A Quick History of American–Japanese Relations

May 22, 2017

On the morning of December 7th, 1941, there was no mistaking the message that Japan wanted to send: they had had enough of being policed by the US. The Empire of Japan sought to take over the Pacific, and nothing was going to stand in its way. Though tensions between the two nations erupted on that Sunday morning, leading to the deaths of over 2,000 Americans, there wasn’t always such a strain between the US and Japan.

Opening of Relations 1846-1854

Japanese woodblock print of Commodore Matthew C. Perry

To get a glimpse of the history of Japanese and US relations, let’s start at the beginning—around 1791—when two American vessels landed at Kii Oshima island and initiated the first American visit to Japan. In 1846, Commander James Biddle, acting on orders from the United States Government, attempted to open trade with Japan but found himself unable to convince the nation to do so.In 1852, Commodore Matthew C. Perry traveled to Japan from Norfolk, VA in another attempt to negotiate trade terms between the countries. Threatening a show of force, the Japanese were strong-armed into signing the US–Japan Treaty of Peace and Amity in 1854, opening up trade between the two nations. Eight years later, the Japanese sent an emissary to the United States in order to negotiate the Treaty of Friendship, Commerce, and Navigation, hoping to ratify some of the clauses in the earlier treaty signed with Matthew Perry. Relations between Japan and the United States smoothed out in the late 19th century, and thousands of Japanese immigrants came to Hawaii to work on the sugar and pineapple plantations.



Tensions Begin to Rise

From 1907 to 1924, the US sought to limit immigration from Japan, relying on the “Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907,” which limited Japanese movement into the United States.

US-Japanese tensions explode

Beginning in 1931, Japan began to press in China, seizing multiple cities through the 1930s. Events like the Nanking Massacre and the attack on the US gunboat Panay continued to weaken the amicable relationship to the point where the United States, followed by Australia and Britain, placed embargoes on trade with Japan .

These tensions culminated in the attack on Pearl harbor and the declaration of war that followed.




Despite once being grave enemies, Japan and the United States are strong allies today, relying on each other under the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, signed in 1959. Today, the camaraderie between the two nations can be seen in the huge number of Japanese tourists who travel to Hawaii and pay their respects to those lost at Pearl Harbor.

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