Relations Between Japan and the United States, 1853–2018
Examine the complex history of U.S.–Japan relations.
The following article is written by Stanford Professor Emeritus (History) Peter Duus. Read the article below and then discuss the questions at the end with your groupmates.
At the beginning of their relationship in the mid-19th century, neither country regarded the other as friendly or cooperative. For more than 200 years the Japanese had followed a policy of limiting contacts, whether through trade or cultural exchange, with the outside world.
For the Americans, Japan was a mysterious “closed country” with an exotic culture but a backward economy and an anti-foreign government that mistreated shipwrecked foreigners, including American whalers, washed up on its shores.
The first swing of the pendulum
Picture of a Procession of Foreigners at Yokohama by Utagawa Yoshikazu, 1861.
Commodore Matthew C. Perry, ca. 1854.
Paradoxically the leaders of the new imperial government, many of them formerly members of the anti-foreign movement, realized that Japan could not survive in the world unless it made itself as strong as the “civilized” countries in the West, and they launched a program of rapid modernization.
As they looked for models of what a “civilized” country was like, the new government did not turn to the United States. It was a country too different from their own. For example, they found the
Not surprisingly the Japanese saw the American gunboats, as well as the American demands, as menacing and hostile. The shogun’s government, however, aware of its military weakness, agreed to sign a trade treaty with the United States. This provoked an anti-foreign movement that eventually brought about the overthrow of the shogun in 1868.
American democratic political system not only baffling but too egalitarian. Instead they looked for models in Great Britain, France, and especially Germany.
To be sure, the new Japanese leadership found much in the United States useful. The American banking system inspired their first attempt to create a national financial system; American advisers helped to build a new universal education system; the first generation of Japanese elementary school students studied American school textbooks in translation; and American advisors helped develop a new agricultural frontier in the largely unsettled northern island of Hokkaido, whose climate and topography bore a strong resemblance to the state of Massachusetts in climate and topography.
In sum, to the Japanese leaders, the United States, if not a model in all things, was a helpful mentor. And at the same, no longer seen as a menace or a potential military or diplomatic threat, as some European countries now were, it was generally regarded as a benign and friendly power.
For their part, the Americans were impressed by the Japanese efforts to overcome their backwardness. It no longer remained in the thrall of tradition as China and its other East Asian neighbors did.
As a result, the Japanese came to be regarded as progressive, hard-working, forward-looking, and go-getting people. By the end of the century, as the title of a popular book about the country put it, the Japanese were the “Yankees of the Pacific.” It is difficult to imagine higher words of praise.
The emergence of both Japan and the United States as countries on the march in the Asia-Pacific region introduced an element of strategic rivalry between them. Military planners in both countries began to see the other as the most likely adversary if war were to break out in the Pacific region.
To be sure, both countries tried to avoid conflict. In 1900 they signed an “open door” agreement proposed by the United States that committed the international community to respect the territorial integrity of China and guaranteed its market be open to all nations.
And in 1908 they reached an informal agreement to recognize each other’s paramount interests in their newly acquired territories. But other issues began to erode their relationship.
One issue was the arrival of Japanese immigrants in the United States. Before the turn of the century few Japanese had visited the United States or tried to settle there.
But following the annexation of Hawaii, thousands of Japanese who had gone to work on sugar plantations there flooded into the West Coast, willing to work for low wages and living in self-segregated communities.
This evoked fears in California and other West Coast states that this new flood of “Orientals” would overwhelm local populations.
State laws were passed to ban marriage between Asians and white Americans, to exclude Japanese immigrants’ children from public schools, to limit their rights to own land, and to curb migration of family members.
Ethnic discrimination sparked considerable resentment in Japan, whose diplomats protested it but were unable to curb it. After World War I a broad anti-immigrant movement aimed at maintaining the “purity” of American society succeeded in persuading Congress to pass a 1924 law that not only limited European immigration but essentially ended all immigration from Japan and the rest of Asia.
The Japanese public and Japanese politicians saw this as a “national humiliation.” It convinced many Japanese that the United States was dominated by a racist mentality that belied the country’s commitment to liberty and equality.
While American ethnic discrimination darkened the Japanese image of the United States, a second issue that pushed the pendulum toward increased friction was the future of China. After a revolution that overthrew the Qing dynasty in 1911, the country plunged into warlordism and civil war. Political and military leaders in Japan saw this as an opportunity to strengthen its “special relationship” with China based on many centuries of cultural interaction with Japan and its strategic importance to Japan.
During World War I Japan began to pursue a policy of political and sometimes military intervention in China to protect its interests there. In 1914 the Japanese presented China with the so-called Twenty-One Demands, which seemed an effort to turn China into a protectorate of Japan.
