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Students > U.S.–Japan Relations > Relations Between Japan and the United States, 1853–2018

Relations Between Japan and the United States, 1853–2018

Reading Assignment

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.


Relations Between Japan and the United States, 1853–2018 
By Professor Emeritus Peter Duus, Stanford University

Today relations between Japan and the United States are close and friendly. The two countries are military allies, stable democracies, and close trading partners. But this has not always been the case.


During the last century and a half, relations between the two countries have swung back and forth like a pendulum, swerving between friendship and hostility, conflict and cooperation, admiration and criticism, interdependence and rivalry, and even war and peace. 

These swings often appear contradictory. In the 1960s one Japanese observer, Nagai Michio, who had lived and studied in the United States, observed, “Can someone who is close to us sometimes be our enemy and our conqueror, sometimes our lover and teacher, and moreover our dominator too... For the Japanese, the United States of America is a country just like such a person.¹


But these swings in the pendulum were propelled by political, economic, social, and even technological changes in both countries, and even more importantly by shifts in the balance of power in East Asia that influenced how leaders in both countries regarded the other.

Iwakuni Friendship Day 2016 air show demonstrates U.S.–Japan alliance, Marine Corps Air Station, Iwakuni, Japan, May 5, 2016.

U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Douglas Simons/Released. Source: U.S. Marine Corp

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.

Bequest of William S. Lieberman, 2005. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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.

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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.

Photo by Matthew B. Brady. Identifier: LC-USZC4-7502. Source: Library of Congress

American democratic political system not only baffling but too egalitarian. Instead they looked for models in Great Britain, France, and especially Germany.


asserting, resulting from, or characterized by belief in the equality of all people, especially in political, economic, or social life

Copy of beautiful-color-ui-gradients-bac

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. 


the arrangement of the natural and artificial physical features of an area

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.


pleasant and kind; not harmful or severe

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.

Japanese woodblock print of Perry (center) and other high-ranking American seamen.

Identifier: LC-USZC4-10708. Source: Library of Congress

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.


more important than anything else; supreme

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.

Japanese Laborers on Spreckelsville Plantation, Maui, HI, by Joseph Dwight Strong, ca. 1885.

Painting by Joseph Dwight Strong, 1885. Source: Wikimedia

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.