Japan. From enlightenment to militarism
author Liviu Sadovschi, July 2016
Japan went through a time of peace and prosperity, beginning with the Edo period. For the Japanese, the 16th century was a time of isolation from the rest of the world.

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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.

Christianity, brought by the Portuguese, was initially tolerated in Japan. This is remarkable, happening as it did in the Middle Ages. However, Christianity began to be seen as a threat when it was accepted by more and more peasants. Even many daimyo, senior feudal lords, had converted. The Dutch and Portuguese had brought shotguns and cannons with them. These weapons could potentially be used by the masses against the military dictatorship. Thus, the third shogun of the Edo period, Tokugawa Iemitsu, ordered the isolation of Japan.

The Americans tried, through negotiations, to open Japan up to the rest of the world. After repeated refusals, Matthew C. Perry was sent with a fleet by the American president Millard Fillmore, to convince Japan to sign a trade treaty. Perry created a blockade of Japanese ports. The Americans had warships from the industrial age, with coal-fired engines and powerful cannons. The Japanese had swords, arrows, primitive cannons, flints and muskets. Thus, they were forced to yield.

In the face of the American threat, the Japanese signed the Convention of Kanagawa. American vessels received exclusive trade rights, especially for transporting prime materials such as coal. America had the right to keep an ambassador in Japan, in Shimoda. Four years later, another treaty was signed. This was called ‘The Treaty of Amity and Commerce’. It was negotiated by the American diplomat Townsend Harris, and is also known as the ‘Harris treaty’. The deal was very disadvantageous for Japan.

The treaty of amity and commerce stipulated that Japan would open the Kanagawa, Nagasaki, Niigata and Hyogo ports. The Americans had the right to commercial exclusivity in these ports. American citizens were allowed to visit the country and build warehouses on Japanese territory. These foreigners received immunity from Japanese legislation and could not be tried, regardless of the crimes committed. In order to avoid being colonized and having to face even more humiliations, it was clear that Japan must enter the modern world.

In spite of its self-imposed isolation, Japan developed rapidly. The era of the Tokugawa shogunate was a period of 253 years of peace and economic prosperity. A period of amazing cultural advances followed. Approximately 40% of the population could read and write. Edo, modern-day Tokyo, was becoming the largest city in the world, with over 1 million inhabitants. The next two largest towns, Kyoto and Osaka, each had 400,000 inhabitants. However, most of the population lived in rural areas. Japan was an advanced country, but still anchored in feudalism.

Persecution of Christians began at the beginning of the Edo era. In the end, the Japanese Christians fought back. Led by Amakusa Shiro Tokisada, the rebels tried to overthrow the Tokugawa regime. Civil war followed, known as the Shimabara rebellion. Amakusa was defeated. At least 27,000 Christians were massacred. Foreigners were no longer allowed on Japanese territory. Japanese citizens who left the country risked capital punishment if they dared to return. The only commercial relationship with Europe was with the Dutch, through an artificial island called Dejima, near Nagasaki.

The attempt at sudden modernisation in Japan provoked a civil war, also called ‘The Year of the Dragon War’ or ‘Boshin’. Those loyal to the shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu wanted to preserve ancient traditions and the class of the samurais. The supporters of Emperor Matsuhito, only 16 years old, wanted to reform the country and avoid colonization. The revolutionaries won. The final resistance of the samurais took place at Shiroyama. There, the last 500 survivors chose to fight with traditional weapons. The moment was artistically interpreted in the film ‘The last Samurai’.

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.

The secret to the success of the modernisation process lay in the will of the whole of Japanese society to work together. The Japanese were determined to maintain their independence at any price. Traditions must be preserved, but any new technology or organizational reform, if it were useful, must be implemented as quickly as possible. Major changes took place in social, military, economic, judicial and educational fields. The population began to dress according to western fashion and to build western-style houses. Even their diet changed, as new types of food were imported.

The calendar was changed. Time was calculated according to modern methods. Literacy levels were raised considerably. Four grades of school were made obligatory. The boys’ uniforms were inspired by Prussian military uniforms, the girls’ by the American navy. A Central Bank of Japan was created, to deal with new challenges on the global financial market. However, this could not finance all the massive investments in infrastructure and was forced to borrow from abroad. The principal creditors were the United States of America and Great Britain.

Like any modern state, Japan had a constitution. This was based on the constitution of Germany, a newly-formed country. The entire justice system was changed. For the first time, a civil code was introduced, defending citizens’ rights. Feudalism was abolished, together with all privileges reserved for the nobles and clergy. The emperor had a secondary role, leaving the executive body to govern. The reforms in the justice system also created problems, since many samurais were left without jobs. As a consequence, many ministers of the Meiji period were victims of assassinations.

