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During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Japan succeeded in keeping European influences away from its shores. It consequently built a highly ethnocentric, self-involved society that didn’t even allow its own citizens to travel abroad. But by the nineteenth century and the Industrial Revolution, the Europeans and the United States became so powerful and so crazed for markets that Japan found it hard to keep the westerners at bay. In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry from the United States (not the one from Friends) arrived in Japan on a steamboat, something the Japanese had never seen before, and essentially shocked the Japanese, who quickly realized that their isolation had resulted in their inability to compete economically and militarily with the industrialized world.

For a time, the West won concessions from Japan through various treaties such as the Treaty of Kanagawa (1854). These treaties grossly favored the United States and other countries. As in China, the nationalists grew resentful, but unlike the Chinese, the Japanese were organized. Through the leadership of the samurai, they revolted against the shogun who had ratified these treaties, and restored Emperor Meiji to power.

The Meiji Restoration: Shogun Out, Emperor In, Westerners Out

The Meiji Restoration ushered in an era of Japanese westernization, after which Japan emerged as a world power. By the 1870s, Japan was building railways and steamships. By 1876, the samurai warrior class as an institution had been abolished, and universal military service among all males was established.

The relative isolation of Japan during the Tokugawa and the deliberate attempt to westernize while strengthening Japanese imperial traditions during the Meiji led to a period of increased cultural creativity with rituals aimed at developing national identity. Much of this new identity was centered on military pageantry that celebrated Japanese victories over China and Russia in the early twentieth century.

In the 1890s, Japanese industrial and military power really started to roll. It was now powerful enough to substantially reduce European and U.S. influence. It maintained trade, but on equal footing with western powers. Japan went through an incredibly quick Industrial Revolution. In 1895, Japan defeated China in a war for control of Korea and Taiwan. Japan was now an imperial power itself. Later, after the Russo-Japanese War of 1904, the victorious Japanese kicked Russia out of Manchuria and established its own sphere of influence there. Japan was now not just an imperial power but a world power.

Compare Them: The Industrial Revolution in Europe and in Japan

The industrialization of Europe and Japan followed very similar paths, but Japan’s was on fast forward. It managed to accomplish in a few decades what had taken Europe more than a century, in large part because it didn’t have to invent everything itself—it just needed to implement the advances of Western industrialization. Still, the pattern was remarkably similar. Private corporations rose up, industrialists like the Mitsubishi family became wealthy, factories were built, urbanization increased dramatically, and reform was instituted. Japan learned from the Europeans quite well. If you can’t beat an industrialized power, become one yourself.

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