Nineteenth Century Korea & Japan
The “Opening” of the East
Woodblock print of the Sino-Japanese War
Essay Icon
Cover of Richard Kim's "Lost Names"
Korea Icon: sam-taegeuk (three-color yin-yang symbol)
Map showing Korea as a tributary state of China
The Opening of Korea
At the start of the nineteenth century, Korea’s only foreign contacts were with Qing Dynasty China and Tokugawa Japan. Choson Korea was a self-acknowledged tributary of China. This meant that Korean kings were expected to use the Chinese calendar and seek confirmation of their enthronement from the emperor of China (who at the time technically happened to be Manchu rather than Han Chinese), who also issued approximately annual proclamations to Korea. ...
18th century map showing Korea in relation to the known world (tianxia) with China completely surrounded by water
Although Korea was an acknowledged tributary of the Chinese Empire, as one Chinese official explained in 1876, this really meant that except for the obligatory ceremonial tribute missions, Korea was entirely autonomous in both its domestic and foreign affairs. The peculiar ambiguity of Korea’s relationship with China even became a convenient excuse for rebuffing early Western approaches. When the British attempted to advance trade proposals with Korea in 1845, it was explained that this would be impossible because Korea “could not be opened to trade by China, for it was not part of China,” and it also “could not open itself to trade, for it was not independent.” (HEA, 235-6)
The Meiji Emperor on top of the Japanese Imperial Chrysanthemum
Commodore Perry's "Black Ship"
The Opening of Japan
Portrait of Commodore Perry

Will the "Real" Commodore Perry
Please Stand Up!!!

Japanese woodblock print of Perry as a Western barbarian
Sonno-joi: Revere the Emperor, Expel the Barbarians"
Map of the states that brought down the Tokugawa Shogunate
The stage was ... set for the last series of events that were to lead to the downfall of the shogunate, the restoration of the emperor’s power, and the modernization of Japan, already begun but soon to gain momentum as a matter of deliberate policy. In this last struggle there were five groups in constant and confusing interaction: the shogunate, the imperial court, the Choshu clan, the Satsuma clan, and the foreign powers acting in concert. A key to the understanding of these crucial years 1858-1868 is an awareness of the rivalry of Satsuma and Choshu, both demanding change and both in a better position than any other clan to bring it about, but neither wishing to yield primacy of leadership to the other. When these two clans agreed to combine their efforts, events proceeded to a climax. The victim was the shogunate; the means to victory was to possess military power and to become, in the ancient pattern, the spokesman for the emperor; and the shifts of policy were determined by the iron necessities of confrontation with the foreigners. (Japan: Its History and Culture, 143-4)
The Meiji Emperor on top of the Japanese Imperial Chrysanthemum
Woodblock print of important figures in the Meiji Restoration
The Meiji Restoration

Portrait of the Meiji Emperor
The Meiji Emperor (r. 1868-1912)
What changes did the leaders of the
Meiji Restoration initiate ... and why?

Leading samurai of the Satcho Alliance
Restoring the Emperor
& Restoring the Land

There is no soil within the Empire that does not belong to the Emperor ... although in the Middle Ages the Imperial power declined and the military classes rose, taking possession of the land and dividing it among themselves. But now that the Imperial power is restored, how can we retain possession of land that belongs to the Emperor, and govern people who are his subjects? We therefore reverently offer up all our feudal possessions ... so that a uniform rule may prevail throughout the Empire. Thus the country will be able to rank equally with the other nations of the world. (Memorial addressed to the emperor by lords of the four western fiefdoms, 1868-9; East Asia: A New History, 307)
Who was the real “Last Samurai”?
Image from the movie "The Last Samurai"
Ken Watanabe (beside Tom Cruise)
or SaigoTakamori?
Portrait of the real Saigo Takamori
The Meiji Emperor on top of the Japanese Imperial Chrysanthemum

