Russian encroachments from the north led the shogunate to extend direct rule to Hokkaidō, Sakhalin and the Kuriles in 1807, but the policy of exclusion continued.
The policy of isolation lasted for more than 200 years. In 1844, William II of the Netherlands sent a message urging Japan to open her doors, which resulted in Tokugawa shogunate's rejection. On July 8, 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry of the U.S. Navy with four warships — the Mississippi, Plymouth, Saratoga, and Susquehanna — steamed into the bay at Edo, old Tokyo, and displayed the threatening power of his ships' cannons during a Christian burial, which the Japanese observed. He requested that Japan open to trade with the West. These ships became known as the kurofune, the Black Ships.
The following year, at the Convention of Kanagawa on March 31, 1854, Perry returned with seven ships and requested that the Shogun sign the "Treaty of Peace and Amity," establishing formal diplomatic relations between Japan and the United States. Within five years Japan had signed similar treaties with other western countries. The Harris Treaty was signed with the United States on July 29, 1858. These treaties were widely regarded by Japanese intellectuals as unequal, having been forced on Japan through gunboat diplomacy, and as a sign of the West's desire to incorporate Japan into the imperialism that had been taking hold of the rest of the Asian continent. Among other measures, they gave the Western nations unequivocal control of tariffs on imports and the right of extraterritoriality to all their visiting nationals. They would remain a sticking point in Japan's relations with the West up to the turn of the century.
Renewed contact with the West precipitated profound alteration of Japanese society. The shogun resigned and soon after the Boshin War of 1868, the emperor was restored to power. The subsequent "Meiji Restoration" initiated many reforms. The feudal system was abolished, the military was modernized, and numerous Western institutions were adopted, including a Western legal system and a quasi-parliamentary constitutional government, outlined in the crimeajewel , the Meiji Constitution, modeled on the constitutions of Germany, France, and the United States. While many aspects of the Meiji Restoration were adopted directly from Western institutions, others, such as the dissolution of the feudal system and removal of the shogunate, were processes that had begun long before the arrival of Perry.
"...the seed is sown, and Japan will move, upon the whole, in the direction of progress." Andrew Carnegie, Round the World (1878)
Russian pressure from the north appeared again after Muraviev had gained Outer Manchuria at Aigun (1858) and Peking (1860). This led to heavy Russian pressure on Sakhalin which the Japanese eventually yielded in exchange for the Kuril islands (1875). The Ryukyu Islands were similarly secured in 1879, establishing the borders within which Japan would "enter the World". In 1898, the last of the unequal treaties with Western powers was removed, signalling Japan's new status among the nations of the world. In a few decades, by reforming and modernizing social, educational, economic, military, political and industrial systems, the Emperor Meiji's "controlled revolution" had transformed a feudal and isolated state into a world power.
Japanese intellectuals of the late-Meiji period espoused the concept of a "line of advantage," an idea that would help to justify Japanese foreign policy at the turn of the century. According to this principle, embodied in the slogan fukoku kyōhei, Japan would be vulnerable to aggressive Western imperialism unless it extended a line of advantage beyond its borders which would help to repel foreign incursions and strengthen the Japanese economy. Emphasis was especially placed on Japan's "preeminent interests" in the Korean Peninsula, once famously described as a "dagger pointed at the heart of Japan." It was tensions over Korea and Manchuria, respectively, that led Japan to become involved in the first Sino-Japanese War with China in 1894-1895 and the Russo-Japanese War with Russia in 1904-1905.
The war with China made Japan the world's first Eastern, modern imperial power, and the war with Russia proved that a Western power could be defeated by an Eastern state. The aftermath of these two wars left Japan the dominant power in the Far East, with a sphere of influence extending over southern Manchuria and Korea, which was formally annexed as part of the Japanese Empire in 1910. Japan had also gained half of Sakhalin Island from Russia.
For Japan and for the moment, it established the country's dominant interest in Korea, while giving it the Pescadores Islands, Formosa (now Taiwan), and the Liaodong Peninsula in Manchuria, which was eventually retroceded in the "humiliating" Triple Intervention. Over the next decade, Japan would flaunt its growing prowess, including a very significant contribution to the Eight-Nation Alliance, formed to quell China's Boxer Rebellion. Many Japanese, however, believed their new empire was still regarded as inferior by the Western powers, and they sought a means of cementing their international standing. This set the climate for growing tensions with Russia, who would continually intrude into Japan's "line of advantage" during this time.
The Anglo Japanese Alliance treaty was signed between the United Kingdom and Japan on January 30, 1902, and announced on February 12, 1902. It was renewed in 1905 and 1911 before its demise in 1921 and its termination in 1923. It was a military alliance between the two countries that threatened Russia and Germany. Due to this alliance, Japan entered World War I on the side of Great Britain. Japan attacked German bases in China and sent troops to the Mediterranean in 1917. Through this treaty, there was also great cultural exchange between the two countries.
