Views of Japan in the West
David Powers of the BBC wrote: “When Japan began its military adventures in China in 1931, it was a society in turmoil. Less than 80 years previously, it had been forced out of two-and-a-half centuries of self-imposed seclusion from the rest of the world, when the Tokugawa Shogunate was overthrown, and Japan embarked on rapid modernisation under Emperor Meiji. [Source: David Powers, BBC, February 17, 2011 ***]

“By the beginning of the 20th century, Japan was beginning to catch up with the world’s great powers, and even enjoyed its own version of the Roaring Twenties, a period known rather more prosaically as Taisho Democracy. But as shockwaves of the Great Depression reached Japanese shores at the end of the 1920s, democracy proved to have extremely shallow roots indeed. The military became increasingly uncontrollable, and Japan was gripped by the politics of assassination. ***

“Nationalists and militarists alike looked to the past for inspiration. Delving into ancient myths about the Japanese and the Emperor in particular being directly descended from the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu Omikami, they exhorted the people to restore a past racial and spiritual purity lost in recent times. They were indoctrinated from an early age to revere the Emperor as a living deity, and to see war as an act that could purify the self, the nation, and ultimately the whole world. Within this framework, the supreme sacrifice of life itself was regarded as the purest of accomplishments.” ***

“Before hostilities with the Allies broke out, most British and American military experts held a completely different view, regarding the Japanese army with deep contempt. In early 1941, General Robert Brooke-Popham, Commander-in-Chief of British forces in the Far East, reported that one of his battalion commanders had lamented, 'Don't you think (our men) are worthy of some better enemy than the Japanese?' This gross underestimation can in part be explained by the fact that Japan had become interminably bogged down by its undeclared war against China since 1931. Since Japan was having such difficulties in China, the reasoning went, its armed forces would be no match for the British.” ***

Good Websites and Sources: Essay on 20th Century Japan aboutjapan.japansociety.org ; Essay on Imperial Japan 1894-1945 aboutjapan.japansociety.org ; Another Essay on Imperial Japan aboutjapan.japansociety.org ; Wikipedia article on Empire of Japan Wikipedia ;Making of Modern Japan, Google e-book books.google.com/books ;After the Russo-Japanese War Images MIT Visualizing Culture ; J Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 dl.lib.brown.edu/kanto ; 1923 Tokyo Earthquake Photo Gallery japan-guide.com

Impact of Japan’s Wars with China and Russia

As a result of the Russo-Japanese war Russia was forced to cede Port Arthur and the Liaotung Peninsula and southern half of Sakhalin Island to Japan, to evacuate Manchuria, to recognize Korea as a Japanese protectorate and grant Japanese fishing rights north of Vladivostok. Russia obtained a lease for the southern tip of the Liaotung peninsula, where Port Arthur (present-day Lushan and Dalien) are located. The Japanese kept troops on the Liaotung Peninsula and used it as a foothold into Manchuria. Germany, France and Russia objected to Japan's claims in China.

To many outsiders the outcome was seen more as a Russian defeat than a Japanese victory. It was seen as sign of Russian weakness, which paved the way for the Russian Revolution and events in World War I. The shortness and the decisiveness of the war gave Japanese confidence and did not deplete its resources to a degree that would have made the Japanese think twice about entering conflicts in the future.

The Russo-Japanese war halted European expansion into East Asia and provided an international structure for East Asia that brought some degree of stability to the region. It also changed the world from a European-centered world to one in which a new pole was emerging in Asia. After the defeat of Russia, a Persian newspaper wrote: “Although the European politicians and philosophers have said that Asia is not qualified to reach the levels of Western civilization, this was proven to be false.”

The Russo-Japanese War brought Japan to the attention of the world as a power to be reckoned with and the uncontested leader of Asia. The defeat of Russia was seen as a slap in the face for all of Europe. It was the first defeat of a major European power since the Mongols. But not everyone saw it such grim terms. Many, especially the British, cheered Japan’s success. Some conservatives in Britain applauded “brave little Japan.”

The victories over Russia and China, established Japan as the first great, modern, non-Western power in Asia. The Japanese leaders felt it was their duty to avenge the humiliation inflicted on Asia during the colonial period after the Opium War in 1842.

