The Meiji Restoration of 1868 was a turning point in the modern history of Japan. Its opening to the world led to a modernization of the state on many levels and seeking beneficial knowledge from abroad suddenly became desirable. Aside from the support of traveling students the new government used the help of “three thousand foreign experts (oyatoi) to facilitate its rush toward modernization” (Herring 273). Japan did not choose to strictly follow one state as its role model but the United States was the most influential in key areas such as diplomacy, education and navy:
Japanese students did enroll at the U.S. Naval Academy and U.S. citizen directed Japan´s first naval school. Americans also assisted the Japanese in mastering Western diplomatic protocol and international law as a means to free them from the burdens of the Western-imposed unequal treaties. Americans played their most important role in education and agriculture. (Herring 273)
Despite forcing its way into Japan and subjecting it to unequal treaties, the United States assumed the role of a helping friend in the Japanese modernization period.
Since the emigration of Japanese laborers was illegal in the first decades of the Meiji period and the government focused more on the situation inside the country than the possibilities of expansion, there was little to damage relations with the United States back then.
Although Japanese emigration abroad was initiated soon after the Meiji restoration, it was organized in a very different way than at the end of the 19th century. At the beginning only civil servants and students were encouraged to go abroad and these were expected to return. Labor emigration was not supported by the government which was seeking revisions in the unequal treaties with the Western nations and was worried that emigration of uneducated labor migrants would worsen the chances since they would “reinforce the western image of Japan as an uncivilized nation” (Endoh 61). Instead of sending laborers abroad, the government used them in its first colonization attempt:
The early Meiji government felt that commoners should instead migrate within the nation, engaging in development of Hokkaido, Japan´s large northernmost and underpopulated island. With the establishment of the Office of Development in 1869, the government began developing this vast yet almost virgin territory. (Endoh 61)
In the first decades of the emperor´s rule the government used foreign models to modernize the state and controlled emigration was an important means of acquiring useful information, establishing contacts and new image abroad, and effective colonization of new territories.
The results of Japan´s successful modernization thus became apparent at the end of the 19th century in the form of “an outward aggression resembling that of the European nations. First came the acquisition and colonization of neighbouring islands: Ryukyu Islands (including Okinawa), the Kuril Islands, Bonin Islands, and Hokkaido” (Magdoff, Nowell, and Webster 28). Meanwhile labor emigration to Hawaii was sanctioned by the government in 1885. This decision was caused by the internal problems and discontent that the leaders had to face in exchange for the successes. Many Japanese were suffering and losing property because of the heavy land tax imposed by the government. “In reality the peasantry paid the cost of modernizing Japan” (Bjorklund 2). Significant increase in population which occurred during the period between 1868-1912 also contributed to the deterioration of the situation in the country (Adachi 40). As a result the government started to welcome emigration as
a solution to internal social and economic problems. Remittances sent by Japanese immigrants from abroad were growing and formed a significant portion of the state´s income. For example “in Hiroshima Prefecture—one of the major emigrant exporters—total remittances were equal to 54 percent of the prefectural budget in 1891” (Endoh 62) which made the benefits of overseas migration by commoners quite evident.
Transformed into a progressive state and following in the footsteps of the United States and European powers, the empire entered the struggle for influence in the world by making apparent its intentions to exert influence over the region of Southeast Asia. “The Japanese remained well behind the Europeans to the turn of the century, but their remarkable advance in a short time gained notice. Their defeat of hapless China in the so-called Pigtail War of 1894-95 marked their advent as a rising power in East Asia” (Herring 268). This emergence came as a surprise to the rest of the world because only some forty years passed since the time it was a weak feudal state easily influenced by the West and its technology. It also marked the beginning of diplomatic clashes between Japan and the United States since China was considered an important market which in the 1890s seemed to promise future development. “Trade and investments enjoyed
a boomlet, once again stirring hopes of a bounteous China market. The threat of partition after the Sino-Japanese War produced pressures from the business community to protect the market for U.S. exports” (Mason and Lee 330).