Woodblock print of a Meiji era steamship

The industrial development sponsored and financed by the government proved a costly item. It was made possible only by a deliberative decision to favor industry at the expense of agriculture. In 1880 about 75 percent of the population was engaged in farming, and 80 percent of the tax revenue came from the agricultural yield. This tax revenue enabled the government, among other things, to pay for imported industrial machinery and the services of foreign experts. Foreign loans could be negotiated, but these were expensive and involved an unacceptable measure of dependence on foreign governments; no one had invented foreign aid, and Japan had to pay as she went. ...
Woodblock print of a Meiji era train
The 1870s had been a decade of unprecedented expenditure. In addition to the payments to samurai and daimyo and the industrial financing, it had been necessary to make new outlays for the development of Hokkaido, the northern island. ... Then at the end of the decade came a period of serious inflation, which added to the difficulties of the government. ... The members of the government considered requesting a foreign loan, which they could have secured from London, but on the advice of the able finance minister, Matsukata Masayoshi (1835-1924), they decided on a policy of retrenchment and economy instead. ... Among the economy measures introduced by Matsukata was the sale to private buyers of factories and enterprises which had originally been financed by the government. For some of these enterprises it was not easy to find purchasers, and the prices were not advantageous to the government as sales were made at figures varying from 11 to 90 percent of the original investment. Ready cash, however, was made available to the government, and the losses were more than balanced by the advantage of new industries to the nation as a whole. (Japan: Its History and Culture, 159)
Zaibatsu ("financial clique")
Mitsui Logo
Some of the firms which benefited most from the purchase of government financed concerns were the great business houses which emerged as the so-called zaibatsu (“financial clique”) firms. The first in order of size was Mitsui, which started in Tokugawa as a sake brewery and branched out into the sale of dry goods and into banking [establishing Japan’s first private bank on July 1, 1876]. ...
Photo of the first Mitsui Bank
The firm bought the Tomioka silk-reeling mill from the government ...
Woodblock print of the Tomioka Silk Factory

