Western Imperialism and its Effects on the Japanese Military During the Nineteenth Century

Tylar Orion Davidson for History 110 with Dr. Harney

The nineteenth century was the age of imperialism. Western powers spread their influence across the globe, and their ideologies and industrial might began influencing the nations that they sought to fold into their empire. The British had ventured into India early in the century and by the middle of the nineteenth century, the British had consolidated control over the entire subcontinent, and other European countries were beginning to expand into the farthest reaches of the globe. However, some nations were able to evade the grasp of western imperialism, such as Japan. Japan was able to fully benefit from western modernization without any direct western influence. As soon as Japan began to build any industrial capacity, Japan began building up a modern military that was based upon western countries such as Britain and Germany. The Japanese military was able to modernize so quickly that it was able to take on Russia, a major western power, within thirty years of their first modern military reforms, which came as a result of the Japanese industrial focus on military technology, which turned the country into a formidable world power by the end of the nineteenth century.
The Japanese military prior to the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate was based on clans of samurai that served the shogun with undying loyalty. The arrival of the Americans in 1853, with their cannons, modern rifles, and steamships showed the Japanese that they were vastly behind in terms of technology, and they began a rapid policy of industrialization in an effort to fend off western influence. The Japanese industrial model of the late nineteenth century was based around the construction of a powerful military in an effort to exert Japanese imperialist control over the rest of Asia. The Japanese military was fully modernized by 1877, when it put down the revolt of Saigo Takamori, the famed “Last Samurai.” The defeat of Saigo and his samurai forces signaled the end of the samurai as a warrior class in Japan, and the new Imperial army went on to continue to achieve a string of victories across Asia. The first Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) was3 the first defeat of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) of China by a modern, Asian power. The Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) followed a decade later, and solidified Japan as a modern power and signaled the end of Russian dominance over Asia. The Japanese were able to build a western style military with the aid of western industrial and military influences, which helped to catapult the Japanese into the modern age, but the complications of a modern military state were brought into question by Japanese political thinkers of the time, but the militarist attitude eventually prevailed, and Japan became a modern military power that could contend with European powers in building an empire of their own.
Prior to the American mission to Japan in 1853, the islands of Japan were ruled by a Shogun from the Tokugawa family, who had ruled over Japan since the beginning of the seventeenth century, when the patriarch, Ieyasu, defeated his rivals at the battle of Sekigahara, signaling the end of the Sengoku-Jidai. The samurai made up the ruling class, and their existence stretched back centuries before the founding of the Tokugawa Shogunate. However, over the course of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the samurai began to decline in status due to a stagnating rice economy that was worsened by the multiple famines that had wreaked havoc along the countryside. This created an increased number of peasant protests, and the stagnating economy gradually caused the commoners to lose faith in the governing abilities of the samurai and had created a Japan that was perfect for western intervention and massive social changes.
Commodore Matthew Perry had arrived in the bay surrounding Edo [Tokyo] in the later months of 1853, and he came with the intentions of opening Japan to western trade, and western influence by proxy. The demands of the United states were as follows, “(1) the two countries should trade for mutual benefit; (2) shipwrecked sailors should be treated kindly; (3) American4 ships should be allowed to stop in Japan for supplies of coal and provisions.”1 These demands were made from an American force who came to Japan in massive steam ships laden with cannon, ships that were so awe-inspiring to the Japanese that many Japanese believed that “the barbarians had harnessed volcanoes,”2 in reference to the massive smoke clouds that were produced by the American steamships. The technological inferiority of the Japanese at this time is highlighted by the following quote from the journals of Commodore Perry, in which he observes that “They were armed with muskets upon which bayonets and flint-locks were observed. The guards on the left were dressed in a rather dingy, brown-colored uniform turned up with yellow, and carried old-fashioned matchlocks.”3 The technological inferiority of the Japanese played a large part in the Shogun’s decision to open Japan to trade with the Americans, in what became known as the Treaty of Kanagawa, which was signed in 1854 upon Perry’s return to Japan to see that his demands were met. The treaty stated that “Coal and other supplies would be available only at Nagasaki… and the appointment of an American consul who could negotiate a commercial treaty.”4 These negotiations were prodded on by a fear of an American attack, on which the chief delegate Hayashi stated that “Perry said that…if his proposals were rejected he was prepared to make war at once; that he would have 50 ships in nearby waters and 50 more in California.”5 This fear of attack once again highlighted the technological inferiority of the Japanese in the face of the Americans, and led the Japanese to sign the Treaty of Kanagawa, which in turn led Japan to be subject to more foreign influence, as more western nations sought treaties with the country.