By defeating Russia, Japan knocked out its only naval rival in the eastern Pacific. Japan also took over Russia's concessions in China and annexed half of Sakhalin island, which later was used as a stepping stone to Manchuria and Korea. The failure to seize significant territory in Russia and China was considered a setback not because it was threat to Japan's military an economic interests but because considered a sign of weakness that ran contrary to the "stud duck in the pond" image that Japan was trying to project.

Japan’s Global Rise During World War I

In World War I, Japan generally distanced itself from the conflict. While the great nations of Europe were blowing themselves to bits, the Japanese expanded their economy through shipping and trade and strengthened its foothold in China and the Pacific and its dominance in Asia. Japan declared war on Germany in August 1914 and quickly occupied German-leased territories in China's Shandong Province and the Mariana, Caroline, and Marshall islands in the Pacific. With its Western allies heavily involved in the war in Europe, Japan sought further to consolidate its position in China by presenting the Twenty-One Demands to China in January 1915. Besides expanding its control over the German holdings, Manchuria, and Inner Mongolia, Japan also sought joint ownership of a major mining and metallurgical complex in central China, prohibitions on China's ceding or leasing any coastal areas to a third power, and miscellaneous other political, economic, and military controls, which, if achieved, would have reduced China to a Japanese protectorate. In the face of slow negotiations with the Chinese government, widespread anti-Japanese sentiments in China, and international condemnation, Japan withdrew the final group of demands, and treaties were signed in May 1915. [Source: Library of Congress]

Japan's hegemony in northern China and other parts of Asia was facilitated through other international agreements. One with Russia in 1916 helped further secure Japan's influence in Manchuria and Inner Mongolia, and agreements with France, Britain, and the United States in 1917 recognized Japan's territorial gains in China and the Pacific. The Nishihara Loans (named after Nishihara Kamezo, Tokyo's representative in Beijing) of 1917 and 1918, while aiding the Chinese government, put China still deeper into Japan's debt. Toward the end of the war, Japan increasingly filled orders for its European allies' needed war matériel, thus helping to diversify the country's industry, increase its exports, and transform Japan from a debtor to a creditor nation for the first time. [Ibid]

Japan's power in Asia grew with the demise of the tsarist regime in Russia and the disorder the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution left in Siberia. Wanting to seize the opportunity, the Japanese army planned to occupy Siberia as far west as Lake Baykal. To do so, Japan had to negotiate an agreement with China allowing the transit of Japanese troops through Chinese territory. Although the force was scaled back to avoid antagonizing the United States, more than 70,000 Japanese troops joined the much smaller units of the Allied Expeditionary Force sent to Siberia in 1918. [Ibid]

Towards the end of World War I, Japan took a more active role and captured a German garrison in the Shangdong province in China. The year 1919 saw Japan sitting among the "Big Five" powers at the Versailles Peace Conference. Japan was given the entire Chinese province of Shandong in the Treaty of Versailles that formally ended World War I. The Chinese were not happy about this. Demonstrations against Treaty of Versailles helped bring down the Chinese government. Tokyo was also granted a permanent seat on the Council of the League of Nations., Germany's former Pacific islands were put under a Japanese mandate. Despite its small role in World War I (and the Western powers' rejection of its bid for a racial equality clause in the peace treaty), Japan emerged as a major actor in international politics at the close of the war. [Ibid]

Global Politics and Pre-World War II Japan

Emerging Chinese nationalism, the victory of the communists in Russia, and the growing presence of the United States in East Asia all worked against Japan's postwar foreign policy interests. The four-year Siberian expedition and activities in China, combined with big domestic spending programs, had depleted Japan's wartime earnings. Only through more competitive business practices, supported by further economic development and industrial modernization, all accommodated by the growth of the zaibatsu (wealth groups), could Japan hope to become predominant in Asia. The United States, long a source of many imported goods and loans needed for development, was seen as becoming a major impediment to this goal because of its policies of containing Japanese imperialism. [Source: Library of Congress]

An international turning point in military diplomacy was the Washington Conference of 1921-22, which produced a series of agreements that effected a new order in the Pacific region. Japan's economic problems made a naval buildup nearly impossible and, realizing the need to compete with the United States on an economic rather than a military basis, rapprochement became inevitable. Japan adopted a more neutral attitude toward the civil war in China, dropped efforts to expand its hegemony into China proper, and joined the United States, Britain, and France in encouraging Chinese self-development. [Ibid]

