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In-depth Japan and the 1911 Xinhai Revolution
The Xinhai Revolution and Japan-China Relations

Kawashima Shin [Profile]


From the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century, Japan was a source of modern learning for China. It was also the “cradle of the revolution,” providing a place of refuge for numerous exiles. It was in this context that the Xinhai Revolution broke out in 1911. With international politics in disarray, Japan was to play a complex and diverse role as events unfolded.

Japan-China Relations in the 19th Century

During the Edo period (1603–1868), trade and other contacts between Japan and the outside world were strictly controlled by the Tokugawa shogunate. In addition to the officially sanctioned trade with China and the Netherlands that passed through the port of Nagasaki, the Tsushima domain conducted trade with Korea and the Satsuma domain with the Ryūkyū Islands and with Fuzhou in southern China. The northern Matsumae domain also traded with the Qing Dynasty via the Ainu and Tungusic peoples.

In China, trade with neighboring countries was carried out under China’s ancient tributary system, and the government permitted limited commerce with Western countries through the port of Guangzhou (the Canton trade). In addition, private merchants in certain coastal cities were permitted to trade with other Asian countries.

Trade relations between Japan and Qing-dynasty China opened up in the late seventeenth century after the surrender of the Ming loyalist Zheng government on Taiwan. For the next 170 years or so, Chinese merchants visited Nagasaki and traded with the Japanese. Through these resident Nagasaki traders—numbering in the thousands at their peak—China imported Japanese copper and marine products, while the Japanese imported sugar, as well as various cultural and luxury goods.

This situation changed in both countries around the middle of the nineteenth century. China’s defeat in the Opium Wars and pressure from the Western powers forced the Qing government to open additional ports besides Guangzhou to trade with the West. Similarly, Japan was forced to open Nagasaki and other ports to foreign shipping in 1859. Chinese merchants spread quickly from Nagasaki to Kobe, Yokohama, Hakodate, and other coastal cities and began to export local marine products and other goods directly to China. The port authorities in Nagasaki and Hakodate also began looking for ways to ship Japanese goods directly to Shanghai without relying on Chinese and Western intermediaries. Indeed, this was the original mission of the Senzai Maru, on which the Chōshū samurai Takasugi Shinsaku traveled to Shanghai in 1862.

In 1868 the Meiji Restoration set Japan on the road to becoming East Asia’s first modern state. In 1871 Japan and China concluded the Sino-Japanese Friendship and Trade Treaty. This was the first equal treaty between the two countries, but both the negotiation process and the outcome testified to China’s position of strength. Although the Meiji Restoration eventually came to be seen as a resounding success, at the time China and Korea regarded radical change on this scale as a recipe for chaos. Japan’s new government was looked on with skepticism until at least 1880, after it had crushed the Satsuma Rebellion and implemented the Matsukata financial reforms. China also held a decisive advantage over Japan in terms of naval power—at least as late as the second half of the 1880s. Japan’s position of weakness vis-à-vis China in these early years can be seen clearly in its diplomatic response to the 1886 riot by Chinese sailors in Nagasaki.

Nagasaki port during the Meiji era (Photo: Nagasaki Museum of History and Culture)

All this changed after the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–5. Japan’s victory allowed it to take possession of Taiwan and secure economic and territorial concessions on a par with those forced on China by the Western powers. The first Sino-Japanese War also marked a turning point in Japanese attitudes toward China. Foreign Minister Mutsu Munemitsu’s assessment of the conflict as a war between the modern (Japan) and the traditional (China) was typical of the symbolic significance that victory held for many Japanese, who increasingly tended to feel that their country was now superior to China. In China, meanwhile, Japan’s victory prompted calls for a new, modern government along the lines of the one established by the Meiji Restoration.

  • [2011.10.27]

Editorial Planning Committee chair of and professor of international relations at the University of Tokyo. Born in Tokyo in 1968. Graduated in 1992 from the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, where he majored in Chinese area studies. Received his PhD in history from the University of Tokyo. Previously an associate professor at Hokkaidō University. Author of Chūgoku kindai gaikō no keisei (The Formation of China’s Modern Foreign Policy), 21 seiki no Chūka: Shū Kinpei Chūgoku to Higashi Ajia (The Sinic World in the Twenty-First Century: Xi Jinping’s China and East Asia), and other works.

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