Until the Meiji period (1868-1912) Japan's relationship with the rest
of the world was defined mostly in terms of an East Asian world order
traditionally dominated by China. Japan was part of trade routes that
included much of Southeast and East Asia, and this trade resulted in
much cultural exchange as well as material exchange. In the sixteenth
century Japan began trading with Western countries, but soon found
it disruptive both because of the connections with Christianity and
because of the demand it created for precious metals. The government
therefore officially limited foreign trade to that with Dutch and Chinese
In the 19th century, Asia became more and more attractive to expansionist
Europeans and many countries were colonized. China itself was greatly
weakened and the old East Asia world order no longer functioned. Western
countries aggressively demanded that Japan begin to participate in
trade with them, and eventually Japan had no choice but to agree.
In the 1850s and 60s Japan signed various treaties with Western nations.
At the time, imperialism and colonization were the main institutions
that defined international relations and Japan soon became a colonizing
power of its own, governing both Taiwan and Korea. At the beginning
of the 20th century, Japan was recognized by Western powers as a force
to be reckoned with, and Japan became a member of the League of Nations.
In the years leading to World War II, Japan created a puppet state
in Manchuria, and became interested in gaining colonial power in other
Asian countries being vacated by European powers. The bombing of Pearl
Harbor and Japan's aggression in Asia led to war with the United States.
In the years following the defeat of Japan and the subsequent occupation
by American forces, Japan has been heavily influenced by the United
States in the political, economic and cultural arenas. Japan's constitution,
written during the occupation, with its prohibition against militarization,
and the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, which allows for extensive American
military presence in Japan, exemplify the post war relationship between
these two countries.
But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, this relationship has been
questioned. Many have asked whether Japan, particularly as a country
with great economic strength, should be responsible for its own military.
Japan gives much in foreign aid, but complaints continue that it is
not yet a responsible member of the First World bloc. These complaints
come mostly from Western countries, while another type of complaint
comes from many Asian countries. These complaints are mostly a result
of Japan's reluctance to accept the responsibility of accurately accounting
for its actions during World War II.
These complaints are symptomatic of the great changes in the world
order in the past decades, and Japan's difficulty in defining its position
in this new order.