In 1928 Japan joined fourteen other nations in signing the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which denounced "recourse to war for the solution of international controversies." Thus, when Japan invaded Manchuria only three years later, its pretext was the defense of its nationals and economic interests there. The London Naval Conference in 1930 came at a time of economic recession in Japan, and the Japanese government was amenable to further, cost-saving naval reductions. Although Prime Minister Hamaguchi Osachi had civilian support, he bypassed the Naval General Staff and approved the signing of the London Naval Treaty. Hamaguchi's success was pyrrhic: ultranationalists called the treaty a national surrender, and navy and army officials girded themselves for defense of their budgets. Hamaguchi himself died from wounds suffered in an assassination attempt in November 1930, and the treaty, with its complex formula for ship tonnage and numbers aimed at restricting the naval arms race, had loopholes that made it ineffective by 1938. [Ibid]

Showa Period and Emperor Hirohito (1926-1989)

Emperor Hirohito
The Showa Period (1926-1989) refers to the period of Emperor Hirohito's rule, which extended across the better part of the 20th century. Showa means "Enlightened Peace" — an ironic name for a player in one of the most violent episodes of world history — World War II.

Emperor Hirohito was Japan's longest reigning (63 years) and longest-living (87 years) emperor. One of the most important figures of the 20th century, he was the Emperor of Japan when it became a world class military power, when it invaded China, when it raped Nanking, when it attacked Pearl Harbor and when it rose to become the world's second economic superpower. During World War II millions of Japanese young men died in his name. The extent of Hirohito’s involvement in the war is still not known. It is not clear whether he was active in shaping policy or whether decisions were simply, made in this name.

Hirohito ascended to the throne on Christmas Day, 1926 and became the 124th emperor of Japan, succeeding his father, the Taisho Emperor. Hirohito had the power to appoint and dismiss cabinet members and generals. In 1928, he forced one prime minister to resign for not stopping militarists from conspiring to kill a Chinese warlord in Manchuria. After that with the exception of 1936 and World War II Hirohito said that he chose to stay aloof from politics. In 1936, he ordered the execution of 19 militarists who led an unsuccessful coup d'etat against the civilian government in the Emperor's name.

Hirohito allied himself with hard line factions in the Japanese military. He helped military leaders weaken political parties, brutally suppressed political dissidents, promoted anti-democratic imperial ideology and enhanced his power at the expense of democracy. His biographer Herbert Bix said, "He wanted to rescue and eventually eliminate the power, the voice of elected officials in making national policy. He favored bureaucrats."

“Illusions of the White Race” (1921) by Ōkuma Shigenobu

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Ōkuma Shigenobu (1838-1922) was one of the leaders of the Meiji Restoration and a leading statesman in late nineteeth- and early twentieth-century Japan. Ōkuma served as Japan’s Minister of Finance, Foreign Minister, and (on two occasions, in 1898 and 1914-16) as Prime Minister. He also was the founder of Waseda University, a prestigious private institution in Tokyo. In this piece, written not long before his death, Ōkuma captures long-standing Japanese resentments of racially motivated discrimination at the hands of the Western powers. The recent Versailles Peace Conference (1919) is certainly fresh in Ōkuma’s mind, as the Japanese delegates there had proposed a racial equality clause in the Covenant of the League of Nations, only to be rebuffed by Australian, American, and European resistance. In the 1920s, anger over American racism would flare once again, especially in the wake of the Immigration Act of 1924 (often called the Asian exclusion act), which sought to block Japanese migration to the United States. [Source: Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

In “Illusions of the White Race”, Ōkuma Shigenobu wrote: “The Renaissance during the Middle Ages stimulated the progress of the material civilization in Europe and helped the Europeans to grow richer and stronger than the Asiatic races who kept on slumbering in their old civilization. Being seized by an insatiable, aggressive desire, the Europeans took full advantage of their lethargy and swooped down on India and other parts of Asia. They either conquered the Asiatic people by force, or dominated them by dint of superior economic organization, or cheated them out of their territories. The ascendance of the white races is due to the fact that they came into the possession of material civilization a little earlier than their non-white brothers. [Source: What Japan Thinks, edited by K. K. Kawakami (New York: Macmillan, 1921)]

“The white are obsessed with the mistaken theory that they are superior to all other races. This is the most serious obstacle in the way of the realization of racial equality. Now the Japanese, the Chinese, the Mongolian, the Turks, the Indians, the Afghans, the Persians, the Arabs, the Malayans, the American aborigines, and the African peoples are all non-white. They are all held in contempt by the whites. And it is the common belief among the whites that the darker the skin, the more inferior is the race. It is based neither upon science, nor upon any positive experience. It is mere superstition backed by historical prejudices.

