The Far East Nations: Isolation and Imperialism Essay

September 21, 2021 by Essay Writer


Before the 19th century, many Far East countries such as Japan, Korea, and China had encountered a long period of isolation from the rest of the world.1 However, the emergence of foreign trade during the period led to numerous pressures on Japan and China to engage in the practice. Historians have indicated clearly that these nations had not developed new military tools and technologies. Consequently, Japan and China were unable to resist the imperialism of the Western nations such as the United States and Britain. These developments explain why the Far East nations were characterized by a unique interplay of imperialism and isolationism throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. This discussion gives a detailed analysis of this interplay and how the nations reacted to the situation.

Coping with Imperialist Threats

One of the most agreeable facts is that the imperialism of the Western nations was something unstoppable especially in the early years of the 19th century. Britain began to pressure China to engage in open trade. The Chinese leaders’ decision to reject such requests created room for conflicts. The issue of opium trade was seen as a major threat to the country (Fig 1). After the Chinese were defeated during the Opium Wars, the Western powers established new treaties characterized by unfair trade.

Fig 1: Photo depicting the Opium War.

Unlike China, Japan did not engage in wars before accepting international trade. Japan signed the Treaty of Kanagawa while China signed the Treaty of Nanking. However, it is agreeable that China took long to acknowledge the superiority of the Western nations. The work “Letter to the English Ruler” indicates that the barbarians were using Chinese wealth and resources to profit themselves.2 At the same time, the Chinese people were unhappy with different products such as opium that were sold in the country. The author of the letter indicated that the country had implemented new laws to prosecute every person who either sold or smoked opium. It is also notable that “the Western Barbarians, bent on power and profit, had devised techniques and machines by which to subvert or conquer the civilized world.3

After the treaties were signed, many Chinese leaders continued to oppose the developments associated with the West. However, China embraced the need to study the aspects of the Western militaries and adopt their methods. By so doing, China would be able to reassert its position in the global arena. Additionally, China began to analyze the unique weaknesses of the West such as disunity and self-interestedness. The best strategy was to improve its strategies and reassert China’s position. Looking at the case of Japan, new Western ideas were borrowed thus making it easier for the nation to transform its political systems.

How Isolation Was Seen as the Best Reaction to Imperialism Infringements

According to historians, Japan and China had embraced isolationist tendencies for very many years. With the new wave of imperialism, these countries were opposed to the ideas of the Western countries. Although the nations were ready to be part of foreign trade, it was noticeable that the Western merchants were not allowed to access many towns in the mainland. In China, opium was seen a poisonous and unacceptable product in the country. The countries were opposed to the religious and economic aspects of the Western nations. That being the case, isolation was a powerful approach towards protecting the people from Western influence. However, some ideas from the West were embraced in order to support economic development.

In “The Debate Over Seclusion and Restoration”, the author indicates that many Asian nations such as Japan and China chose to strengthen their military strengths throughout the 19th century. Several schools such as Mito emerged in Japan in an attempt to support the welfare of the people. Some Japanese chose to adopt Western ideas and art in an attempt to improve their strengths. At the same time, the countries focused on the best ideas to preserve their Asian ethics.4 The Mito School ideology promoted the best approaches to unite Japan’s political, intellectual, cultural, and religious elements. At the same time, the Japanese encouraged the Shogunate to cope with the barbarians.

The concept of National Substance emerged during the period. The work “Letter to Wu Zixu on The Need for Western Guns and Ships” indicates how the nations focused on the idea of nationalism. The concept made it possible for these Asian countries to protect their lands, promote order, and ensure their people were peaceful. Despite the efforts to use isolation, China and Japan were unable to achieve most their goals.5 Consequently, the Western powers forced the nations to engage in international trade. Additionally, such imperialism infringements eventually influenced the political and cultural attributes of the nations.

