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Japan's failed Asian Empire

Written by Maciamo on 3 May 2004

Why did Japan invade Asia ?

To answer this question, we have to start from the Meiji restoration in the late 1800's. Japan, forced to open its trade to the United States then other Western powers, realized that its technology and political system were lagging far behind, and a group of revolutionary samurai from Choshu, Satsuma and Tosa (all in South-Western Japan) toppled the Shogunate and created a new Westernized government. All the society followed, and soon Japan had launched its industrial revolution. As the first and only Asian country to do so, Japan became quickly much richer and militarily more powerful than its neighbours.


In 1895, it proved its strength to the international community by defeating China quite easily - and annexed Taiwan. Russia and Japan then started to fight over the control of the Korean Peninsula and Manchuria. In 1905, The Russo-Japanese war started, but proved much harder for the Japanese. Although they officially won (and annexed Southern Manchuria and the Karafuto/Sakhalin peninsula, North of Hokkaido), loss were similar on both sides. But Japan became confident that it could rival Western powers for the first time. Japanese people began to feel a duty to protect their Asian neighbours from Western colonial imperialism. Korea was officially annexed in 1910, while Japanese troops continued to extend their control over Manchuria.

Japanese politics became increasingly dominated by the military, eventhough no military party ever gained any influence in the Diet (parliament). The cabinet of ministers was made mostly of nonparty politicians, supported by violent ultra-nationalist military factions such as the Imperial Way, who assassinated numerous politicians or opponent in the army itself.

Those militarists pushed to take control of China. Economic and social upheaval in the 1920's led many Japanese farmers to move to Manchuria to release tensions inside Japan, and in 1931 the nominally independent puppet state of Manchukuo was created. From 1937, the Japanese army invade and took Peking, Shanghai, Nanjing and most of North-East China, although the countryside remained uncontrollable due to local guerillas and the low proportion of Japanese to Chinese (600.000 Japanese soldiers vs 300 millions Chinese in occupied land).

How did Japan and Germany become allies ?

In 1936, Hitler and Japanese prime minister Hiranuma signed the Anti-Comintern Pact against the Soviet Union, by which they pledged to help each other in case of Russian attack. Italy joined in 1937.

However, in August 1939 Hitler violated the pact by signing a non-aggression treaty with the USSR in order to invade Poland in September. Himanuma felt betrayed and resigned as prime minister. But Japan, Germany and Italy signed the Tripartite pact in September 1940 to support each other against the United States.

After the Nazi had entered France and set up the collaborationist Vichy regime, Japan was able to negotiate the occupation of French Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia) through the Tripartite pact.

But when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, Japan decided not to follow Germany.

Invasion of South-East Asia and attack on Pearl Harbor

The situation between Japan, Britain and the USA had been tensed since 1922 when a treaty was signed to limit the naval warships of each nation to a respective ration of 6:10:10. Japan tried to raise its ratio to 7 in 1930, but only obtained it for some kind of ships. Inceasingly frustrated and under pressure from expansionist military at home, Japan renounced to the treaty in December 1934.

The US had been supporting China against Japan by selling them cheap equipment, and broke the Japanese-American commercial treaty to enable them to place an embargo on exports to Japan if necessary. When Japan occupied the whole of Indochina in June 1941, Roosevelt immediately called for an international embargo to cut off all foreign oil supplies to Japan. This way, Japan would not be able to support its army and economy and would have to cede to American pressure to withdraw completely from China and Indochina.

But the Japanese government was resolved to stay. It tried to find a diplomatic agreements on a partial withdrawal from China, but the US were intransigent. When it became obvious that no agreement would be reached, the Japanese planned an attack on the oil-rich British and Dutch South-East Asian colonies (Malaysia, Indonesia...), as well as the American Philippines, while preparing a pre-emptive attack on the US Navy base at Pearl Harbor. The Japanese knew very well that they couldn't wage a prolongated war against the powerful industry of the United States, but they also didn't expect them to be so determined to pursue a war and mobilize tens of thousand of men to such a distant land. That is why on 7/8 December 1941, they attacked Hawaii, pulling the United States into WWII, which resulted in the collapse of the Japanese Empire.

Some historians argue that the USA pushed Japan into declaring war on them. But could the Japanese military expansionism have stopped had the US taken conciliatory measures ? That is probably interesting to discuss in the context of the war in Iraq and against terrorism undertaken by the US at the moment. Did the Bush administration provoke the Muslim world to incite them to attack the US on September 11 ? Is history repeating itself ? Are American leaders playing with fire or are they really acting in the name of democracy and freedom ? Nice debate in perspective.

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