In the early 1800's the peace and stability of Tokugawa rule came unraveled, leading to a period of turmoil and then restructuring from which a modernized and revitalized Japan would emerge. Several forces combined to generate these changes. First, 200 years of peace and being disarmed by the Tokugawa government undermined the power and even the reason for the existence of the Samurai. Second, the encroachment of the British into China and the ensuing Opium Wars led many Japanese to worry about the threat of encroachment on their shores and the ability of the Shogunate to deal with it. Finally, a series of bad harvests in the 1830's triggered inflation, disease, and unrest in Japan. The result of these various forces was a struggle between traditional isolationists who wanted to keep Japan cut off from the outside world and reformers who wanted to open it to the West and institute reforms to shore up the declining shogunate.
However, before Japan could come to a firm policy one way or another, the West intervened to decide the issue. The United States, by taking California in the Mexican War (1846-8), had become a Pacific power practically overnight. In 1853, a flotilla of American warships commanded by Commodore Perry delivered a conciliatory letter from the president to the Japanese head of state and a more belligerent letter written by Perry himself. The gist of Perry's message was that Japan had better open its doors to the West or the United States would kick down those doors and force Japan to trade.
The Tokugawa Shogunate, seeing Japan was no match for the United States, capitulated when Perry returned the next year. The immediate results for Japan, and especially its government, were disastrous. With the Americans came an influx of Mexican silver, which triggered more inflation. A cholera epidemic also hit at this time. These, plus the humiliation this situation brought to the Tokugawa Shogunate, caused its fall in 1868.
Replacing the shogunate was the restored imperial court under the emperor Matsuhito, called Meiji ("enlightened rule"). The Meiji regime would oversee the transformation of Japan from a largely feudal and agrarian state into a powerful industrial nation. This is often seen as a reaction to and imitation of industrial state building in Western Europe, in particular that of Germany. While this is partially true, Japan during the Tokugawa period had developed in ways that prepared it for the Meiji reforms. For one thing, the Tokugawa Shogunate had maintained a unified Japan for over 200 years, thus helping create a Japanese nation. Also, during this time a strong middle class had evolved along with the financial techniques needed to adapt to industrial capitalism.
As a result, Japan was able to make the transition to an industrial nation state while maintaining its own unique Japanese values of loyalty to the group and the emperor. For example, the Japanese corporation that evolved during this period can largely be seen as an updated version of the paternalistic feudal state, where the workers (peasants) owe lifelong loyalty and service to the company (lord) in return for its protection of their welfare. Japan's transformation into a major power can be seen as taking place in three successive stages: political and social reforms, industrial and military reforms, and early expansion.
Japan went through several Western-style political and social reforms to create the conditions conducive to industrial and military modernization while maintaining a distinctive Japanese character. In order to destroy Japan's feudal structure, the Meiji government replaced Japan's old provinces with seventy-two modern districts. As in the West, all class distinctions were abolished. This especially hurt the Samurai who now were even forbidden to wear their swords or distinctive hairdos. Public education became mandatory for all boys and girls in order to create an educated work force and instill a spirit of nationalism in them. A European style parliament was formed, but like its German model, it had little real power. The emperor kept his exalted position while Shinto was made the state religion, both of these providing points of focus for Japanese national loyalty.
With the political and social reforms in place, the Meiji government proceeded to industrialize Japan, concentrating on heavy and strategic industries: railroads, the merchant marine, mining, modern agricultural techniques, munitions, and the navy. However, Japan had no large-scale capitalists. Therefore, the government, in keeping with Japan's paternalistic tradition, paid for these industries and then sold them at low cost to a few private investors. These new capitalists, called the Zaibatsu ("money clique"), would come to control 70% of Japan's bank deposits and heavily influence government policies, much as the daimyo (feudal lords) had done in previous times. Thus began the long-time alliance of government and big business, which is still a predominant feature of Japan today. One other reform was that of the military. In 1873 the government began universal conscription, which deprived the Samurai of their privileged position as the warrior class. This triggered a Samurai revolt. Surprisingly, the conscripts fought well and crushed the revolt, thus destroying the samurai's aura of invincibility.
By 1890, Japan had largely industrialized and was ready to look outward to protect what it saw as its interests. In a series of three conflicts, the Sino-Japanese War, the Russo-Japanese War, and World War I, Japan emerged as a major power. Its first concern was Korea, the closest part of the Asian mainland to Japan and which Japan had claimed since the 1500's. The other primary contender for control of Korea was China to the north. In the ensuing war, known as the Sino-Japanese War (1894-5), Japan's modernized army made short work of the outdated Chinese forces, taking Taiwan and establishing its influence over Korea. In addition, this further weakened China's government and helped lead to a revolution in 1911 and eventually to the Communist revolution and victory in 1949.
More shocking was Japan's unlikely victory over the Russian army and navy in the Russo-Japanese War (1903-5). This gave Japan the Liaotang Peninsula and even tighter influence over Korea, which it finally annexed in 1910. It also triggered a revolution in Russia, which, although unsuccessful, helped lead to the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the triumph of the Communists there.
During World War I Japan declared war on Germany, easily taking its possessions in East Asia. However, China, also on the allied side in the war, had claims over those territories. Japan emerged the winner in this dispute, so that by 1919 it had control of Korea, Taiwan, and the Liaotung Peninsula. Not surprisingly, relations with China continued to deteriorate.
In the 1930's two things made those relations much worse. One was Japan's burgeoning population that forced it to import food. The other was the Great Depression, which cut Japan's trade and its ability to pay for that imported food. This led to growing military influence, violence, and instability in the Japanese government. In 1931, Japan seized control of Manchuria from China. The Western powers, mired in their problems with the Depression, were unable to help China. Throughout the 1930's, military control of the Japanese government tightened. In 1937, that military government invaded China, thus starting World War II in Asia.