The army was supplied with modern technology. Attempts were made to construct a Japanese war industry. Military grades and organization were copied from western experts, invited especially for consultations. The spirit of the samurais was still present, with officers being educated according to the Bushido code. This would later be seen in the wars that were fought, up until the defeat in the Second World War. Many Japanese were sent to prestigious universities all over the world, in order to come back and help with the reformation of the country. The most advanced methods of medical assistance available at that time were adopted.

In spite of its remarkable progress, the Japan of the Meiji era could not overcome the major handicap it had, compared to the Great Powers. Urban populations doubled during this period. However, a great number of people still worked in agriculture. Without natural resources, industrial production was modest. Tokyo wanted to enter the ranks of the world powers. With a unique and hard to understand culture, Japan was not even seen as a regional power. However, according to economic statistics from that time, Japan had become the seventh power of the world, overtaking Italy.

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.

Governed by a failing empire, Korea was confronted with a grave economic crisis. This was made worse by food shortages, which sparked a revolt. The population attacked the Japanese embassy in Korea. Japanese diplomats escaped with the help of the English. Japan sent troops to Seoul, the capital of the Chinese colony. The Chinese did the same. Acknowledging the superiority of the Japanese, China agreed to pay damages to the government for those killed during the revolt. The embassy was rebuilt and formally recognized by the Chinese.

Two years after the revolt, the Japanese organised a coup. Thus they took over power in Korea. The Chinese responded by removing them. They killed the Japanese ambassadors and burned the embassy. The incident was resolved with the treaty of Tientsin. Japan and China agreed to withdraw their troops from Korea and no longer send military experts to train the Korean army. On the economic plane, both China and Japan tried to impose their influence, investing in Korea.

Relations between China and Japan cooled after several incidents. These culminated in the assassination of Kim Ok-Gyun, a Korean revolutionary with Japanese sympathies. A new rebellion had begun in Korea. The Korean emperor, Gwangmu, asked for China’s help. The Qing dynasty sent 28,000 troops to support the government. From the Japanese perspective, this was a violation of the Tientsin treaty. As a consequence, Tokyo sent troops to Korea. China refused to share its sphere of influence. War became inevitable.

During the First Sino-Japanese war, a considerable number of troops was mobilized. China sent 630,000 soldiers, while Japan only had 240,000 people. However, the Japanese were much better armed. The Japanese fleet was made up of ships built by Britain, the greatest maritime power in the world. During the modernization process, Japan had managed to copy the English ships and build very similar models. Japan defeated China, losing only 13,000 people. China lost three times as many.

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.

Japan had obtained supremacy in the Sea of China, after the victory on the Yalu river. Almost the entire Chinese fleet was destroyed. At a numerical disadvantage, but much better equipped, the Japanese war ships took out the famous Chinese fleet, Beiyang. With control of the waters, the Japanese marines supported sieges on land, especially during the Lushunkou campaign. At the beginning of the war, many wounded Japanese soldiers were tortured and killed. In response, the Japanese army massacred around 1,500 Chinese when it occupied Port Arthur. The numbers are however questioned.

The campaign for conquering the Pescadores islands was perhaps the most bloody of the war. The Japanese army annihilated the Chinese garrison. Thus they blocked any efforts of the Qing dynasty to send reinforcements to Taiwan. The Japanese assaulted these islands with approximately 5,500 people, supported by their warships. Their losses were minimal, with about 1,200 soldiers dying due to disease. During the whole of the war, the Japanese lost more men to epidemics than to actual battle. After these battles, Taiwan was forced to surrender.

The first Sino-Japanese war demonstrated the importance of technological superiority in contemporary warfare. What surprised observers of the time were the modern war tactics used by the Japanese General Commander, especially in coordinating army and navy military operations, in the face of difficult terrain and climate. The best example is the battle of Weihaiwei. There, the Japanese fleet chased the Chinese fleet. At the same time, terrestrial troops cut off the Chinese retreat, forcing their surrender in only 23 days.

The governance of Taiwan was not without problems. For two years, a fierce guerilla war was raged. 100,000 Japanese soldiers were needed to keep order on the island. A rebellion was attempted, after which Taiwan declared its independence, under the name ‘Republic of Formosa’. General Motonori Kabayama crushed the resistance movement, becoming known for his many acts of cruelty. Many Chinese were decapitated while prisoners and the local population watched. The purpose was to show what would happen to those who resisted the occupation.

The war officially ended with the signing of the Shimonoseki treaty. The Chinese empire acknowledged the independence of the Korean state. Japan received Taiwan, the Liaodong Peninsula and the Pescadores archipelago. China acknowledged the Japanese ownership of these territories, ‘for eternity’. Japan also annexed the Senkaku islands, which at that time were uninhabited. The Chinese were forced to pay war damages in the value of 13,000 tons of silver. This was approximately equal to six years of national income for Japan. At present, the Senkaku islands are an apple of contention between China and Japan.

