Militarism is an ideology and a course of political action aimed at the domination of politics, culture, and all other aspects of social life by military values.

Many historians believe that Japan was, to a large extent, a militaristic society throughout its pre-World War II modern history. War and the preparation for war became so important that all else was subordinated to them.

Japan’s military was able to influence the society for a number of reasons:

1.  Seven centuries of shogunal rule and samurai values made it natural for the nation to subdue                        under another form of authority – the modern imperial army.

2.  Almost all of Japan’s leaders during the Meiji period were former samurai. Whether they were in business, the military, or the civil bureaucracy, their background and outlook were those of the martial elite. Their successors too, were either descendants of samurai or influenced by samurai values. They tend to favor having a strong military.

3.  Many of Japan’s problems from the 1850s until the 1940s called for military solutions. For example, western colonial expansion in Asia threatened Japan; the Meiji leaders faced samurai uprisings and had to put down the revolts; the February 26th uprising called for military intervention. 

4.  Western imperialism set examples for Japan to copy: The British occupied India, Burma,                  Malaya, and Hong Kong. France occupied Indochina. The Dutch had taken over Indonesia. United States ousted the Spanish from the Philippines. Russia expanded eastward to Siberia and Manchuria, and had her eyes on Korea. All major nations joined in dividing China. So, Japan too, decided to join the colonizers; and a strong military was necessary for the creation of a great empire.

   Next, the military decided to test its skills and weapons on two countries:

The Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) 中日戰爭

The Russo-Japanese War(1904-05)日露戰爭

Japan won both wars.

Events that led to the Sino-Japanese war:

China and Japan had long historic interests in Korea. The Korean peninsula was a strategic point for the control of sea approach to Manchuria, eastern Siberia, and north China. In 1894, because of internal uprisings in Korea, both China and Japan sent in troops to suppress the uprising. Japanese ships fired on Chinese warships. Formal declaration of war followed. China was decisively defeated within 9 months. Japanese troops moved into Manchuria and were in a strategic position to move onto Peking (Beijing). As a result of the war, Japan got the Liaotung peninsula, Formosa (Taiwan), and the Pescadores from China.

Events that led to the Russo-Japanese war:

In 1898, Russia received from China leaseholds on South Manchuria. Its next ambition was Korea. Japan tried to negotiate with Russia by suggesting a swap of Russia-in-Manchuria for Japan-in-Korea, an arrangement recognizing Russian supremacy in Manchuria and Japanese predominance in Korea. Russia stalled. The conflict erupted in war on February 6, 1904. Japan severed relations with Russia and torpedoed the Russian fleet at Port Arthur. This sequenced of events was called “bold initiatives.” Russian fleet was destroyed in a great battle in Tsushima straits. After eighteen months of military engagements, it ended in stalemate. Japan asked President Theodore Roosevelt to mediate. What followed was the Treaty of Portsmouth in New Hampshire 1905. Japan was given the southern half of Sakhalin and a 25-year lease on South Manchuria. Korea was annexed in 1910. These victories brought euphoria to the Japanese people and enhanced the army’s prestige.

Meanwhile, World War I broke out in Europe. Japan did not take part in the war but she benefited from it. Europe was not able to continue to supply goods for the Asian markets. Japan replaced Europe as the supplier in Asia. Japan also supplied ammunition and shipping for the Allies. From 1913 to 1918, the volume of Japanese exports rose by about 50 percent. Japan also replaced Great Britain as the chief foreign economic power in China, demanding lands and other rights from China. Japanese ambition in China was already quite obvious by this time.

The spectacular growth of the empire, its economy, industries, and armed forces during World War I was a source of pride to many Japanese. At the Versailles Peace Conference, Japan was rewarded the “German territory” in China for her part in supporting the allies and she was accepted for the first time as one of the world’s leading powers.

Japan became a member of the League of Nations. However, at the League’s meeting, Japan received a wounding blow from her Western allies. She had proposed to incorporate a declaration of racial equality into the Covenant but was rejected. Despite her status as a world power, Westerners were not willing on racial grounds to accept the Japanese as equals. This rebuff left them with a feeling of deep resentment, which was to develop and finally explode in the form of a crusade against what they called “The arrogance of the white race.” Eventually, driving White Supremacy out of Asia was used as an excuse for their aggression in WWII.

Social and Economic changes after World War I  

The 1920s was a period of industrial growth. Japan’s workforce was the most skilled and best educated in Asia. The 1923 great Tokyo earthquake and fire destroyed most of the city. The subsequent rebuild quickened the rate of social and physical change in the capital. Tokyo was transformed into a city of wide boulevards, flanked by modern buildings. Others cities followed in an outburst of urban construction.

In 1928, the young emperor Hirohito ascended to the throne. His reign name was showa昭和 – Enlightment and Harmony.

