Japan's part in the outbreak of world war h it took Japan less than half a century to rise to power and become a major world player



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JAPAN'S PART IN THE OUTBREAK OF WORLD WAR H It took Japan less than half a century to rise to power and become a major world player. In the last quarter of the 19th century, Japan turned to Western technology in order to avoid the fate of China, namelyWestern dominance. By the 1890s, Japan had so far modernized and strengthened itself that it was able to join in the scramble for possessions in China. In 1902, it signed a treaty with Great Britain which recognized its new status among other things. At the end of the First World War, Japan was invited as one of the winning powers, to participate in the Peace Conference. In reality, however, the Japanese found that they were not considered equal to the Europeans and the Americans. This Western hypocrisy caused Japan to lose faith in the Western powers and pursue a pan-Asian order, with Japan as its leader. In order to become self-sufficient, Japan needed the raw materials of East Asia, as well as "living-space" for its surplus population. This pan-Asian vision threatened European and American interests in the region, which therefore opposed it. Japan found itself by the 1930s with a choice:-to confront the Western powers, especially the United States, and thereby risk war, or to retreat and accept humiliation and a loss of power. This essay is going to examine how Japan reached that position by the 1930s and how it made the choice for war. I am going to argue that Japan's policies were shaped more by fear and a feeling of weakness, than by a confidence in its own military strength and its racial superiority, which has been the more accepted view among historians.
By 1914 Japan had already demonstrated its new strength by becoming the first Asian power to defeat aEuropean one, in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. World War I gave Japan the opportunity to pursue expansionists goals in Asia without ┬źny diplomatic risks. As an ally of Britain, Japan declared war on Gennany, which allowed it to seize German colonies in the Pacific including the Chinese one at Kiachow. Japan then concentrated on extending its control over China whiletheEuropeanpowersweretoopreoccupiedtore^t. Inl915,JapanpresentedChinawhh.he Twenty-One Demands, which extracted economic concessions, and, if they had all been accepted, would have turned China into a virtual colony.- In 1916, Japan's European allies recognized Japan's gains, and at the Paris Peace Conference Japan represented one of the five major powers, the only

Asian nation to do so. I. had joined the ranks of the exploiter, and wanted to be treated equally, but it did not get the racial equality clause in the League of Nations Covenant that it had asked for.2

Instead Japan was awaried Germany's rights in China, convicting the Allied promise ofself-detennination. to the (ury of the Chinese. This episode left the Japanese with a bitter, lasting impression that the sincerity of Westerners was no. real and that the West wanted to keep Japan down.

The peace talks in far-off Europe and the entry of Japan into the League of Nations did not change thegoalsofJapan-s military. The Japanese Imperial Navy possessed the third largestfleet in the

' Edwin P. Hoyt, T.p.n". War: the Gn-at Pacific Conflict (Toronto, 1986), p.24

2 Ibid.. p. 47

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world and wanted to make it capable of defeating the United States.3 However limitations agreed to under pressure from the other powers at the Washington Naval Conference of 1921-22 made this impossible. Japanese nationalists, already a powerful force, were not happy about this and resented Japan's treatment by the West. Later, at the London Naval Conference of 1930, the British and the Americans demanded further limitations, which the Japanese saw as a serious threat to their naval superiority in the Pacific. However, after the treaty's expiration in 1936, Japan was free to pursue naval construction that would upset the balance of power in the Pacific. Another matter which caused problems between Japan and the West and which made Japan feel threatened was resources and trade. Japan needed resources from abroad and needed to sell its manufactured goods to pay for them.4 Japan was particularly dependent on the United States for important raw materials, mainly oil, of which 80 was supplied by the U.S.5 Throughout the 1920s the two countries had shared a close economic relationship.6 When the Great Depression of 1929 led the U.S. to pursue protectionist policies, this relationship went sour. Japanese silk, which had mainly gone to the U.S. market, could no longer be sold.7 The Depression hit Japan hard. In 1929, 3 million workers lost their jobs. Many lost their life savings and thousands died from 3 See Roger Dingman, Power in the Pacific: the Origins of Naval Arms Limitation. 1914-1922 (Chicago and London, 1976), chapter 8 passim 4 Janet Hunter, The Emergence of Modem Japan (London and New York, 1989), p.29 5 Christopher J. Argyle, Japan at War 1937-1945 (London, 1976), p.4 6 Ibid. p. 90 7 Ibid.. p. 93