“The whites are of the conviction that they are too superior a people to be governed by their non-white fellows. Therefore, they demand the privilege of extraterritoriality in the countries of the Asiatic races. They establish their own courts and trample under foot the laws and courts of Asiatic countries.

The history of Europe is black with its barbarous record of reducing the vanquished warriors to slaves. … Even modern Europe did not develop a conscience strong enough to bring about the abolition of this baneful system; and not until the slave system became a fitting tool to force a civil war in America, did we see its end even there….

The negroes in America, now numbering more than 11 millions, are not yet emancipated in the true sense of the word. The American law prohibits all invidious discrimination against the negroes; yet they are subjected to constant persecutions by the Americans whose prejudices against them are too deep.rooted to be removed by the mere promulgation of laws. Worst of all, the negroes in America are frequently lynched, a vindictive method the parallel of which cannot be found in the history of even the barbarians of the world….

Ōkuma Shigenobu on the Traditions and Potential of Asia

In “Illusions of the White Race”, Ōkuma Shigenobu wrote: Confucius, the ancient sage of China, taught that all peoples of the earth were brethren; Shakya Muni, the founder of Buddhism, preached that all human beings were equal, while Christ emphasized the necessity of philanthropy. They were the founders of the three leading religions. They came into the world at different times and in different places; yet their teachings unquestionably centered upon the truth and the necessity of human equality. God makes no discrimination against any race or any man. Men are created equal and have equal rights. [Source: What Japan Thinks, edited by K. K. Kawakami (New York: Macmillan, 1921)]

“With the steadily increasing propagation of mankind the struggle for existence has been growing keener and keener, tending toward the dominance of the stronger over the weaker, who is groaning pitiably under inhuman oppression. The strong having step by step come to occupy an advantageous position in society, the class system has gradually been established; and it is through such processes that nobles, commons, and slaves have come to exist. … We may read with pride the pages of our Japanese history, in which slaves do not figure.

There are circumstances which make us doubt whether our ancestors, in their conquest of the Korean Peninsula, did not bring the vanquished warriors of the Ye and Myaku tribes to Japan and force them into the occupations which were held in contempt by the natives, such as footgear makers, butchers, and janitors, but the authenticity of this fact remains to be proved.

The example set by Japan has convinced the other Asiatic races of the possibility on their part to be on equal footing with the white races, if only they reform their political system and adopt the needed portion of European civilization. In other words, the rise of Japan and the consequent abolition of extraterritoriality have exploded the superstition that the world is to be ruled by the whites. In this connection, the whites at first believed that Japan’s civilization was a mere imitation or a mere veneer, and that it was only fine in appearance, but entirely hollow in reality and void of sustaining qualities. The result of the Sino.Japanese War, however, was a great surprise to the Europeans. Again the Europeans were taken aback by the outcome of the Russo.

Ōkuma Shigenobu on the Strength of Japan

In “Illusions of the White Race”, Ōkuma Shigenobu wrote: “Of all the non-white countries, Japan had taken the lead in adopting the best parts of European civilization — including its military side. She codified her laws, and reformed her police and judicial systems, her military and naval forces, thus placing herself almost on an equal footing with that of the European countries. Therefore, the Europeans were compelled to withdraw their extraterritorial rights from Japan …Some whites regard the development of Japan as an unjustifiable encroachment upon their own rights. They either instigate a non-white race against Japan or plan to organize a league of the white nations to perpetuate a white supremacy in the world. Be it remembered, however, that no unjust and unreasonable agitation against this country will ever succeed, as God never sides with an unjust cause. [Source: What Japan Thinks, edited by K. K. Kawakami (New York: Macmillan, 1921)]

It is, of course, true that there are still peoples in this world who are so backward in civilization that they cannot at once be admitted into the international family on an equal footing. But it will never do to give discriminatory treatment to them. What is needed by them is proper guidance and direction. And when they have reached a certain stage of civilization, they should be given an equal place and rank in the comity of the nations. Although most Asiatic nations are fully peers of European nations, yet they are discriminated against because of the color of the skin. The root of it lies in the perverted feeling of racial superiority entertained by the whites. If things are allowed to proceed in the present way, there is every likelihood that the peace of the world will be endangered. It, therefore, behooves all wellwishers of mankind to exert their utmost to remove this gross injustice immediately.

