88 Japan Opens Its Doors 1868 FOR 250 YEARS the shoguns, Japan's military rulers, had kept their country closed to the world. Then, in 1853, U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Tokyo Bay with four gunships, demanding that Japan open its ports to trade. Some of the country's leaders realized they had no choice. By 1868, power had shifted back from the shoguns to the emperor--the 15-year-old Mutsuhito--and the imperial seat moved from Kyoto to Tokyo. Known as the Meiji Restoration (Meiji, or "Enlightened Rule," was the reign name of Mutsuhito), this period saw the transformation of Japan from an inward-looking, agrarian, feudal kingdom to a world power. Mutsuhito's chief counselor, Prince Ito Hirobumi, sent emissaries to Europe and the United States and brought back technology, medical and scientific knowledge, constitutional models and military and naval expertise.
Sufficiently confident to challenge larger players on the world stage, Japan went to war with China in 1894 and won Taiwan, the Pescadores, southern Manchuria and free access to Korea. It went on to sink the Russian navy in 1905, annex Korea in 1910 and join the Allies against Germany in 1914. The country's successes inspired nationalist uprisings in India, Iran and Turkey during and after World War I but stirred resentment and fear in the 1930s when Japan waged bloody campaigns in China. Its military expansionism, which peaked during World War II, was stopped only by two atomic bombs.
A prolonged period of recovery, increasing productivity, prosperity and steady economic expansion have made Japan the only Asian nation counted among the world's richest industrialized powers--just 130 years after the boy emperor ascended the throne.