1 Hugh Borton. Japan’s Modern Century. (New York: The Ronald Press Company). 31.
2 Borton. Japan’s Modern Century. 27.
3 Matthew Perry. When We Landed in Japan.
4 Borton. Japan’s Modern Century. 36.
5 Borton. Japan’s Modern Century. 36.5

After the Treaty of Kanagawa was signed in 1854, Japan was open to a large amount of foreign interest and investment, and these first investments in the Japanese economy occurred in the industrial sector. Japan’s main danger that occurred in this time was “a danger not so much of military invasion as one of a more insidious penetration of foreign capital.”6 This fear was exacerbated by the events that were occurring in China, where the Qing government had accumulated so much foreign debt that the western nations were essentially able to force the hand of the Qing to do their bidding. Due to this fear in Japan “they [the Japanese] resisted the temptation to seek heavy foreign loans which might well have compromised the nation’s financial independence.”7 The low amount of Japanese debt to foreign nations allowed the Japanese to maintain this financial independence and allowed the nation to direct all of its capital away from the appeasement of the foreign powers, to a focus on Japanese industry with an intense focus on the military. When the Japanese began their process of industrialization, the primary focus of this industrialization was on strengthening the Japanese military so it may protect the sovereignty of the nation and expand their borders along a model of the western powers. E. Herbert Norman states that “in the classical type of capitalist development the starting point is the production of consumer goods…only when the light industries are nearing maturity does the production of capital goods occur.”8 When industrialization occurred in Britain, the first industry to become fully industrialized was the textile industry. Industrialization of the military occurred later in Britain, but this was the opposite of what occurred in Japan. Norman then states, on the subject of Japanese industrialization that, “this normal order of transition from light to heavy industry

6 E. Herbert Norman. Japan’s Emergence as a Modern State: Political and Economic Problems of the Meiji Period. (New York: Institute of Pacific Relations). 114.
7 Norman. Japan’s Emergence as a Modern State. 115
8 Norman. Japan’s Emergence as a Modern State. 125.6

was reversed in Japan.”9 The Japanese industry was heavily militarized before the Meiji restoration in 1868, on which Norman states that “before…1866…engineering works and arsenals had been established…engineering works were established…in 1856 for military and naval purposes in southern Japan.”10 The opening of Japan by Matthew Perry in 1853 had no effect on the formation of a military industry in Japan, however, it was the kickstarting force that allowed the Japanese military to technologically advance at such a rapid pace. Norman states that “the strategic military industries were favored by the government, and technologically they were soon on a level with the most advanced western countries.”11 The Japanese never had any intention of maintaining a large foreign presence within their country, which is reflected in the schooling of their industrial leaders, where “the best students were sent abroad to master the most up-to-date technique, to replace foreign advisers on their return.”12 This mastery of western techniques allowed the Japanese to advance relatively quickly in terms of technology, and the Japanese industrial sector benefited greatly from the Meiji policy “to bring under government control the arsenals, foundries, shipyards, and mines,”13 and it was this centralized control that allowed the Japanese to focus their industry on military aspects so they could modernize quickly and compete with western nations.
The Japanese focus on military technology was seen by the Japanese diplomats as a matter of maintaining the modern Japanese state. Omura Masajiro, the head of the war department, stated that the “initial task was to first prepare against civil disturbances, later, to

