Fall of korea to japanese imperialism

Why did Korea fall victim to Japanese imperialism?


This essay tries to elaborate the causes which contributed to the fall of Korea to Japanese imperialism by firstly examining the development of Japanese imperialism, and then looking into the competitions between Japan and its two major rivalries, namely China and Russia in their control over Korea.

In 1853, Japan was forced to open itself to the outside world by the United States. It was then pressured by the imperialist powers to sign unequal treaties which granted foreigners in Japan extraterritoriality and which imposed on Japan low tariff rates. Reduced to the semi-colonial status, Japan suddenly realized that the world was not a safe place. In order to prevent being further subjugated by the Western powers, the leaders of the Meiji government which was formed in 1868 after the downfall of the Tokugawa Shogunate, formulated a nationalistic policy of fukoku kyohei (rich country, strong military), stipulating Japan's goals to catch up with the Western powers economically and to increase its military strength to ensure its status as an independent country. The formulation of the policy initiated the development of Japanese imperialism.

Development of Japanese Imperialism

There were several reasons for the development of Japanese imperialism. First was the concern for its security and safety. Japan's need for security intensified as government leaders recognized the need to strengthen the defense of Japan against Russia and other Western powers. Being aware of the advanced technological achievements and military superiority of the West, Japan had fears of invasion from Western countries such as Russia. Moreover, China was militarily and economically weak to the extent that Japan was concerned that China would collapse under the oppression of the Western powers, which would have profound negative impact on the security of Japan. Yamagata Aritomo, father of the modern Japanese army, who advocated need of expansion more out of security reason than of conquest reason, recommended that Japan not only protect its own sovereignty but also its line of interest, which meant that Japan should not only assure the security in the homeland, but also need to extend its influence and control to the continent in order to ensure its security. Control over Korea was therefore a crucial element in protecting Japan against Western countries because of the two countries' geographical propinquity and Korea being bordering with both China and Russia. That the Korea peninsular as a "dagger pointed at Japan" should not fall in hostile hands was a principal goal of Japanese foreign policy.

The second reason that Japan embarked on imperialism was the aspiration from the Western powers. Japan had been observing and learning from the Western powers' intense rivalries and imperialistic acquisitions. From its bitter experience, Japan learned that imperialism would help exploit more resources which could facilitate a country to develop faster. Fukuzawa Yukichi and other writers supported foreign expansionism. Japan later applied what she learned from the Western powers to Korea in exactly the format that she was treated by the Western powers.

The third reason that gave rise to Japanese imperialism was Japan's belief in its role of leadership for Asia countries. Many Japanese leaders came to the belief that Japan had a "manifest destiny" to free the Asian countries from Western imperialistic powers and to lead them to collective strength and prosperity. Some ultranationalist groups such as the Black Dragon Society, as well as some influential writers, became increasingly popular. These groups and writers hold the views that Japan should take the role of leadership in Asia to expel foreign powers. They believed that the Yamato race as descendants of the sun goddess entitled the Japanese to such a role. In 1905, Japan's victory over Russia in the Russo-Japanese war made Japan the first Asian country to defeat a Western power. This status further bolstered Japan's belief in its role to lead Asia and tried to convince other Asian countries that only under the Japanese leadership would they stand a chance to expel Western imperialism.

From the beginning of the Meiji Period in 1868, Japan sought to make the country an industrial and military power similar to that of the Western imperialist powers. The Meiji leaders' desire to turn Japan into a first-rate nation (itt koku) also included the power and prestige derived from foreign territorial possessions. Therefore, it was inevitable that Japan would join the club of the powers in demands for privileges and rights in other Asian countries. However, the Meiji government realized that its military needed to be modernized and strengthened before it presented its demands to the Western powers. Although the Meiji oligarchs were restraint in the outward expressions of imperialism in the early years of the Meiji period, this did not imply that they disagreed with the objectives of foreign expansion. They considered it necessary that focus should be on modernization and economic growth to catch up with Western industrial powers prior to taking any significant steps to expand Japan's influence in foreign matters.

