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Japanese Foreign Policy In The Prewar Era History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

During the early 20th century, Japan was confronted with growing pressures on its already scarce resources that compelled its leaders to pursue increasingly militaristic solutions. In fact, during the first half of the 20th century, Japan engaged in a series of military adventures in Korea and China that were specifically designed to improve the availability and reliability of its supply chains for vital resources. In the 21st century, some scholars may question whether these same goals could not have been achieved through increased international trade rather than an expansionist policy. A close examination of the conditions in which these events occurred, though, shows that the proximate cause for these outcomes was the strategic naiveté of the Japanese leadership based on its past successes combined with internal political rivalries. To determine the facts, this paper provides a review of the relevant literature concerning the causes of pre-war Japan’s policy of expansion, including an analysis of the relative weight of various domestic and external factors to determine whether it would have been possible for pre-war Japanese leaders to pursue a “pacifist” trading-centered strategy that would become the defining characteristic of postwar Japanese foreign policy. A summary of the research and important findings are presented in the conclusion.

Review and Analysis

In many ways, the foreign policy decisions that led to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor were based on the opportunistic mindset that prevailed among the nation’s leadership that the nation would succeed in any military enterprise. This optimistic mindset was reinforced by several extraordinary events in the historical record that supported this view. According to Okazaki, “Because the only two large-scale attempts at invasion of Japan in recorded Japanese history were both scattered by typhoons, the Japanese believe that they are a nation favored by God, and are optimistic about international affairs to a greater degree than any other nation” (p. 5). This assertion is supported by Sato’s observation that, “A nation’s foreign policy may directly or indirectly be affected by a variety of factors [including] weather conditions.” [1] (p. 369). In addition, Japan’s favorable geographic proximity also reinforced a mindset among Japanese political leaders that the nation was naturally protected from outsiders. In this regard, Sato emphasizes that, “A distinctive feature in the international environment surrounding modern Japan is its relative isolation from and peripheral position with reference to the world’s major powers.” [2] The Japanese leadership interpreted the country’s relative isolation and its historic relationships with its larger neighbors as being sufficient grounds for a sense of national security. For instance, according to Okazaki, “The historic background might explain this Japanese attitude towards national security. Certainly Japan was secure because China, the traditional superpower in East Asia, maintained restraint on foreign expeditions, including military ones, since the time that Japan entered international politics.” [3] With the natural geographic advantage, Japan was accustomed to its success in international relations and wanted to achieve what the western countries have: Imperialism and Expansionism.

This powerful combination of fortuitous weather-related events and geographic location instilled the idea that Japan was destined for greater things into Japanese foreign policymakers, a perception that was reinforced by the Bushido code and track record of military successes in the field. This type of outcome is congruent with Sato’s observation that national policymakers typically rely on their unique interpretation of these factors in formulating foreign policy. [4] For example, Sato advises that, “Factors with the potential for exercising long-term influence on a nation’s foreign policy may be divided into three groups: the realities of the international environment and national power; the attitudes within the society toward the international environment; and the special characteristics of a nation’s foreign policy formulation process.” [5] With the foreign policy formulating process already skewed to fulfill the goal to be a stronger and imperialistic country, Japan was almost destined to go towards the Empire route and begin its conquest for more resources and power. Furthermore, the international environment at that time was already a heavily imperialistic one as most of the countries in Asia were already in the state of colonization or something close to it. With these factors, the external and internal factors has heavily influence the long-term agenda for Japan’s foreign policy. More importantly for the formulation of pre-war Japanese foreign policy, this unique interpretation of world events and Japan’s destiny would have profound implications for choosing military solutions over diplomatic ones during the pre-war era. [6] After all, the historical record supported the expansionist view and Japan’s economic security was at stake. For instance, Sato emphasizes that, “Aside from the confrontation between Japan and the Western powers over opening the doors of the country in the late Tokugawa period, the only instance of a direct threat to Japan’s security occurred when Russia advanced into Manchuria and further increased its influence over Korea early in the twentieth century.” [7] Saying Japan “increased its influence” over Korea early in the 20th century is like saying a drowning man has moist skin, though, and Japan’s formal annexation of its protectorate on the Korean peninsula in 1910 followed its victory in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. [8] 

In reality, Korea was the keystone to Japanese expansionist policies during the first half of the 20th century due in large part to its strategic location between Russia to the north and China to the west. In fact, Okazaki emphasizes that, “In all the wars involving Japan prior to World War II, the key strategic territory was the Korean peninsula. Even thirty years after the Korean War, deployment of U.S. forces in East Asia is centered on the Peninsula.” [9] In this regard, Japanese expansionist policies during this period in history were not unlike the lebensraum, or “living space” policies used by Germany prior to and throughout World War II to expand its geographic territory and access to valuable resources. For example, Barhart reports that, “The roots of Japan’s aggressive, expansionist foreign policy have often been traced to its concern over acute economic vulnerability.” [10] 