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.

France had very good relations with Japan. Many French experts were hired to help with the country’s modernization process. Part of the Japanese fleet was made up of ships built by France. Paris had a treaty of alliance with Moscow. This alliance would be the foundation of the later Entente, lasting until the Bolshevik Revolution. The fear that the Russians would break the alliance, leaving France alone to face a Germany on the rise, made Paris support the wishes of the tsar. Germany had colonial ambitions for the area.

Tokyo withdrew its troops from the Liaodong peninsula, returning the territory to China. In exchange for the retreat, Beijing paid 450 million yen, maintaining the appearance that the region had been exchanged. In reality, it was a forced yielding of a conquered territory. The European powers profited from the retreat. Instead of maintaining the integrity of Chinese territory, the principle under which they had supposedly intervened, they began to spread their influence in the region. Russia occupied the Liaodong peninsula. Germany annexed the Shandong province. Even France and England occupied several Chinese ports.

Under pressure from Russia, France and Germany, Japan appealed to the Americans and the British. The United States also had rising interests in Asia, so they did not support Japan. Great Britain held a colonial empire in the region. It still saw Japan as an ally which could counterbalance Russia’s influence. Without American agreement, London remained neutral. Threatened with a simultaneous war from the Three Great European Powers and left without allies, Japan gave in.

Even the most moderate Japanese politicians had the impression that the intervention of the western powers was a ploy against an Asian country which was considered to be racially inferior from the start. Most of the population felt humiliated and deceived. Tsarist Russia was seen as the main culprit. Baron Hayashi summarized the general feeling of the period. Japan must maintain its calm and await new opportunities. The economy, the land army and the navy must be strengthened. When the opportunity arose, Japan would fulfil its destiny.

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.

After occupying the Liaodong Peninsula as a consequence of the Tripartite Intervention, Russia had signed a treaty of alliance with China, against Japan. Moscow built the Trans-Siberian highway for the purpose of transporting troops rapidly to Manchuria. Pressed by Tokyo, Russia agreed to withdraw from Manchuria. This encouraged Japan, which made a plan for invading Russian possessions in the Far East. It was a lightning attack, without prior declarations of war. Japanese troops occupied Korea so fast, that Russia lost the country without being able to intervene.

Three hours after the attack on Port Arthur, Japan declared war on Russia. When accused of breaking the laws of warfare, it gave the example of Russia’s surprise attack on Sweden. International laws did not state that a country must declare war before attacking. This point was only introduced after the second conference at the Hague, two years after the end of the conflict. The Tsar was shocked by the news. Russia mobilized its forces with great difficulty. Russia’s declaration of war on Japan came eight days after the beginning of fighting.

The surprise attack on Port Arthur was initiated at the command of Admiral Togo Heihachiro. After the first clashes, the Russian fleet suffered serious losses. Admiral Stepan Osipovich Makarov was killed in battle. The Russian ships retreated to port, sheltering in the protection of the battery on land. In spite of his spectacular operation, Togo Heihachiro could not obtain a decisive naval victory. Instead, the Russian fleet was incapacitated and unable to protect Korea, which fell under Japanese occupation.

The Japanese land army advanced on Chinese territory, crossing the Yalu river. The Japanese obtained a series of victories on Chinese soil, at Fu-Hien and Liao-Yang. Thus they forced the Russian army to retreat and regroup in the town of Mukden. After receiving fresh troops from western Russia, General Kuropatkin began the counteroffensive. The Japanese army was not willing to retreat, and rebuffed all attacks. Then the Japanese took the initiative, laying siege to Mukden.

The most important land battle took place during the siege of Mukden. The Japanese were not satisfied with surrounding the town. They intended to attack it, at any cost. Russia had approximately 330,000 people, while Japan had 270,000. This did not stop the enthusiastic Japanese advance. Most battles were characterized by the bombardments of Krupp cannons and successive bayonet attacks, passing through mines, barbed wire and Russian machine-gun fire. Both camps suffered massive losses. Around 89,000 Russian soldiers died. The Japanese lost 71,000 men.

In the face of sustained Japanese assault during the battle of Mukden, Russia was forced to capitulate. Russian land troops retreated to the north. However, the war was not yet lost for the Russians. They had called in their entire fleet from the Baltic Sea to support their navy under siege in Port Arthur. Due to an incident with Great Britain, the Russian Fleet had to go around Africa. The journey lasted seven months. During that time, Port Arthur surrendered. The two fleets clashed at the Tsushima straits. After two days of battle, the Baltic fleet was destroyed.