To catch up with the Western powers and shorten the process in the development of imperialism, Japan had to emulate the existing models from the Western powers. Japan had been wandering the direction of its imperialism expansion. In fact, the choice proved to be too much, and Japan tried to play for safety by aping both of the two major powers, Britain and Germany, and waiting to see in which direction the struggle would ultimately go. Though it appeared to be prudent, the policy was costly, for the creation of both a large army and a large navy imposed an excessive burden on a less developed country like Japan. Therefore, Britain, the paramount Power of the day, seemed to be the obvious and certainly the most popular prototype. The similarities that both countries are in position of a group of islands situated close to a continental land-mass, entailing a similar interest in the balance of power, and the apparent success of the British method of supporting a growing population by intensive industrialization and overseas trade, convinced Japan that emulating the Britain model would serve her own best interests. In addition, since both Britain and Japan then felt threatened by the same rivalry, namely Russia, a stronger bond also grew up between the two countries. In 1902, Britain, "the Empire on which the sun never sets," entered into an alliance with Japan, "the Empire of the Rising Sun."

However, the predominant samurai leadership in the Japanese military tradition, instinctively regarded the army as of greater importance, and was determined that its modernization should followed the models of the leading military nation in the West which, in 1868, was the French. Indeed, and largely for this reason, French prestige stood second only to that of Britain, in the eyes of the Meiji leadership. However, the swift and unexpected outcome of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 showed the French military reputation to be out of date. To those Japanese who had most admired the Second Empire, it was a profound shock. With characteristic pragmatism, Japan began to look instead to the Germans, who had not only defeated the French but at the same time had achieved national unification under the Prussian monarchy in the new Reich of 1871. German's performance was of exceptional interest to Japan. Thus, not only did the Japanese switch from French to German training for their army, whose organization was completely remodelled in 1878, but by the 1880s were relying heavily on German expertise in many other fields as well, notably in medicine and industrial and commercial practice.

While, on the one hand, the spectacular eastward advance of Russian imperialism was presenting a growing threat to the mainland immediately opposite the Japanese islands. As the Russians turned their attention farther southwards in search of ice-free ports and, after construction began on the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1891, the threat to Korea, and by implication therefore to Japan itself, became acute. By necessity, Japan had to tackle the immediate problem on the continent on its west instead of going south, which was completely different from the historical British approach of avoiding continental entanglements. Japan allowed herself to be drawn, through the peninsulas, ever more closely into the affairs of the mainland.

Korea's Traditional Relations with China and Japan

At the beginning of the nineteenth century Korea continued to enjoy the stable relationships with China and Japan as she had done for the past 160 years. With China, Korea maintained a cordial relationship which was based on the Chinese claim of suzerainty over Korea. The government of Korea sent regular missions carrying tributes to the emperor of China at least once a year, usually at the time of the winter solstice, and irregular missions on other special occasions, as an expression of its submission to China. The Chinese government reciprocated by sending imperial missions on special occasions such as the death of an important royal person or the investiture of a new king. With Japan, Korea had maintained contact on two levels. Since the early seventeenth century, Korea had sent occasional communication envoys to Edo carrying congratulatory messages on the accession of a new shogun. Their functions usually were mostly ceremonial. Korea also maintained a much closer relationship with the feudal fief in the islands that lay across the Korean Strait between southwestern Japan and the Korean peninsula. Poor in natural resources, Tsushima depended much on Korean trade for their livelihood. The daimyo of Tsushima had long entered into a quasi tributary relationship with the Korean king, which gave him the monopoly of Japanese trade with Korea, and also had served as a diplomatic intermediary between the governments in Edo and Seoul.