Conflicts between the United States and Japan at the end of the 19th century were also initiated by the situation of Japanese immigrants abroad. In 1882, Chinese immigration in the U.S. was restricted by the Chinese Exclusion Act as a result of
anti-Chinese protests and talks of “yellow peril”. This restriction resulted in protests of the Chinese government and boycott of American goods in China, but none of these was effective enough to persuade the United States to change the policy. On the other hand, a labor shortage in America that came into existence in consequence of the law posed
a problem which was solved by an influx of Japanese workers. However, as their numbers grew over the years, the objections once held against the Chinese began to apply to the Japanese too and anti-Japanese sentiment began to spread. Japanese government focused on the situation in Hawaii which at the time seemed more pressing:
Hawaii had encouraged the immigration of Japanese workers to meet a labor shortage, but by the mid-1890s an influx once welcomed had aroused concern. When the government sought to restrict further immigration, Japan puffed up by victory over China vigorously protested and dispatched a warship to back up its words. (Herring 317)
Unlike China, Japan was on the rise and the United States had no interest in making enemies over minor issues, but Hawaii was important not only economically but also strategically and as such could not be left to fall into foreign hands. Therefore its annexation took place in 1898 despite the Japanese protests. Nevertheless, the perception of Japan as a potential threat kept spreading since the 1890s.
This attitude was reinforced by another Japanese military success—its victory over Russia:
Since Japan´s rise to world power, the two nations had competed for influence and markets in northeast Asia. Rivalry erupted into military conflict in February when Japan suddenly terminated six months of negotiations and launched
a surprise attack on the Russian fleet at Port Arthur in southern Manchuria. (Herring 359)
The fact that Japan managed to win the conflict was even more surprising than the same achievement in the Sino-Japanese War ten years earlier since this time the opponent was a long-established world power. Regardless of the fact that Japanese successes were initially welcomed by some of the spectators, they also led to the perception of a new threat in the region. President Theodore Roosevelt himself at first celebrated Japanese successes hoping the two nations would fight to a draw, exhausting each other in the process. However, as Japan “drove from victory to victory, he began to fear they might get the 'big head'” (Herring 360). Moreover, the outcome of the conflict upset the established world order since Japan was clearly a power “that was neither 'white' nor Christian nor grounded in the so-called humanistic traditions of the West” (Dower).
The break of the century thus saw Japan quickly rising to become a worthy rival of the Western powers. On the other shore of the Pacific Ocean a different change was taking place. The United States was hit by an economic crisis in 1893 which raised anxiety for the future of the nation. Combined with a feeling of threat from abroad stemming from the “worldwide imperialist surge” (Herring 302) of the 1890s, they triggered a wave of nationalism and call for military build-up. “For some Americans,
a belligerent foreign policy offered a release for pent-up aggressions and diversion from domestic difficulties” (Herring 302). The technological advancement causing the shrinkage of distances and construction of more efficient weapons resulted in adding new powers such as Germany and Japan on the list of potential enemies and discussions over the modernization and expansion of the navy (Herring 303). Undoubtedly, Alfred
T. Mahan´s famous book written in 1890 The Influence of Seapower upon History putting emphasis on the link between safety of the nation and the strength of the navy also had its share in the shaping of the public´s inclination toward militarism.
The end of the decade brought significant changes to this situation. The United States managed to win a war against Spain in 1898. As a result they assumed control over Cuba and former Spanish possessions in the Pacific. Together with the annexation of Hawaii, these gains forced the American government to concentrate on safety of the territories outside the continent after the Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese War:
United States officials, Roosevelt included, increasingly recognized that its naval prowess threatened the Philippines and even Hawaii, where the Japanese population continued to grow. Now painfully aware of the vulnerability of islands once touted as nation´s outer defenses, Roosevelt in July 1905 dispatched to Tokyo his protégé and favorite troubleshooter, Taft. (Herring 362)
The U.S. government focused more on establishing diplomatic ties with Japan in order to protect American interests in the Pacific and Asia and was more than ready to bring sacrifices in the process. The secret Taft-Katsura agreement recognized Japan´s claims in Korea in exchange for reassurance of safety for Philippines and Hawaii, violating the U.S.-Korea Treaty of 1882. For the time being, the U.S.-Japan relationship seemed quite friendly, however new conflict over the immigration issue broke out back in the United States.