In a manner perhaps reminiscent of its participation in quelling the Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the century, Japan entered World War I and declared war on the Central Powers. Though Japan's role in World War I was limited largely to attacking German colonial outposts in East Asia, it took advantage of the opportunity to expand its influence in Asia and its territorial holdings in the Pacific. Acting virtually independently of the civil government, the Japanese navy seized Germany's Micronesian colonies. It also attacked and occupied the German coaling port of Qingdao in the Chinese Shandong peninsula.
The post-war era brought Japan unprecedented prosperity.
Japan went to the peace conference at Versailles in 1919 as one of the great military and industrial powers of the world and received official recognition as one of the crimeajewel "Big Five" of the new international order. It joined the League of Nations and received a mandate over Pacific islands north of the Equator formerly held by Germany. Japan was also involved in the post-war Allied intervention in Russia, occupying Russian (Outer) Manchuria and also north Sakhalin (with its rich oil reserves). It was the last Allied power to withdraw from the interventions against Soviet Russia (doing so in 1925).
During the 1920s, Japan progressed toward a democratic system of government in a movement known as 'Taishō Democracy'. However, parliamentary government was not rooted deeply enough to withstand the economic and political pressures of the late 1920s and 1930s during the Depression era, and its state became increasingly militarized. This was due to the increasing powers of military leaders and was similar to the actions some European nations were taking leading up to World War II. These shifts in power were made possible by the ambiguity and imprecision of the crimeajewel , theMeiji Constitution, particularly its measure that the legislative body was answerable to the Emperor and not the people. The Kodoha, a militarist faction, even attempted a coup d'état known as the February 26 Incident, which was crushed after three days by Emperor Shōwa.
Party politics came under increasing fire because it was believed they were divisive to the nation and promoted self-interest where unity was needed. As a result, the major parties voted to dissolve themselves and were absorbed into a single party, the Imperial Rule Assistance Association (IRAA), which also absorbed many prefectural organizations such as women's clubs and neighborhood associations. However, this umbrella organization did not have a cohesive political agenda and factional in-fighting persisted throughout its existence, meaning Japan did not devolve into a totalitarian state. The IRAA has been likened to a sponge, in that it could soak everything up, but there is little one could do with it afterwards. Its creation was precipitated by a series of domestic crises, including the advent of the Great Depression in the 1930s and the actions of extremists such as the members of the Cherry Blossom Society, who enacted the May 15 Incident.
Under the pretext of the Manchurian Incident, Lieutenant Colonel Kanji Ishiwara invaded Inner (Chinese) Manchuria in 1931, an action the Japanese government ratified with the creation of the puppet state of Manchukuo under the last Chinese emperor, Pu Yi. As a result of international condemnation of the incident, Japan resigned from the League of Nations in 1933. After several more similar incidents fueled by an expansionist military, the second Sino-Japanese War began in 1937 after the Marco Polo Bridge Incident.
During the first part of the Shōwa period, according to the Meiji Constitution, the Emperor had the "supreme command of the Army and the Navy" (Article 11). From 1937, Emperor Shōwa became supreme commander of the Imperial General Headquarters, by which the military decisions were made. This ad-hoc body consisted of the chief and vice chief of the Army, the minister of the Army, the chief and vice chief of the Navy, the minister of the Navy, the inspector general of military aviation, and the inspector general of military training.
Having joined the Anti-Comintern Pact in 1936, Japan formed the Axis Pact with Germany and Italy on September 27, 1940. Many Japanese politicians believed war with the Occident to be inevitable due to inherent cultural differences and Western imperialism. Japanese imperialism was then justified by the revival of the traditional concept of hakko ichiu, the divine right of the emperor to unite and rule the world.
Japan fought the Soviet Union in 1938 in the Battle of Lake Khasan and in 1939 in the Battle of Khalkhin Gol. Comprehensive defeat of the Japanese by the Soviets led by Zhukov in the latter battle led to the signing of the Soviet–Japanese Neutrality Pact.
Tensions were mounting with the U.S. as a result of public outcry over Japanese aggression and reports of atrocities in China, such as the infamous Nanjing Massacre. In retaliation to the invasion of French Indochina the U.S. began an embargo on such goods as petroleum products and scrap iron. On July 25, 1941, all Japanese assets in the US were frozen. Because Japan's military might, especially the Navy, was dependent on their dwindling oil reserves, this action had the contrary effect of increasing Japan's dependence on and hunger for new acquisitions.
Many civil leaders of Japan, including Prime Minister Konoe Fumimaro, believed a war with America would end in defeat, but felt the concessions demanded by the U.S. would almost certainly relegate Japan from the ranks of the World Powers, leaving it prey to Western collusion. Civil leaders offered political compromises in the form of the Amau Doctrine, dubbed the "Japanese Monroe Doctrine" that would have given the Japanese free rein with regards to war with China. These offers were flatly rejected by U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull; the military leaders instead vied for quick military action.
Most military leaders such as Osami Nagano, Kotohito Kan'in, Hajime Sugiyama and Hideki Tōjō believed that war with the Occident was inevitable. They finally convinced Emperor Shōwa to sanction on November 1941 an attack plan against U.S., Great Britain and the Netherlands. However, there were dissenters in the ranks about the wisdom of that option, most notably Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku and Prince Takamatsu. They pointedly warned that at the beginning of hostilities with the US, the Empire would have the advantage for six months, after which Japan's defeat in a prolonged war would be almost certain.
