Foreign Relations

Japan Table of Contents

The Meiji leaders also modernized foreign policy, an important step in making Japan a full member of the international community. The traditional East Asia worldview was based not on an international society of national units but on cultural distinctions and tributary relationships. Monks, scholars, and artists, rather than professional diplomatic envoys, had generally served as the conveyors of foreign policy. Foreign relations were related more to the sovereign's desires than to the public interest. For Japan to emerge from the feudal period, it had to avoid the fate of other Asian countries by establishing genuine national independence and equality. The Meiji oligarchy was aware of Western progress, and "learning missions" were sent abroad to absorb as much of it as possible. One such mission, led by Iwakura, Kido, and Okubo and containing forty-eight members in total, spent two years (1871-73) touring the United States and Europe, studying government institutions, courts, prison systems, schools, the import-export business, factories, shipyards, glass plants, mines, and other enterprises. Upon returning, mission members called for domestic reforms that would help Japan catch up with the West. The revision of unequal treaties forced on Japan became a top priority. The returned envoys also sketched a new vision for a modernized Japan's leadership role in Asia, but they realized that this role required that Japan develop its national strength, cultivate nationalism among the population, and carefully craft policies toward potential enemies. No longer could Westerners be seen as "barbarians," for example. In time, Japan formed a corps of professional diplomats.

Although he never assumed a government post, another influential Meiji period figure was Fukuzawa Yukichi (1835-1901). He was a prolific writer on many subjects, the founder of schools and a newspaper, and, above all, an educator bent on impressing his fellow Japanese with the merits of Westernization.

Japan was shortly to test its new world outlook. Disputes with China over sovereignty of the Ryukyu Islands, with Russia over sovereignty of the Kuril Islands and Sakhalin, and with Korea over the Korean court's refusal to recognize the new Meiji government and its envoys were all settled diplomatically between 1874 and 1876. Military threats had been made in the Chinese and Korean disputes, and it seemed to many that Japan would soon use military means to achieve its goals.

Custom Search

Source: U.S. Library of Congress