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starvation.8 This had a profound effect. Many Japanese became convinced that radical action was needed to save Japan. Nationalist organizations, which were influential in the military, believed that the only answer was overseas expansion and reform at home. The secret Cherry Blossom Society, for example, wanted a break with the West and "the restructuring of the nation even through the use of force."9 In the 1930s, these radical nationalists were able to gain popularity by exploiting social discontent. Between 1931 and 1936, the Western-type parliamentary system was gradually transformed into a military dictatorship.10 This period was marked by a purging of corrupt and/or liberal elements in government and business which came to climax in 1936 when radical officers seized the War Ministry, the Diet, and police headquarters and assassinated the finance minister, the inspector-general and a former Prime Minister.'' Even though the Emperor suppressed the rebels, there was public sympathy for their cause and a growing sense that Japan's leaders had to overcome their past infatuation with Western liberalism and individualism and return to Japan's unique national character.12 Partly as a response to developments in the world and partly as a result of what it saw as Western racism (in the immigration acts passed in Canada, Australia and the United States which excluded Japanese, for example), Japan had already begun to move away from internationalism after the First 8 Editors of Time-Life, Japan at War (Chicago, 1980), p. 13 9 Akira Iriye, The Origins of the Second World War in Asia and the Pacific (London, 1987), p.7 10 William R. Keylor, The Twentieth Century World: An International History (New York, 1992), p. 241

Ronald H. Spector, Eagle against the Sun: me American War with Japan. (New York, 1985), p.36 '2 See Hunter, Op. Cit. pp. 174-176 4
World War. It tried to gain more and more control of China to protect its interests. In southern Manchuria, there were a million Japanese settlers and a large Japanese army, the Kwantung. Japan also had extensive investments in Manchuria. In the 1920s, while China was weak and divided, it was easy for Japan to extend its influence but when the Chinese nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek united the country in 1928, the Japanese military and nationalists grew alarmed. To prevent Chiang Kai-shek gaining control over Manchuria, the Kwantung Army decided to take action, without informing Tokyo of its plans. On September 19, 1931, officers from the Kwantung Army set off an explosion on the Japanese-owned railway line in Manchuria, and blamed it on Chinese terrorists. To "protect" law and order and Japanese investments, the Kwantung Army moved north and south along the railway line. The civilian government in Japan was too weak and indecisive to interfere. By March 1932, Japan had virtually seized all of Manchuria and made it into a puppet state called Manchukuo. The U.S. and other countries refused to recognize Manchukuo and the League of Nations blamed Japan for the incident. However nothing else was done. Japan withdrew from the League. Within Japan, the radical nationalists gained greater confidence and power which was going to have an impact on Japan's policies in the next few years13, and abroad other aggressive nations such as Germany and Italy saw that the world was not prepared to stop such actions. i3^bid..p.2^^

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After 1931, the Japanese military in Manchukuo planned to extend their influence south into China and among other things began flooding the Chinese market with cheap goods and heroin.' It looked like Japan intended to take over more of China and that roused tremendous nationalist feeling in China. Chiang Kai-shek was pressured to do something and to stop trying to exterminate the Communists. In the meantime, the Chinese Communists were offering to form a united front against Japan. Finally, at the end of 1936 Chiang agreed to a united front. That in turn alarmed the Japanese who did not want a more united China, the Japanese military, again making policy on their own, decided to move troops southwards into China. In the summer of 1937, a full-scale war broke out between China and Japan. Japanese troops easily defeated the Chinese. They captured the capital of Nanking, as well as other major cities, ports and railways along the coast right down to Canton in the south. The nationalist government under Chiang was forced to retreat inland. Chinese resistance continued, however, which caused a drain on Japan's limited oil supplies and kept troops tied up. The United States, which had admired Japan before this period, now grew hostile. The American public saw China as the pathetic, helpless victim of Japanese aggression. As well, the U.S. was worried about an Asia dominated by Japan which would threaten American commercial, imperial and strategic interests in the area. When the U.S. realized that Japan was not going to stop in China, it started to support the Chinese nationalists. In 1938 the Americans began negotiations and sent aid and led a "moral" embargo against Japan. They still assumed that Japan was an inferior 14 Aldra Iriye, Power and Culture: the Japanese-American War (Cambridge, Mass., 1981), p. 5 6