In the United States, where political leaders believed that their country, as the author of the “open door” policy, was a special protector of Chinese territorial integrity, immediately protested.
And American protests continued during the 1920s as the Japanese mounted military and political interventions in China aimed at curbing the rise of anti-imperialist nationalism, much of it focused on Japan. As a result, Japanese military and political leaders came to regard the Americans as interfering in a part of the world where they had few real interests.
In 1931 in violation of the “open door” policy, Japanese military units staged a takeover of the three northeastern Chinese provinces north of the Great Wall in an area bordering the Japanese colony of Korea.
They set up a new “independent” country, Manchuria, that was in fact under virtual Japanese military and administrative control. The United States protested, but did little else, and Japanese political and military encroachment continued in north China.
In the summer of 1937 the new nationalist government in China decided to resist, setting off a full-scale war with Japan. This was a major turning point.
The Americans came to see Japan as an aggressor nation like Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy, while the Japanese saw themselves as a strong new nation establishing a “new order in East Asia” that would make it no longer dependent on or subordinate to Western nations, including the United States.
While Japan made diplomatic efforts to mollify the United States, the Americans would accept nothing but Japan’s complete withdrawal from China.
“DECEMBER 7th 1941 — REMEMBER!!” by Charles Henry Alston, 1943.
In late 1941, frustrated by the stalemate and American interference, Japan attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
The war in the Pacific intensified ethnic hostility on both sides. The Japanese government referred to the Americans as “Anglo-American beasts,” and the Japanese press criticized their racism, their hypocrisy, their materialism, and their hedonism.
In the United States, cartoons portrayed the Japanese as more animal-like than human, and the press reported that the Japanese were especially cruel in their treatment of the Chinese people.
The American victory in 1945 brought a sudden—and eventually durable—swing of the pendulum. For the first time in its history, Japan underwent a foreign military occupation.
Thousands of American soldiers, sailors, and air force personnel scattered in bases and camps throughout the country brought Americans and Japanese face-to-face with one another as they never had been before.
Inevitably they learned more about each other and how they behaved and thought. While their views of one another were not always positive, neither were they deeply hostile.
The third swing of the pendulum
But it was American occupation policy that played a major role in changing the relationship.
While the Americans decided to punish Japan’s wartime leadership by trying them for war crimes, they also decided to pursue what today we would call “nation building.”
It launched political and social reforms intended to turn Japan into a peaceful democratic country by rewriting the Japanese constitution, making divorce easier for women, extending the length of required schooling, and a host of other changes based on American experience.
While some Japanese saw these reforms as an unnecessary intrusion on their way of life, for many the United States now became a model as well as mentor. Even after the occupation ended in 1952 attempts to undo the reforms were mostly unsuccessful.
Remarkably, just six years after fighting a bitter conflict as enemies, the American occupation also turned the two countries into allies with a common enemy.
In 1950 the outbreak of civil war between North and South Korea turned into an international conflict with the intervention first of the United States, and then the new Communist regime in China.
Faced with an understandably hostile and newly strong China, in 1951 Japan signed a mutual security treaty with the United States, allowing the Americans to maintain military and naval bases in Japan in return for maintaining international peace and security in East Asia and providing Japan with defense against armed attack by another power.
Since the 1950s the relationship between the two nations has been friendly and cooperative, but from time to time the pendulum has occasionally wobbled toward mutual criticism, disillusion, and competition.
The growing American involvement in the Vietnam War in the 1960s reminded the Japanese of their own country’s slide into militarism, and the emergence of the civil rights movement in the United States reminded them of continuing racism in American society.
At the same time, as Japan emerged in the 1970s as one of the fastest-growing economies in the world with a GNP second in size only to the United States, many Americans argued that it not was playing fair.
Its economic success, they said, was achieved by policies that protected Japan from American competition and advantaged the sale of Japanese goods in the United States. Indeed, by the 1980s it appeared that the United States, the cold warrior, and Japan, the economic warrior, were on the verge of a trade war.
What kept these little flutters of the pendulum from becoming a major swing was in part the Japanese government’s efforts to accommodate American criticism, and in part the slowdown of Japan’s economic growth in the 1980s and 1990s.
But once again a new turn in regional power balance was also at work. In the face of the reemergence of China as the most important military and economic power in East Asia—and a major global power—leaders in both Japan and the United States recognized that their national security was dependent on maintaining a cordial relationship.
American leaders knew that Japan was its most reliable and stable ally in East Asia, and Japanese leaders realized that the United States was its most important foreign protector. Those views seemed to be supported by public opinion in both countries.