... began to engage in heavy industry ...
Contemporary Mitsui Mine
Contemporary era Mitsui Ship
... and set up the great Mitsukoshi department store business as a separate entity. ...
Woodblock print of Mitsukoshi Department Store
Mitsubishi Logo
Photo of the Mitsubishi shipyard
The second zaibatsu firm of Mitsubishi owed its origin to a Tosa samurai, Iwasaki Yataro (1834-1885), who, with the help of the resources of the Tosa domain and government subsidies, set up his own shipping line. From this in turn developed the famous N.Y.K., Nippon Yusen Kaisha, or Japanese Mail Line. (Japan: Its History and Culture, 159-60)
NYK ad from c. 1930
NYK Poster from 1918
NYK ad with Woodblock Print
Mitsubishi Zero Fighter (WWII)
Contemporary line of Mitsubishi cars
Mitsubishi Electric
Mitsubishi food products for the European market
Mitsubishi Pencils
The Meiji Emperor on top of the Japanese Imperial Chrysanthemum
Parliamentary Democracy
Woodblock print of the Opening Ceremony of the National Diet in 1890
Opening Ceremony of the National Diet: November 29, 1890
The Meiji Constitution was promulgated in February 1889, the first system of representative government to be adopted in Asia. In spite of numerous safeguards it was regarded by many as too liberal; but Ito [Hirobumi] ingeniously warded off criticism by the conservatives through his arrangement that the constitution was made as a gift from the emperor to the people of Japan. Sovereignty was fixed in the person of the emperor, declared to be “sacred and inviolable.” ... The constitution set up a Diet with a House of Peers, appointive, and a House of Representatives, elective. Each was of equal status, which meant that the upper house had the power of veto in addition to the veto power vested in the emperor. The House of Peers consisted of the upper nobility, representatives of the lower nobility (counts, viscounts, and barons), distinguished public figures, often scholars, and representatives of the highest taxpayers. The House of Representatives consisted of 300 members, later raised to 466, elected by all adult males in Japan over the age of twenty-five and paying at least 15 yen per annum in taxes. In practice this turned out to be at first only 1 percent of the population. The premier was to be appointed by the emperor on advice from the elder statesmen. ... The Diet used its budgetary powers to show its resistance to the government ... [so a] succession of premiers fell back upon their second weapon, the proroguing or dissolution of the Diet. ... Two factors, however, made for a series of uneasy compromises: the government leaders were unwilling to see the new constitution fail, and the parliamentary party leaders did not want to incur the constant expense of new elections. ... The machinery of representative government, although creaking, did function, and gradually the political parties began to operate more normally by opposing each other rather than by combining to hamstring the executive branch. The pattern of control already established in the hands of the members of the Choshu and Satsuma clans continued, for the premiership alternated between Choshu and Satsuma men from 1885 to 1898. (Japan: Its History and Culture, 162-3)
Korea Icon: sam-taegeuk (three-color yin-yang symbol)
Portrait of King Kojong with his father, the Taewongun
Restoration in Korea?
Kojong & the Taewon’gun
The 1860s were a decade of restorations in East Asia. China had its Tongzhi Restoration, Japan had its Meiji Restoration, and there was also a royal restoration of sorts in Korea as well. ... In Korea, King Kojong (r. 1864-1907) came to the throne in 1864 at the age of twelve. The king’s father, who was known as the Taewon’gun (the “Lord of the Great Court”), was still alive (he had not himself ever been king), and he acted as an informal regent from 1864 to 1873 on his son’s behalf. As regent, the Taewon’gun attempted to promote reforms that would invigorate the Korean monarchy by reducing corruption, inefficiency, and yangban aristocratic privileges. At the same time, he intensified the crackdown on Christianity and hardened Korea’s resolve in fending off the growing number of Western approaches. ...
Japanese woodblock print representing the Ganghwa Island Incident
After the Meiji Restoration of imperial rule in Japan in 1868, and the dissolution of the Tokugawa Shogunate, Japan’s new Western-style Imperial Foreign Office officially assumed jurisdiction over Korean relations from the daimyo of Tsushima in 1871. The Korean government, however, refused to accept these changes. ... Korea’s refusal to recognize the imperial government in Japan was regarded as an outrage by many patriotic Japanese and provoked debate over the desirability of immediate war with Korea. ... In 1876, Japan further signaled the firmness of its intentions by dispatching three warships, four transports, and eight hundred soldiers to Korea ... [with the result that] Korea signed a modern Western-style treaty (the Treaty of Kanghwa) with Japan. This treaty formally declared Korea to be an independent country (supposedly clarifying its ambiguous relationship with China) and granted Japan various treaty port-style concessions. (HEA, 236-8)
Korea Icon: sam-taegeuk (three-color yin-yang symbol)
Woodblock print of Japanese forces taking the Korean king into "protective custody"
While the Korean conservatives looked to China to balance the growing Japanese influence, some Korean modernizers aligned themselves with Meiji Japan. In 1884, a handful of Korean reformers plotted a coup, in consultation with the Japanese minister in Seoul. On December 4, during a banquet celebrating the opening of a modern post office, the conspirators struck. Seven Korean officials were assassinated, and guards from the Japanese legation took the Korean king and queen into “protective custody. A new Korean government was proclaimed, and modernizing reforms were outlined. Chinese troops counterattacked the palace immediately, however, regaining custody of the king. The result of this failed coup, which only lasted two days, was to tarnish the reputations of both the reform and the pro-Japanese positions. (HEA, 238)
Portrait of Empress Myeongseong (a.k.a. Queen Min)
