Japan’s Ports and Power

At the turn of the nineteenth century, Japan’s ports had long been key to the country’s transportation infrastructure, serving domestic coastal shipping networks and limited East Asian and Dutch trade. In the East Asian state system, trade and diplomacy were combined rather than separate functions of foreign interactions, and designated ports, like Nagasaki, were equipped to handle both. By the 1850s, however, Japan’s port system changed dramatically with the forced opening of select seaports to international trade. Paradoxically, both the earlier maritime restrictions and their gradual undoing through the opening of international trade ports aimed to ensure Japan’s national security and state sovereignty.

The tipping point in foreign policy came in 1853-54 when, after half a century of minor attempts by the British, Russians, and others, an American expedition, led by Commodore Matthew Perry, used gunboat diplomacy to force Japan’s Tokugawa shogunate to accept limited trade and diplomatic relations with the threat of military confrontation. In this famous incident, the Americans compelled the Japanese to change two centuries of austere policies that were largely designed to restrict foreign, especially Western, contact. Initiated in the 1630s, the so-called “closed country” edicts cut off what proved to be an emerging global trade to protect the fledgling Tokugawa regime from unwanted influences, especially Western Christians—and their Japanese trading partners and converts—who were seen as subversive to the new order.

The short-term objective of Perry’s expedition was to secure maritime access to Japan, including fair treatment of distressed sailors and the provision of necessities like water and coal. These demands came at a time when an increasing number of foreign vessels were plying East Asian waters as shipping and navigation technologies improved worldwide. The longer-term goal was to establish diplomatic relations and direct trade. Japan signed “unequal” commercial treaties, also known as the Ansei Treaties, in 1858 with the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, the Netherlands, and France. These opened five treaty ports to foreign commerce, giving the Western powers privileges such as fixed tariffs, extraterritoriality, and most favored nation status, none of which were reciprocated.

Some domestic factions, especially those located at the country’s margins, saw the promise of opening to trade and the risks of not doing so. Engaging the foreigners and purchasing vessels and firearms gave them an edge over the central government, strengthening them to overthrow the Tokugawa with the rallying cry of sonnō jōi, “Revere the Emperor, expel the barbarians.” Under the modernizing Meiji government, the new domestic agenda supported foreign policy and national security imperatives in conceding to Western demands, beginning what would be an economically fraught process of engaging in global trade, and funding and establishing the infrastructure and services (such as jetties, lighthouses, customs offices, and connecting railroads) that provided shippers and merchants with the technologies they needed to conduct trade.

Moreover, Japanese business and political leaders strategically targeted particular industries and products, including silk, cotton, tea, wheat, and rice, for export. Coal was one of these key commodities and the development of Japan’s coal industry met more than one need. Beyond its sale for domestic use in fueling the country’s modern industries, coal immediately began fulfilling foreign demand in the treaty ports. In addition to generating revenues for the growing network of foreign steamships operating in the region, entrepreneurs established coaling stations and created a vigorous export trade, supplying key Asian hubs in the British empire, especially Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

In some cases, ports like Moji, at the tip of northern Kyushu, became Special Trading Ports, which opened in the 1880s and 1890s to handle limited trade under full Japanese jurisdiction. The designation of these ports allowed foreign vessels to enter a greater number of harbors to load and unload cargo, including coal for export or ships’ use. Moji was also retooled to serve military needs during the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, handling the nation’s strategic interests in addition to commercial ones. Other Special Trading Ports, like Naha in the Ryukyus and Muroran in Hokkaido, were opened to curb illegal trade and expand state oversight in these remote sites.

In the closing decades of the century, as government officials worked to revise the unequal treaties through a combination of legal, institutional, and social change at home and diplomacy abroad (revisions were enacted in 1899), the Japanese enhanced and expanded their own system of ports, linking them directly to a broad web of shipping lines and international seaports throughout East Asia and around the world. Doing so helped the country emerge from semi-colonial status to become an economically and militarily strong state that reordered traditional East Asian relations and launched its own empire. Ports were essential to this island country’s efforts to regain national sovereignty, develop economically, and compete in an imperialistic world order.

During the latter half of the nineteenth century, Japan’s seaports were transformed from sites that primarily handled domestic coastal shipping to deep water harbors with the equipment necessary to accommodate commercial steamships and state-of-the-art warships. If anything, the transition in Japan’s port system tells us something about the degree to which a country’s transportation infrastructure is plugged into other national and supranational networks in such a way as to impact, not just domestic economic interests, but also advance national security and foreign policy objectives.

Dr. Catherine L. Phipps is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Memphis and Author of Empires on the Waterfront: Japan’s Ports and Power, 1858-1899.

This article is part of our Big Questions Series.