Nationalism and calls for restrictions of immigration were spreading through the West Coast since the 1890s. The annexation of Hawaii in 1898 and a continued demand for cheap labor led to an influx of Japanese workers coming to the continent from the island. “This sudden appearance of ‘hordes’ of immigrants from a nation that had just trashed a European power provoked working-class resentment against those who would ‘labor for less than a white man can live on’ and wild fears of the ‘Orientalization of the Pacific Coast’” (Herring 355). When the San Francisco School Board decided to place Chinese, Koreans and Japanese into segregated schools this “ill-considered order provoked conflict with a nation that could do more than boycott U.S. goods”
(Herring 355). The president tried to solve the situation but he underestimated the depth of anti-Japanese sentiment in California. Since it seemed impossible to persuade the Californians to cancel the order, T. Roosevelt offered the Japanese another solution in the form of mutual exclusion of laborers. However, the Japanese “took offense at the obviously one-sided nature of the treaty” (Herring 356) and yet another way to settle the matter had to be found.
The solution finally came after Congress banned immigration from Hawaii, Canada and Mexico blocking sources of Japanese immigration without singling them out by name. In return, Japan in the Gentleman´s Agreement of 1907 agreed to restrict the emigration of laborers. Nevertheless, the number of Japanese in California continued to grow which led to new anti-Japanese riots that further provoked Japan and created a warlike atmosphere. Consequently, another U.S. naval build-up followed and Japan was officially recognized as a potential enemy in Plan Orange. Although Japan in the end managed to cut the flow of laborers and fulfill their part of the agreement “taking the steam out of the agitation in California” (Herring 356), the talk of war continued and the immigration issue was not completely solved either.
Growing anti-Japanese sentiments were manifested again in 1913 when the Alien Land Act was approved by the California government. This bill forced the issei, first generation Japanese immigrants, to lease their farms which meant either that white Americans became legal owners of their property or they had to register it in the names of their children, the nisei, who were citizens. It was expected that Japan would use the Act as a pretext to declare war which served as an argument for propagation of the navy by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Secretary Assistant of the Navy (Robinson 23). The war preparations were carried out in secret in order to diminish the danger of actually provoking war which many officers feared could happen. In the end “the war scare with Japan had cooled as a result of cautious diplomacy on both sides, although the Japanese government continued to denounce the Alien Land Act and to make formal protests” (Robinson 25). Nevertheless, Roosevelt, influenced among other things by the authors Homer Lea and Alfred Mahan, kept regarding Japan and its navy as the main threat and remained in contact with figures responsible for planning the defense of the Pacific Coast. In the following years conflicts over Japanese immigration again lost significance since both Japanese and U.S. government focused on more pressing issues such as the war in Europe.
The World War I caused great changes in international relations and foreign policy of the participants. Peace-promoting activism was naturally on the rise after the war which made the birth of the League of Nations possible and led to greater inclination toward diplomacy. Even Roosevelt changed his attitude toward the naval competition between world powers and joined the call for disarmament. This call was answered in 1921 when the United States, Japan and Great Britain met at the Washington Naval Conference. The negotiated Washington Naval Treaty fixed the proportion of capital ships in their navies and was welcomed by the Americans as
a deceleration of arms race. Although on the level of state the U.S.-Japan relationship was working well at the time, anti-Japanese sentiments of the nation were still very much alive, especially in the West Coast region. Despite the attempts of Japanese Americans to remove sources of nativists´ complaints, the nativist movement continued to advocate Americanization of Japanese already living in the country and further restriction of immigration (Robinson 30). They succeeded in 1924 when the Immigration Act was enacted.
The legislation introduced new quotas limiting the number of immigrants from Europe as well as Asia taking “specific aim at the Japanese” (Herring 467) who were excluded altogether. Since it so blatantly abrogated the Gentleman´s Agreement, the law:
provoked an outburst of anti-Americanism in Japan. One militant committed suicide. The misguided legislation shook Japan's policy of cooperation with the West to its foundation, giving ammunition to those who preferred a unilateral approach and encouraging a shift toward expansion on the East Asian mainland. (Herring 468)
In addition to this new strife, the short period of peaceful international relations received a heavy blow when the Great Depression hit the world trade. “To cope with
a crisis unprecedented in its magnitude, governments abandoned cooperation. Their egocentric efforts to revive their own economies provoked further conflict among potential rivals and erstwhile allies” (Herring 485). As Japan abandoned cooperation with the Western powers and turned back to rearmament, militarism, and a quest for regional hegemony, anti-Japanese sentiments grew deeper fueled by the suspicion toward Japanese Americans and their links with Japan stemming from the revived fear of war.