In the 17th century, Tokugawa Ieyasu established a bakufu (military bureaucracy) that consisted of a shogun, who was an absolute dictator and his 'vassals', they daimyo. The emperor became little more than a figurehead, living 480 km away in Kyoto.

Under this system, Japan became very isolationist, turning away Russian and American attempts to trade in 1791. However, with the coming of Commander Matthew Perry in 1853, Japan became more open, especially when 4,000 marines showed up the next year. Westerners were allowed to trade at the small ports of Shimoda and Hakodate.

A few years later, the samurai class showed increased resistance to foreign influences. This resentment turned against the shogunate, which collapsed in 1868, beginning the Meiji ("enlightened rule") age. The emperor, as a symbol of his new power, moved to Edo (renamed Tokyo), the previous home of the shogunate. The Maiji era was a time of rapid reform and industrialisation. Huge corporations, zaibatsu were formed, of which four dominated the economy: Mitsui, Mitsubishi, Sumimoto and Yasuda. The samurai financer Masayoshi Matsukata borrowed money from these huge corporations.

By 1914, Japan had achieved domination in east Asia by aquiring the Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa) and the Bonin Islands (Ogasawara). They also controlled Southern Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands. In 1894, the Tonghak revolt in Korea prompted Chinese and Japanese intervention, leading to a clash between these two powers. The Chinese were crushed on land and sea, leading to the Japanese takeover pf Taiwan and the Pescadores. Korea, briefly independent, was later captured by the japanese in 1904.

Japan, wary of foreign (especially Russian) aggression in the area negotiated an alliance with Britain in 1902. In 1904, Japanese troops, invading Korea moved north towards the Yalu. They subsequently blockaded Port Arthur, on lease to the Russians. The Russians surrendered on New Years Day of 1905. The Russian Baltic Fleet had travelled around the world, only to arrive too late, and were defeated in a stunning battle by Admiral Togo. In the Treaty of Portsmouth, Russia surrendered south Sakhalin, Port Arthur and the South Manchurian Railroad. In 1910, Japan officially annexed Korea. Japanese power in East Asia was on the rise.

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