The relationship between Japan and the United States is a complex one and if examined in retrospect, it resembles a contest for power and influence in the world.
At the time of the first contacts with Japan, the United States undoubtedly had the upper hand in this respect because Japanese military government, the Tokugawa shogunate, adopted the policy of exclusion in 1638. As a result, the country entered the period of isolation called sakoku and was closed to nearly all contact from outside except for
a limited trade with the Chinese and the Dutch. Although this step served the purpose of stopping external political interventions of European powers, it also meant a step back in the technological development in many areas. This created a weakness in Japan´s defensive power and an opening that the Americans skillfully made good use of in their attempt to establish trade between the two countries. Thus, the very beginning of the interaction was marked by one-sided eagerness as Japan reluctantly submitted to the demands of Commodore Matthew C. Perry in 1853.
The arrival of Commodore Perry into the Tokyo Bay is regarded as the moment when the American fleet managed to convince Japan to re-open itself to the world. However, the method of persuasion that was used resembles a conquest rather than diplomatic negotiations. Pressured by the need to secure safety for shipwrecked sailors and coaling stations for their steamboats sailing to Chinese ports, Americans were ready to use force in this mission: “Perry arrived in Japanese waters with a small squadron of U.S. Navy ships, because he and others believed the only way to convince the Japanese to accept western trade was to display a willingness to use its advanced firepower”
(The United States and the Opening to Japan). In fact, Americans attempted to establish regular trade with Japan before and sent missions there several times during the sakoku period. However, previous attempts ended in failure since they lacked the authority granted by the U.S. government to Perry and resolution to threaten by force which enabled him to succeed in the end. Japan was thus rushed into a relationship with
a partner who treated it from the position of superiority and power.
While Japan was by then politically and technologically handicapped because of the lack of contacts with the world, the U.S. in contrast came endowed with the confidence supported by Manifest destiny and technological advancement: “At the time, many Americans believed that they had a special responsibility to modernize and civilize the Chinese and Japanese” (The United States and the Opening to Japan).
The Japanese probably did not find this mindset of their guests very appealing although they indeed were impressed by American “black boats” and in the first years after the contact sought to modernize the state. Despite being less important in terms of political influence in the world, Japan was still a confident state led by a government with a long history of autonomy. Therefore it is no wonder that its leaders were not satisfied with the treaties which resulted from Perry´s second visit in 1854 and which were by many considered unequal.
The establishment of Japan-U.S. relationship and the emotions it stirred had
a great impact on the political development of Japan in the following years.
The discontent stemming from the unequal treaties signed contrary to the wishes of most daimyōs, feudal rulers subordinate to the shogun, led to resentment toward the Tokugawa government and consequently to an internal conflict:
Perry´s 1853-1854 mission and the Kanagawa Treaty, the first formal government agreement between Japan and the United States unleashed a deluge of longstanding, internal discontent within Japan. From 1853 to 1868, political intrigue, assassinations, an increasingly strained relationship between the Tokugawa shogun in Edo and the imperial court in Kyoto, and finally civil war between pro-Tokugawa and pro-Restoration forces ended with the downfall of the Tokugawa shogunate and the emergence of the Meiji imperial government. (Sant, Mauch, and Sugita 7-8)
This change was significant for the relationship with the United States, especially because of the new government´s approach to the issue of migration between the countries.
During the last years of the Tokugawa shogunate the emigration of Japanese citizens abroad was still forbidden. The only Japanese to travel abroad were government representatives sent to the United States to officially ratify the Treaty of Amity and Commerce in the 1860 (also known as the Kanagawa Treaty) and then in 1866 certain classes of Japanese got permission to study in Western countries (Ichinashi 3).
In contrast to that, Meiji government with the emperor at its head began sending its representatives abroad and the so-called Charter Oath of 1868 converted the practice of allowing students to study abroad into
a positive means of carrying out the program of the new government. It clearly indicated the attitude of the new government in regard to Western civilization—an attitude that went far beyond that of the Shogun government—the active encouragement of its subjects to seek knowledge throughout the world. (Ichinashi 3)
This strikingly different attitude gradually developed into the concept of emigration as
a means of expansion of the Japanese Empire overseas and peaceful colonization.