In 2015, 70 years after the end of the Pacific War, a bi-national public opinion poll showed that substantial majorities of Japanese and American respondents not only had a great deal or fair amount of trust in the other country but also expressed distrust of China.
The relationship today appears to be more durable than it ever has in the past.
But as history has demonstrated, there always remains the possibility that the pendulum might swing again.
After reading the article above, discuss the following questions in your group. Someone in your group should take notes on your discussion.
What are some important themes in the history of U.S.–Japan relations?
Your teacher will ask your group to focus on one of the three pendulum swings that Professor Duus mentions. Focusing on your specific pendulum swing, discuss the following:
What are some of the key themes of this section?
What are some examples of how Americans and Japanese perceived
one another? What factors contributed to these perceptions?
How did or how do these perceptions affect U.S.–Japan relations?
shogun—a hereditary commander-in-chief in feudal Japan. Because of the military power concentrated in his hands and the consequent weakness of the nominal head of state (the emperor), the shogun was generally the real ruler of the country until feudalism was abolished in 1867.
egalitarian—asserting, resulting from, or characterized by belief in the equality of all people, especially in political, economic, or social life
topography—the arrangement of the natural and artificial physical features of an area
benign—pleasant and kind; not harmful or severe
annex—to take over territory and incorporate it into another political entity
paramount—more important than anything else; supreme
protectorate—a country or region that is officially controlled by another country
encroachment—intrusion on a person’s territory, rights, etc.
mollify—to appease the anger or anxiety of (someone)
stalemate—a state of deadlock
hedonism—the pursuit of pleasure; sensual self-indulgence
ethnic cleansing—the mass expulsion or killing of members of an unwanted ethnic or religious group in a society
gross national product (GNP)—the total value of all goods and services produced within a country in a year, including net income from investments in other countries
Nagai, Michio, “Nihon o seou tabi,” in Sekai no tabi: Hokubei tairiku, vol. 6, ed. Oya Soichi et al. (Tokyo: Chuo Koronsha, 1962), 416.
There were never any cases of disloyalty by Japanese Americans. Also, the terminology “relocation camps” is now seen as euphemistic for “concentration camps,” which was the term originally used by the U.S. government to describe these camps.
Footnote for “Relations Between Japan and the United States, 1853–2018”
Note from the website editors
In sum, during the first 50 years of the relationship, the United States and Japan had gone from mutual distrust and friction to a cordial if not particularly close relationship.
For the Japanese, with its orientation toward the European models, its trans-Pacific neighbor remained a somewhat distant country, neither a great power nor a familiar one.
And most Americans knew Japan only in a second-hand or third-hand way, as portrayed in its art and literature—or increasingly through travel accounts.
From the 1840s, when the United States acquired new territories on the Pacific, some Americans began to see Japan as a trans-oceanic neighbor, located on the main trade route from North America to markets in China and the rest of East Asia.
After earlier attempts, in 1853 the American government dispatched a small naval force to Japan under the command of Commodore Matthew Perry with an official request that Japan open itself to trade and normal diplomatic relations with other nations of the world.
1953 U.S. postage stamp commemorating the 100th anniversary of the opening of Japan.
Ethnic hostility extended even to the Japanese American community on the West Coast, who were thought to be disloyal to the United States and were incarcerated in relocation camps in 1942.²
In 1945 when an American public opinion poll asked how the United States should treat the Japanese after defeat, 14 percent of the respondents suggested ethnic cleansing.
The "evacuation" of Japanese Americans from West Coast areas under U.S. Army war emergency order, Los Angeles, CA, April 1942.
Illustration of Chinese Generals from Pyongyang Captured Alive by Migita Toshihide, October 1894. Collection of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
In 1895 Japan defeated China in a contest over which country would dominate Korea, and it acquired the Chinese island of Taiwan as its colony.
In 1898 the United States took over the Philippine Islands as its territory after victory in the Spanish American War, and a few years later it supported a “revolution” in the Hawaiian Islands that led to their annexation by the Americans.
Finally, in 1904–1905 Japan cemented its control over the Korean peninsula in a war with Russia, which had challenged its position there.
The second swing of the pendulum
At the turn of the century, the pendulum began to swing toward growing hostility and distrust as the regional balance of power in East Asia underwent major changes. Historically China had been the dominant power, linked to neighbors such as Korea by a system that marked them as subordinate to the Chinese emperor.
But after its 1842 defeat by the British, who sought to “open” the country to more trade with the West, China began a long slow collapse of the ruling Qing dynasty, which failed to pursue a policy of modernization as the Japanese had.
By contrast, Japan and the United States both became important new powers in the East Asia region as the result of three wars fought between 1894 and 1905.