loyalty to the government in Edo.Japan;modernJapan;modern

The emperor and the Samuraisamurai remained two major feudal entities of the Tokugawa peace, but their power waned in the ensuing century as the daimyos jockeyed for influence in the new government, and landed estates required less protection from samurai armies than in previous periods. Challenges to the rule of the shogun were minimal as violence was restricted to small skirmishes in the streets, peasant rebellions, and the enforcement of maritime restrictions and the ban on Christianity;JapanChristianity imposed in the 1630’s and 1640’s. The spread ofMissionaries;JapanChristianity and thePortugal;JapanPortuguese Christian missionaries who arrived in Japan with Western and Chinese merchants were seen as threats to the unity and stability of the Tokugawa state. With some very particular exceptions (such as the Dutch), foreigners were banned from the interior parts of the Japanese archipelago, and Japanese Christians were persecuted. These actions, along with famines and other difficulties, later led to a number of rebellions and uprisings, the largest and most famous of which was the Shimabara Rebellion (1637-1638)Shimabara Rebellion in 1637-1638.

The next major period of change for Japan did not arrive until the mid-nineteenth century, when the appearance of Gunboat diplomacygunboat diplomacy forced the so-called Japan;opening ofopening of Japan by Western powers, underscoring the weaknesses of the Shogunate (Japan)shogunate and leading to its collapse. With the negotiation of treaties, first after the arrival of Commodore Perry, Matthew C.Perry, Matthew C.Matthew C. Perry’s U.S. black ships in 1853, Japan soon began to mimic the Western claim that imperialism was necessary to civilize “savages” by acquainting them with the spiritual and material benefits of modern technology and mechanisms of social control. This premise was actually discussed in Japanese political circles during the 1790’s, including in the influential essay "Secret Plan for Government, A" (Honda Toshiaki)[Secret Plan for Government]“A Secret Plan for Government,” by Honda Toshiaki, which laid out Japan’s four major imperative needs: to learn the effective use of gunpowder, to develop metallurgy, to increase trade, and to colonize nearby islands and more distant lands.

The Japanese artist Hiroshige portrayed a U.S. warship in Tokyo Harbor–probably part of Commodore Perry’s flotilla.

(Library of Congress)

The shogunate’s inability to deal with the influence of Westerners, coupled with rising domestic distress, led to the end of the regime, and in 1867, backed by a military coup, the emperor proclaimed the Meiji RestorationMeiji Restoration. With the return of power to the emperor for the first time in centuries, the young Meiji emperor set in motion rapid industrialization based on the Western model. Importing new military technology, industry, legal norms, and constitutional thought (along with a parliamentary system based on the German model) as well as new ideas in science, forms of dress, and food, the Meiji abolished status distinctions and centralized government.

By constructing a new body politic around the notion of Kokutaikokutai, which translates roughly as “national essence,” Japan remade itself into a society focused on achieving the ultimate goal of becoming a major global player on the international scene. Though the actual end of the shogunate and the establishment of the imperial government following a Western model were handled entirely peacefully, through political petitions and the like, the years surrounding these events saw a revolution that was not entirely bloodless. The ensuing Satsuma Rebellion (1877) Satsuma Rebellion (1877), led by samurai Saigō TakamoriSaigō Takamori[Saigo Takamori] Saigō Takamori, was the final attempt to drag Japan back to an earlier period of feudal control, but it was quickly crushed.

Japan, c. 1615

By the end of the nineteenth century, Japan was transformed from a decentralized, largely agrarian land into a centralized, industrialized nation. The Japanese built trains, adopted Western-style facial hair and modes of dress, and allowed powerful business cartels called zaibatsus to control the flow of capital. They also came to understand that national defense would require expansion abroad. The Meiji government undertook two major campaigns in 1895 against the fledgling Qing government of China in the Sino-Japanese War, First (1894-1895)[Sino Japanese War, First] Sino-Japanese War and defeated the Russian fleet–becoming the first Asian country to defeat a Western power in combat–during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905)[Russo Japanese War] Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). By entangling Japan in world affairs, the government attempted to balance contradictory impulses toward Japan;democracy democracy and toward totalitarianism; at the same time, Japan was continually treated as a racially inferior power by most European countries. The results of World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];and Japan[Japan] World War I (1914-1918) saw Japan reap the benefits of its newfound status as an Allied nation, with the acquisition of a colony on the Shandong Peninsula in China and membership in the League of Nations. However, Japan was continually left out of major discussions at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919.

