Japan went through a time of peace and prosperity, beginning with the Edo period. This period was inaugurated by the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, victor in the Sengoku Jidai war. For the Japanese, the 16th century was a time of isolation from the rest of the world. This self-imposed isolation lasted until the expedition of the American Admiral Matthew C. Perry. The Admiral forced the shogun to sign a commercial treaty with the United States. Confronted with the possibility of being colonized by the western powers, possessing modern armaments, the Land of the Rising Sun began an intense process of modernization in all areas.
In the space of only three decades, Japan was transformed from a feudal economy to a capitalist, market economy. The speed at which the country was reformed is unprecedented in history. Lacking natural resources and with only 20% arable land, Japan’s perspectives for development were not great. However, this did not hinder the revolutionary process on all sides. In two generations, the Land of the Rising Sun became the main political actor in the Far East. For his merits, emperor Matsuhito was venerated during the Japanese military period as a legendary figure.
China was not able to keep up with Japan’s modernization. Ruled by a corrupt dynasty, it was left far behind. China had become a colony of Great Britain. Many other European countries controlled parts of its internal affairs. Many of the countries of the world had become easy prey for a country on the rise. Korea had been a colony of China from the Middle Ages. Japan had tried in the past to impose its influence there, but without success. This time, Japanese troops crushed the Chinese army, conquering Korea.
Defeated at Pyongyang, the Chinese army retreated from Korea. Tokyo was not satisfied with this victory and ordered the invasion of China. Japanese troops advanced towards Manchuria, occupying most of the region: the towns of Tatungkau, Takushan, Xiuyan, Tomucheng, Haicheng and Kangwaseh. After this, the Japanese invaded the Liaodong peninsula, occupying port Arthur and attacking the Pescadores islands, found to the west of Taiwan. After the occupation of the islands, Taiwan was conquered. Defeated on all sides, China asked for peace. The conditions of this peace were very harsh.
The Shimonoseki Treaty came into direct conflict with Tsarist Russia’s interests in the Far East. Moscow had built a railroad that stretched up to Siberia. Port Arthur was now in the hands of the Japanese. Russia was thus losing its chance of becoming the only commercial power in the region. For this reason, Russian diplomats contacted their French and German counterparts. They fell to an agreement and put considerable political pressure on Japan. Russia’s intervention created tensions with Japan. These were some of the main causes for the Russo-Japanese war, which took place nine years later.
Russian and Japanese interests in Asia could no longer be reconciled, and arrived at a conflict. Beyond its aspirations for expansion, Tokyo had been waiting for this chance. War with Russia was seen as an opportunity to revenge the humiliation of the Tripartite Intervention. The battles were fought on the seas and on land. The territories fought over were the Liaodong Peninsula, Manchuria, Korea and the Southern and Eastern Sea of China. The most important naval battle took place at Tsushima. After this, the Japanese were victorious. The surprise terrestrial attack from southern Manchuria brought a smarting defeat to Tsarist Russia.
Peace between Japan and Russia was signed at Portsmouth. The intermediary between the two countries was the American president, Theodore Roosevelt. His job was complicated, since the war was so important. Around 500,000 Japanese soldiers were sent into conflict. Russia had double the number of troops. Japanese losses were around 95,000-100,000 men. Part of these died from disease. The other side lost approx. 130,000 Russians, with 145,000 wounded and 75,000 captured. From a financial and technical standpoint, Japan had been supported by the Americans and the English.
The Taisho period, named after emperor Yoshihito Taisho, was a period of economic development for Japan. During his short reign, the process of modernization begun in the Meiji era continued. Japan became the sixth or seventh world power, depending on which criteria were used. Except for the Rice Revolt and the Tokyo earthquake, the entire period was very stable as regards domestic matters. The process of democratization continued, with universal suffrage being introduced for adult males. The educational system advanced, and books became more and more accessible.
Japan had great expectations from the negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference. After its victories over the Chinese empire and Tsarist Russia, Japan had liquidated the colonial German empire in the Far East during World War I. As a member of the victors’ camp, the Land of the Rising Sun expected to be treated as equals by the other conquerors. Tokyo wanted to be acknowledged as a powerful country, to obtain more territories in Asia and to strengthen the position it already held. Its diplomats also wanted the recognition of racial equality.
The First World War was another chance for the ascension of the Japanese Empire. Japan had annexed German territories in Asia, participated in an international intervention in Russia and annexed the rest of the Sakhalin island. The USSR was very weak. China was crushed by internal conflicts. The First World War was another disappointment for the Japanese. They were not able to take advantage of this opportunity. The ascension of the Japanese empire was in conflict with its former allies, Great Britain and the United States. Once again, Japan was treated as the first of the second-class powers.
After the First World War, there were just two great powers which came out better off: the USA and Japan. The European powers were exhausted by the war effort. The entire Asian market was open to Tokyo, and trade created dizzying rates of economic growth. Cities developed rapidly and adopted all the technology of the times, such as electric public lighting. Even the rice crisis and the devastating Tokyo earthquake, in which 105,000 people died and 57,000 homes were destroyed, could not stop the economic progress.
During the interwar period, the growth policy was fairly balanced and democratic. The case of the Korean Peninsula, however, which suffered from very harsh colonial policies, is an exception to this rule.
In spite of historians’ prejudices, Japan was a country with a remarkable democracy for that time. Even when it reached the peak of its greatness, the military movement was not able to take over the whole decision-making power of the state. Both in the interwar period and during the Second World War, decisions were made by governments marked by instability. Loyalty to the emperor made it seem that there was almost perfect internal discipline. In reality, the Japanese political leaders had very different visions of what needed to be done in this whole period.
The Great Depression had negative effects on the whole world. Since it was dependent on exports, Japan had serious problems. Many companies dealing in heavy industry or chemicals went bankrupt. The lack of foreign market demand also affected the textile industry. However, in spite of the harm to industry, the peasants were the worst affected. They had a very difficult life beforehand. Towards the end of the crisis, the Tohoku province was on the brink of starvation. Social instability favored the rise of ultra-nationalists. The economy recovered in just 3-4 years. However, the social movements did not cease.
The Mukden incident was an act which provoked China into war with Japan. A group of Japanese officers and soldiers took matters into their own hands and staged a Chinese attack on the railway line taking freight trains to Japan. Using this incident as justification, the Japanese army entered the town of Shenyang and began the occupation of north-eastern Manchuria. Some historians consider that the Second Sino-Japanese War began at this moment. Others maintain that the war began after battles on the Lugou bridge, six years later.
Extremism was a new thing for the Japanese society. The economic crisis favored the rise in popularity of militarist principles. These were, for the most part, completely new ideas, without any real links to the samurai’s legacy. Inukai Tsuyoshi, born into a family of samurai, was prime minister during the crisis. As a committed liberal, he fought for a system of government similar to the English system, a constitutional monarchy. The militarists branded him a traitor. A number of young officers from the navy and army, together with an extremist organization called ‘The league of blood’ organized a coup.
The new country was not formally acknowledged by China. However, the Chinese continued commercial relations with Manchukuo. Countries such as El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, the USSR, Italy, Spain, Hungary and Germany acknowledged the existence of the country of Manchukuo. The League of Nations failed completely. Later, Manchukuo would be used as a base for invading China, after the incident at the Lugou bridge.
Continuing the tradition from the Middle Ages, political power was dispersed. Until the rise of the militarists, the political scene was dominated by moderate conservatives and liberals, heirs of the Choshu and Satsuma clans. These clans had brought about the Meiji Revolution. Another dominant faction was that of the liberal party, drawn from a new class of people. These people wanted the country to be democratized according to the English or American model. The Socialists never gained more than 20% of the popular support. The militarists were at approximately the same level. Most governments were coalitions, suffering much dissension between and within parties.