The Russo-Japanese war was euphorically supported by the Japanese population. The exemplary military mobilization and the battles of Mukden and Tsushima also enthused the west. Many Europeans rejoiced in the fall of Russia. The extraordinary sacrifice of the Japanese soldiers generated a wave of sympathy in western Europe. The decisive victory at Tsushima came at just the right time. The Japanese economy was on the verge of bankruptcy, since it was dependent on foreign loans. This was the first war won by an Asian country against a European power.

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.

At Japan’s request, the United States refereed the peace in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Although the Americans were glad of Russia’s defeat, they were concerned that the total elimination of Russian influence in Asia could give too much power to Japan. The Americans tried to increase their sphere of influence in the Pacific region, with this process speeding up later. As a consequence, the treaty did not give Japan the status of victor. The peace was a compromise, and maintained a Russian presence in China.

The treaty determined that Japan would receive Korea, part of southern Manchuria, Port Arthur and the southern part of the Sakhalin island. The Russians did not have to pay war damages and remained present in the region. Although defeated from a military point of view, Tsarist Russia had the opportunity to rebuild. From an economic standpoint, things were even worse. Japan dominated the exports market in Southern Asia. Since both states were on the verge of bankruptcy, they accepted the compromise.

During the negotiations, Japan expressed a desire to annex Korea, southern Manchuria and the Sakhalin island, found to the north of the Japanese island Hokkaido. The Russians wanted to keep the Sakhalin island and maintain a fleet in Asia. They refused to pay war damages to Japan. Negotiations had reached a stalemate. Theodore Roosevelt proposed that Russia buy the Sakhalin island from the Japanese. This suggestion was rejected by Moscow. In the end, Japan agreed to receive the southern part of the Sakhalin island, without financial reparation.

The Portsmouth peace treaty created dissatisfaction in both camps. Again, Japan felt that it had been treated unjustly by the westerners. From the point of view of the political elite, if Japan had been a European power, it would have obtained much more from the negotiations, including war damages. In Tokyo, there was even a revolt, quashed with difficulty by the authorities. Two months after the signing of the treaty, a revolution broke out in Russia. Tsar Nikolai II was forced to sign the October Manifesto. In theory, the law forced him to govern under a constitutional regime.

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 became a modern country, potentially able to compete with the Great European Powers. 50 years earlier, Japan had been an essentially feudal nation. The rapid modernization was not without its problems, and the Japanese still had a long way to come, compared with the Europeans. The results, however, were remarkable. In 20 years, the population had grown from 39.9 million to 51.3 million. At that moment, it was the fifth largest nation by population, overtaking countries such as Great Britain, France and Italy.

The information given by the historian Paul Kennedy is interesting. Town development was very intense. At the beginning of the modernization process, only 6.3% of the population lived in cities: a total of 2.5 million people. At the beginning of the Taisho period, the percentage had increased to 12.8%, representing 6.6 million people. Although the rate of growth was accelerated, Japan still had a lot to catch up. Japan was fifth in the world according to urban population and percentage of total population living in cities.

Japan’s economic development can also be seen through the indices of energy consumption, meaning coal consumption. A jump was made from 4.6 million metric tons to 23 million, Japan becoming the 7th consumer of energy in the world. It occupied the same position concerning total industry potential, with an index of 25.1. Japan had started at 7.6, before overtaking Italy, which had an industry potential of 22.5.

From a military and political standpoint, Japan’s victories over China and Russia strengthened its position in the region. The army had increased its staff, from 71,000 men, to 306,000 soldiers at the beginning of World War I. This made it the sixth largest army in the world. The naval fleet was the 5th largest in the world and the second strongest fleet in the Pacific Area (after the American navy), with a total weight of 496,000 tons. In spite of all these accomplishments, Tokyo wasn’t treated as the capital of a great regional power.

Japan’s economy also underwent real progress in a short time frame. The level of industrialization per capita grew, overtaking Tsarist Russia and occupying sixth place in the world. In the production of iron and steel, essential for war at that period, Japan was producing 0.02 million tons at the beginning. This rose to 0.25 million tons. However, its lack of resources was a handicap, making it only the eighth world power in this area. Its dependence on imports for natural resources was a weakness which would later be fatal.

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 Japanese delegation at Versailles was very large, made up of 64 members. It was officially led by Saionji Kinmochi. However, his role was symbolic. The true leader of the diplomatic mission was Makino Nobuaki, a great personality of the times. In his youth, he had been part of the Iwakura mission in America, and studied there for three years. His goal was to obtain recognition of Meiji Japan as an independent state, to re-negotiate treaties with the Great Powers, and to observe the political, military and educational systems of the western countries.

Makino Nobuaki’s main goals were the acknowledgement of racial equality, based on Woodrow Wilson’s generous principles, and acknowledgement of the annexation of the Shantung peninsula. If his goals had been fulfilled, Japan really would have become equal with the European powers. Japan had been transformed, from an Asian country trying to defend itself from European expansion, into a nation which was copying the western model of colonial exploitation of the weak. In their opinion, racial equality was not about the equality of all, but only about Japan’s status as being equal with the rest of the world.

