Compare and Contrast Approaches in China and Japan to European and United States Imperialism Between 1800 and 1918 Essay

China and Japan both responded differently to European and United States imperialism. The two countries had maintained isolationism for a long time, and between 1800 and 1918, they were placed under pressure by the western nations of Europe and the United States to open their borders for trade. The countries had been left behind by the transformation that took place during this time in Europe and the United States. Therefore, these powers wanted to compel the two Asia states to open their doors for international trade. Europe and the United States were using their power and technological advancement to compel the two nations to welcome international trade. Although both countries allowed the influence of the western powers, they did so under different conditions. This essay will compare and contrast how Japan and China responded to European and North American imperialism.

The similarity between the two countries’ responses is that they had to concede to the western powers. China limited trade to one port while the Japanese had allowed trading with the Dutch, which also took place through the port of Dujima.[1]

In a way, both countries made some changes politically in response to western influence. A government with different sentiments was instituted in China, while Japan allowed the acculturation from the West. China welcomed the western intruders but did not give the traders any special treatment by forcing them to confinement and limited access to the trade area.[2]

Japan was equally resistant but finally agreed to allow more trade with Europe and the United States.

The western powers could not accept this for long, and in 1834, Lord Napper was sent by Britain to pressure China into opening up more doors for international trade. It resulted in animosity between the two nations since the Chinese government refused to open up for more trade. The Chinese people surrounded the western merchants from the Cantons. The situation escalated in tension after a Briton killed a Chinese man and the British officials refused to hand it over to the Chinese authorities. It resulted in the armed naval confrontation between the Britons and the Chinese. This led to the first opium war between China and Britain, where China lost in the fight, and this gave birth to the unequal treaties that were signed between China and Britain.

On the other hand, Japan was receptive and quickly gave in to Western powers’ demands. It was followed by the United States sending Commodore Perry to Japan to give the country a request to open its ports for trade to flow between the two nations. The Japanese government was ready to open up, and they agreed to negotiate with him, which ended in the country opening up its borders. It was very different from how the Chinese responded to the western powers, where Chinese people saw the western merchants and their government as barbarians. Hence, China did not appreciate and recognize the threat that the British officials presented. This treaty ended the seclusion that had existed for long for Japan and China. However, the agreements that Japan signed were much more peaceful, while those that China approved were agreed upon after a massive loss on China’s side because they did not recognize the superior powers of the West.

During this period, there was the end of the shogunate, military government, and the Meiji dynasty’s restoration in 1868.

These new leaders wanted to place Japan on the global map as a superpower, and they knew that the only way was through corroborating with the western powers. Thus, the Japanese opened the doors to western powers so that they could industrialize. To foster this relationship, Japan sent its people to western countries to learn there while western countries came to Japan to exchange knowledge. Furthermore, Japan abolished feudalism, adopted new forms of taxation, and adopted the West’s way of doing things. It led to establishing infrastructures such as banks and other financial institutions compared with what was available in the West. It drove Japan to become highly industrialized while China was left with little development.

On the contrary, China tried to modernize, especially after the decline of the Taiping rebellion. However, the rate of modernization was of a smaller scale than that of Japan. The modernization only involved constructing a railway and introducing new weapons, but this did not have profound effects and only affected a small number of people. It was partly contributed by the fact that China did not allow for cooperation with the western traders. China failed to appreciate the structural change that had taken place in the West, and therefore, they did not see the need to adapt to the reforms that were introduced by the western powers. Modernization in China was superficial, while Japan changed the political system to reflect that of the West, which resulted from the rapid modernization.

Japan responded by welcoming the new culture that the West introduced as an attempt to modernize. The fact that Japan had long adapted most of China’s culture made it easy for the country to adopt the new culture with ease.[2]

This made multiculturalism thrive in Japan. During this time, China was the largest and the most powerful country in Asia and therefore considered itself the epicenter of civilization. Thus, they considered imperialism from the West as unnecessary since the nation was already performing well compared with its neighbors. It made the country resist and fight back any attempt to intrude. Furthermore, the leaders who were ruling Japan were reform-minded. Therefore, they encouraged the changes that were being introduced while the leaders who were ruling in China wanted to maintain the traditions.

In conclusion, although some similarities have been how the countries responded to western imperialism, there are significant differences in their approach. The Japanese responded by welcoming the civilization of the West that Europe and the United States introduced. It made Japan make structural changes and change the political systems to accommodate the changes that were being introduced. On the contrary, China had positioned itself as the most powerful nation in Asia and considered itself a center of civilization. It made the country resist western powers and preserve its traditions.


  1. Dykstra, Yoshiko Kurta, Donald Keene, George Tanabe, Carol Gluck, and Arthur E. Tiedemann. Sources of Japanese Tradition: From earliest times to 1600. Vol. 1. Columbia University Press, 1964.
  2. Lockwood, William W. “Japan’s response to the West: the contrast with China.” World Politics 9, no. 1 (1956): 37-54.