Why China, Korea, and Japan Departed from Isolationism: Strategies

History has showed clearly that the isolationism tendencies embraced by Japan, China, Korea failed to offer meaningful results. Although at the beginning the countries were opposed to the West, new changes emerged thus opening Japan to the barbarians. However, the Japanese were on the frontline to ensure there was a clean line between the new and the old. Countries such as Japan and Korea wanted to strengthen their powers and eventually become superior. That being the case, it was necessary for these nations to depart from isolationism. China resisted the Western powers for very many years. However, the nation chose to interact with these powers without necessarily embracing their traditions.

These nations embraced several strategies to do away with isolationism. For instance, the Japanese made powerful decisions based on the existing facts. They embraced and started to translate some of the Western books. At the same time, Japan acquired new ideas in an attempt to modernize its military powers. Consequently, the Japanese overthrew the Shogunate thus making it easier for the country to modernize. Many Japanese citizens were allowed to go to the West and acquire new ideas. The country eventually constructed modern infrastructure and developed new institutions. It was only after the Taipin Rebellion of 1864 when China began to modernize and embrace various Western ideas.6 However, minimal structural changes were embraced in the country. This fact explains why a small number of aspects were changed in China.

Current World Views and Critical Analysis of Isolationism

During the First World War, the waves of imperialism and nationalism unearthed a number of issues that defined the 20th century world. Many European nations fought because of the injustices and superiorities that had defined the continent for many years. On the other hand, it was the opportune moment for Asian countries to repudiate economic imperialism. Japan was also ready to reclaim its position in the continent. Towards the end of the war, Japan was able to become the champion of many East Asian countries. For instance, the determination of Japan towards addressing the Mongolia-Manchuria conflict by force would result in new political alignments. By so doing, Japan was able to promote the stability, peace, and unity of China.7 Similarly, the move would ensure the East was characterized by peace.

This analysis shows conclusively that the ideas of isolationism were embraced throughout the 19th century. This is the case because the Far East nations such as China focused on specific aspects of the foreign cultures. By so doing, they were able to acquire modern technologies without transforming their cultural, economic, and social institutions. At the same time, some scholars have argued that the idea of isolationism failed significantly thus forcing these nations to embrace the ideologies of the West.8

Throughout the 20th century, the countries of the East focused on new institutions that would result in new strengths. Towards the end of the century, a new wave of conservatism characterized by new political strategies played a major role towards overthrowing the old dynastic ways. The destruction of ideologies such as Confucianism led to a new wave of enlightenment. The adoption of Western ideas played a critical role towards strengthening the economic and political attributes of these countries.

In conclusion, the question of isolationism and its success (or failure) remains a divisive topic that might never end any time soon. However, the outstanding fact is that China, Korea, and Japan embraced the concept of isolationism to preserve their cultural values while at the same time adopting specific Western ideologies that would eventually support their strengths.9 These measures played a positive role towards supporting the social and political goals of the nations.


de Bary, Theodore. “Chinese Statecraft and Opening of China to the West.” In Sources of East Asian Tradition, 96-661. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2008.


  1. Theodore de Bary. “Chinese Statecraft and Opening of China to the West,” in Sources of East Asian Tradition (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2008), 343.
  2. Theodore de Bary. “Chinese Statecraft and Opening of China to the West,” in Sources of East Asian Tradition (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2008), 98.
  3. Theodore de Bary. “Chinese Statecraft and Opening of China to the West,” in Sources of East Asian Tradition (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2008), 98.
  4. Theodore de Bary. “Chinese Statecraft and Opening of China to the West,” in Sources of East Asian Tradition (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2008), 344.
  5. Ibid., 98.
  6. Theodore de Bary. “Chinese Statecraft and Opening of China to the West,” in Sources of East Asian Tradition (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2008), 101.
  7. Theodore de Bary. “Chinese Statecraft and Opening of China to the West,” in Sources of East Asian Tradition (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2008), 104.
  8. Ibid., 106.
  9. Theodore de Bary. “Chinese Statecraft and Opening of China to the West,” in Sources of East Asian Tradition (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2008), 618.
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