Gateway to the Classics: Growth of the British Empire by M. B. Synge
Growth of the British Empire by  M. B. Synge

The Land of the Rising Sun

"Step by step we gained a freedom,—

Known to Europe, known to all;

Step by step we rose to greatness."

— Tennyson

V ERY different to China and her long sleep, is the story of wakeful Japan, that "child of the world's old age."

"The two most wonderful men in the world," said Louis Kossuth, "are Prince Bismarck and the Emperor of Japan."

Let us see how this Emperor or Mikado earned his well-won praise, and how in the short space of thirty years he and his Prime Minister, Count Ito, raised Japan from a state of oriental despotism to a first-class European power,—for it is a feat without parallel in the world's history.

The first knowledge of the Japanese Empire was brought to Europe by Marco Polo in 1295. He had heard of "Chipango," an island in the high seas, 1500 miles from the coast of China—the land of the Great Khan. This was the land of the Rising Sun, whose origin, though shrouded in mystery and legend, dates from the sixth century B.C.

With China, she had resented the interference of foreign traders, and rejected all attempts to introduce Western civilisation. She was as carefully sealed to the outer world, as the enchanter's famous casket. In the midst of the pearly waters of the northern Pacific Ocean, she lay in her self-imposed isolation, while the great world moved onward and upward; while eastward, some 5000 miles across the sea, the United States of America were rapidly becoming one of the first commercial nations in the world.

And so it happened one day in the year 1853, when the Japanese were living "like frogs in a well," they were rudely awakened from their dream of peace and security by the sight of some American war-ships advancing boldly to their coasts.

Commodore Perry had been sent by the United States, with a friendly letter from the President to the Emperor of Japan, his "great and good friend." The letter pointed out how near the two countries were to one another, and how important it was they should be friends and live peaceably together. As the great war-ships ploughed through the peaceful waters, towards the Land of the Rising Sun, the shore seemed alive with startled and wondering inhabitants. The arrival of Commodore Perry, with the President's letter, caused the greatest consternation. Notwithstanding his declaration of friendliness, they trembled before his battle-ships and powerful armaments. At first they indignantly refused to negotiate.

"Never has the clash of foreign arms been heard within the precincts of our holy ground," they cried as with one voice. "Let not our generation be the first to see the disgrace of a barbarian army treading on the land where our fathers rest. Peace and prosperity of long duration have enervated our spirit, rusted our armour, and blunted the swords of our men," they added, with heavy hearts.

The great ships sailed away, and eight months later returned for the answer. Meanwhile war in the Crimea had broken out, British war-ships were in Chinese waters, and the Japanese made up their minds, that they must sign the treaty demanded by the President of the United States. What chance had they against British and American war-ships, with their little fleet, which consisted of one little paddle-wheel steamer, two sailing vessels, and a three-masted schooner?

So the treaty was signed. Japan's beautiful ports were opened to foreign trade; the enchanter's casket was unwillingly unsealed at last. Other nations soon followed the example of the United States, and obtained treaties allowing them to trade. And to their great surprise, instead of barbarians, the Japanese found these foreigners kind and just. Soon after the entrance of the foreigners, a party of Japanese went to Europe; they travelled about from city to city, and returned in two years, astonished with all they had seen and heard.

"It is not the people of the West, who are the barbarians," they exclaimed on landing. "We ourselves are the barbarous people."

And what did the foreigners find in this mysterious country of the Japanese? They found an empire about the size of the British Isles, a group of islands "set in a silver sea," and thickly populated with quaint and fascinating little people. They found a mountainous district, with one volcano—Fujiyama, the peerless mountain—towering above the rest, short rivers and streams racing to the sea, and good harbours. Japan was a land of flowers. Gardening there had been brought to a fine art. From the humblest cottage to the Emperor's palace grounds, grew a profusion of wild roses, camellias, orchids, violets, and lilies, while much skill was lavished on the celebrated chrysanthemum of world-wide fame, as seen to-day in the official crest of Japan. The people themselves were short and very pleasing: they were dressed in long gowns of flowered cotton or silk with broad waist-bands. They wore no hats, but shielded off the fierce sun with fans and parasols. They were much taken up with art, and had brought drawing and painting to wonderful perfection. They were a people of the strictest and loftiest code of honour, light-hearted and happy. Such, briefly, was the Mikado's empire—the land of flowers and sunshine, in the middle of the nineteenth century, when she was forced to open her doors to the outer world.


The country was ruled by the Emperor in name, by the Shogun in deed. This dual control brought endless confusion, to the newly awakened empire; but it was not easy to abolish, in a moment, the manners and customs of hundreds of years. But the state of things grew unbearable, and at last the Shogun was forced to resign. Somewhat pathetic are his last words.

"I surrender the whole governing power into the hands of the Imperial Court. This is the best I can do for the interests of the Empire."

The resignation of the Shogun was followed by one of the most remarkable events in modern history. The chief land-owners, or feudal lords, who, for generations, had held their lands from father to son, now offered the Emperor all their possessions and all their men. With lofty eloquence, they acknowledged: "The place where we live is the Emperor's land. How can we call it our own?"

Thus at one stroke the lands of Japan passed to the State, and the feudalism of long years was no more.

Japan had awakened. The period of "enlightened peace" had begun.

And to-day, fully aware that their awakening is due to the visit of Commodore Perry in 1853, the Japanese have erected a monument to his memory on the spot, where he first landed in their midst, on that eventful day in July.

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