From the very beginning, the Japanese delegation was disappointed by its reception in Paris, as it was isolated in the Vendome hotel. Officially, Japan was one of the 5 victor powers participating at Versailles, together with the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Italy. In reality, all the important decisions were made by Wilson, Lloyd George and Clemenceau. Italy and Japan did not count - this can be seen in their dissatisfaction during the negotiations.

Makino tried to introduce the principle of racial equality into the charter of the League of Nations. After the vote, Japan gained the majority with 11 votes for and 6 abstaining, with strong support from France and Italy. Other countries supporting the vote were Brazil, China, Greece, Serbia and Czechoslovakia. The United States, Great Britain, Australia, Portugal, Belgium and Romania abstained. Even so, Wilson stepped in, stating that this principle would interfere with the sovereignty of countries. It must be unanimous. Without a unanimous vote, the problem should never be discussed again.

The British did not agree with racial equality. The Americans had interests of their own in Shantung, so they also rejected Japan’s proposition. The French had a colonial empire in IndoChina and didn’t support the initiative. Left without allies, Makino Nobuaki gave an emotional speech about the equality of people. In closing, he declared that Japan was too proud to accept dialogue with other nations from a position of inferiority. What he wanted was simply the acknowledgement of an inalienable and just right.

Japan was only asking for racial equality with the Western powers. What Makino Nobuaki didn’t understand was the fact that, if this had been accepted, it would have created a dangerous precedent. The principle of racial equality could have become universal, which would have encouraged the desires of oppressed nations to free themselves from colonization. The response was clear. Australia’s delegate declared that 95% of Australians would not agree with racial equality. Wilson could not convince Congress to approve such a statute, especially in the case of Southern senators.

The Japanese press reported the debate in the League of Nations in detail. The general sentiment was of humiliation concerning the American intervention. Resentments also grew due to the USA’s position regarding Shantung. If the annexation had been acknowledged, Japan would have obtained a vital strategic point, controlling the Sea of China. A very important fact has been ignored by most European historians: one of the main reasons why Congress refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles was the concession made to Japan concerning Shantung.

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.

From a geopolitical point of view, Tokyo had much to lose. In the first stage of the war, Great Britain wanted Japan to intervene against Germany. When Japan became too powerful, the United Kingdom became afraid of its influence. After the war, the alliance between the English and the Japanese was not renewed, and relationships became cooler and cooler. Tokyo considered London’s gesture as unfriendly. During World War II, Japan conquered the British colonial empire in the Pacific.

The United States declared its Open Doors policy and built the Panama Canal. Accepting political isolation from Europe, the Americans concentrated on expansion in Asia. From a Japanese perspective, the Open Doors policy was an aggressive act, since its principles were not open for negotiation. The Americans wanted to eliminate all economic competition from the Pacific area and to have exclusive access to the Chinese market. They saw Japan as a potential enemy. Several books were published during this time, discussing the possibility of conflict between the two countries.

Relations with China also deteriorated. During the First World War, Japan occupied Shantung and other Chinese ports. It wrote a document entitled ‘The 21 demands’, which should have been sent to Beijing. These demands would have transformed China into a Japanese colony. Realising that this would never be accepted, Tokyo created a new document called ‘The 15 demands’. All Japan did was to imitate the western model, ignoring all rights of the Chinese to govern themselves freely. Their demands angered the United States and Great Britain, which united against Japan.

After the Bolshevik Revolution, Tsarist Russia had disappeared and been replaced with the USSR. The Soviet Union was seen as an immediate threat to Japan. In spite of the fact that it was allied with Japan, Great Britain proposed invading Siberia, together with the United States, without consulting the Japanese. Prime Minister Terauchi Masatake declared that he was extremely disappointed. Japan occupied the town of Vladivostok and agreed to send 12,000 soldiers to support the Czech division, which was being targeted by the Soviets. This expedition should have been part of an international coalition.

The Japanese expedition in Vladivostok became much larger, reaching 70,000 soldiers. They advanced to Lake Baikal. Tokyo planned to create an independent state in Siberia, to act as a shield against the USSR. After the retreat of the international coalition, the Japanese army remained. The Bolsheviks attacked the town of Vladivostok, but were rebuffed. Even so, the creation of a state was not possible. The two years of occupation had consumed half of Japan’s national income. Confronted with public pressure, Tokyo decided to withdraw all its troops from the USSR.

