Japan first came in contact with the West in mid-sixteenth century when the first Portuguese reached Japan (1542). They accorded him warm welcome. As a result during the next fifty years Japan’s trade with the West flourished. But with the arrival of the famous Jesuits Missionary Francis Xavier in 1549, who converted a number of Japanese to Catholicism, the Japanese became suspicious of the Jesuits and ordered them to leave the country in 1587.
When these missionaries did not comply with the orders some of them were executed. During the twenties and thirties of the seventeenth century most of the Spaniards and Portuguese were expelled from Japan. For a while Japan embarked on a policy of complete isolation. In 1638 the Japanese were forbidden to leave the country under any pretext.
Japan maintained this isolation till the early years of the nineteenth century when the Western traders again began making efforts to establish contacts with Japan. In 1854 American naval officer Commodore Mathew Perry was sent by the U.S. Government along with two steam frigates and two sloops of war, and sought a treaty with Japan opening trade relations between the two countries.
He delivered a letter from the American President and told the authorities in Edo that he would return after a year for the answer. However, in 1854 he returned with more ships. In the meanwhile there was intense debate within Japan whether treaty should be concluded with USA or not and ultimately Shogun decided to accept Perry’s request.
This resulted in the signing of the Treaty of Kanagawa, the first formal agreement between Japan and a Western nation. As a result of this treaty Japan agreed to treat the ship wrecked sailors well. She also agreed to open two ports for the provisioning of ships and limited trade. Soon the other European traders also secured similar privileges as well as the right of extra-territoriality.
These developments evoked mixed reaction. While some decided to reorganize and accommodate the West, the others nourished strong anti- foreign sentiments, and organized attacks on the foreigners. Thus a sort of strife and confusion prevailed in the country between 1863 and 1864.
The American and the European fleets demonstrated their military strength by bombarding Kagoshima and Shinseki and thus gave a befitting reply to the anti-foreigner elements. In 1867, the dual system of government-with Emperor of Kyoto and the Shogun at Edo-was given up and all the powers were assumed by emperor Mutsuhito.
The process of modernization of Japan commenced with the fall of the shoguns. Shogun resembled the feudal lords of Western Europe in the middle ages and enjoyed all the governmental powers on behalf of the Japanese Emperor. They ruled from different capitals while the emperors lived in seclusion at Kyoto. The office of shogun was hereditary. In course of time the Shogun became unpopular with the Japanese people on account of their misgovernment. Therefore, the people began to feel that the Emperor should assume more active role.
On account of the national humiliation suffered by the Japanese at the hands of the western powers after 1854, the people compelled the last of the Shogun to resign in 1867 and personal control of government shifted in the hands of Emperor Mutshito, popularly known as Mejji- the Enlightened’.