9 Norman. Japan’s Emergence as a Modern State. 126.
10 Norman. Japan’s Emergence as a Modern State. 126.
11 Norman. Japan’s Emergence as a Modern State. 126.
12 Norman. Japan’s Emergence as a Modern State. 127.
13 Norman. Japan’s Emergence as a Modern State. 127.7

prepare against foreign invasion.”14 The creation of a modern Japanese military was viewed by many early Japanese politicians as a necessity to maintain social order and to protect the nation. Omura had hoped for an imperial army that he expected the “commoners to constitute the main body of troops, and the samurai class to constitute the officer corps.”15 However, these plans were not put into place by the Imperial throne, because of “the ability of the new government to assert its political authority throughout the country and to dissolve the han-samurai armies .”16 The failure to adopt the military hopes of Omura was one of the final death blows of the samurai class, for they had been denied an exclusive role as military leaders. The creation of an Imperial army in which anyone could become a leader further shattered the samurai, for an “officer corps geared to ‘men of talent’ would deny the premise of samurai military leadership,”17 a leadership that the samurai had experienced for centuries prior. This blow would solidify the Japanese aims to modernize the army along western models, for it would exclude the samurai from any exclusive capacity as military leaders, and also allowed the Japanese military to be released from the grasp of its samurai-dominated past, in favor of a modern future spearheaded by a modern government and a modern army.
The first step that the Japanese government took in modernizing their military was the introduction of laws of conscription, which allowed the Japanese to field a military force large enough to compete with western powers, and to provide for civil control. The Japanese military began as a militia force that was responsible for maintaining order in the capital, and two aspects of the militia were that “it would produce after three years a standing army of 31,680 men and

14 James Crowley. “Formation of the Meiji Military Establishment” in Imperial Japan: 1800-1945. (New York: Random House Inc.). 166.
15 Crowley. “Formation of the Meiji Military Establishment”. 166.
16 Crowley. “Formation of the Meiji Military Establishment”. 167.
17 Crowley. “Formation of the Meiji Military Establishment”. 168.8

after six years an immediate mobilization potential of 46,350 men.”18 The policy of the conscription of a large, professional force of troops was an inherently western influenced idea, for the bureaucratic needs of conscription were far greater than what a pre-modern Japanese state could have accomplished. However, this militia that was created was “merely a skeleton without flesh and blood and would have been helpless without modern industries and a transportation system.”19 The Japanese military, in its early stages, was not plagued by a lack of manpower due to the conscription laws that were in pace, but the military did create a need for the rapid industrialization of the country, and this industrialization would not have been made possible without the opening of Japan in 1853, and the vast military needs that Japan had.
After the issue of manpower was solved, the Japanese government was able to set out with the processes of turning Japan into a true modern state. These efforts began largely in 1878, when “Yamagata carried out a reorganization of army administration on German lines, including the creation of a General staff.”20 The German military at this time was fresh off a victory over the French in 1871, and the Austrians and Danes in the years prior to that, and they had asserted themselves as the dominant land based military power in continental Europe, therefore it was only sensible that the Japanese organized their militaries along the lines of the German model, for it was proven to be the best in recent years. Further specialization along the lines of the German army continued with the “opening of a Staff College”21 This allowed the commanding officers of the Japanese military to be well versed in modern military tactics, which allowed the Japanese army to be well trained and prepared in ways that were comparable to those of western armies. The addition of the staff college was similar to the Prussian cadet school, which was

18 Crowley. “Formation of the Meiji Military Establishment”. 169.
19 Norman. Japan’s Emergence as a Modern State. 118.
20 W.G. Beasley. The Modern History of Japan. (New York: Praeger Publishers). 136.
21 Beasley. The Modern History of Japan. 136.9

established in the early eighteenth century to provide modern and effective training to the officers of the Prussian, and later German armies. Other innovations from western powers include the “greater specialization of function (infantry, artillery, engineers, and supply); and a sharp rise in the army budget.”22 The specialization of the Japanese military allowed for more effective training, which allowed the Imperial army to fight more effectively in the engagements that it found itself in during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The industrial capacity of the Japanese islands also allowed “the whole force [of the army] being equipped by 1894 with modern rifles and artillery, mostly of Japanese manufacture.”23 This allowed the army of Japan to be entirely self sufficient in terms of armament, meaning that any potential conflict could be supported entirely by the Japanese government itself, and not with the help of a western power.
The Japanese army was not the only aspect of the military that was modernized, for the navy was also heavily modernized as well. The modernization of the navy began in 1872, when the “newly formed Navy Ministry possessed seventeen ships.”24 The tonnage of the Japanese navy was being constantly expanded, so much so that “at the outbreak of the war with China in 1894, the fleet included twenty-eight modern ships, aggregating 57,000 tons.”25 This increase in tonnage placed the Japanese navy near the top of all naval power across the world, all of which occurred within twenty years. What is still more impressive is that by the outbreak of the First Sino-Japanese war in 1894, the Japanese navy had “dockyard facilities [that] by that time were time sufficient for full repairs and maintenance, while training was thoroughly up-to-date.”26 This capacity of the Japanese navy to be able to provide full service to their warships was a

