Imperial Japan and Southeast Asia
Aggressive expansionist policies and increasingly
fascistic nationalism characterized the politics of the Japanese
empire from 1914 to 1945. Beginning in 1931, Japan waged a
brutal war of conquest against China that lasted almost 15
years. Japan overextended itself with its surprise attack on the
United States in 1941, and despite its military strength,
supremacy over the whole of east Asia was clearly unsustainable.
The country's inevitable defeat was hastened when the US
destroyed two Japanese cities with atomic bombs. Most of the
southeast Asian nations won their independence after the war,
though some had to fight prolonged conflicts with the Western
Development of Japanese Imperialism up to 1931
Japan expanded its sphere of influence when it gained
control of the former German colonies in the Pacific after World
War I. Nationalist ideas and the imperial cult increasingly
gained influence in the economically flourishing country as it
sought to expand into Asia.
Japan further developed its position of supremacy in East
Asia after the death of 4
Emperor Meiji in 1912 and the ascension to the throne of
his son Yoshihito.
At the outbreak of war in 1914, the Japanese foreign minister
stated that while Japan had no desire to become embroiled in
war, she would stay loyal to her alliance with Great Britain and
protect its interests.
When Germany refused to relinquish its lease hold and naval base
at 3 Tsingtao in the Chinese
province of Shantung, Japan joined World War I on the side of
Japanese forces occupied all German colonies in the Pacific: the
Marshall, Marianas, Palau, and Caroline Islands. After the war,
the League of Nations transferred these islands and Tsingtao to
Japan to administer as mandated territories. Although Tsingtao
was given back to China in 1922 under the Shantung Treaty, the
islands' territorial status quo was confirmed in other
In the 2 "Four
Power-Treaty," France, Great Britain, Japan, and the United
States agreed to respect one another's Pacific possessions and
to help in case of an attack by an outside power.
In the "Nine Power Treaty" of 1922, Japan guaranteed China
Economically, after a short postwar weakness, a period of strong
growth began in Japan.
4 Emperor Meiji in military
uniform, portrait, late 19th century
3 Government building in Tsingtao,
capital of Kiaochow, 1913
Power Treaty," November 1921
Even the 6 devastating earthquakes
around Tokyo and Yokohama in 1923 only slightly affected this
The global economic depression after 1929, however, brought this
to an end, particularly affecting 5
The country became formally democratized after the war. The
electorate was broadened tenfold to 14 million, and universal
suffrage was introduced in 1925. Politically more important,
though, was an ultra-nationalistic group of military officers
that over the course of the 1920s gained increasing influence
with the government and emperor through extraparliamentary
committees such as the "Secret State Council" and the "Military
Senate." They pushed for conquests to secure new resources.
6 Damage wrought by earthquakes,
5 Japanese silk painting,
Japan's War of Conquest in China 1931-1945
The decade-long Japanese conquest of China began with the
occupation of Manchuria in 1931. Domestically, the right-wing
military hierarchy tightened its grip on power in the empire,
silencing more moderate civilian voices.
9 Emperor Hirohito
took the throne in 1928, but from 1932 on, the army emerged as
the sole power factor in the country.
9 Emperor Hirohito, 1930
emperor of Japan
original name Michinomiya Hirohito, posthumous name
born April 29, 1901, Tokyo
died Jan. 7, 1989, Tokyo
emperor of Japan from 1926 until his death in 1989.
He was the longest-reigning monarch in Japan’s
Hirohito was born at the Aoyama Palace and was
educated at the Peers’ School and at the Crown
Prince’s Institute. Early in life he developed an
interest in marine biology, on which he later wrote
several books. In 1921 he visited Europe, becoming
the first Japanese crown prince to travel abroad.