By the 1920’s, Japan became embroiled in the global Great Depression;JapanGreat Depression as overproduction and currency failures ravaged the world’s economies. With threats from Russia and China in Manchuria, ultranationalist sentiments inside the Japanese military and outside the government accused the political parties of weakening Japan in their pursuit of self-interest. With a new emperor, HirohitoHirohito (emperor of Japan)Hirohito, on the throne by the late 1920’s, critical voices within Japan appeared to be as dangerous to Japan’s economic and national security as threats from abroad.

Military Achievement

Around 1600, the Japanese were focused first on defeating enemies militarily within their borders; by the nineteenth century, their focus was on challenging international rivals in several theaters in the Pacific Rim. The Tokugawa period was marked at first by a civil war that led to a struggle between members of the daimyo class as they fought to become the first unifier of Japan under the shogunate. After conquering his competitors at the Osaka Castle, Battle of (1615)Battle of Osaka Castle in 1615, Tokugawa IeyasuTokugawa IeyasuTokugawa Ieyasu inaugurated a long period of peace during which few outside invaders or internal struggles plagued the Japanese mainland.

It was really not until the nineteenth century, after the “opening” of Japan;opening ofJapan by the United States in 1853, that the Japanese began to be engaged in military conquest outside their national borders. After a treaty negotiation with the China;and Japan[Japan]Chinese in 1871 that granted extraterritoriality, Japan expanded its influence by engaging in a five-month war with neighboring Taiwan;and Japan[Japan]Taiwan over a dispute in the Ryukyu Islands that led to Japan’s attaining control over the complete archipelago. The expanding empire next turned toward neighboring Korea;and Japan[Japan]Korea, which was believed to be the “dagger” pointing at the heart of China. Diplomatic missions to Korea finally led to a complete breakdown in Japan’s relationship with China in 1894, resulting in the Sino-Japanese War, First (1894-1895)[Sino Japanese War, First]Sino-Japanese War. During the nine months of this conflict, Japanese troops expelled the Chinese army from Korea, defeated the north Chinese navy, captured Port Arthur and the Liaodong Peninsula in south Manchuria, and seized a port on the Shandong Peninsula. The ensuing Shimonoseki Treaty of 1895Treaty of Shimonoseki, signed in April of 1895, gave Japan Taiwan and the Pescadores, Port Arthur and the Liaodong Peninsula, an indemnity, and a promise by China to respect Korea’s autonomy.

These military and diplomatic achievements did not last, however, as Russia, backed by other Western powers, forced Japan to cede all of its mainland acquisitions back to Russia. By 1900, Japan had begun the drive toward greater power status by signing an alliance with Britain and going to war against Russia in 1904-1905. Russia’s holdings threatened Japanese interests in Korea, and when Russia refused to make concessions, Japan launched a surprise attack on Port Arthur. The Portsmouth Treaty of 1905Treaty of Portsmouth (1905), negotiated by the United States and President Theodore Roosevelt, gave Japan expanded power after the humiliating defeat of the Russian army and navy, which had sailed halfway around the world to engage the Japanese. Japan envisioned an empire that would bring prestige and power and would be a liberating force for what later ultranationalist Kita Ikki deemed a world of “Asia for Asians.”

Japanese warships take Port Arthur during the bloodiest and most controversial battle of the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895.

(North Wind Picture Archives via AP Images)

During World War I, Japan expanded both economically and diplomatically. By protecting sea lanes in the Pacific and mounting an offensive against the German-held Shandong Peninsula, Japan acquired a mandate over German-held islands in the region. Japan tried to impose its will on China through the Twenty-one Demands (1918)[Twenty one Demands]Twenty-one Demands by the end of 1918, and many concessions were offered to Japan at the Versailles peace conference.

Following World War I, Japan spent most of the 1920’s expanding its military influence while at the same time playing an active role in the development of the world’s economy. By 1930, the Japanese military had begun a full-scale plan to take over all of Manchuria, eventually setting up the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity SphereGreater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere on the eve of World War II.

Weapons, Uniforms, and Armor

Japanese military dress and weaponry in the pre-1868 period were highly personalized and unique for each of the individuals who served the shogun after 1614. SamuraiSamurai were the knights of medieval Japan, and even during the Tokugawa period until the Satsuma Rebellion in the late nineteenth century, the samurai enjoyed a special place in Japanese society and military culture. The samurai’s armor was strong and elaborate in its ornamentation. Individual Armor;Japaneseiron scales laced together were eventually replaced in the early seventeenth century by solid-plate technology. Dressing a samurai was an intricate ritual built into the code of Bushidō (Japanese warrior code)bushidō; the process involved twenty-two steps. The signature piece of equipment was the ornate Helmets;Japanesehelmet, which consisted of an iron mask surrounded by decoration made of wood and papier-mâché. Proud samurai wore helmets of fantastic shapes that included buffalo horns, seashells, and catfish tails. In many cases, samurai armor was passed down from generation to generation.

