In the nineteenth century, Western powers saddled non-Western states with a variety of unequal arrangements, from fixed tariffs and extraterritoriality to formal colonization. The 1858 Treaty of Amity and Commerce between the United States and Japan marked the inclusion of Japan into the unfortunate side of this equation. Japanese nationalists protested the insults against their national sovereignty and led the forces which overthrew the Tokugawa regime. The prevention of further loss of sovereignty and the revision of the unequal treaties remained the new Meiji government's most pressing issues for the next twenty years. Leading their list of goals was the need to strengthen the military in order to withstand future Western impositions. They studied the organizations and techniques of Western governments and militaries, and they modeled their own institutions on them. Thus the Meiji government was born in an imperialistic milieu, and their primary models were the world's leading imperialistic states. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Japanese government would created its own empire as soon as it was able.
Early in the Meiji period, the Japanese government consolidated its hold on the peripheral islands of the Japanese archipelago: Hokkaidō (Ezo), the Ryūkyū Islands, and the Bonin Islands. By the end of the seventeenth century, Ezo and Ryūkyū fell under the control of Japanese domains, but throughout the entire Tokugawa period they were still considered foreign entities, and the native populations there were not considered fully Japanese. The Tokugawa regime had entrusted the Matsumae domain with control of Hokkaidō. While most of the island was reserved for exclusive Ainu habitation, in practice Japanese fishers and merchants established outposts throughout the coastal areas, which they began to populate permanently in the 1840s. In 1869, Ezo was incorporated into the new state as "Hokkaidō" (North Seas District). According to David Howell, "After the Meiji state came to power it immediately launched a vigorous program of agricultural and industrial development. The assimilation of the Ainu was an integral aspect of that policy." (Howell 1994, 91) The Meiji regime tried to wipe out markers of Ainu ethnicity (earrings and tattoos, for example) and prohibited the Ainu from practicing their religion or hunting in their ancestral hunting-grounds. In 1899, the state enacted the "Law for the Protection of Former Hokkaidō Aborigines," which removed land from communal control, thereby forcing the Ainu to become petty farmers. Japanese assimilation policies not only dispossessed the Ainu, they destroyed nearly all indicators of Ainu cultural and ethnic identity.
The Ryūkyū Kingdom was formed in the early fifteenth century on a chain of islands stretching from the southwest of Japan to the northeast of Taiwan. The largest of the islands was named "Okinawa." The islands were populated by peoples who spoke a language closely related to Japanese, although they were also greatly influenced by Chinese culture. Although the Ryūkyū kings sent tribute to the Ming and Qing courts in China, in the seventeenth century the kingdom came under the domination of the Satsuma domain of southern Kyūshū. The Tokugawa regime used the Ryūkyū kingdom as an intermediary in trade with China. Neither the Ryūkyū Kingdom nor China were strong enough to resist the demands of the assertive Meiji government. In 1879, the last Ryūkyū king was forced to abdicate, and the Ryūkyū Kingdom became Okinawa Prefecture. The Meiji government, which had already offended the Qing court by declaring sovereignty over a Chinese tributary state, initially was hesitant to cause further tension by pushing an assimilation policy like that in Hokkaidō. Japan's victory over the Qing in the late 1890s (Sino-Japanese War), however, removed Japanese inhibitions, and in 1899 the government passed the "Okinawa Prefecture Land Reorganization Law." As in Hokkaidō, the law replaced communal with private land ownership.