Korea had suffered immensely at the hands of these two neighbors. First by the Japanese who, under the hegemonic Toyotomi Hideyoshi, invaded Korea in the late sixteenth century. After the Manchu conquest of China in 1644, the ruling house of Yi Korea suffered much hardship at the hands of the Manchus who suspected the Koreans of pro-Ming motives. From these traumatic experiences, Korea developed unique policies of Sadae ('serving the great' China) and Gyorin ('neighborly relations' with Japan) that tried to maintain good relationship with both China and Japan. The goal of these relationships was to bar all intercourse between Korea and China and Japan, except for formalized ceremonial exchanges of envoys and limited trade conducted under close official supervision. In both relationships, even though the one with China was unequal in status and the other with Japan was equal, that the tributary missions to China and the communication envoys to Japan were dispatched signified Korea's desire to keep these two neighbors at a safe distance. The two policies also complemented one another: by submitting themselves to China's suzerain claim, the Koreans gained a defensive alliance against Japan; on the other hand, the Gyorin relationship not only enabled Korea to have control on Japanese mariners' harassment along its sea shores, but also gave Korea a useful bargaining position against China as a buffer on the Chinese northeastern frontier. The two policies had served Korea well in keeping the two neighbors at bay.

With the expansion of Western powers in the North East Asia, Japan became more concerned about the situation in Korea. Out of the fear of Russian expansion, the Japanese adhered to a policy of favoring the independence of Korea and the establishment of diplomatic relations with the great powers as a possible means of forestalling any Russian ambitions to annex or occupy the peninsula. In 1868 a special Japanese envoy was dispatched to Korea to inform the government of the Imperial Restoration that had taken place in Japan and to discuss the establishment of diplomatic relations, but the Korean Court refused to deal with him. In the following year two more Japanese missions were also rebuffed by the Korean Government. In 1872 another mission who was accompanied by two warships also failed in an effort to discuss a commercial treaty. These indifferent reactions of the Korean Government greatly inflamed Japanese public opinion and some even called for war against the Korean. Soejima Taneomi, then interim Foreign Minister, was sent to inform the Chinese Government of Japan's attitude and policy concerning Korea. In Peking, the officials informed Soejima that, while Korea was a vassal state, China was not responsible for the Korean internal affairs and the problems of peace or war. Upon returning to Japan, Soejima urged his government to invade and conquer Korea. But Emperor Meiji decided to settle the Korean problem by peaceful means since Japan was not yet strong enough to carry out expensive overseas wars. In 1875, a Japanese commission was sent to Korea to negotiate a treaty of amity and commerce. This time the mission was instructed to employ the firm methods that had been so successfully employed by Perry and Harris against Japan before. At the same time, Japan obtained assurances from China that no objection would be raised to diplomatic discussions provided the treaty was restricted to the opening of Korea to commerce. Under the Japanese pressure, Korea signed the Treaty of Kianghwa, which provided for the establishment of diplomatic relations, the opening of three ports, and extraterritorial jurisdiction over Japanese nationals. One of the most significant provisions was Article I, which stipulated that Korea, "being an independent State, enjoys the same sovereign rights as does Nippon." This provision was the first step in Japan's plan to detach Korea from the suzerainty of China.