The Nikolayevsk incident created even more mistrust between Moscow and Tokyo. During the Russian Civil War, Japan occupied Nikolayevsk-on-Amur, a small town in the east of Russia. The Japanese garrison was made up of 350 soldiers, together with 300 Russian counter-revolutionaries. The town was surrounded by 4,000 Bolsheviks. The white garrison surrendered, on condition that the soldiers could lay down arms and return home. The communists accepted, then massacred the Russians. Seeing this, the Japanese barricaded themselves in the military camp, refusing to surrender.

After the occupation of the town of Nikolayevsk by the Bolsheviks, the Japanese garrison launched a surprise attack, which failed. All the soldiers were executed, together with 700 Japanese civilians. In revenge, the communist commander, Triapitsyn, went on to execute all the inhabitants of the town, wiping it off the face of the earth by setting it alight. Due to lack of ammunition, he stabbed the condemned to death with bayonets, throwing their bodies into the frozen river of Amur. In order to satisfy Japan, the USSR executed Triapitsyn. This compensation was not sufficient. Japan occupied the northern part of the Sakhalin island.

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.

In the Pacific, the tonnage of vessels settled by the Treaty of Versailles was 5:5:3. Japan, being isolated from the other powers, had a 3/13 ratio for vessel weight. Politicians saw this as an injustice but accepted it since they had no choice. However, from a commercial point of view, the Japanese fleet was third in the world, after the American and English fleets. The investment rate grew three times faster than the rate of domestic consumption. Japan had become dependent on commercial balance, and was vulnerable to sudden change. Helped by the devaluation of the yen, exports grew.

The testimony of an American diplomat, Joseph Grew, who lived in Japan for 10 years during the interwar period, is very interesting. Tokyo was changing so fast that it was becoming unrecognisable. Wide streets and boulevards, modern buildings, luxurious parks and gardens were built. People adopted western styles of clothing. The English language became a compulsory subject in schools. Women began to be involved in the workforce. Land was cheap, and a house cost two years’ salary for a laborer. Cars and motorbikes became more and more popular. Using taxis was a normal occurrence.

The First World War also had a positive consequence for Japan. The importance of exports increased. During the war, exports were worth 27.4% of national income. The market for textiles from Asia was dominated by Japan. Commerce with this area became vital during the interwar period, with 55.9% of Japanese commerce. Gradually, growth of the domestic market was encouraged. At the middle of the interwar period, in the Tohoku province, the most rural area in Japan, 80% of homes had electricity.

The development of railroads and highways continued. 600,000 tons of construction materials were used, a figure close to Great Britain and the United States. After the great Kanto earthquake, Tokyo was rebuilt, becoming a world-class metropolis, with over 5 million inhabitants. Tokyo was connected to Yokohama, the most important port, through the Yamanote railway. The first underground railway was built, called Ginza. Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto were also linked. If it hadn’t been for the outbreak of the second World War, Tokyo would have hosted the 1940 Olympic Games.

As in any industrial state, the importance of agriculture began to wane. At the beginning of the Meiji era, agriculture represented 31.8% of the national income, and occupied 64.9% of the workforce. At the end of the interwar period, it represented only 10.4%, with 41.1% of the workforce. This level was comparable to that of Ireland or France at that time. However, this phenomenon also had negative consequences. It led to the rural areas, which had always been disadvantaged, becoming even poorer. By imitating the western model of development, Japan also imported many of its problems.

Japan began to build its own steam engines and warships. The industrialization process was accelerated by the First World War. Manufacture boomed, reaching 72% at the end of the war. During the interwar period, the percentage of heavy industry in industrial production grew from 27% to 68%. Ten of the eleven car manufacturers which became famous after the second World War were established in the interwar period. From the perspective of higher technology, Japan was self-sufficient.

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.

Hara Takashi was a Japanese prime minister who wanted to adopt a just policy towards Korea. He pled for a much gentler approach. He became a Christian at the beginning of his political career, and sought to cultivate good relationships with the west. Takashi’s attitude infuriated the extremists. They believed that Japan had every right to exploit Korea as it wished. In the Tokyo railway station, Takashi was mortally stabbed by Nakaoka Kon’ichi, a railway worker with militarist tendencies. For his deed, Nakaoka Kon’ichi served 13 years in prison.

The repression exerted by Japan contravened all forms of international law. The Japanese language became compulsory in Korea. Citizens with Korean surnames were forced to change them to Japanese names. Those involved in minor revolts were executed without trial or after only summary trial. Living conditions were primitive. Investments were concentrated solely on strategic branches of the economy, which were exploited purely for Japanese benefit. For Koreans living in Japan, racist policies were applied. The League of Nations did not intervene, since colonial empires were permitted and tolerated.

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.

Inazo Nitobe was a great professor at the Tokyo University. His opera contains 24 volumes. He was one of the most important delegates to the League of Nations. Realising that the Japanese civilization was not understood by those outside it, he decided to write an introductory work explaining the specifics of Nippon culture. This was called Bushido: The Soul of Japan and became an immediate best-seller. The book was written in English and translated into Japanese a decade later. In spite of his good intentions, due to its simplicity the work stirred up prejudices.