The 1930s, however, was a decade of fear. The world-wide depression began with the 1929 crash of the American stock market which led to the collapse of international trade. Japan suffered the most since she was heavily dependent on foreign trade. There were famine and riots. Increasing pressure was put on the government to take control of sources of vital raw materials and markets. Reischauer said “To survive world depression and secure a place in the sun, Japan needed a bigger empire than she had; and nearby China, especially the mineral rich northeast provinces of Manchuria, would be the natural core for such an empire.”

The civilian government became unpopular. The military saw a perfect opportunity to seize power. It gained popularity by promoting nationalism. The ultra-conservatists became ultra-nationalists. They hated foreigners and other liberal Japanese who played golf and danced the foxtrot. The period between 1930 and 1936 was a time of political violence and insubordination. The radical-minded in the government plotted to eliminate the moderate-minded. Some top-ranking officials became their targets.

The February 26 Incident (1936) – a failed military coup by junior army officers who seized control of the center of Tokyo and demanded reforms. Several top government officials were assassinated. Hirohito was outraged and refused to give in to the rebels’ demands. He ordered their arrests and eventually some were executed. After this incident, the government became much more authoritarian and the army’s power was greatly increased. Read “February 26th incident” in this unit.

The Manchuria Incident 1931

In 1931, the Japanese Army bombed a section of the railway they built in Manchuria and blamed it on the Chinese. They then used this incident (the Manchurian Incident) as a pretext for occupying Manchuria and establishing the puppet state of Manchukuo.

Manchuria included the northern provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin, Liaoning, and part of Inner Mongolia. It is bordered by Russia, N. Korea, and Mongolia. It has timber resources and mineral deposits, including oil, coal, gold, magnesium, and uranium. A major manufacturing and agricultural center, Manchuria produces steel, heavy machinery, motor vehicles, chemicals, and aircraft in the highly industrialized cities and grains, beans, soybeans, and sweet potatoes in the fertile Manchurian plain.

Manchuria is the traditional home of the Manchu, a nomadic people who conquered China in the early 1600s and established the Qing Dynasty which lasted until the creation of China’s first Republic in 1012.

The Marco Polo Bridge Incident 1937盧溝橋事變

The Incident started with an exchange of fire between Japanese and Chinese soldiers at the Marco Polo Bridge near Peking (Beijing). The Japanese army used it as a pretext to wage an all-out war on China.

By now, Japan’s military was in control of the country’s foreign policy. Anyone opposed to it was considered a traitor. Japanese forces began a vast invasion into China. They first occupied Beijing, the capital of China. Then advanced steadily southward to Shanghai, there, Chinese forces put up strong resistance but they were no match. Japanese ground forces were backed by aerial bombers. In December, Japan occupied Nanking (Nanjing) and started the infamous “Rape of Nanking.” Estimated number of civilians killed ranged from 200,000 to 300,000.

Japanese aggression and atrocities include:

  • The conquest of Manchuria in 1931 – created the puppet state Manchukuo
  • The Rape of Nanking in 1937, so brutal that even the German ambassador asked Hitler to persuade Japan to put a stop to it.
  • The attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
  • The occupation of the Philippines and the Bataan Death March of 1942. 72,000 POWs were forced to march 90 miles for 5 to 6 days in the tropical heat with no food or water, constantly beaten and killed by Japanese guards – high fatalities: 18,000 perished.
  • POWs and civilians used as slave labor.  25% of American POWs died of starvation, overwork, no medical care, beheading, bayoneting, a rifle butt to the head was common.
  • Civilians in Asia were kidnapped and shipped to Japan or Formosa (Taiwan), jammed in the holds of “Hell Ships” to work and die in the mines or other construction work.
  • Korean “comfort women” were forced to be sex slaves.
  • “Medical experiments” in the infamous Unit 731 where operations were performed on Chinese and American POWs and civilians, injected with deadly microbes.
  • Japan and Asia’s stolen treasures

By 1938, most of China’s major cities, all of its leading ports, and most of its railway lines, were in Japanese hands. Throughout the 1930s, America never risked war with Japan. It consistently condemned Japan’s actions but avoided provoking Japan.

Reason:  United States was not ready militarily to challenge Japan in East Asia while fighting Germany and Italy in Europe. She adopted a defensive posture in the Pacific while building up her naval armament.                          

Meanwhile, the spectacular success of the Nazi armies in Europe encouraged Japan to sign a Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy in 1940. With Germany and Italy focused on Europe, Japan then focused on Indochina and its rich resources of oil, rubber and tin.

The Japanese campaigns in Indochina (December 1940 through early 1941) were some of the most stunning achievements in military history. As Japanese troops poured into Malaya, the combined British-Indian-Australian troops never had a chance to regroup and stand, they retreated hastily to Singapore with the Japanese hard on their heels. British forces were also in full retreat in Burma. Japanese forces converged on the Dutch East Indies, the Northern coast of New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Gilbert Islands, Guam, and Wake Islands in the Central Pacific.

