What role did Japanese imperialism play in origins of the Second World War and broader rivalries between the ‘great powers’?
Over its short duration, the Empire of Japan was known to be a modern industrialised nation and a global power in the eyes of the west. Since the First World War, Japan’s military-dominated empire had long been preparing for its pursuit of imperialism. Between the period of 1931-1945, Japan aggressively moved towards expanding its territory through a series of conflicts against China and eventually the United States. Although Japan was faced against strong western competition, the vast imperial advances made by the Japanese had high impact upon the origins of the Second World War. This essay will discuss the origins and actions of imperialism in Japan and its importance in regards to the Second World War.
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To Japan, to be a modern power, much like that of the west, mean to be a colonial power. After the Meiji Restoration of the nineteen century that reformed Japan’s economic, political and social status, Japan finally had the industrial power to achieve some of its aims. Japan pursued a forceful foreign policy of expansion for the same reasons the Europeans did, including economic as well as nationalist reasons. In 1894, Japan was primarily trade oriented, despite the presence of important elements of industry. By 1930 it was industrial. In the twentieth century, Japanese imperialism became more aggressive and confident after successes against foreign powers. Much like the Sino-Japanese war in 1894, which Japan won in 1895, Japan was strengthened by loses on China’s behalf such as Taiwan and the influence over Korea. The victory was proof to the Japanese that modern weaponry worked and raised Japan’s reputation in the eyes of the west. This reputation was greatly magnified to not only the west, but to the whole world, when Japan defeated the Russian Empire during the Russo-Japanese war from 1904-1905. The attack on the Russian Navy moored at Port Arthur before the formal announcement of war was so successful, the tactic was later used on Pearl Harbour. In the eyes of many Asians living under Imperialism, it shattered the myth of European invincibility and proved that an Asian power could defeat a European one.
After the First World War, Japan had been accepted by the Western Powers as a notable imperial power. By incorporating some of the European ideologies, Japan had been successful in its advances. Though, in the interwar period, most countries in Europe did not want another war. However, since Japan had not suffered as much as some European countries had, the reluctance to engage in warfare was not instilled in their imperialist actions. The empire, by the First World War, had expanded to Taiwan, Korea, the Pacific Island chains and Manchuria. Initially, Manchuria was a forethought to the expansion of the empire: it was not a strategic focus or had high importance of foreign policy. However after 1931 Japan revaluated their strategic plan and focused their power on expanding their empire in the Northeast. Late in 1931, Japan experimented their power, invading the Chinese province of Manchuria and setting up a violently repressive puppet state. In its invasion of Manchuria, Japan had set into motion the first acts of the steps towards World War II that would start about a decade later. However, China was incapable to fight against the invasion due to national political and economic conflict, the allied countries were also practically helpless. Historian Robert Thompson states that America was not prepared to offer military backing to intervene, it however issued ‘The Stimson Doctrine’ which reinforced the allied interest in China. Thompson states that “by asserting the right to guarantee China’s survival in the face of Japanese aggression, America acknowledged itself as a major player in the East Asian power game”. It is obvious that many foundations were in place for the Second World War almost decade before the conflict had begun.
With this modification the objectives of Japanese imperialism came more obviously into line with the stage of national economic growth, which is highly unusual among empires. The nations of north-east Asia, containing Japan, Korea, Manchukuo, north China, and Taiwan, were to constitute a region in which heavy industry was to be developed. The rest of the occupied area, brought under Japanese control, would serve as the industrial core to spread earnings and trade raw resources. The gain of various resources by Japan, notably in Manchuria, made a trend to the Japanese that imperialism is highly beneficial to their economy. Their economic approach proved beneficial to Japan. War Historian William Beasley states that the foreign investment rate in the “United States increased, but was always very small. Japan’s grew enormously: from negligible amounts in 1902 to 1,136 million dollars in 1931, that is, to 35 per cent”. Japan’s aggressive imperialism combined with its dramatic economic growth, gave allied Western countries reason for alarm before the start of the Second World War.
The expansion of the Japanese empire came with their aggressive authority, which proved to be a large concern to the western powers. With the success in their imperial advances and in the period where Japan was seemingly isolated from the international conquest, nationalistic, along with militaristic, sentiments soared within Japan. The attitude was expressed in a speech by General Araki in 1933: “Needless to say, the Imperial Army’s spirit lies in exalting the Imperial Way and spreading the National Virtue. Every single bullet must be charged with the Imperial Way and the end of every bayonet must have the National Virtue burnt into it.” The nature of Japanese imperialism was very similar to western imperialism, notably British. Much like that of the British conquests a decade earlier, Japanese ideologies in imperialism were believed that not all Asians were equally qualified to take part in it. Like that of the comparison between the treatment of aboriginal Australians to the treatment native New Zealanders, the Japanese behaved differently in north-east Asia to south-east Asia. Inhabitants of north-east Asia were seen to the Japanese as civilized and were able to be reformed – like that of New Zealanders. The treatment of Japanese rule in China was part of an awareness of shared racial and cultural similarities. In south-east Asia, much like the treatment of aboriginal Australians, the Japanese saw themselves as saviours to the people. There were many issues, however. When co-operation was not imminent, obedience was the only accepted substitute. Differences in the actions of authority between the British and Japanese were no surprise: the Japanese authority reflected the difference in historical experience of the region and were no greater, after all, than those to be found within the British Commonwealth.
