by Ray Matsumoto
Commodore Matthew Perry's arrival in 1853 sparked the nearly century-long course of Japan's modernization and militarization. Back then, Japan was an isolationist nation, blocking all international relations except the Dutch and Chinese. But overwhelmed by American navy forces, Japan was pressured into signing the Kanagawa Treaty, ending their 220-year-old isolationist foreign policy. Coupled with the Chinese defeat to Great Britain in the Opium Wars, Japan realized the need for modernization. The aggressive expansionist policy before and during WW2 was fueled by such competition. The Japanese military, and eventually most civilians, saw the West as enemies and Japan as a savior. Japan had to liberate Asia from the Western dominion and establish itself as a world power. This form of nationalism resonated through many, especially after the Great Depression. Let us examine the key factors that caused such sentiments and the aggression of the imperial military.
The Meiji Restoration saw a westernized form of military, led by British modeled navy and German styled army. After defeating the Satsuma Rebellion, led by Saigo Takamori, the Imperial Military fought against the Qing Dynasty China in the First Sino-Japanese War. They beat the Chinese and gained control of Korea. The Japanese also defeated the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War. It was the first time an Asian nation defeated a western power in the modern era. Japan had fully cemented itself as a nation equal to the West. However, after WW1, anti-military sentiments grew around the world. Intergovernmental organizations, notably the League of Nations, placed arms control agreements to prevent another war. Coupled with the growing influence of the U.S. in Japan, the nation saw a rise in democracy and liberalism. But the Great Depression in 1929 ended these sentiments. Radical military leaders took advantage of the situation to seize control over the civilian leadership. On September 18th of 1931, members of the Kwantung Army (Imperial Army) set off a bomb near Japan's South Manchurian Railroad. Know as the Mukden Incident, the army framed the Chinese and invaded Manchuria. To maintain relations with western nations, Emperor Hirohito opposed further conquest of China. Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi also feared war with the U.S. and denounced the Japanese puppet government of Manchukuo (Manchuria). However, on May 15th of 1932, members of the army assassinated Tsyuyoshi. The incident, rather than causing protests from the public, was met with overwhelming sympathy. The court received a clemency petition by 350,000 people written in blood. The judge pressured by these supporters gave the criminals a light sentence. The incident marked the end of civilian leadership in Japan as the military took over political power until the end of WW2.
Since Japan lacks natural resources, its economy heavily relies on trade. Thus, during the Great Depression, the increased tariffs of countries such as the U.S. and Great Britain crippled the nation. The prosperity it experienced during the Taisho Era was flipped on its head, and suddenly, Japanese people were scrabbling to survive. The resource-poor country turned to Manchuria as a solution. By controlling the land, its resources, and people, Japan could improve its economy. During the Taisho Era, while the country saw a rise in democracy and liberalism, the invasion was unpopular. However, during economic hardship, people became desperate. Contempt toward civilian leadership grew, leading to the rise of military support. The situation grew worse when the U.S. issued embargoes on steel, iron, and oil after the Japanese invasions of Indochina. Since Japan was hesitant about a battle with Russia, after experiencing an embarrassing defeat in the Nomonhan Incident, they turned to Southeast Asia for new territory. However, their decision to wage war on the U.S. and Great Britain led to their downfall. Despite Japan's efforts in the South, mass starvation took place throughout the mainland and occupied countries.
Ultranationalist ideology began brewing during the Meiji Restoration. As the Imperial Military grew, expansionist and Pan-Asinaist sentiments grew as well. When the Japanese had successfully defeated the Chinese in the First Sino-Japanese War, civilian opinion turned from respect toward the nation to ridicule. Even Elementary School children made fun of the Chinese by calling them cowardly and weak. A similar attitude began to grow concerning the whole of East Asia. Coupled with traditional Shinto beliefs, the Japanese became convinced of their superiority as a nation and human beings.
Censorship was also implemented during Meiji Restoration to prevent political uprisings. The government regulated all forms of media to present a pro-imperial and military narrative. When activists movements and parties gained popularity, the government either banned or criminalized them, notably the communist party. The education system was also fully controlled by the imperial government. Educators fully instilled Emperor-centered patriotism and xenophobia in every student's head. Lessons on basic military knowledge and combat became requirements, and punishments were inflected on students failing to satisfy their duty. The regulation of education and mass media successfully formed national conformity. Thus, by the time Japan had invaded Manchuria, the general populace held pro-military nationalistic views. Activities and anti-imperial movements existed throughout the war, but it was no match to the overwhelming power of the imperial military.
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Meijer, Isaac, host. "The Emperor's Own Part 1-4" History of Japan, Google Podcasts, March 14th, 2014. http://isaacmeyer.net/?s=the+emperor%27s+own
"WW2 Pacific - Japanese Imperial Army- Archives from Major Shokimi - 1932/42 - Manchuria (China)." Flickr, 10 Feb. 2013, www.flickr.com/photos/39887688@N02/8480521955.
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