Summary of the article to come:
The later stages of the Tokogawa shogunate were times of economic constraint and popular unrest; they also saw a growing awareness amongst some Japanese thinkers that the country needed to open up to the outside world. Then, in 1853 and 1854, an American naval squadron under Commodore Perry visited Japan, and with a show of force brought home the realization that the world had left Japan behind.
The next years saw a civil war that brought an end to the shogunate and returned power to the emperor (or at least the officials around him). This event was known as the “Meiji Restoration”.
The Meiji regime set about the radical modernization of Japan’s society, economy and government. It was aimed at turning Japan into a modern, industrial power on the lines of the leading European nations. In these aimed the regime succeeded to an astonishing extent. By the 1890s the country was participating alongside Western countries in imperial adventures, first bringing Korea under its control and then Manchuria, the northernmost province of China, as well. This phase culminated in the dramatic victory of the Japanese navy over the Russian (Russo-Japanese War, 1904-5).
As an ally of the British and French, Japan benefited from the First World War by taking over the Pacific colonies which had belonged to Germany.
In the years after the war the Japanese government fell increasingly under the influence of the military. The worldwide economic depression of the 1930s hit Japan hard, and the government became increasingly receptive to the idea that Japan needed to conquer large territories in east and South east Asia in order to secure its own economic interests. Naturally, other countries with an interest in the Pacific, particularly the United States, did not see things the same way. The Japanese invasion of China in 1937 prompted the Americans to view Japan’s ambitions with increased suspicion, and used its diplomatic muscle to place constants on Japan’s foreign policy. In response the Japanese military developed a plan to eliminate US naval power in the Pacific and so bring that country to negotiate what they saw as a more reasonable approach to their predicament.
The involvement of the European imperial powers in the Second World gave the Japanese their opportunity. In December 1941 a Japanese task force suddenly attacked Pearl harbor, the main US naval base in the Pacific, sinking most of the big ships (but crucially not the aircraft carriers, which were not present at the time). Through an administrative slip-up, this attack took place hours before Japan declared war on the USA. The US government was therefore able to present the action as an unprovoked attack carried out while the two countries were at peace with each other. The infuriated American people supported their country’s entry into the Second World War.
At exactly the same time as the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces were attacking southward. At the end of 1941 and during the first months of 1942 Hong Kong (British), the Philippines (USA), Malaya (British – including the main in British naval base of Singapore), the Dutch East Indies, Borneo and New Guinea, all fell one after another to Japanese invaders. By May 1942 they were threatening Australia.
The Americans then began their fight-back, with two naval victories over the Japanese navy at the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway. They then established themselves on the small island of Guadalcanal, at the easternmost point of Japanese advance, and clung on grimly while the Japanese launched attack after attack in an attempt to dislodge them.
Eventually superior American numbers and materiel, provided by the magnificent American industrial machine, began to tell. Fighting their way from island to island across the Pacific, they forced the Japanese to cede more and more control, until American planes were within reach of the Japanese homeland. They unleashed a terrible bombing campaign on the Japanese cities, culminating in the two Atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (August 1945).
After the war Japan was occupied by Allied forces until 1952. After that Japan became again a sovereign nation, with a fully democratic constitution. This period saw the start of the astonishing “Japanese economic miracle” which turned the country into the second largest economy in the world after the USA in the 1980s.