nation and could be restrained through economic sanctions.15 In 1939, the U.S. told Japan that it was going to abrogate its treaty of commerce with Japan after January 1940 and a year later the U.S. prohibited the export of military equipment, munitions, machine tools and planes as well as strategic mineral and chemicals, and iron and steel scrap.16 The outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, however, briefly took world attention from the Far East and that gave Japan an opportunity for further expansion. Japan had already moved closer to Nazi Germany in the years between 1936 and 1938 when Hitler saw that Germany could benefit from a strong Japan in East Asia.17 On November 25, 1936 the two countries signed the Anti-Comintem Pact, which was directed against the Soviet Union, and Italy later signed as well. Relations also improved when Germany recognized Manchukuo. In September 1940 the three powers, Japan, Germany and Italy, signed the Axis Alliance. Although in fact the alliance never amounted to very much it did help to persuade the Soviet Union to sign a non-aggression treaty with Japan in April 1941.18 On the other hand, the Axis Alliance worked against Japan. Japan had hoped that the Alliance would make the Americans realize that Japan was too powerful to stop and that the Americans would therefore give Japan a free hand in Asia. Hitler and Mussolini also welcomed the Alliance because they thought it would neutralize the United

15 Ibid., p. 15 is jonn T. Mason, The Pacific War Remembered- an Oral History (Annapolis, Maryland, 1986), p. 4

^Keylor.QE-CiLP.K^ is inye. The Origins of the Second World War in Asia and the Pacific, p. 133

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States. In fact, it persuaded the Americans that Japan wanted to dominate Asia and they decided to co-operate more closely with the British and the Chinese in the Far East.19 Japan hoped to use the situation in Europe after the outbreak of the war to pursue its long-term goal of building a pan-Asian empire. Japanese nationalists had been talking about Japan's role in leading all Asian peoples against the white colonial empires and in 1938 the Japanese prime minister had spoken about a Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere which could ultimately include all Asian nations.20 In the shorter term, Japan could find the strategic resources it needed, such as oil and tin, in the Dutch East Indies. Malaya, Indochina, or the Philippines.21 In 1941, after France had fallen to the Germans, Japan occupied important parts of French Indochina. In retaliation, the American President, Roosevelt, froze all Japanese assets and funds in the U.S. and cut off all trade including oil. He also stepped up trade to China, hoping it would weaken Japan. Japan did not have enough currency to buy oil and other strategic raw materials. It only had a reserve of 55 million barrels of oil. which would just last a year and half during a war, and which was being absorbed by the continuing war in China.22 Japan needed an alternative source, such as the oil fields in the Dutch East Indies. Otherwise it faced economic collapse. However it realized that further expansion in the Pacific ran the risk of confrontation with the United States, especially if the U.S.'s possession of the Philippines were threatened. Japan was faced with either submitting to U.S. demands that it get 19 Ibid.. PP. 117. 120-130 20 See Hunter, Op. Cit. pp.51-2 21 Mason, Op. Cit.. p. 1 22 John Keegan, The Rand McNallv Encyclopedia of World War u (New York, 1977), p. 131 8


out of French Indochina and pull back in China or work with its German and Italian allies to build a new world order.23 As talks with the Americans dragged on in 1941, Japan began to plan a campaign of conquest in southeast Asia to take over Dutch, British, and American colonies. In December 1941, the Japanese attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor and almost at the same time attacked the Philippines, Malaya, the Dutch East Indies and Hong Kong. Japan realized that it had to knock the United States out of the war before it could mobilize. Japan simply could not match American war production over a prolonged period. Already 188,000 Japanese had been killed in China, the Japanese economy was being drained, and staples were being rationed in Japan. The attack at Pearl Harbor was preceded by several years of cold war between Japan and the United States. War broke out because Japan's military leaders and their civilian supporters decided to close the gap and attack the United States before it got too strong.25 The Americans on their side saw Japanese power as a threat to the American position in the Pacific and were not prepared to abandon their interests. They tried to compel Japan to mend its ways and resume its old role as a responsible member of the international community. They assumed that Japan would not act rashly. At the same time, Japan had come to believe that it had to establish its self-sufficiency, security and 23 Iriye, The Origins of the Second World War in Asia and the Pacific, p. 115 24 Editors of Time-Life, Japan at War. p.26 25 Akira Iriye, Power and Culture, p. 1

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independence and that the United States and the other Western colonial powers were a threat to it. The Japanese resented Western racism and blamed the West for the failure of negotiations before the war started. The Japanese military thought that the Western powers were too weak militarily and too divided to pose much a serious challenge. They believed the main fight would be at sea where they had a good chance of winning. The war started not simply because Japan was aggressive and the West resisted it but because over the years Japan had come to mistrust the West and had turned away from the international framework based on co-operation of the 1920s. Japan believed that that order was not workable and so it opted for a pan-Asian order. 10


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