The American historian Thomas W. Burkman wrote a very interesting book called Japan and the League of Nations. Empire and World Order, 1914-1938. In this book, the author demonstrates that the League of Nations was at the center of Japanese diplomacy in the interwar period. It played a positive role in international order, including supporting the Red Cross. After the Mukden incident, the diplomats tried to explain that Manchuria was essential to Japanese interests. Tokyo did not intend to leave the League of Nations. This happened when Japan was left without support.

The whole of Japan’s diplomatic activity in the League of Nations, from the initiative for racial equality up until their retreat from the organization, was marked by their attempt to integrate the country into the international system. The idea that militarist Japan continued the tradition of the samurais and the bushido code is false. This was alimented by Japanese propaganda during the war and by Americans during the occupation. The Americans wanted to take credit for the democratization of the country. This was Nitobe’s motivation for writing the manifesto. The Japanese diplomacy was trying to win the sympathy of the Europeans.

The educational system became one of indoctrination only during the Second World War. In the interwar period, it had made great progress - not only in schools but also universities. Japan had three state-run universities in that period. After twenty years, there were 46 universities. The number of students in Japan was over 70,000, enrolled in 500 faculties. Books and scientific articles were published, cinematography flourished, radio and newspapers spread over the country, all favoring the exchange of new ideas.

Private universities prospered. The most famous were: Waseda, Keio, Meiji and Chuo. The ‘Iwanami bunko’ program was created, which made books more accessible to the public. Western music became fashionable. The intellectual interests of the Japanese were very close to those of European societies. Marxism was imported and became a popular perspective. The same can be said of Darwinist and liberal ideas. Debates began to be held about social inequality - the differences between urban and rural areas - which became more and more popular amongst the intellectuals of the time.

Socialist groups prospered after the First World War. Through the Versailles Treaty, Japan agreed to submit to the rules dictated by the International Organization of Labor. 187 syndicates were formed, which contained just 7.9% of the population. Interest for rural areas grew. Associations of tenants had 72,000 members. The Tokyo University boasted liberal, socialist, conservative and reformist professors. Yanaihara Tadao was a researcher and pacifist economist who was very influential in that era. He had studied at the Economic School of London and was a committed Christian.

A lesser known fact is that Japan, during the interwar period, tried to introduce democracy into Taiwan, under pressure from public opinion from the island. At the peak of militarism, 38 members of parliament came from countries Japan was trying to colonize. Tokyo introduced universal suffrage for men. Thus, the electorate grew from 3 to 12.5 million people. Count Kato Takaaki, prime minister for two years, implemented many democratic reforms. He was firmly opposed to all kinds of warfare.

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 Honshu island, the largest in Japan, was affected by the lack of demand on the silk market. The financial-banking system was also hit hard. Out of 1,400 banks before the crisis, only 418 remained, with the monetary balance recovering much slower than the rest of the economy. Japan adopted a doctrine of Keynesian economics, continuing to make investments. Short-term, this accelerated the demise of many businesses. The number of unemployed grew, and salaries were reduced considerably. Tokyo needed a lot of foreign loans. But, in the medium- and long-term, the measures had positive effects.

Even in conditions of crisis, the total industrial production grew. On the other hand, the textile industry and agriculture suffered huge losses. The value of Japanese exports fell by 50%. Japan was forced to import natural resources, but didn’t have enough money, so the monetary crisis got worse. The commercial deficit also grew. The income of peasants fell, whereas income in urban areas grew rapidly. This increased social inequality. A new generation of officers with militarist views used this moment to their advantage, blaming the situation on western values and traitorous politicians.

The economy revived relatively fast. Five years after the end of the crisis, the number of laborers employed in manufacture had grown from 5.7 to 7.6 million. This shows that the investments in urban areas helped. However, the rural areas were still affected, with many landowners abandoning their farms and investing in industry. Social inequality was accentuated. This was a new issue for the Japanese leaders of state. Until that point, inequality and class struggles had not been a major problem.

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.

Dissension between China and Japan was aggravated when Chang Tso-Lin, a Chinese leader from pro-Tokyo Manchuria, was assassinated by a number of militarist officers. Tanaka Giichi, Japan’s prime minister at the time, tried to blame Chinese terrorists. The truth came out, and Giichi was forced by the newly-crowned emperor Hirohito to quit. Three years after this incident, colonel Kanji Ishiwara devised a plan to make war with China. At the beginning, he acted on his own. Later, the militarists supported him.