Japan's rivalry with China and Russia

From 1976 to 1894, Japan and China engaged in a series of conflict over the control of Korea. One some occasions the conflicts were at the verge of war. These conflicts resulted in Japan's increasing and China's decreasing influence in Korean affairs. Japan did not want to go to war with China because of lack of firm conviction that China could be defeated. During this period, Korea underwent an internal turmoil between the factions of Tai Om Kun, who was pro-Chinese, and the Min Family. The Japanese government was deeply concerned in the situation and feared that unless Korea were quickly reformed and a stable government established, some powerful nations such as Russia might take it as a pretext for intervention. On July 23, 1882, Tai Om Kun encouraged a mob of rebellious Korean troops to attack the Japanese legation and seized the King and Queen. The royal family managed to escape, and the Japanese minster and his staff fought their way to board a British vessel and returned to Japan. The minster later returned to Korea, accompanied by a force of 800 troops and 3 cruisers. Offering to be a mediator, China also sent warships and a force of 4,000 troops to Korea. The Chinese seized and took Tai Om Kun to China. Japan turned down the mediation offer and carried out direct negotiations with the Korean Government. An agreement was later reached between Japan and Korea. The Korean government was forced to pay an indemnity to Japan, to punish the individuals involved in the outrage, and to acknowledge the right of Japan to station military forces in Korea. Despite the signing of the Treaty of Kianghwa, China still considered Korea a dependent state of China. In September 1882, China concluded a commercial convention with Korea, restating that Korea was still a tributary state of China. The Korean Government concluded this convention in a hope that China might be able to check on the Japanese penetration. In 1884, China involved in a war with France. In fear that a direct war with China at this time might give other powers opportunities to intervene in Korea, Japan wanted to have a peaceful settlement with China. A mission was then sent to Tientsin for direct discussions with China on the status of Korea. While the discussions were in progress, the war between France and China came to an end to the advantage of China, which gave China a stronger position in the discussion. In April 1885, the two sides came to an agreement that both countries would withdraw troops from Korea, and that in the future neither country would send troops into Korea without notifying the other in advance. The agreement was a further step on the Japanese side in that it gave Japan the same right over Korea as that of China.

Despite of its success of upgrading its position equal to that of China, Japan was still concerned of its security in regards to Korea, whose geographical location and internal condition still was a lure to the powers such as Russia to have a hand in. Japan believed that the weakness of the Korean Government would eventually invite foreign intervention. The ideal method to deal with this potential was to handle the Korea internal affairs according to the Japanese model, preferably done by Japan itself. Therefore, China was regarded as an obstacle. Only when the Chinese influence was eradicated could Japan assume the position of primary influence over the Korean Government. On the other hand, China still attempted to gain complete control over Korea by reinstalling Tai Om Kun back to Korea and to obstruct Japan at every opportunity.

The rivalry ultimately led to war. In 1893, the so-called Tong Hak Society (Society of Eastern Learning) broke out a revolt against the maladministration of the Korean Government. In June1894, at the request of the Korean King, China deployed a large number of troops to Korea and informed Japan of the deployment according to the 1885 agreement between the two sides. In disregard of the Chinese notification, Japan also dispatched troops to Korea. However, by the time both Chinese and Japanese troops arrived, the uprising had been brought under control by the Korean Government. The King requested the withdrawal of the Chinese and Japanese troops, which was refused. Both sided insisted that the other withdrew first. On July 24, under the pressure from Japan, the Korean King authorized Japan to expel the Chinese troops. On July 25, China and Japan went to war. The Chinese troops were no match for the better trained and better equipped Japanese troops. In September, Japanese troops captured Pyongyang and began its drive toward the Yalu River in pursuit of the crumbling Chinese troops. The Japanese navy also scored a decisive victory at the battle of the Yellow Sea. The Japanese troops later landed in southern Manchuria and on the Shandong peninsula. Fearing that further resistance would result in an attack on its capital Peking, China consented to negotiate peace. A treaty was signed at Shimonoseki on April 17, 1895. According to the treaty, China had to pay a huge indemnity to Japan, and to cede Taiwan, the Pescadores Islands and the Liaotung Peninsula. In the treaty, China was forced to formally recognized Korea as a sovereign and independent state. However, only six days after signing the treaty, Germany, Russia, and France organized a tripower intervention to pressure Japan to restore the Liaodong peninsula to China.

