European colonialism was a massive and destructive force that shaped the history and geography of the world for centuries. From the 1500s to the 1960s, almost every country in the world was either colonized or dominated by a European power, except for five: Japan, Korea, Thailand, Liberia, and Ethiopia.
Among these, Japan stands out as the only one that not only resisted European encroachment, but also became an imperial power itself, conquering and colonizing many of its Asian neighbors.
How did Japan manage to achieve this remarkable feat?
The answer lies in Japan’s unique history, culture, and geography, as well as its strategic responses to the challenges and opportunities posed by the West.
Japan’s first encounter with Western colonialism was with Portugal in the mid-16th century, when the Portuguese brought Catholicism and firearms to Japan. The latter changed the way samurai rulers fought wars, and accelerated the process of national unification.
However, the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1868) that emerged as the dominant power in Japan soon perceived Catholicism as a threat to its authority and banned Christianity nationwide in 1613.
This led to the sakoku (closed nation) policy, which isolated Japan from the rest of the world for over two centuries, allowing only limited trade with the Dutch and the Chinese.
The sakoku policy was a defensive measure against Western colonialism, but it also had some positive effects for Japan. It preserved Japan’s political and cultural sovereignty, and prevented the exploitation of its natural resources by foreign powers.
It also stimulated the development of indigenous industries, arts, and sciences, as well as the study of Western knowledge through Dutch materials.
Japan was not completely ignorant of the world, but rather selectively absorbed what it deemed useful or interesting.
The sakoku policy, however, could not last forever, as the world became more interconnected and competitive in the 19th century.
Japan faced increasing pressure from Western powers, especially Russia, Britain, and the United States, to open up its ports and markets. The Tokugawa shogunate tried to resist, but was eventually forced to sign unequal treaties with the West, starting with the U.S.-Japan Friendship Treaty in 1854.
These treaties eroded Japan’s sovereignty and exposed it to the threat of colonization, as happened to China and other Asian countries.
The humiliation and crisis caused by the unequal treaties sparked a wave of nationalism and modernization in Japan, leading to the Meiji Restoration in 1868.
The Meiji Restoration was a political and social revolution that overthrew the Tokugawa shogunate and restored the emperor as the head of state. It also launched a series of reforms that transformed Japan from a feudal and agrarian society into a modern and industrialized nation-state.
Japan adopted Western institutions, technologies, and ideologies, such as constitutional monarchy, parliamentary democracy, capitalism, nationalism, and imperialism. Japan also built a powerful army and navy, and embarked on a path of expansion and colonization in East Asia and the Pacific.
Japan’s rapid and successful modernization enabled it to challenge and defeat the Western powers in several wars, such as the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), and World War I (1914-1918).
Japan gained control over Taiwan, Korea, parts of China, and several Pacific islands, as well as spheres of influence and concessions in other regions. Japan also joined the League of Nations as one of the great powers, and participated in the international order established by the West.
Japan was the only non-Western country that achieved this level of status and influence in the world.
However, Japan’s imperial ambitions also brought it into conflict with other powers, especially the United States, which opposed Japan’s expansion in Asia and the Pacific.
Japan’s aggression and atrocities in China and elsewhere also alienated many of its neighbors and subjects, who resisted and resented Japan’s rule.
Japan’s isolation and desperation led it to join the Axis powers in World War II (1939-1945), and to launch a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
This proved to be a fatal mistake, as Japan was eventually defeated by the Allied powers in 1945, after suffering the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan lost all of its colonies and territories, and was occupied by the United States until 1952.
Japan’s defeat and occupation marked the end of its imperial era, and the beginning of a new phase in its history. Japan adopted a pacifist constitution, renounced war and militarism, and focused on economic and social development.
Japan also became a close ally and partner of the United States, and a member of the United Nations and other international organizations. Japan recovered from the devastation of war and became one of the world’s largest and most advanced economies, as well as a leader in science, technology, and culture.
Japan also established friendly and cooperative relations with many of its former enemies and colonies, and contributed to the peace and stability of the region and the world.
Japan’s history is a remarkable story of resilience, adaptation, and transformation. Japan was able to avoid European colonization and become an imperial power itself, but also suffered the consequences of its own imperialism and militarism.
Japan learned from its mistakes and reinvented itself as a peaceful and prosperous nation, but also faced new challenges and opportunities in the globalized and changing world.
Japan’s experience offers valuable lessons and insights for other countries and peoples, especially those who have been colonized or dominated by the West.
The other four countries that escaped European colonization
The other four countries that escaped European colonization completely are:
- Korea: Korea was a tributary state of China for centuries, but maintained its political and cultural autonomy. Korea resisted Western encroachment in the 19th century, but was colonized by Japan in 1910. Korea regained its independence in 1945, after Japan’s defeat in World War II, but was divided into North and South Korea by the Cold War. Korea remains divided and tense to this day, but also has achieved remarkable economic and social progress, especially in the South.
- Thailand: Thailand was the only Southeast Asian country that remained independent throughout the colonial era. Thailand was able to maintain its sovereignty by skillfully playing off the British and French Empires, which agreed to let Thailand serve as a buffer state between their colonies in Burma and Indochina. Thailand also modernized and reformed its government and society, and cultivated friendly relations with the West. Thailand was briefly occupied by Japan during World War II, but recovered its independence and became a constitutional monarchy and a regional leader.
- Liberia: Liberia was founded in 1822 by the American Colonization Society, a group of white Americans who wanted to resettle freed African American slaves in Africa. Liberia declared its independence in 1847, and became the first republic in Africa. Liberia was never colonized by a European power, but was influenced and supported by the United States, which regarded Liberia as a protectorate. Liberia also faced internal conflicts and challenges, such as ethnic divisions, political corruption, and civil wars. Liberia is still recovering from its recent turmoil, and is striving to achieve democracy and development.
- Ethiopia: Ethiopia was one of the oldest civilizations in the world, and the only African country that retained its ancient Christian tradition. Ethiopia was also one of the few African countries that resisted European colonization, and defeated Italy in the Battle of Adwa in 1896. Ethiopia was briefly occupied by Italy again in 1936, but was liberated by the Allied forces in 1941. Ethiopia became a founding member of the League of Nations and the United Nations, and a symbol of African independence and dignity. Ethiopia also faced various challenges, such as feudalism, communism, famine, and war. Ethiopia is currently undergoing political and economic reforms, and is emerging as a regional power.