Japanese War, in which Russia, one of the strongest white nations, with a most powerful army, was beaten by a non-white nation of the Far East. … But what happened after the Russo.Japanese War came as a miserable disappointment to the whites. Since the war with Russia, Japan’s industry witnessed a phenomenal development. Hitherto, she was entirely dependent upon other countries for the supply of machinery and industrial products, but after the war she began to export her industrial products and machines to the outside world, thus changing her status from that of an importer to that of an exporter….

Just as Japan’s successes in warfare testified to her military strength, development of her industry, shipping, and commerce accounts for the growing national wealth. In consequence, the white peoples have been obliged to give up their mistaken idea about Japan...Thus Japan has demonstrated the possibility on the part of non-white races to take rank with the white peoples if only they exert themselves.

Kokutai no Hongi (Fundamentals of Our National Polity), 1937

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “”Kokutai”is a notoriously slippery term, sometimes translated into English as “national polity” and often as “national essence.” “Kokutai”, which was hotly debated in Japan starting in the late Tokugawa period, might be best understood as those qualities that make the Japanese “Japanese.” In the mid-1930s, a time of social ferment and rising nationalistic thought, the Ministry of Education commissioned a group of prominent academics to write a treatise on “kokutai “that would establish an orthodox interpretation of the “national essence” for the Japanese people. The resulting 156-page pamphlet, “Kokutai no hongi”, was published in March 1937 with an initial print run of 300,000 copies, although more than two million were eventually distributed in Japan and the empire. “Kokutai no hongi “was the most important of a series of documents produced by the Japanese government that sought to articulate an official ideology for a nation on the brink of total war. [Source: Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ]

Selections from the Kokutai no hongi (Fundamentals of our National Polity), 1937: Introduction: The various ideological and social evils of present.day Japan are the result of ignoring the fundamental and running after the trivial, of the lack of judgment and the failure to digest things thoroughly. This is because since the days of Meiji, so many aspects of European and American culture, systems, and learning have been imported and too rapidly. As a matter of fact, the foreign ideologies imported into our country are mainly ideologies of the Enlightenment that have come down from the eighteenth century, or extensions of them. The views of the world and of life that form the basis of these ideologies are rationalism and positivism, lacking in historical views, which, on the one had, place the highest value on, and assert the liberty and equality of, individuals and, on the other hand, place value on a world by nature abstract, transcending nations and races. Consequently, importance is given to human beings and their groupings, who have become isolated from historical entireties, abstract and independent of one another. [Source: “Sources of Japanese Tradition”, edited by Wm. Theodore de Bary, Carol Gluck, and Arthur L. Tiedemann, 2nd ed., vol. 2 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 968-969, 975 ]

Paradoxical and extreme conceptions, such as socialism, anarchism, and communism, all are based, in the final analysis, on individualism, which is the root of modern Occidental ideologies and of which they are no more than varied manifestations. Yet even in the Occident, where individualism has formed the basis of their ideas, when it has come to Communism, they have found it unacceptable; so that now they are about to do away with their traditional individualism, and this has led to the rise of totalitarianism and nationalism and to the appearance of Fascism and Nazism. That is, it can be said that in both the Occident and our country, the deadlock of individualism has led alike to a season of ideological and social confusion and crisis…. This means that the present conflict in our people’s ideas, the unrest of their modes of life, the confused state of their civilization, can be put right only by a thorough investigation by us of the intrinsic nature of Occidental ideologies and by an understanding of the true meaning of our national polity. Then, too, this should be done for the sake not only of our nation but also of the entire human race, which is struggling to find a way out of the deadlock with which individualism is faced.

“Our Mission: Our present mission as a people is to construct a new Japanese culture by adopting and sublimating Western cultures with our national polity as the basis and to contribute spontaneously to the advancement of world culture. Our nation early saw the introduction of Chinese and Indian cultures and even succeeded in evolving original creations and developments. This was made possible, indeed, by the profound and boundless nature of our national polity, so that the mission of the people to whom it is bequeathed is truly great in its historical significance.”

Rise of Militarism in Japan

As the Meiji Period ended, Japan seemed to be on the road to establishing a normal parliamentary government. But instead there was a loss of confidence in political parties, opening the way for right-wing nationalists and militarists to take control of the government.