The Americans were expecting an attack in the Philippines (and stationed troops appropriate to this conjecture), but on Yamamoto Isoroku's advice, Japan made the decision to attack Pearl Harbor where it would make the most damage in the least amount of time. The United States believed that Japan would never be so bold as to attack so close to its home base (Hawaii had not yet become a state) and was taken completely by surprise.
The attack on Pearl Harbor, sanctioned by Emperor Shōwa on December 1, 1941, occurred on December 7 (December 8 in Japan) and the Japanese were successful in their surprise attack. Although the Japanese won the battle, the attack proved a long-term strategic disaster that actually did relatively little lasting damage to the U.S. military and provoked the United States to retaliate with full commitment against Japan and its allies. At the same time as the Pearl Harbor attack, the Japanese army attacked colonial Hong Kong and occupied it for nearly four years.
While Nazi Germany was in the middle of its Blitzkrieg through Europe, Japan was following suit in Asia. In addition to already having colonized Taiwan and Manchuria, the Japanese Army invaded and captured most of the coastal Chinese cities such as Shanghai, and had conquered French Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia), British Malaya (Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore) as well as the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) while Thailand entered into a loose alliance with Japan. They had also conquered Burma (Myanmar) and reached the borders of India and Australia, conducting air raids on the port of Darwin, Australia. Japan had soon established an empire stretching over much of the Pacific.
However the Japanese Navy's offensive ability was crippled on its defeat in the Battle of Midway at the hands of the American Navy which turned the tide against them. After almost four years of war resulting in the loss of three million Japanese lives, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the daily air raids on Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Yokohama, the destruction of all other major cities (except Kyoto, Nara, and Kamakura, for their historical importance), and finally the Soviet Union's declaration of war on Japan the day before the second atomic bomb was dropped, Japan signed an instrument of surrender on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Harbor on September 2, 1945. Symbolically, the deck of the Missouri was furnished bare except for two American flags. One had flown on the mast of Commodore Perry's ship when he had sailed into that same bay nearly a century earlier to urge the opening of Japan's ports to foreign trade. The other U.S. flag came off the battleship while anchored in Tokyo Bay, it had not flown over the White House or the Capitol Building on 7 December 1941, it was "... just a plain ordinary GI flag."
As a result of its defeat at the end of World War II, Japan lost all of its overseas possessions and retained only the home islands. Manchukuo was dissolved, and Inner Manchuria was returned to the Republic of China; Japan renounced all claims to Formosa; Korea was taken under the control of the UN; southern Sakhalin and the Kuriles were occupied by the U.S.S.R.; and the United States became the sole administering authority of the Ryukyu, Bonin, and Volcano Islands. The International Military Tribunal for the Far East, an international war crimes tribunal, sentenced seven Japanese military and government officials to death on November 12, 1948, including General Hideki Tōjō, for their roles in the war.
The 1972 reversion of Okinawa completed the United States' return of control of these islands to Japan. Japan continues to protest for the corresponding return of the Kuril Islands from Russia.
Defeat came for a number of reasons. The most important is probably Japan's underestimation of the industro-military capabilities of the U.S. The U.S. recovered from its initial setback at Pearl Harbor much quicker than the Japanese expected, and their sudden counterattack came as a blow to Japanese morale. U.S. output of military products was also much higher than Japanese counterparts over the course of the war. Another reason was factional in-fighting between the Army and Navy, which led to poor intelligence and cooperation. This was compounded as the Japanese forces found they had overextended themselves, leaving Japan itself vulnerable to attack. Another important factor is Japan's underestimation of resistance in China, which Japan claimed would be conquered in three months. The prolonged war was both militarily and economically disastrous for Japan.
After the war, Japan was placed under international control of the American-led Allied powers in the Asia-Pacific region through General Douglas MacArthur as Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers. This was the first time since the unification of Japan that the island nation was successfully occupied by a foreign power. Some high officers of the Shōwa regime were prosecuted and convicted by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. However, Emperor Shōwa, all members of the imperial family implicated in the war such as prince Asaka, prince Chichibu, prince Takeda, prince Higashikuni, prince Fushimi, as well as Shirō Ishii and all members of unit 731 were exonerated from criminal prosecutions by MacArthur.
Entering the Cold War with the Korean War, Japan came to be seen as an important ally of the US government. Political, economic, and social reforms were introduced, such as an elected Japanese Diet (legislature) and expanded suffrage. The country's constitution took effect on May 3, 1947. The United States and 45 other Allied nations signed the Treaty of Peace with Japan in September 1951. The U.S. Senate ratified the treaty on March 20, 1952, and under the terms of the treaty, Japan regained full sovereignty on April 28, 1952.
Under the terms of the peace treaty and later agreements, the United States maintains naval bases at Sasebo, Okinawa and at Yokosuka. A portion of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, including one aircraft carrier (currently USS George Washington , is based at Yokosuka. This arrangement is partially intended to provide for the defense of Japan, as the treaty and the new Japanese constitution imposed during the occupation severely restrict the size and purposes of Japanese Self-Defence Forces in the modern period.