Why Did Japan End Its Isolation and Modernize in the 19th Century?

The best answer to any question.
Dec. 31 2013 10:18 AM

Why Did Japan End Its Isolation and Modernize in the 19th Century?

This question originally appeared on Quora.

Answer by Makiko Itoh, 海外組:

Advertisement

Well, they were basically forced to. Or rather they did not see much choice in the matter. However, there was still strong opposition to doing so, which led to a brief civil war and a total change of government.

Japan was not totally unaware of advances in Western technology, since they had ongoing contact with the Dutch even during their period of isolation. But when the black ships (what foreign vessels were called) showed up on their shores, especially U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry's fleet in 1853, to ask (or demand) that Japan open its ports to trade and restocking of ships from other countries, it was a huge shock to many people just how advanced the technology was, especially in shipbuilding and weaponry.

This is a contemporary document illustrating Perry's fleet.

1388419350
A Japanese print relating U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry's visit in 1854.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The government in power, the Tokugawa shogunate, was still opposed to opening up the country. They were eventually overthrown (although a lot of bloodshed was avoided when the last shogun resigned voluntarily), and the Meiji government took over.

One factor in the decision to very rapidly Westernize the nation, in terms of technology and in things like clothing and eating habits, was to try to convince the Western powers that the Japanese were their equals. They were very much afraid of ending up like China, dominated and divided among various Western colonial powers. So they urged the citizenry to adopt Western mannerisms and even morality as quickly as possible, as a kind of civic duty.

I have answers addressing this period in Japanese history in more detail.

Incidentally, the current NHK historical drama Yae no Sakura is about this period, if you can catch it somewhere. It's pretty good.

More questions on History of Japan:

TODAY IN SLATE

History

The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Television

See Me

Transparent is the fall’s only great new show.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

  News & Politics
Damned Spot
Sept. 30 2014 9:00 AM Now Stare. Don’t Stop. The perfect political wife’s loving gaze in campaign ads.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 30 2014 11:25 AM Naomi Klein Is Wrong Multinational corporations are doing more than governments to halt climate change.
  Life
The Vault
Sept. 30 2014 11:51 AM Thomas Jefferson's 1769 Newspaper Ad Seeking a Fugitive Slave 
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 30 2014 11:42 AM Listen to Our September Music Roundup Hot tracks from a cooler month, exclusively for Slate Plus members.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 11:38 AM Tim & Eric Brought Their Twisted Minds—and Jeff Goldblum—to This Bizarre Light Bulb Ad
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:36 AM Almost Humane What sci-fi can teach us about our treatment of prisoners of war.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath the Methane Lakes of Titan?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.