15.6 The Modernization of Japan

In 1853, United States warships arrived off the coast of Japan demanding Japan open its ports to trade. Japanese leaders debated how to respond. Some resisted giving up their longstanding policy of seclusion. Others felt that the wiser course was to learn from the foreigners.

Illustration of a man in decorated military dress, with short hair, a mustache and manicured beard.

Generate Explanations

Emperor Mutsuhito took the name “Meiji,” or “enlightened rule,” when he came to power. What made his rule “enlightened”?


  • Identify the problems faced by Tokugawa Japan.
  • Explain how the United States opened Japan to the outside world.
  • Analyze the causes and effects of the Meiji Restoration.
  • Describe how Japan began to build an empire.

Key Terms

  • Matthew Perry
  • Mutsuhito
  • Tokyo
  • Meiji Restoration
  • Diet
  • zaibatsu
  • homogeneous society
  • First Sino-Japanese War
  • Russo-Japanese War

Unrest in Tokugawa Japan

In the end, Japan abandoned its isolation. As a defense against Western imperialism, Japan decided to learn from the West. It swiftly transformed itself into a modern industrial power and then set out on its own imperialist path.

The Tokugawa Shoguns

By 1603, Tokugawa Ieyasu had gained the office of shogun, the top military commander in Japan. This ended a long period of lawlessness and chaos in Japan. Although the emperor still lived in his capital of Kyoto, the shogun held the real power in Edo. The Tokugawa shoguns reimposed centralized feudalism on Japan, bringing the daimyo under their control and presiding over a long period of peace.

In 1637, the Tokugawas closed Japan to foreigners, and barred Japanese from traveling overseas. Their only window on the world was through Nagasaki, where the Dutch were allowed very limited trade.

For almost 250 years, Japan developed in isolation. During that time, the economy expanded, especially internal commerce. Farm output grew, and bustling cities sprang up.

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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments