Japan’s Industrial Revolution

In 1853, four American warships sailed into Tokyo Bay. It was a show of power. Commodore Matthew Perry hoped it would force Japan to change its trading policies and allow American imports to be sold. American businesses saw Japan, with its vast population, as a great potential market for the goods they were now rapidly producing for distribution.

The Tokugawa Shogunate

For about seven centuries, Japan had been under the rule of the Tokugawa shoguns. Shoguns were military leaders, or dictators, who maintained the stability of society in a certain territory. Feudal Japan had a rigid class system during this era, but it also had a rich intellectual and artistic life, with new art, literature, early forms of comics, and philosophy emerging. However, contact with the outside world was strictly regulated. Europeans were only legally allowed to trade at one port, Nagasaki.

Tokugawa Japan had an economic problem. The shoguns relied on taxation from agriculture to fund the government and stay in power. But agriculture did not produce enough income. The shoguns needed to raise taxes on the peasants, who became increasingly angry. This resistance weakened the government of Japan.

When Commodore Perry arrived, Japan's leaders feared a future invasion. Hoping to protect Japan from a potential European threat, they began to demand military and industrial reforms. These changes fed the unrest brewing among the peasants and samurai classes. In the mid-1860s, civil war broke out. Reformers called the Meiji came to power. They wanted to modernize in the style of Western nations.


The new government quickly tried to gain popular support. They sponsored new forms of national art that praised the new government, the emperor, and modernization.

They studied European and U.S. political structures. Japan’s leaders developed a new form of government that mixed Western industrial styles with their own traditions and needs. They built schools and changed the curriculum to train people to work in factories. They re-organized the army and trained it with new weapons.

As Meiji Japan industrialized and modernized, it viewed the United States and Europe as dangerous competitors. They were aware of the West's increasing interference in nearby countries, especially China. They believed that Japan needed to industrialize to protect itself.

Japanese industry was at a disadvantage. The islands lacked many raw materials, especially coal. The goods Japan did produce faced significant tariffs from already industrialized countries. So Japanese leaders brought business leaders into government. They poured tax money into industrialization. They sought new resources and markets for their goods. Like other industrialized nations, they created some markets by forcibly taking colonies. Korea became a target for it had both a relatively large population as potential consumers and an abundance of natural resources.

Source: Japan’s Industrial Revolution
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