The rise of Japanese militarism has been blamed on hardships caused a worldwide depression, reaction to anti-Japanese sentiments in China, numerous scandals, flaws on the Meiji constitution that paved the way for the military's rise to power and other factors. Some historians have argued that Japan’s imperial expansion after 1914 was the result of a male “youth bulge.”

At the end of 19th century, as Japanese went to war with China, a nationalist party was created and other political parties were forced to disband. The Diet (parliament) became a rubber-stamp body for the nationalist party. According to the Library of Congress: Ultranationalism was characteristic of right-wing politicians and conservative military men since the inception of the Meiji Restoration, contributing greatly to the prowar politics of the 1870s. Disenchanted former samurai had established patriotic societies and intelligence-gathering organizations, such as the Gen'yosha (Black Ocean Society, founded in 1881) and its later offshoot, the Kokuryukai (Black Dragon Society, or Amur River Society, founded in 1901). These groups became active in domestic and foreign politics, helped foment prowar sentiments, and supported ultranationalist causes through the end of World War II. After Japan's victories over China and Russia, the ultranationalists concentrated on domestic issues and perceived domestic threats, such as socialism and communism. [Source: Library of Congress]

After World War I and the intellectual ferment of the period, nationalist societies became numerous but had a minority voice during the era of two-party democratic politics. Diverse and angry groups called for nationalization of all wealth above a fixed minimal amount and for armed overseas expansion. The emperor was highly revered by these groups, and when Hirohito was enthroned in 1927, initiating the Showa period (Bright Harmony, 1926-89), there were calls for a "Showa Restoration" and a revival of Shinto. Emperor-centered neo-Shintoism, or State Shinto, which had long been developing, came to fruition in the 1930s and 1940s. It glorified the emperor and traditional Japanese virtues to the exclusion of Western influences, which were perceived as greedy, individualistic, bourgeois, and assertive. The ideals of the Japanese family-state and self-sacrifice in service of the nation were given a missionary interpretation and were thought by their ultranationalist proponents to be applicable to the modern world. [Ibid]

Nationalism, State Shinto and Militarism in Japan

Emperor Hirohito
reviewing troops
"Starting in the late 19th century," historian Ian Buruma wrote in Time, "an official attempt was made to bring all Japanese under one spiritual roof. The nation was taught to follow the imperial cult, called State Shinto: the belief that Japanese Emperor is divine, that the Japanese are descended from their ancient gods, and that any order from a superior — in the government, in the army, at school — must be obeyed without question. State Shinto turned the Japanese state itself into a cult that reached its most extreme from the late 1930s until the end of World War II."

Military leaders rode white horses, wore impressive uniforms and oversaw religious ceremonies in which they communicated with the Sun Goddess while dressed in the robes of a Shinto priest. Classrooms featured shrines with pictures of the Emperor and teachers lectured about he divine ancestry of the Emperor as if it were historical fact. Students were taught self sacrifice was the greatest virtue and killing oneself for one's country was their greatest expression of this. Anyone who opposed "state Shinto" was imprisoned by secret police.

In Inventing Japan: 1853-1964 by Buruma wrote: "When governments rule without popular representation or even consent, one form of rebellion is to be more nationalist that the rulers. If the rulers are traitors ro the nation, they should be overthrown”

Buruma told the Japan Times: “What Japan began building at the end of the 19th century...is not all that different from extreme forms of Islam because their idea of community is also based on worship, self-sacrifice for the common good, death and so forth.”

Japanese Militarists in the 1930s

The 1930s were a decade of fear in Japan, characterized by the resurgence of right-wing patriotism, the weakening of democratic forces, domestic terrorist violence (including an assassination attempt on the emperor in 1932), and stepped-up military aggression abroad. A prelude to this state of affairs was Tanaka Giichi's term as prime minister from 1927 to 1929. Twice he sent troops to China to obstruct Chiang Kai-shek's unification campaign. In June 1928, adventurist officers of the Guandong Army, the Imperial Japanese Army unit stationed in Manchuria, embarked an unauthorized initiatives to protect Japanese interests, including the assassination of a former ally, Manchurian warlord Zhang Zuolin. The perpetrators hoped the Chinese would be prompted to take military action, forcing the Guandong Army to retaliate. The Japanese high command and the Chinese, however, both refused to mobilize. The incident turned out to be a striking example of unchecked terrorism. Even though press censorship kept the Japanese public from knowing about these events, they led to the downfall of Tanaka and set the stage for a similar plot, the Manchurian Incident, in 1931. [Ibid]

