Japanese Empire Research Paper

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In response to European and American domination in Asia in the late nineteenth century, Japan developed an industrial economy and a strong military to build its own empire, which grew to incorporate much of East Asia, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific. Japan’s defeat in World War II resulted in the loss of its overseas territories, the destruction of much of its homeland, and occupation by a foreign power.

When Emperor Meiji ascended Japan’s imperial throne in 1868, Europeans and Americans were conquering, buying, co-opting, or otherwise dominating many areas of Asia. In order to protect their country from the threat posed by these Western imperial powers, Japan’s leaders established and consolidated their national boundaries in the 1870s by incorporating the large northern island of Hokkaido (home of the Ainu people), Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands to the south, and the smaller Bonin Islands to the southeast within Japan’s long-established territorial space of Honshu, Shikoku, and Kvhu islands. They also encouraged an emergent sense of imperial nationalism, and the government adopted the slogan “rich nation, strong army” (fukoku kyohei) while developing an industrial economy and creating a strong military based on Western strategy and Western weapons. Japan’s newly refurbished military forces were initially used against internal rebellions, but its first real test was on the Asian continent.

Korea and the First Sino-Japanese War

Japan’s leaders had long considered the Korean peninsula a strategic area needing diplomatic attention and possibly military control. Korea’s geographic proximity made it both vulnerable and potentially threatening. In 1274 and 1281 Mongol ruler Khubilai Khan (1215–1294) attempted invasions of Japan from Korea, and in the 1590s the Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536/7–1598) launched two invasions of Korea, causing massive death and destruction.

Nominally led by the native Yi imperial family, Korea had a tributary relationship with China that allowed Qing imperial rulers in Beijing to control Korea’s foreign affairs. Russia was interested in Korea as a Pacific Ocean terminus for its mammoth Trans- Siberian Railroad. Japan forced a commercial treaty and then a political treaty on Korea (with China’s reluctant acquiescence) in 1876 and 1884. Nevertheless, the much larger countries of China and Russia remained potential threats to Japan’s strategic interests in Korea. When the internal Tonghak Rebellion grew too large for the Korean government to handle in 1894, they called in Chinese troops. Alarmed, the Japanese army immediately landed its own troops on the Korean peninsula, and war soon broke out between China and Japan. The Chinese and Korean forces were no match for Japan’s modern troops and weapons.

The Treaty of Shimonoseki and the Triple Intervention

As a result of the Treaty of Shimonoseki (1895) that ended the war, China paid Japan a hefty indemnity, Korea was declared independent of Chinese control (and thus easier for Japan to influence), and Formosa (present-day Taiwan) and the Liaodong Peninsula, in northeastern China across the Korea Bay from Korea, were ceded to Japan. But the treaty’s terms upset Russia, Germany, and France, who did not want Japan firmly entrenched on the strategically important peninsula close to their own treaty areas in China. They demanded that Japan return the Liaodong Peninsula or face war against the three of them. Russia, the driving force behind this “triple intervention,” also did not want to allow Japan more territory bordering its interests in Manchuria. Unable to gain support from the British or Americans to counter the triple intervention, Japan grudgingly gave in.

Nevertheless, this first successful overseas test of Japan’s newly modernized military, followed by its participation in suppressing China’s anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion of 1900–1901, demonstrated to Japan’s political and military leaders the weakness and disarray of the once mighty China—vulnerabilities that Japan would later exploit more fully.

The Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905

Still smoldering over the triple intervention and subsequent occupation of the Liaodong Peninsula by Russian troops, Japan launched a surprise attack against Russia on 8 February 1904, sinking most of Russia’s Asian fleet at Port Arthur on Liaodong. Two days later, Japan declared war. Japanese and Russian ground troops fought difficult, bloody battles, with Japan finally taking the important junction of Mukden (Shenyang), directly north of the Liaodong Peninsula, in March 1905. In May 1905, Russian naval forces sent from the Baltic were devastated by the Japanese navy, led by Admiral Togo Heihachiro (1848–1934), at the Tsushima Straits. Defeated on land and especially at sea, and having to deal with anti-Czarist revolution at home, the Russian imperial government agreed to peace negotiations with Japan. The Russo-Japan War, concluded by the Portsmouth Treaty of 1905, and mediated by U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt, was a tremendous victory for Japan. Japan regained the Liaodong Peninsula, Russian interests in southern Manchuria were transferred to Japan, the southern portion of Sakhalin Island was ceded to Japan, and Korea was recognized as under Japan’s political and economic control. Japan declared Korea a protectorate territory in 1905 and formally annexed the peninsula in 1910. A nonwhite country militarily defeating a major Western and largely white country was disturbing for Westerners, with their entrenched notions of racial superiority. In Japan, by contrast, the war led to a dramatic upsurge of nationalist sentiment, and across East Asia Tokyo was regarded as a mecca for young, energetic Asians who wanted to learn how to build an economy and military that could stand up to the West.

Japan’s Empire During World War I

Japan entered World War I (1914–1918) on the side of the Allies (Britain, France, Russia, the United States, and Italy) because of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1902. Japan supplied the Allies with armaments and nonmilitary supplies, but took no active part in the war in Europe. Japan did use its military forces, however, to occupy German-controlled islands in the South Pacific and occupied the Shandong territory in China previously controlled by Germany. Japan also issued the “Twenty-One Demands,” a set of political, economic, and military concessions it demanded from China. China received little outside help from the Allies, who were preoccupied with the war in Europe, and was forced to agree to a slightly reduced set of Japanese demands.

Immediately after King Kojong (1852–1919), the last Korean emperor, died, many Koreans planned a peaceful demonstration against Japanese rule to coincide with the funeral ceremonies on 1 March 1919. Japanese colonial authorities in Korea, drawn primarily from military forces, brutally crushed the largely peaceful demonstrations. Approximately seven thousand Koreans were killed and tens of thousands were injured. Barely two months later, on 4 May, anti-Japanese sentiment exploded in China when the Paris Peace Conference announced that Japan would maintain control of Shandong. Chinese university students, workers, shopkeepers, writers, and artists participated in marches, demonstrations, and anti-Japanese boycotts in Beijing and throughout many of China’s cities for several days before order was restored. These two events became important nationalist symbols for generations of Koreans and Chinese, respectively.

The Washington Conference and the 1920s

In order to deal with territorial, economic, and military disarmament issues that the Paris Peace Conference bypassed, some of the Allied powers met in Washington, D.C., from December 1921 to February 1922 to hammer out a series of agreements. The United States, Britain, France, and Japan first agreed to a “Four Power Pact” confirming the status quo regarding one another’s Pacific territories. Next, the United States, Britain, Japan, France, and Italy agreed on a “Five Power Treaty” limiting the construction of naval capital ships—battleships and cruisers. Japan reluctantly agreed to this naval limitation treaty after receiving assurances it could substitute newer ships in the planning stages for older ships slated for decommissioning. Participants also agreed to a “Nine Power Treaty” guaranteeing the territorial integrity of China and establishing an “open door” policy that granted all signatories equal economic opportunities in China.

The agreements of the Washington Conference were substantial and limited military construction and military confrontations among the major powers for a decade or more. Nevertheless, many nationalists in Japan believed the treaties adversely affected Japan’s imperial interests and claimed their representatives to the conference did not adequately consult the military—even though one of the three Japanese representatives was the highly decorated Admiral Kato Tomosaburo (1861–1923). At the London Naval Conference in 1930, the naval limitations treaty was renewed despite strenuous opposition from the Japanese navy. Hamaguchi Osachi (1870–1931), the prime minister who forced Japan’s parliament (the Diet) to accept the treaty, was assassinated by a civilian ultranationalist.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress approved the Oriental Exclusion Act as part of its 1924 Immigration Bill. As a result of the new law, Japanese immigrants were excluded from the United States and its territories, including Hawaii. Both the Japanese ambassador to Washington and the U.S. ambassador to Tokyo resigned in protest. The Oriental Exclusion Act raised nationalism in Japan to a dangerous level, and significantly damaged United States-Japan relations for many years.