Japanese imperialism caused many rivalries with the ‘great powers’, notably the United States. Escalating conflicts between China and Japan influenced American relations, and contributed to pushing America towards a war with Japan with the attack on Pearl Harbour. As America was a long-time ally of China, the response to the invasion and the genocide was to deny Japan necessary resources, such as oil and metal. Without oil and metal, Japan’s production would be dramatically slowed. The attack on China was seen to be an insult to the American nation. The statement by academic George Blakeslee in American Foreign Affairs describes the difference between the American and Japanese imperialism and the Japanese insult. ”The United States is a vast territory with a great population vis-à-vis a dozen Caribbean republics, each with a relatively small area and population. Japan, on the other hand, is a country with a relatively small area and population vis-à-vis the vast territory and great population of China.” However, the Japanese influence in south-east Asia was a political and economic necessity to prevent western influence from crippling Japan by limited their materials and sea-lanes. Faced with severe deprivations as a result of the American constraint and unable to retreat from China, Japan’s leaders swiftly responded to the American’s restriction, which resulted in the attack upon Pearl Harbour. The imperialist actions on behalf of the Japanese created deep rivalry with America, a former ally, which led to the start of the Pacific War.
The Second World War, however, was not sparked only by Japanese expansion into China, there were many other factors that led Japan, and the world, to war. A highly militaristic national ideology prevailed in Japan. The shaping of young men to be soldiers began early: in the 1930s, children toys became a form to familiarize children with weaponry, such as toy soldiers, tanks, rifles and guns as common day toys. Japanese schools also operated like imitation military units, with strict discipline being common practice. Even the emperor was dressed in military attire. The leaders of Japan also often felt a need to prove that their military strength was significant and tough, and this was often a common contributing factor in the origins of wars. The formation of the axis alliance was also a prominent push for war. After being isolated from the ‘international community’ and with concern for the power of America and Britain, the alliance between Japan, Italy and Germany linked the powers together for war. As both powers despised the European powers and had strong senses of fascism within their empires, although with different nationalities, the alliance with Germany and Italy was an effect measure to expanding Japan’s control.
Japanese imperialism played a prominent role in the origin of the Second World War. With the aggressive expansion into China, Japan started the quest for war a decade before it expanded into a worldwide conflict. The imperialist actions led to rise of Japanese expansion and power. Japan’s pursuit for empire that eventually led to Pearl Harbor, would create rivalries with the ‘great powers’ and the origins of the Second World War.
Word Count: 1856 (with footnotes)
Beasley, W.G.,Japanese Imperialism, 1894-1945. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.
Blakeslee, George H. “THE JAPANESE MONROE DOCTRINE.” Foreign Affairs 11, no. 4 (July 1933): 671-681.
Chang, Iris. The Rape Of Nanking. New York: BasicBooks, 1997
Crozier, Andrew J. The Causes Of The Second World War. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997
Laurie Barber and Ken Henshall, The Last War of Empires: Japan and the Pacific War, Auckland: David Batement Ltd, 1999
Jung-Bong, Choi. “Mapping Japanese Imperialism onto Postcolonial Criticism.” Social Identities 9, no. 3 (September 2003): 325-336
S Araki, “Imperial way”, (speech, January 23 1933); quoted in Ion, A & Hunt, B, War And Diplomacy Across The Pacific 1919-1952, (Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press 1988), 140
Thomas, Charles S. S. “World War II.” InEncyclopedia of Violence, Peace, and Conflict, 2512-2524. Elsevier, 2010.
Thompson, Robert Smith. Empires on the Pacific: World War II and the Struggle for the Mastery of Asia. New York: Basic Books, 2001
Young, Louise. Twentieth Century Japan : The Emergence of a World Power, Volume 8 : Japan’s Total Empire : Manchuria and the Culture of Wartime Imperialism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
 Beasley, W.G., Japanese Imperialism, 1894-1945. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 251
 Young, Louise. Twentieth Century Japan : The Emergence of a World Power, Volume 8 : Japan’s Total Empire : Manchuria and the Culture of Wartime Imperialism. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.), 89
 Beasley, Japanese Imperialism, 1894-1945, 69
 Laurie Barber and Ken Henshall, The Last War of Empires: Japan and the Pacific War, (Auckland: David Batement Ltd, 1999), 56
 Thompson, Robert Smith. Empires on the Pacific: World War II and the Struggle for the Mastery of Asia. (New York: Basic Books, 2001), 39
 Beasley, Japanese Imperialism, 1894-1945, 255
 Beasley, Japanese Imperialism, 1894-1945, 134
 S Araki, “Imperial way”, ( speech, January 23 1933); quoted in Ion, A & Hunt, B, War And Diplomacy Across The Pacific 1919-1952, (Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press 1988), 140
 Beasley, Japanese Imperialism, 1894-1945, 256
 Beasley, Japanese Imperialism, 1894-1945, 256
 Beasley, Japanese Imperialism, 1894-1945, 257
 Blakeslee, George H, “THE JAPANESE MONROE DOCTRINE.” Foreign Affairs 11, no. 4 (July 1933): 671-681.
 Crozier, Andrew J. The Causes Of The Second World War. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997), 198
 Chang, Iris. The Rape Of Nanking. (New York: BasicBooks, 1997), 29
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