22 Beasley. The Modern History of Japan. 137.
23 Beasley. The Modern History of Japan. 136
24 Beasley. The Modern History of Japan. 137.
25 Beasley. The Modern History of Japan. 137.
26 Beasley. The Modern History of Japan. 137.10

massive advantage that they held over their other Asian counterparts, and was a major factor in the successes of their navy in their first conflicts.
The technological needs of the Japanese military facilitated a need for Japan to rapidly industrialize, and it seemed that the Japanese government was going in a direction that benefitted the military alone, which lead to debates in the Japanese government on the military and civil aspects of the government. The development of a military faction was evident from the start of the modernization of the Japanese military, on which a Japanese politician wrote that “Even before the war with China, something very near to the militarist spirit had become adherent in administrative circles.”27 The development of these military factions was not anything that was shocking to the Japanese politicians of the era, because many of the new political leaders of Japan were former samurai, who were a militaristic class by nature, and by the fact that the industry of Japan had been devoted to the modernization of the military since its beginning. The same Japanese diplomat went on to state that “the leading exponents of this militarist policy were, of course, to be found among naval and military officers, but their views were shared by Japanese statesmen who had taken a prominent part in military reforms.”28 The infiltration of the military into the government was a vital factor that led to the increase in Japanese military spending and a governmental policy of expansion, which was similar to the policies that were expressed by western nations. The militaristic views were not always shared by the whole government. Between 1871 and 1873 “great pressure was brought to bear upon the government by a group favoring a campaign against Korea.”29 The Japanese military at this time had only just begun its attempts at modernization, therefore any military action in Korea would have been

27 Norman. Japan’s Emergence as a Modern States. 202.
28 Norman. Japan’s Emergence as a Modern State. 202.
29 Norman. Japan’s Emergence as a Modern State. 201.11

detrimental for the army and the reputation of Japan, so it was abandoned altogether, much to the dismay of former samurai such as Saigo Takamori. This opposition was reversed after the military had become fully modernized following the military reforms, in which Norman states that: “The turn towards a policy of expansion was not initiated by a handful of hotspurs who dragged a reluctant government after them, but by the most farsighted statesmen of the day, notably Ito, who twenty years previously had stood in opposition to the advocates of the Korean expedition.”30
This change in policy was made possible by the Japanese military’s ability to combat internal conflicts, and the superior military training that they had. This training would be put to the test very soon, in destroying the rebellion of Saigo Takamori, and the Russo-Japanese War. The rebellion of Saigo Takamori was the first test that the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy had in terms of testing their western military tactics and training against the samurai.
The rebellion began when “Saigo’s private army seized an arsenal located at Kagoshima.”31 Saigo then marched on Tokyo, after which the government branded him as a rebel. The government then “intercepted him in [the] neighboring Higo with an equal force of imperial regulars (led by the same prince…who commanded the…troops in the…campaign against the Shogun).”32 The government won a string of victories, due to the number of Imperial troops and their superior training. The rebellion continued for six months, when “Kagoshima was seized by a naval force under Ito.”33 This signaled the end of the rebellion, and peace was brought to Japan. This defeat of the forces of Saigo Takamori signified the end of the samurai, for the modern, western-style Japanese military was able to defeat the forces of the samurai. The final act of Saigo is also