Japan had long been interested in Manchuria for its raw materials (especially mineral resources), agricultural goods, as a destination for Japanese immigrants, and as a strategic buffer between Japan’s Korean colony and China and Russia. Despite attempts by Japan’s foreign minister Kijuro Shidehara (1872–1951) to promote Japan’s interests on the Asian continent through conciliatory means, ideological and military hardliners used the rising tide of nationalism and the economic problems of the 1920s to agitate for more direct intervention. In June 1928, members of the Japanese army stationed on the Liaodong Peninsula assassinated Zhang Zuolin (1873–1928), the Chinese warlord controlling most of Manchuria. Then in September 1931, Japanese soldiers blew up a section of the South Manchurian Railway near Mukden. Claiming the explosion was set by Chinese troops, Japanese troops took Mukden, and with reinforcements sent from Korea fought and occupied most of the important cities and areas along the South Manchurian Railway. Japanese troops in the field ignored orders from superiors in Tokyo to cease fighting, continuing until most of Manchuria was occupied.

The Japanese government in Tokyo reluctantly accepted this fait accompli and declared Manchuria the “independent” nation of Manchukuo in early 1932. The League of Nations refused to accept Manchukuo as an independent nation and condemned Japan’s actions in Manchuria. In response, Japan quit the League of Nations.

Manchukuo was ostensibly led by Pu Yi (1906– 1967), the last emperor of China, who had abdicated in 1912. However, the administration of the country was controlled by Japanese military and civilian officials, with Japanese forces in charge of security. The South Manchurian Railway Company and the Manchurian Heavy Industries Corporation led economic development efforts in the region and promoted Japanese immigration to Manchuria. Manchukuo was seen by many Japanese officials as “the jewel in the crown” of their empire.

Assassinations and Military Control

Japan’s increasing nationalism, coupled with the severe economic problems caused by the worldwide depression following the October 1929 stock market crash on Wall Street and the controversy over Manchuria, led to assassinations of prominent business and political leaders and military domination of the Japanese government. In early 1932, the head of the Mitsui conglomerate was assassinated, as was the former governor of the Bank of Japan (then serving as finance minister), both by a civilian ultranationalist group. Those killings were followed by the assassination of Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi (1855–1932), whom young army and navy officers killed because he had voiced opposition to the army’s actions in Manchuria.

On 26 February 1936, young Japanese army officers who wanted to restore rule to the emperor led more than a thousand soldiers in an attempted coup of the Japanese government. They assassinated four top officials, including the finance minister, and only narrowly missed the prime minister. The attempted coup was stopped after four days when Emperor Hirohito (1901–1989; reigned 1926–1989) made clear that he was opposed to what coup leaders were doing in his name. The overall effect of the assassinations of the 1930s, however, was to stifle civilian complaints about the military in general and especially political dissent concerning the military’s expanding operations on the Asian continent.

The Second Sino-Japanese War, 1937–1945

On 7 July 1937, a shooting incident between Japanese army troops and Chinese troops near the Marco Polo Bridge outside of Beijing soon led to full-scale war in China. By the fall, Japanese troops were fighting Chinese Nationalist (Guomindang) troops in Shanghai, where they killed thousands of Chinese civilians.

After capturing Nanjing, the Nationalist capital, in early December 1937 Japanese troops went on a rampage of slaughter and rape. Chinese troops were summarily executed after surrendering. But the vast majority of those killed were civilians—old men, women, and children. The number killed by Japanese troops in the area of Nanjing from December 1937 to February 1938 is still a matter of considerable controversy. Based on eyewitness reports from surviving Chinese, Western missionaries, and even from Japanese soldiers who participated in the massacre, the Tokyo War Crimes Trials following World War II calculated the number of Chinese deaths at Nanjing to be more than 200,000—one of the worst atrocities of the twentieth century.