Young samurai rebels in training.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

Japanese weaponry of this period began with the Katana (Japanese sword)katana, or Swords;Japanese samurai sword, forged to perfection and razor sharp within a resilient body. The katana was mainly a two-handed sword, and a samurai would normally carry a pair into combat, one short and the other long. The samurai also carried a Yumi (bow) yumi, or Bows and arrows;Japanese bow, made from a deciduous wood faced with bamboo, and an extremely lethal Spears;Japanese spear called a Yari (spear) yari, which was an excellent weapon to use on horseback for stabbing opponents. As the samurai became less and less useful during the Great Peace, and their services dulled by lack of activity, masterless samurai, called Rōnin (masterless samurai)[ronin] rōnin, wandered from town to town looking for opportunity. Eventually, by the time of the Meiji Restoration, the emperor forbade the samurai to wear their weapons, thus altering a time-honored tradition that dated back to medieval Japan.

The era of reorganization under the Meiji brought a host of major changes to Japanese military tactics along with changes in armor and weaponry. With the adoption of the European style of raising citizen armies through conscription, traditional armor became obsolete. Adopting rifled muskets, cannon, and other forms of technology such as the machine gun, Japan set itself on the path toward military dominance in the Pacific. A new Navies;Japanesenavy made up of steel ships purchased from Britain also altered the course of Japan’s ability to dominate the region by allowing the nation to deploy troops with superior force.

After 1868, Uniforms;JapaneseJapanese troops began wearing navy-blue uniforms similar to those worn by the French army and American troops during the U.S. Civil War era. This changed to a lighter shade of green after 1911, and the army added a summer khaki uniform based on the British style as well. Because Japanese army and navy officers were not issued uniforms by their branches of the service until the 1930’s, commanding officers wore a wide variety of interpretations of military dress. High-ranking officials often wore sashes, called senninbari, that were fire red in color; these were believed to bring good luck and courage and to make the wearers immune to bullets. The Japanese military continued to incorporate elements of traditional warrior dress from the Tokugawa era until well after 1930.

Military Organization

The organization of Japanese armies from 1600 to 1930 evolved from an elite fighting corps of Samuraisamurai armies commanded by individual Daimyos (Japanese warlords)daimyos to a modern imperial army after 1868 based on the European style of warfare. The size of a daimyo’s army was determined by the assessed wealth of the daimyo’s rice fields; thus the largest property owners could muster the largest armies. Troops were known as samurai–those who serve–a reflection of the hierarchical system of obligation, at the apex of which was the shogun. The Ashigaru (Japanese foot soldiers)ashigaru were low-level infantrymen drawn from the samurai ranks. Traditionally, the samurai were the only troops mounted on horseback. After the last great Osaka Castle, Battle of (1615) battle at Osaka Castle in 1615, samurai as a military class were given land and titles under Tokugawa rule.

The Feudalism;Japanfeudal system of retainers and landowners lasted until the Meiji Restoration of 1868, when the military was reorganized into the Japanese Imperial Army. Copying the Western style of military organization based on the German model of promotion through the ranks, the Japanese system was directly related to the political reorganization of the government. Army and general staffs reported directly to the emperor Meiji himself, and the military had virtually no oversight by the Japanese parliament, known as the Diet. The emperor surrounded himself with a small group of military advisers and had veto power over military spending. This system, based on the Prussian system designed after German unification in 1871, allowed an elite class of military advisers to expand their power throughout Japan’s constitutional monarchy. Huge amounts of money were spent on military organization both before and after the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, much of the funding going to the foremost general of the period, Yamagata AritomoYamagata AritomoYamagata Aritomo. Yamagata cast a long shadow over the Japanese military during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Along the way, Japan produced an efficient military schooling system, a well-organized active and reserve force, a professional officer corps that thought in terms of regional threat, and well-trained soldiers armed with the most advanced weapons of the day.

Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics

In the period from 1600 to 1930, Japanese military strategy can be divided into two major eras. The first, from 1600 to 1868, mainly centered on the Samuraisamurai warrior class, the members of which were controlled by the Daimyos (Japanese warlords)daimyos, or local territorial lords. These armies used cavalry tactics and close formations on horseback led by the samurai; daimyos led these divisions. Dismounted cavalry would be used in siege situations, along with Ashigaru (Japanese foot soldiers)ashigaru (foot soldiers). Castle towns provided defense to local townspeople and to daimyos’ families; thus, during the struggle to inaugurate what became known as the Tokugawa era (Japan)Tokugawa era, Tokugawa Ieyasu needed to overrun Osaka Castle using artillery followed by a main assault using ground troops. Practicing ancient Bushidō (Japanese warrior code)bushidō discipline and tactical approaches to combat, samurai armies after the Battle of Osaka Castle concentrated mainly on land development as their feudal responsibilities centered primarily on peace.

