The Westernization of Japan During the Meiji Era

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  • 0:07 Westernization of Japan
  • 0:37 Background
  • 2:27 Perry Expedition
  • 4:45 Meiji Reform
  • 6:11 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the opening of Japan to Western trade by Commodore Matthew Perry in the mid-18th century. We'll then look at the ensuing westernization of the country in the Meiji period.

Westernization of Japan

Change is never easy. Whether it is moving to a new school, meeting a new group of friends, or simply trying a new recipe for dinner, change can be a scary and uncertain thing. In fact, the Japanese rulers of the Early Modern period were so afraid of change and foreign influence that they refused to allow foreigners to even land on the islands for nearly 250 years! Perhaps even more surprising is the enthusiasm with which Japan changed after contact with the West was resumed in the 19th century.


Prior to the beginning of Tokugawa shogunate in 1603, Japan had traded widely with China and other regional powers in East Asia. Indeed, Japan had maintained tenuous trading relations with a few European powers after the West's discovery of Japan in 1542 when a Portuguese ship bound for China was blown off course.

As the Tokugawas consolidated their power over the islands, they became increasingly suspicious of foreigners, especially those Westerners who had successful trading relations with the previous regime. In the first decades of the shogunate, the Japanese rulers banned foreign trade and prohibited the spread of Christianity. Finally, in 1639, they banned foreigners from the Japanese mainland entirely, only allowing some heavily restricted trade with Chinese and Dutch merchants on outlying islands who had no record of Christian evangelization. In 1641, this strict isolationist policy was officially implemented and Japanese subjects were barred from leaving the islands altogether.

This policy remained in effect in Japan for over two centuries. The system was sternly enforced until the power of the shogunate waned due to financial problems arising from the decay of the Japanese feudal system. A series of famines, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions in the early 19th century caused revenues for the ruling samurai classes to fall, and they attempted to recoup these losses through increased taxation. The taxation fell upon the poorer parts of society who could least afford to pay, and popular riots swept across the islands.

Additional pressure to the system was brought by those same foreign powers that had been shut out of Japan two centuries earlier. In the 17th century, Russia tried unsuccessfully to force Japan to open up to foreign trade, and similar expeditions were made by Western European nations in the early 18th century.

Perry Expedition

It was not until the United States sent a war fleet to Japan under Commodore Mathew Perry that Japan was forced to open up its ports to foreign traders. Perry's four ships anchored in Tokyo Bay within sight of the Japanese capital. The new steam ships, billowing with smoke, amazed the Japanese, who, because of their stern isolationism, had yet to have contact with Western industrialization.

The display was intended to be dramatic - Perry believed that only a show of force would compel the Japanese to open up to foreign trade. After giving the Japanese leaders a series of gifts, Perry left Tokyo Bay, informing the leaders he would return the following year expecting a decision from the Japanese rulers as to whether they would begin trading with the West.

The United States was interested in opening Japan to foreign trade for several reasons. With the annexation of California, the U.S. now possessed a huge swath of land on the Pacific coast, and therefore, became more interested in Pacific trade. Additionally, the recent opening of China to foreign trade meant U.S. ships needed friendly ports from which to refuel on the long Pacific voyage - Japan was seen as a natural rest stop. Finally, Perry's steam ships represented perhaps the U.S.'s greatest interest in the opening of Japan: the acquisition of resources. Indeed, steam ships required large quantities of coal to continue running, and Japan was long-thought to be rich in the resource.

In the year after Perry's ominous visit, debate about how to respond raged across Japan. In the end, the Tokugawa shogunate caved to Western demands, and in 1854, signed a treaty with the United States agreeing to open up two ports to foreign trade. In 1858, the two countries signed an additional treaty, opening up trade in even more cities across the Japanese coast and even allowing foreigners to reside in a few select Japanese cities.

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