During the period immediately preceding the outbreak of World War II, a growing debate over the proper course of Japanese foreign policy drive toward national economic self-sufficiency was hampered by divisive internal and external policies. [11] Despite growing pressure from the international community in general and the United States in particular, Japan’s foreign policy was shaped as much by military leaders as civilian politicians. According to Barnhart, “Japan’s internal political dynamics, especially the bitter rivalry between its army and navy, played a far greater role in propelling the nation into war with the United States than did its economic condition or even pressure from Washington.” [12] The role of the military in shaping Japanese foreign policy pre-World War II is also cited by Snyder who advises, “A belligerent, zero-sum approach to politics was deeply rooted in the Bushido code of the samurai and permeated traditional Japanese culture. Thus, the Pacific war was simply a Kurosawa epic in modern battle gear.” [13] 

This seemingly plausible explanation, though, fails to take into account the role played by the political leadership during this formative period in Japanese history. By fixing the lion’s share of the responsibility for Japan’s expansionist policies strictly on the military, historians run the risk of overlooking the other salient forces that were at work in shaping pre-war Japanese foreign policy. In this regard, Snyder emphasizes that, “The Bushido code obviously served as the legitimating ideology of a military ruling elite, not just a ‘belief system.’ Moreover, it leaves unexplained huge variations in Japanese strategic thinking over time and across groups.” [14] The contribution of Japanese political leaders in shaping pre-war foreign policy was highlighted by Pyle who describes the Meiji leaders as being “tired of Japan’s economic backwardness and sense of inferiority to the West.” [15] As a result, Japanese political leaders were amenable to reshaping their country in a modern image notwithstanding what these actions would have on Japanese culture. In this regard, Pyle emphasizes that the Japanese political leaders “were thus ready and willing to sacrifice time-honored institutions to achieve their goals. The Meiji leaders adopted European legal codes, imported thousands of advisers, and built the most centralized state in Japanese history.” [16] The Meiji leaders also fought wars with the dual goal of acquiring resources while doing so in an orderly and legal fashion that would establish Japan as an equal with Western nations. [17] 

Taken together, it is apparent that there were increasing internal rivalries between political and military factions that had distinctly different visions of what type of foreign policies Japan should pursue in furthering its expansionist goals. In sum, a combination of expansionist policies combined with modernization reforms domestically was used by foreign policymakers to lead Japan into the second half of the 20th century. For example, historians such as Barnhart emphasize that this approach was responsible for Japan’s military adventurism in the pre-World War II years. In this regard, Barnhart advises, “From the commencement of the Meiji Restoration to the conclusion of the Pacific War, Japan pursued the status of a great power through expansion abroad and reform at home.” [18] Likewise, Barnhart notes that Japan’s experiences with Germany in World War I confirmed the need for domestic reform combined with expansionist foreign policies that would help ensure the nation’s economic security in the future. According to Barhart, the nature of warfare itself had changed substantively during the early 20th century and the waging of “total war” meant that national security required a viable domestic infrastructure that could withstand this type of all-out warfare long enough for Japan to prevail. In this regard, Barnhart emphasizes that, “Certain officers [in the Imperial Army] concluded that, for their Asian empire, the lessons of the European conflict were ominous. Future wars would be fought not only with guns but with the entire resources of nations, from engineers to doctors, from cotton to iron ore. Without these requisites of economic security, the mightiest army would be paralyzed.” [19] 

Given Japan’s lack of natural resources, these issues were even more poignant during this formative period in foreign policymaking. Indeed, Barnhart points out that, “Without a modern industrial base that could be mobilized in time of need, even these requisites would prove useless. A nation that could not supply all of its own needs in wartime, a nation that was vulnerable to economic pressure from other nations, would be neither truly secure nor truly sovereign.” [20] A fresh and expensive war with China in 1937, though, made it virtually impossible for Japan to realize the complete goal of becoming economically self sufficient, and this conflict in particular served to further underscore Japan’s economic vulnerability. [21] This threat to Japanese national security was balanced by the aforementioned positive Bushido-based mindset among some leaders that supported straightforward military solutions for these complex domestic problems on the one hand with others that sought a more moderate path to achieving Japan’s goals of acquiring new resources and achieving economic security. Indeed, some authorities suggest that the expansionist policies used in the pre-World War II era were less important for some foreign policymakers than the domestic reforms that would be required to sustain any gains achieved on the battlefield. Many Japanese foreign policymakers, though, defined the nature of the political, economic and social reality that was faced by Japan during the pre-World War II years in ways that were supportive of expansionist views rather than a strictly pragmatic analysis of world events and Japan’s place among the international community that was based in reality. [22] 

Conclusion

Taken together, the events that led Japan into World War II appear to be inexorable in nature, and given the divisiveness among foreign policymakers during this period, the outcome could not have been easily changed from an expansionist policy to a pacifist trading-centered strategy. In fact, the handwriting was on the wall and Japan’s expansionist approach to achieving its goal of economic security was well underway. The research showed, though, that Japan’s internal political problems, including the intense rivalries between military leaders, served to shape pre-World War II Japanese foreign policy in ways that would make it difficult to respond to economic pressures from the Western world in general and the United States in particular without resorting to military solutions. In the final analysis, it is reasonable to conclude that if the Japanese leadership of the early 20th century could have foreseen what pacifist trading opportunities can do for economic security, they would not have resorted to the expansionist approach that included the annexation of Korea, warring on China and the rest of Asia and attacking Pearl Harbor. These efforts were clearly influenced by a misguided application of traditional Bushido machismo that resulted in Japan being leveled and rebuilt in the pacifist trading model anyway.


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