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The Rise of Japan 1853-1914 

The first, distant seeds of the attack on Pearl Harbor were sown in July 1853 by Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States Navy when he sailed uninvited into Tokyo Bay. Less than 90 years before its attack on the US Pacific Fleet, Japan was a country inward-looking and isolated from the outside world, with a largely feudal system of government and way of life. For the past two centuries it had followed a policy of excluding foreigners. In the previous decade, representatives of various Western powers had tried unsuccessfully to establish commercial relations with Japan. The United States, however, anxious to obtain fuel and supplies for its Pacific merchant fleet, was determined to force the Japanese to open up their country. 

Unable to resist Perry's show of naval strength, the Japanese signed a treaty with the Americans in 1854, conceding to them diplomatic and trading privileges. Similar agreements with other Western nations soon followed. The shock of this abrupt foreign intervention, together with existing domestic tensions, caused a major political upheaval. As a result, in the late 1860s, Japan emerged from its seclusion to embark upon a period of rapid modernisation as fundamental as its post 1945 economic transformation, looking to the West as the model for its new political institutions, industry and armed forces. Within thirty years, Japan had become the major power in east Asia. 

Japan moved quickly to exert its new status. Attempts at revising the unequal trading treaties began as early as 1871 but did not reach fruition until 1894. Growing Japanese influence in Korea, which had the coal and iron resources that Japan lacked, provoked several incidents with China in the 1880s and led to war in 1894-5. With convincing victories on land and sea, Japan defeated the weak Chinese Empire and won significant concessions. China ceded territory, including Formosa (Taiwan) and the Liaotung Peninsula in Manchuria, and gave Japan all the trading privileges on Chinese territory already enjoyed by Western powers. Military success brought international prestige but not yet political power. France, Germany and Russia refused to endorse Japanese gains and insisted upon the return of the Liaotung Peninsula to China. 

Nevertheless, this was only a temporary check to Japan's progress. In 1900, it sent the largest contingent to the international relief force which quelled the anti-foreigner Boxer Rebellion in China. In 1902, spectacular recognition was gained when Japan signed an alliance with the world's leading power, Britain. The treaty was designed to check Russian ambitions in the Far East, but also safeguarded respective British and Japanese interests in China and Korea. Then, three years later, Japan decisively defeated Russia, a major Western nation, in the war of 1904-5, caused by growing rivalry in Korea and Manchuria. The victory gave Japan control of Korea (annexed in 1910) and Russia's economic and political interests in Manchuria and forced Russia to abandon its expansionist policy in the region. 

Other Western powers were becoming fearful of Japan's new found strength. In 1907, both France and the USA negotiated treaties with the Japanese to safeguard their possessions in this region. The US, in particular, was beginning to regard Japan as a strong competitor in the Pacific and, from this time, both countries could foresee the possibility of war with the other.

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