Their objective was to modernize Korea by attaining autonomy or independence from China by ending the tributary relationship and building a strong nation in the mode of the Meiji reform in Japan. But this posture was opposed by the conservative ruling faction, which was in favor of China’s milder reforms such as the Self-Strengthening Movement. This junta government lasted only three days before it was crushed by the Chinese army. Most of the leading intellectuals fled to Japan. To be noted here is that the reform movements of this whole period from the 1880s to the 1890s were attempted amidst the complex rivalry mainly between China and Japan, with Russia and the United States tangentially involved in the scramble. In the case of this coup attempt, it was Japan that was behind the plot, promising to offer a hand in the action. However, Japan did not keep its word, while China swiftly intervened to halt the coup. Thus, China gained pre-eminent influence over Korea for the following decade through the residency of a Chinese strong man [Yuan Shikai]. (Confucianism and Modernization in East Asia, 72)
Korea Icon: sam-taegeuk (three-color yin-yang symbol)
Painting of the Tunghak Uprising
The tensions resulting from the conflicting Chinese and Japanese ambitions in Korea were temporarily cooled by an agreement in 1885 that both China and Japan would withdraw their troops. This uneasy peace was brought to an abrupt end, however, by a religiously inspired Korean rebellion in 1894. ... [The Tonghak (Eastern Learning)] uprising swept across southwest Korea, fueled by popular discontent with heavy taxes and high interest rates. This became the most massive rebellion in recorded Korean history. An anxious Korean king asked China for military assistance, and the Qing Dynasty responded by sending a small detachment of soldiers. Japan countered by deploying a much larger force of its own. Although the Korean authorities, alarmed by the possibilities unleashed by this dual foreign intervention, quickly offered concessions to the Tonghak rebels, who agreed to lay down their arms, the Japanese troops remained. On July 23, a Japanese infantry regiment seized the Korean palace. On August 1, 1894, war was declared between China and Japan. (HEA, 238-9)
Woodblock print of Japanese troops putting down the Donghak Rebellion
Korea Icon: sam-taegeuk (three-color yin-yang symbol)
Woodblock print of the First Sino-Japanese War
Over the following nine months, the Japanese army easily expelled Chinese troops from Korea, captured territory in Manchuria, and even gained a foothold in coastal China proper. Qing Dynasty Chinese forces proved to be badly led, undermined by corruption, and split by faction and regionalism. ... Japan won this Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) with surprising ease. The war was much celebrated in the modern Japanese press but came as a tremendous shock, and a wake-up call, to China. Under the terms of the resulting Treaty of Shimonoseki that ended the hostilities, China was forced to transfer the island of Taiwan to Japan (as well, initially, as a strategic peninsula in southern Manchuria, which intervention by Russia, France, and Germany promptly compelled Japan to return) and to pay Japan an enormous indemnity equal to roughly 15 percent of Japan’s total gross national product. In addition, China formally acknowledge the independence of Korea, which in practice meant the ascent of Japanese influence there. (HEA, 239)
Map showing miitary maneuvers in the First Sino-Japanese War
Korea Icon: sam-taegeuk (three-color yin-yang symbol)
Queen Min
Woodblock print of Queen Min's Assassination
During the Sino-Japanese War, Japan moved quickly to assume a dominant position in Korea, extracting the right to begin constructing railways on the peninsula and to provide advisors for Korean domestic affairs. Even while the war with China was still raging, pro-Japanese Korean officials reorganized the government, introducing sweeping modernizing reforms (known as the Kabo reforms) in 1894-1895. (HEA, 239-40).
Kabo Reforms
[This] was another attempt by the court to implement institutional reforms, supported by another group of enlightenment-oriented yangban literati officials together with the second status groups of chung’in. These Kabo Reforms were basically a series of “Japan-oriented modernization movements” that ... may be summarized as follows: (1) it was initiated under Japanese influence in Korean politics; (2) the main groups of officials involved included the former moderate pro-enlightenment faction under the Taewon’gun reign in the initial phase of the movement; (3) they were gradually replaced by those who had plotted the Kapsin coup ten years earlier, who repatriated from their exile mostly from Japan and partly from the USA; thus, the second phase was led by a coalition cabinet consistent of both moderate and radical reformers; (4) then, in the third stage, the cabinet comprised a coalition of pro-Japanese and pro-Western groups. (Confucianism and Modernization in East Asia, 74)
Holograph of Queen Min
Despite Japanese victory in the war with China, Korea once again temporarily eluded reduction to an outright Japanese protectorate, partly because of the blatant contradiction inherent in the Japanese policy of pursuing domination in Korea while proclaiming a goal of promoting Korean “independence” from the archaic Chinese tributary system. The modernizing command that all Korean men cut their topknots and adopt Western hairstyles provoked great popular discontent, and when, in October 1895, a Japanese-backed coup assassinated the Korean queen and restored pro-Japanese officials to power, this assassination outraged and horrified Korean opinion. In February 1898, King Kojong, seeking to escape Japanese control, allowed himself to be smuggled out of the palace by Russian marines in the palanquin of a court lady. The king took refuge in the Russian legation, where he spent the next year. (HEA, 240)
Map of the Japanese Empire under General Tojo
By playing off Russian interests against the Japanese, as he had previously used the Chinese against the Japanese,  King Kojong was able to retain a measure of Korean independence. In 1897, the king returned to his palace and formally assumed the supreme East Asian title of “emperor” (in Korean, hwangje), asserting his sovereign equality with both the Chinese and Japanese monarchs. Over the next few years, modern army units were organized, postage stamps issued, and streetcars and electric lights introduced into the capital, and in 1902, the newly renamed Korean Empire even acquired a Western-style national anthem. ... A new spirit of modern Korean nationalism began to glimmer, and the hope kindled that Korea might successfully be transformed into an independent, modern, Western-style nation-state. The degree of material modernization remained limited, however, and in the early twentieth century, the dream of Korean independence would prove to be a false hope, as the lengthening shadow of the Japanese Empire stretched across the land. (HEA, 240)
Poster for the Korean TV series "Mr. Sunshine"
The Meiji Emperor on top of the Japanese Imperial Chrysanthemum Korea Icon: sam-taegeuk (three-color yin-yang symbol)