The first Europeans visited Japan in the 16th century.1 As elsewhere, they established trade posts and started to convert locals to Christianity. The Japanese ruling class understood that similar actions started colonialism elsewhere and took countermeasures – such as getting rid of Christians by giving them the choice to convert or die. From the 1630s, no foreigner could enter and no Japanese could leave the country: Japan isolated itself.2 Luckily, it had no resources that the Europeans craved and would have invaded for.

For the following centuries, the Netherlands were the only Western power to trade with Japan by operating a trading post (1641–1853) on an artificial island close to Nagasaki. The Japanese crafts profited from the associated exchange of ideas.3 Other than that, there was sporadic trade with China and Korea.

However, Western countries weren’t happy with the country’s isolation in the long term. At first, the Dutch king wrote to convince Japan of more contact with the outside world in 1844. He wasn’t successful. So second, in 1853, the US surprised the Japanese by putting a few warships in Tokyo’s4 harbour and telling them they could either be invaded or just open their harbours for Western ships – which they did a year later. Consequently, Japan rapidly modernised to defend itself against Western imperialism. This meant things such as industrialisation, the promotion of education and installing an emperor (the “Tennō”) as the head of a centralised state. The feudal system – in which, for example, castes were inherited – was abandoned and the military class (the “Samurai”) lost their privileges and influence.

However, Japan did not just become Asia’s prime industrial nation, it also became expansionist. The country annexed small groups of islands from 1855, Korea in 1910 and ultimately large parts of Eastern Asia in the 1930s and 1940s. During its imperial expansion, Japan committed atrocities throughout Asia – for example by making at least 200,000 women military sex slaves – and attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. 100,000 people died when the allies bombed Tokyo5 and the Japanese population fell victim to two nuclear bombs in 1945.

At last, Japan surrendered, and the US became its occupying power until 1952. The Americans carried through democratic reforms etc. and, from the 1960s, Japan enjoyed an economic boom. By the 1970s, the country was the world’s third largest economy by GDP. However, a massive speculation bubble busted in the early 1990s and Japan has been more or less in a crisis ever since. This crisis is not just economical – with public debt that equals over 250 percent of the GDP – but also demographic. The country suffers from an aging population and the lowest birth rate in the world, and of course, it’s hard for the GDP to grow when the people working on it are getting less.

  1. To be specific: They were Portuguese.
  2. This foreign policy is called Sakoku (“closed country”).
  3. This is called Rangaku (“Dutch learning”).
  4. Tokyo was called Edo at the time.
  5. “Only” 18,000 people died when Nazi Germany’s Dresden was bombed.