A woodcut depicting a rōnin (masterless samurai).

(Library of Congress)

From 1868 to 1930, the Japanese military moved in a new direction in its uses of strategy and tactics. After the Meiji Restoration, Japanese modernizers traveled the globe and brought back to Japan the latest in military weapons and doctrine. The Choshu FiveChoshu Five, a small coterie of Japanese, laid the groundwork for what has been called “technological plagiarism on a truly heroic scale.” The Japanese government brought both French and German military advisers to Japan to set up military training posts and academies for the development of an officer corps. With the development and implementation of the Japanese Imperial ArmyJapanese Imperial Army, which served the newly restored emperor, Japan abolished all territorial land rights and installed mandatory military service in order to build a citizen army on the nineteenth century model. Using the German model of infantry tactics, the Japanese army grew quickly in both skill and maneuverability as it adopted new weapons such as the repeating rifle.

Contemporary Sources

All historical understanding of the Japanese samurai should begin with the seventeenth century text Hagakure (Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai, 1979). This history, written by a samurai who converted to Buddhism, chronicles the ethical path that all warriors must follow. The story of the Osaka Castle, Battle of (1615) 1615 Battle of Osaka Castle was reported by the first Japanese newspaper shortly after the battle, which also printed an image depicting the burning of the castle and the victory of Tokugawa Ieyasu. Probably the most significant document in regard to the Japanese military from the pre-Meiji era is political writer Honda ToshiakiHonda Toshiaki Honda Toshiaki’s 1798 work, "Secret Plan for Government, A" (Honda Toshiaki)[Secret Plan for Government] “A Secret Plan for Government,” in which Honda lays out a program aimed at Japan’s fulfilling four major needs: to learn the effective use of gunpowder, to develop metallurgy, to increase trade, and to colonize nearby islands and more distant lands. This program set the stage for Japan to embrace Western-style imperialism after 1868.

No understanding of the impact of the Meiji era would be complete without a reading from either Itō HirobumiItō Hirobumi[Ito Hirobumi]Itō Hirobumi or Fukuzawa YukichiFukuzawa YukichiFukuzawa Yukichi. The former’s influence on the Meiji Constitution (1889)Meiji Constitution (1889) is evident, and reading that document provides a glimpse into the source of the Japanese military’s power. Fukuzawa urged Japan to embrace Westernization and to take a hard-line approach to foreign affairs. His work led to the publishing of an 1885 editorial titled “Escape from Asia,” which became an anthem for the Japanese “national essence” after 1900. Finally, Lieutenant Tadayoshi SakuraiTadayoshi SakuraiTadayoshi Sakurai, a low-grade officer, wrote a fascinating account of a military engagement during the Russo-Japanese War titled “Attack upon Port Arthur, 1905”; this work gives the reader some understanding of the honor culture in the Japanese military during the imperial era.Japan;modern

Books and Articles
  • Beasely, W. G. Japanese Imperialism, 1894-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
  • Drea, Edward. Japan’s Imperial Army: Its Rise and Fall, 1853-1945. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2009.
  • Ebrey, Patricia Buckley, Anne Walthall, and James B. Palais. East Asia: A Cultural, Social, and Political History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.
  • Gordon, Andrew. A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Jansen, Marius B. The Making of Modern Japan. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000.
  • Myers, Ramon, ed. The Japanese Colonial Empire, 1895-1945. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987.
  • Paine, S. C. M. The Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895: Perceptions, Power, and Primacy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  • Turnbull, Stephen. Osaka 1615: The Last Battle of the Samurai. New York: Osprey, 2006.
Films and Other Media
  • Japan: Memoirs of a Secret Empire. Documentary. Public Broadcasting Service/Paramount, 2004.
  • The Last Samurai. Feature film. Warner Bros., 2003.
  • Letters from Iwo Jima. Feature film. Malpaso/Amblin, 2006.
  • Nova: Secrets of the Samurai Sword. Documentary. Public Broadcasting Service/WGBH, 2008.
  • The Seven Samurai. Feature film. Toho, 1954.
  • Shogun. Feature film. Paramount Pictures, 1980.

Japan: Medieval

World War II: Japan

Colonial Warfare

The Ottoman Empire

The Mughal Empire

African Warfare

Iran

China: The Qing Empire

Imperial Warfare

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