30 Norman. Japan’s Emergence as a Modern State. 202.
31 Michael Montgomery. Imperialist Japan: The Yen to Dominate. (New York: St. Martin’s Press). 95.
32 Montgomery. Imperialist Japan. 95.
33 Montgomery. Imperialist Japan. 95.12

symbolic of the end of the samurai, for he “ordered one of his lieutenants to cut off his head and bury it to prevent it from falling into the hands of the enemy.”34 This was the final act that solidified the death of the samurai as a military class, and allowed the Imperial Japanese Army to take control.
The Imperial military of Japan faced its first combat against a western power during the Russo-Japanese War, which broke out over Russian encroachment upon the Korean Peninsula for the purposes of building a railroad. One major engagement of the war was the battle of Port Arthur (1904). Port Arthur was a major port for the Russian navy, and it was extremely important that the Japanese military captured it. The carnage of this battle was described by Lieutenant Tadayoshi Sakurai, in which he states that “Bayonets clashed against bayonets; the enemy brought out machine-guns and poured shot upon us pell-mell; the men on both sides fell like grass. But I cannot give you a detailed account of the scene, because I was then in a dazed condition. I only remember that I was brandishing my sword in fury.”35 The modern training of the Japanese military was put to the test when they fought the Russians, and the Japanese, who had better training, generals, and more manpower, were victorious in the battle, and the entire war. With the war over, and the Japanese victorious, “Russia’s military in the far east had been shattered.”36 The defeat of the Russians in the east meant that the Japanese were now the main imperial force located in the far east.
The opening of Japan in 1853 allowed for the influx of western influence and investment into Japan, and it was these factors that allowed the Japanese to focus their industrial developments on the building of a strong military. When foreign investments first occurred in

34 Montgomery. Imperialist Japan. 95.
35 Tadayoshi Sakurai. The Attack on Port Arthur: 1905.
36 Borton. Japan’s Modern Century. 240.13

Japan, the government made sure to limit the amount of foreign loans, to preserve the economic independence of the nation, and all early Japanese industry was placed firmly under the control of the government for the purpose of military expansion. This strong military industry allowed Japan to modernize at a very fast rate, which led to advancement in other industrial sectors, after the military industries had been firmly established. Once a strong military industry had been established, the Japanese were able to ask for military advisors from other nations to improve the training of these men, so they could better use their new military technology. These military advisors, who were primarily from Germany, led the Japanese to establish a Staff College, which was operated in a similar fashion to the Prussian Cadet academy, and it allowed for further specialization of the Japanese military. The growing militarism in Japan led many leading Japanese diplomats to fear that Japan was turning into a martial state, but these opponents of militarization were soon put aside due to the uprising led by Saigo Takamori in 1877. This uprising was swiftly put down by the new Imperial Japanese Army and led to the death of the samurai class that had ruled over Japan for centuries. After the defeat of Saigo Takamori, Japan turned its sights upon creating an empire, with territories being gained in Taiwan and Korea after the defeat of the Qing Dynasty in the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895. Ten years after the Sino Japanese War, the Japanese defeated the Russians in two decisive victories at Tsushima and Port Arthur, and those battles solidified Japan’s place as the dominate power in Asia. The Japanese industrial might of this period was made possible by the rapid industrialization of Japan along the lines of a western country, and the adoption of a western style military.

Word Count: 358614

Beasley, W.G. The Modern History of Japan. New York: Praeger Publishers., 1974.
Borton, Hugh. Japan’s Modern History. New York: The Ronald Press Company., 1955.
Crowley, James. “Formation of the Meiji Military Establishment” in Imperial Japan:1800-1945, Edited by Jon Livingston, Joe Moore, and Felicia Oldfather. New York: Random House Inc., 1973.
Montgomery, Michael. Imperialist Japan: The Yen to Dominate. New York: St. Martin’s Press., 1987.
Norman, E. Herbert. Japan’s Emergence as a Modern State: Political and Economic Problems of the Meiji Period. New York: The International Secretariat of the Institute of Pacific Relations., 1940.
Perry, Matthew. When We Landed in Japan in The World’s Story: A History of the World in Story, Song and Art, Edited by Eva March Tappan. Boston: Houghton Mifflin., 1914.
Tadayoshi Sakurai. “The Attack on Port Arthur” in The World’s Story: A History of the World in Story, Song and Art, Edited by Eva March Tappan. Boston: Houghton Mifflin., 1914.

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