Despite efforts from global nations to gain access to Japan, the shogunate managed to hold firm ground for over two hundred years under a strict policy of isolation known as sakoku. In the summer of 1853, four US Navy ships entered the Bay of Edo (modern-day Tokyo) and US Navy Commodore Matthew Perry made his demands clear to the Japanese. Threatening the Japanese with powerful Paixhans Guns, the first naval warfare guns designed to fire explosive rounds, the shogunate realized there was little they could do to withstand such an attack, let alone fight back. The four US Navy ships came to be known in Japan as the Black Ships (kurofune).
In March the following year, Commodore Perry returned to Japan, this time with seven ships, and forced the ruling party to sign a treaty that opened Japan to trade with the US. The Treaty of Peace and Amity, was followed by similar treaties signed with the United Kingdom and other nations, and led to Japan signing another agreement with the US, the Treaty of Amity and Commerce, in 1858, which opened ports to trade in five Japanese cities.
Many Japanese scholars had issues with these seemingly one-sided agreements. The majority of the treaties offered Japan unequal benefit, giving the foreign trade merchants control over the import taxes and assigning foreigners a form of “diplomatic immunity” protecting them from local Japanese laws and law enforcement.
The opening of Japan was not entirely one-sided, however. Many Japanese students went to study abroad, and Japan welcomed a foreign workforce, which propelled the nation into modernization.
The appearance of the Black Ships and the forced opening of Japan to foreign trade was a wake-up call for the Japanese. The people realized they were far behind the rest of the world’s leading nations as far as intimidating power goes, and a select group sought to remove the shogunate from control and strengthen Japan. The Meiji Restoration of 1868 restored the imperial rule of Japan, under Emperor Meiji, with the goal of combining Western technology with traditional Japanese values for a better system that kept Japan in control of Japan and free from Western threat and forceful influence. This “restoration” led to a modernization of Japan’s military force, moving them away from traditional samurai and into a Western-style military structure.
Ultimately, this would propel Japan into the twentieth century with a formidable military force that it used to invade neighboring nations, including China, Korea, and Taiwan, and brought Japan into World War I and World War II. After the surrender of Japan in 1945, the US occupied the island nation until 1952, when Japan was granted independence. Okinawa, however, remained under US occupation until 1972, partly due to its strategic location, which benefited the US efforts in the Vietnam War. Since its release from US occupation, Okinawa has remained a major US military location with the majority of US forces in Japan located on the small island. In the decades since 1972, the US and Japan have sought to find a reasonable approach to reducing or removing the US military presence in Okinawa, which has remained a sore subject for the Okinawan people; a sore subject that was further aggravated in mid-October 2012 when two US Navy servicemen were arrested and charged with the sexual assault of a young Japanese woman in Okinawa.
MIT: Black Ships & Samurai (English)
Columbia University: Commodore Perry and Japan (English)
US Navy Museum: Commodore Perry and the Opening of Japan (English)
National Archives & Records Administration: The Treaty of Kanagawa (English)
Yale Law School: The Treaty of Kanagawa (English)
Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan (Japanese)
Japan History: Black Ships (Japanese)