By the end of 1938, the Japanese military controlled most of the eastern region of China and began running the area as an informal colony. The Japanese convinced former Nationalist leader Wang Jingwei (1883–1944) to head the puppet government there. Meanwhile, the Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kaishek (1887–1975) and his forces set up their wartime government and military headquarters at Chongqing, a city deep in China’s heartland and protected from large-scale Japanese attacks by wide rivers and mountains. The Chinese Communists, led by Mao Zedong (1893–1976), became increasingly effective with guerrilla-style attacks against Japanese forces.

By 1941, it was clear that despite Japan’s military superiority, the vast geographic area of China and its enormous population united against the Japanese made the prospects of Japanese victory dim. In China and Manchuria, Japanese military operations were consuming ever larger amounts of oil, steel, rubber, and food. In 1939 Japanese forces tried to gain access to more raw materials by pushing north into Soviet-controlled Mongolia but suffered heavy losses at Nomonhan before reaching a cease-fire agreement. Military and political leaders in Tokyo then made a fateful decision to advance into Southeast Asia.

The Pacific War, 1941–1945

In response to Japanese military actions in China, the U.S. government prevented first Japanese purchases of scrap metal, then aviation fuel, then all oil, and in the summer of 1941 froze all Japanese financial assets in the United States.

To gain raw materials to sustain their military operations in China and to maintain Manchukuo, Japan’s leaders decided to advance south into Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos) and especially to the resource-rich Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia). Following two unsuccessful rounds of negotiations with the United States, planes from Imperial Japanese Navy carriers attacked battleships, aircraft, and other military facilities at the U.S. Pacific Fleet Headquarters at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on 7 December 1941. Japanese armed forces simultaneously attacked Hong Kong, Malaya. the Philippines, Guam, and Wake Island. Japan’s war in China was now combined with a Pacific war against the Americans and their Western allies.

Japanese military forces scored one victory after another for several months and controlled much of Southeast Asia by the spring of 1942. At this point, the Japanese Empire was at its largest dimension and formally combined into a pan-Asian organization called the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Despite slogans of brotherhood such as “Asia for Asians,” the reality for people living in the Great East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere was one of Japan as a demanding, harsh imperialist power.

Japanese leaders hoped the Americans, having their hands full trying to stop Hitler in Europe, would quickly come to an agreement that would allow Japan to maintain its presence on the Asian continent. The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, however, plus the surrender and Bataan Death March of American and Filipino forces in the Philippines, infuriated Americans so much that they would settle for nothing less than unconditional surrender from Japan. Starting with sea battles at Coral Sea and Midway in June and July 1942, the tide began to turn against the Japanese. In October 1944, when the Battle of Leyte Gulf destroyed what then remained of the Japanese Imperial Navy, it was clear Japan would lose the Pacific War. The only question was when.

Tragically, Japanese military and political leaders refused to surrender even after large-scale U.S. bombing of major Japanese cities began in late 1944. They resorted instead to using young, inexperienced pilots for kamikaze suicide attacks. Even the terrible destruction and loss of 100,000 civilian lives in the Tokyo firebomb raid of March 1945 and the larger loss of Japanese military and civilian lives on Okinawa shortly thereafter failed to convince Japan’s leaders to surrender. After the early August atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, Emperor Hirohito finally surrendered, with an announcement broadcast throughout the Japanese Empire on 15 August 1945.

Legacy of the Japanese Empire

Starting with the acquisition of Taiwan following its victory in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, Japan’s empire grew to incorporate much of East Asia, Southeast Asia, and an extensive area of the South Pacific. Motivated to varying degrees by strategic and economic considerations as well as by a nationalist desire for international glory that sometimes included a mystical sense of destiny and racial superiority, Japan’s empire building during the first half of the twentieth century was not unlike that of several Western countries during the nineteenth century. Ultimately, however, the expansion and brutality of the Japanese Empire provoked a devastating war. After its defeat, Japan lost all the overseas territories it had gained since 1895, suffered the destruction of much of its homeland, and was occupied by a foreign power for the first time in its history. Even some sixty years later, Japan continues to encounter hostility from the peoples and nations it conquered during its era of imperialism.


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