Upon his return he was named prince regent when his
father, the emperor Taishō, retired because of
mental illness. In 1924 he married the princess
Hirohito became emperor of Japan on Dec. 25,
1926, following the death of his father. His reign
was designated Shōwa, or “Enlightened Peace.” The
Japanese constitution invested him with supreme
authority, but in practice he merely ratified the
policies that were formulated by his ministers and
advisers. Many historians have asserted that
Hirohito had grave misgivings about war with the
United States and was opposed to Japan’s alliance
with Germany and Italy but that he was powerless to
resist the militarists who dominated the armed
forces and the government. Other historians assert
that Hirohito might have been involved in the
planning of Japan’s expansionist policies from 1931
to World War II. Whatever the truth may be, in 1945,
when Japan was close to defeat and opinion among the
country’s leaders was divided between those
favouring surrender and those insisting on a
desperate defense of the home islands against an
anticipated invasion by the Allies, Hirohito settled
the dispute in favour of those urging peace. He
broke the precedent of imperial silence on Aug. 15,
1945, when he made a national radio broadcast to
announce Japan’s acceptance of the Allies’ terms of
surrender. In a second historic broadcast, made on
Jan. 1, 1946, Hirohito repudiated the traditional
quasi-divine status of Japan’s emperors.
Under the nation’s new constitution, drafted by
U.S. occupation authorities, Japan became a
constitutional monarchy. Sovereignty resided in the
people, not in the emperor, whose powers were
severely curtailed. In an effort to bring the
imperial family closer to the people, Hirohito began
to make numerous public appearances and permitted
publication of pictures and stories of his personal
and family life. In 1959 his oldest son, Crown
Prince Akihito, married a commoner, Shōda Michiko,
breaking a 1,500-year tradition. In 1971 Hirohito
broke another tradition when he toured Europe and
became the first reigning Japanese monarch to visit
abroad. In 1975 he made a state visit to the United
States. Upon his death in 1989, Hirohito was
succeeded as emperor by Akihito.
Japan rejected the Washington accords of 1922, which had
sought to avoid a naval arms race. Chauvinistic and
antidemocratic military groups determined Japanese politics
behind the scenes in the 1930s, leading to the official collapse
of the entire parliamentary system. In 1940, the old political
parties were compelled to dissolve, and a sort of conglomerate
party emerged in their place: the Imperial Rule Assistance
Association (Taisei Yoku-sankai). A new government under
Prime Minister Prince Fumimaro Konoe nationalized the economy
and put restrictions on important civil rights.
At the instigation of the military, Japanese troops invaded
10 Manchuria in 1931 and
managed to occupy the entire region in a few months.
They created the puppet state of Manchoukuo headed by the former
Chinese emperor P'u-i, who was named 11
emperor of Manchoukuo in 1934.
Japan continued its expansion and colonization of China, also
seizing Yehol province. China, militarily inferior and divided,
could do little to resist the occupiers. In 1935, Shanghai was
captured in a brutal campaign.
Japan gradually pulled away from international agreements. When
the League of Nations refused to recognize Manchoukuo in 1933,
Japan announced its resignation from the organization.
In 1936, it terminated the naval fleet agreement, and soon
after, Japan declared its withdrawal from the London disarmament
conference and signed the 12
'Anti-Comintern Pact" with Nazi Germany.
10 Japanese soldiers in occupied
11 Emperor P'u-i on a state visit
with Emperor Hirohito, Tokyo, 1935
12 Signing of the Anti-Comintern
November 25, 1936
The 13 Sino-Japanese War
began in July 1937 with a clash between Chinese and Japanese
soldiers on the 8 Marco Polo
Bridge near Beijing and lasted until September 1945.
Within a short time, Japan had annexed the north of China and
almost the entire coast. Further advances into the interior were
halted in 1938 only by the rugged mountains of central China.
The devastating war claimed enormous losses among the Chinese
population; estimates range as high as 20 million dead—the
majority of them civilians. With its defeat at the end of World
War II, Japan was forced to withdraw from China completely.
13 Japanese infantry in winter
uniform, in front of armored train, ca. 1937
8 Marco Polo
Bridge near Beijing
Poem by Ushiyama
In honor of the German-Japanese alliance:
"The alliance has been created, blood brothers
The countries of both united strive to ascending power,
Brilliant the culture, the justice commanding awe,
German soul, how you equal the Japanese."
Japanese and Nazi banners on the occasion
of the visit of the Japanese foreign minister to Berlin,