A secret society founded by army officers seeking to establish a military dictatorship--the Sakurakai (Cherry Society, the cherry blossom being emblematic of self-sacrifice)--plotted to attack the Diet and political party headquarters, assassinate the prime minister, and declare martial law under a "Showa Restoration" government led by the army minister. Although the army canceled its coup plans (to have been carried out in March 1931), no reprisals were taken and terrorist activity was again tacitly condoned. [Ibid]

After series of political scandals undermined confidence in the government allowed the military seized the moment and took power. The military was suspicious of both politicians and corporations. The created a government and a mentality that drive Japan towards war.

Upheaval and Assassinations in the 1930s

There was a fare amount of unrest and upheaval in Japan in the 1930s and the military used this as an excuse to firm its grip on power. In the 1930s, Gen. Isamy Cho led a group of fanatical Japanese officers who aimed to assassinate elected Japanese politicians and start a war against Russia in Manchuria, and spread Bushido through the imperial army. He was inspired by samurai stories that promised success against western devils through mystical Japanese courage.

The Japanese system of party government finally met its demise with the May 15th Incident in 1932, when a group of junior naval officers and army cadets assassinated Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi (1855-1932). In the incident, six young naval officers broke into the official residence of the prime minister and murdered Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai in hope of sparking a revolution to reinstate the emperor-based government. The officers were upset about the prime minister’s recognition of Chinese sovereignty over Manchuria and his staunch defense of parliamentary democracy. At the time Inukai’s son was attending a sumo match with the actor Charlie Chaplin. The plotters discussed killing Chaplin as a means of triggering a war between Japan and the United States.

Although the assassins were put on trial and sentenced to fifteen years' imprisonment, they were seen popularly as having acted out of patriotism. Inukai's successors, military men chosen by Saionji, the last surviving genro, recognized Manchukuo and generally approved the army's actions in securing Manchuria as an industrial base, an area for Japanese emigration, and a staging ground for war with the Soviet Union. Various army factions contended for power amid increasing suppression of dissent and more assassinations.

In the so-called February 26th Incident of 1936 — an attempted coup by the military — about 1,500 troops went on a rampage of assassination against the current and former prime ministers and other cabinet members, and even Saionji and members of the imperial court. Soldiers assassinated a number of government officials and took control of much of central Tokyo in an effort to make Japan less corrupt and more engaged in international affairs. The rebellion ultimately failed. It was put down by other military units, and its leaders were executed after secret trials. Despite public dismay over these events and the discredit they brought to numerous military figures, Japan's civilian leadership capitulated to the army's demands in the hope of ending domestic violence. Increases were seen in defense budgets, naval construction (Japan announced it would no longer accede to the London Naval Treaty), and patriotic indoctrination as Japan moved toward a wartime footing.

The period between the February 26 Incident of 1936 and the beginning of World War II was a time of great domestic turmoil in Japan. Six different people held the position of Prime Minister, with Fumimaro Konoe serving twice. All but Konoe quit in less than a year. Many gave up after serving about six months in office.


By 1925 most small industries had been crushed by monopolies of giant corporations headed by extremely powerful and rich families. These giant corporations, known as “zaibatsu”, dominated the Japanese economy until the end of World War II.

Powerful zaibatsu families included the Mitsuis, the Iwasakis (Mitsubishi), the Yasudas and Kichizaemon Sumitomo. The Mitsubishi conglomerate was founded by Iwasaki Yataro, born near Kochi on Shikoku in 1834.

The Sumitomo family of 600 firms included Sumitomo Corp., Sumitomo Heavy Industries, Sumitomo Bank, Sumitomo Chemical, Sumitomo Electric Industry, Sumitomo Trust and Banking, Sumitomo Rubber and NEC.

Sumitomo was founded in the 17th century by a warrior monk named Masatomo Sumitomo, who gave up the monastic life and opened up a medicine shop and bookstore and later expanded into copper after Sumitomo leaned European copper refining techniques and acquired a copper mine on the island of Shikoku.

Image Sources: 1) political cartoons, Visualizing Culture, MIT Education 2) Earthquake pictures, J.B. Macelwane Archives, St. Louis University 3) Hirohito pictures, Wikipedia

Text Sources: "Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org ~; Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ; Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan; Library of Congress; Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO); New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; Daily Yomiuri; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek, Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2016

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