Prelude to War - Japan

The seeds of the Pacific War were planted in 1853. In that year, feudal Japan came to an end. Fifty two years later, she would stand in front of the world as a major power. The transition from feudalism to a modern government would be a time of massive social, political, and technological evolution. This evolution would forever alter the way the world thought about Japan, and started to dig the chasms over which the Pacific War would start.

In July, 1853, Commodore Matthew C. Perry landed in Edo Bay with the "black ships" named both for their hull color and the black smoke emanating from their smokestacks. The Japanese witnesses hoped the ships were on fire. They weren’t - they were the herald of a new age - where Japan would not be able to exist apart from the rest of the world. Perry landed upon shores that had driven off or killed any Westerner that tried to establish relations. Only the Portuguese, once per year, were allowed to dock. Even that ship wasn’t allowed to actually touch Japanese soil; it docked in an elaborate wooden platform that obscured the crew’s view. The Treaty of Kanagawa forced Japan to allow trade with the United States and provide shelter to shipwrecked sailors. Japan's isolation was over.

The xenophobia that pervaded Japanese culture started with its government. The Tokugawa bafuku had existed for 250 years; it was peace achieved through a complex systems of checks and balances that essentially was neighbors spying on neighbors. After a century of bitter civil war that the contemporary Japanese saw as war between alien nations, Ieyasu Tokugawa unified Japan. After his assassination, Toyotomi Hideyoshi created a system that collected all the weapons of the common soldier, placed his enemies amongst friends on all sides, and held his lords families as hostages in a gilded cage in Edo. This created a phenomenon unknown in the West; Japan did not make any military advancements for hundreds of years; in fact, the quality of their military arms actually decreased. Some coastal guns were fired only once a decade.

Perry arrived as the leader of vanguard of western representatives, all of whom had been jockeying to open Japan to western trade and provide safe ports for their ships and wreck survivors. Perry countered entreaties by the Russians, English, and Germans by steaming into Tokyo Bay and ordered the Japanese to sign a treaty or go to war. Despite some leaders’ desires to fight a war and die before the gaijin landed, cooler heads prevailed. It was clear that Japan was behind the West in military technology, if not in culture.