The victory in the Sino-Japanese was of great significance to Japan's road to imperialism. Besides winning a foothold on the mainland by holding paramount influence on the Korean peninsula, the acquisition of Taiwan offered both an agriculturally rich domain to Japan and a strategically important island out of the southern coast of China. The huge indemnity fueled to accelerate the expansion of Japanese industries. Most important of all, Japan now stood up as a great power, recognized by the other great powers as equally powerful. Japan became a full-fledged member in the club of imperialist powers. In 1902, Japan and Britain entered a mutual defense alliance, which in effect recognized Japan as one of the world's great powers.

However, Japan had another rivalry to deal with before it could fully exercise its power to run Korean affairs. With China having eliminated from Korean affairs, Russia seized the opportunity to extend its influence on the peninsula. After several failed attempts to peacefully settle the conflicts of their interests in Korea and Manchuria, in February, 1904, Japan went to war with Russia. The war was a military disaster for Russia. The Japanese army moved from victory to victory in the battle field. On May 27, the Japanese navy virtually destroying the Russia fleet in the battle of Tsushima. The two sides finally agreed to negotiate peace as the two sides were exhausted both militarily and economically by the war. A treaty was signed on September 5, 1905. In the treaty, Russia acknowledged Japan's paramount political, military and economic interests in Korea.

The Fall of Korea

Numerous agreements were exchanged between Japan and Korea during the last three decades of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th century, which incrementally and collectively culminated to the 1910 annexation treaty in which Korea became a territory of Japan. Of these agreements, the most important ones were those made in 1904 and 1905, which resulted in Korea becoming a protectorate of Japan, and a 1907 agreement which placed the Korean internal affairs in the hand of Japan's Resident-General.

In 1904, during the Russo-Japanese War, Korea became a quasi-protectorate of Japan. On 22 August 1904, Korea agreed to "adopt the advice" of Japan regarding "improvements in administration", while Japan agreed to ensure "the safety and repose of the Imperial House of Korea" and guarantee "the independence and territorial integrity" of Korea.

After the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, Korea became a full protectorate of Japan. In the agreement signed on 17 November 1905, Japan agreed to represent Korea in its relations with other countries and to protect "the subjects and interests of Korea" in other countries. As Korea's proxy in foreign affairs, Japan would mediate all existing and future treaties between Korea and other countries.

On 24 July 1907, Korea and Japan signed an agreement which gave the Resident-General the authority to the full control of Korea's domestic affairs.

On 22 August, 1910, the Emperor of Korea ceded his sovereignty over Korea to the Emperor of Japan. On 29 August, 1910, the cession was announced to the world at large and became legally effective.

Japan's logic of annexation was merely following the handbook by John W. Foster, the former US Secretary of State who argued in a widely circulated address before the National Geographic Society, in 1897, that the United States should annex Hawaii, other than make it protectorate, in order to prevent it from falling into the hands of a rival and potential enemy, namely Japan. Foster's arguments were precisely what Japan had in mind. A decade later, Japan decided that Korea should be an integral part of Japan, and not just a protectorate. In fact, it is dramatic that the tactics that Japan applied to open Korea was following exactly what the US had taught Japan in 1853.


Japanese imperialism was different from its counterpart of the Western powers'. Unlike imperialism of the Western powers whose major objectives was economic, at the early stage of Japan's imperialistic expansion, security was the primary drive. Therefore, Japan's imperialistic expansion at the early stage was rather prudent and less aggressive. Having experienced the bitterness of being oppressed by the Western powers, Japan was sensitive in term of its own security. Even though the unexpected economic gains from conquering and from huge indemnity, as well as the pride and prestige were added to its impetus at the later stage of expansions, security was still the leading concern. Japan believed that a weak government would lead to foreign intervention. The fall of Korea to the Western powers would endanger her own security, so would the fall of China and other Asian countries. Since Asian countries could not reform their governments on their own, it was necessary for Japan to assume the leadership and take the responsibility to bring changes to those countries by use of force. By doing so, Japan could ultimately assure her own security. The geographical importance with a weak government of Korea, and the concern of security of Japan and the sense of responsibility, were the causes that turned Korea victim of Japanese imperialism.


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