Japan saw these victories as a boost for Asian freedom from Western imperialism and white supremacy. They called this new realm the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere 大東亞共榮圈, a term suggesting equality and mutual benefit. But in reality, nothing was further than the truth. This so-called “sphere” revolved around Japan as leader. The Japanese army exploited local labor and raw materials. The dreaded military police (kempei tai 憲兵) brutally mistreated local inhabitants. In the long run, Japan would surely maintain control over countries with vital raw materials and strategic bases along its extended defense perimeter. So in actuality, political suppression, economic dislocation, and malnutrition, were the facts of life in East Asia.

Three things that made it relatively easy for Japan’s leaders during World War II to build a strong, self-reliant aggressive, nationalistic state:

  1. The insular nature and compactness of Japan and the racial and cultural homogeneity of its people creates a strong feeling of solidarity.
  1. The feudal and hierarchical nature of the society with its emperor and the elite class demanding absolute obedience from the people.
  1. The use of Shinto by military leaders as symbol of nationalism.

When Japan moved into Indochina in 1941, President Roosevelt froze Japanese assets in the U.S. He dispatched heavy bombers and reinforcements to the Philippines and coordinated an embargo with the Dutch and the British Commonwealth to cut off all of Japan’s access to foreign oil. However, American leaders miscalculated the impact of their moves on Japan. They had intended to force Japan to a standstill; instead, they boxed her into a corner and forced her to move.

Japan had to make a decision before her oil supplies ran out. One alternative was to strike at the United States before its defense was complete. The other alternative was to negotiate. Fractions were divided between the civilian government who wanted to negotiate and the army who wanted to strike. Tokyo tried desperately to find some compromise with Washington but it ran into a rigid American stance. Washington demanded Japan’s unconditional withdrawal from China and Manchuria before talk.

Withdrawal would be a national loss of face which the army refused to do. When negotiations failed, the army won the support of the public and on December 7, 1941, the Imperial fleet set sail for Pearl Harbor.

The army’s confidence was based on the belief that America, though rich in material wealth, lacked the fighting spirit of the Japanese.

Up till now, Japan had won every battle. But the turning point of the war came in June 1942 at the Battle of Midway. United States was able to intercept and decipher Japanese radio messages and sink four Japanese carriers. The cream of Japan’s naval aviation squadrons was lost at Midway. It was a blow from which the Imperial Navy never recovered.

The next 3 years was island-hopping. American troops hopped from one island to another, moving closer each time to the main islands. At Iwo Jima 硫黄島, about 23,000 Americans battled 21,000 Japanese in a month’s fighting. Almost 7,000 Americans died while 20,000 Japanese soldiers perished. Iwo Jima produced one of the iconic images of American combat, when after the battle for Mount Suribachi, six troops raised an American flag, a moment that for many Americans symbolizes the Pacific theater of World War II. The Pulitzer Prize-winning photo was later used as an inspiration for the Marine Corps War Memorial in Washington D.C. 

But defeat was inevitable for Japan. By early 1943, Japanese shipping losses were ten times greater than replacement. Tankers carrying the precious oil of Indonesia for which Japan had risked so much, went to the bottom of the ocean so regularly that Japan’s navy, air force, and industry became severely short of fuel.

U.S. bombers launched a devastating campaign against Japan. Japanese cities with their crowded wooden houses were particularly vulnerable to fire. Two mass attacks on Tokyo in early 1945 killed over 100,000 people.

On August 6, 1945, the first atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

On August 9, second bomb on Nagasaki. Among the largest cities, only Kyoto was untouched, thus preserving the ancient capital and all its arts and splendor.

The man who saved Kyoto from the atomic bomb

On August 11, Japan accepted the Potsdam term for unconditional surrender.

The Potsdam Declaration called for

1.  The dismantling of Japan’s military

2.  The occupation of Japan by the U.S.     

3.  The territorial limitations of Japan to its four main islands and some adjacent minor ones.

On September 2, 1945, Japan surrendered in the emperor’s name on board the U.S. battleship “the Missouri” in Tokyo Bay.

Looking back, although the war in the Pacific lasted four years, its outcome was strategically inevitable from the start. Japan was able to win a series of impressive victories in the early months, but it could not long compensate for the enormous productive power which the United States quickly mobilized to the full. The attack so angered the Americans that they abandoned their policy of non-intervention.

The attack on Pearl Harbor was a success in the short term, for it destroyed many U.S. battleships. But in the long term, the attack failed.  According to U.S. Admiral Nimitz, the Japanese made three of the biggest mistakes an attack force could ever make:

Mistake #1: the Japanese attacked on Sunday morning. Nine out of every ten crewmen of the ships were ashore on leave. If those same ships had been lured to sea and been sunk, United States would have lost 38,000 men instead of 3,800.

Mistake #2: the Japanese did not destroy the repair and supply facilities of the base (the dry docks.) If they had, United States would have had to tow the damaged ships to America to be repaired.

Mistake #3: Every drop of fuel in the Pacific theater of war was on top of the ground in storage tanks five miles away. One attack plane could have strafed those tanks and destroyed American fuel supply.

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