In spite of massive investment in Manchuria, there were only 250,000 Japanese living in the area. Japan did not want to continue the war with China. Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi prepared to withdraw the troops. The order was not sent, since Inukai was assassinated by the militarists who wanted an army dictatorship to govern for the emperor. Opinions were divided in the army and marines. The occupation of Manchuria was not justified by the natural resources exploited there, but by fear of the USSR, which had rebuilt itself. Moscow had a lot of troops in Asia.

After the assassination of Inukai, Saito Makoto became prime minister, as a technocrat. He was influenced by Saionji Kinmochi, a former prime minister and member of the political party called ‘The constitutional association of political friendship.’ The two intended to respect Inukai’s desire to order retreat. Their opinion was a minority within the coalition government. The militarists won the debate. The emperor did not join the discussions.

On the day following the Mukden incident, 500 Japanese elite troops attacked the Shenyang garrison, made up of 700 badly trained and insufficiently armed Chinese. By the evening, the whole garrison was decimated, with the Japanese losing only two people. The general commanding Japanese troops in Manchuria, Shigeru Honjo, declared that the attack was executed without his permission. Receiving backup from Korea, he realized that there was no longer a way out. Five months after the invasion, Japan controlled the Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces.

Public opinion in China urged resistance against the invasion. The best Chinese troops and most advanced weaponry were in the next province to Manchuria. However, the Chinese Kuomintang government ordered the retreat of an army of 400,000 Chinese, confronted by only 11,000 Japanese. The civil war was considered to be much more important, in which the Chinese nationalist army was fighting against the army of the Chinese communist party. In truth, Chinese victory would have been impossible, since the Japanese could have received fresh troops at any time from Korea. Resistance was purely local. There was a kind of guerilla war.

As a consequence of the Mukden incident, Japan was excluded from the League of Nations. The annexation of Manchuria was not done directly. Japan created a puppet state in the region, called Manchukuo. Officially, the state was a constitutional monarchy, led by emperor Henry Pu Yi, part of the Qing dynasty. He had been the emperor of China until his abdication after the 1911 Revolution. Actual power was in the hands of the prime minister, at Japan’s bidding. The Manchukuo state actively supported the city of Tokyo during the war, and was dissolved only after the end of the Second World War.

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.

Most of those who participated in the coup were from rural areas. They had experienced social inequality first hand and knew where public opinion lay on the issue. Communist-style movements became more and more popular. The militarists considered the communists to be dangerous. Through the rhetoric of equal opportunity, they attracted young people from rural areas, who had no perspectives for the future. Still, the militarist movement was not a dominant force. It was continually forced to make compromises with the democratic political parties. In elections, public support was never higher than 30%.

Accusations against Inukai Tsuyoshi reached a critical point when he signed the Naval Treaty of London, which imposed numerous limits on the Japanese fleet. In truth, Inukai wouldn’t have signed if the European powers had given him a choice. Followers of militarism managed to assassinate Inukai, together with the finance minister Inoue Junnosuke and the businessman Takuma Dan. They planned to kill all leading politicians, and also the celebrity, Charlie Chaplin, in the hope that this act would lead to war with the United States. Most of the assassins were under 20 years old.

The eleven assassins went to trial. Their popularity grew during the trial, since they justified their act as loyalty to the emperor. The defense tried to acquit them on grounds of their youth, saying they were not aware of the consequences of their deeds. A petition with 350,000 signatures was put forward requesting leniency. The pressure paid off, and the assassins received short prison sentences. The fact that the justice system bowed to pressure from the public and from the military elite represented the beginning of the ascension of the ultra-nationalists.

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.

Learning from their brushes with the British Colonial Empire, the Japanese employed the same practices. The commander of the army in Manchukuo was the ambassador of Japan, with the authority to reject the decisions of the Chinese emperor. The only legal political party was protected by Tokyo and called the ‘Concordia Association’. The Manchukuo state was very large. At its inception, it contained 42 million people. At the beginning of the Second World War, the population had reached 50 million inhabitants. Only 2% of these were Japanese, approx. 100,000.

The capital of the newly created country was at Hsinking. For the protection of the emperor, an elite army called the ‘Imperial Guard’ was formed. The fleet was very modest. Aside from the emperor’s guards, the Manchukuo army was formed of auxiliary troops and a secret service, used to combat Chinese resistance. The government in Tokyo wanted to increase the number of Japanese in Manchukuo and adopted policies for the migration of populations. After the surrender of the Japanese empire, almost a million citizens were left behind. Most of them were assimilated by the local population. Only a small number returned.

Whereas the militarists were not able to impose their anti-capitalist policy in Japan, they had free rein in Manchukuo. The population in Manchuria was subjected to intense propaganda, similar to Hitler’s doctrine of total war preparation during time of peace. Manchukuo was to militarist Japan as the Vichy Regime was to Nazi Germany. Both were actively involved and participated in battles. Although the Manchukuo army was poorly equipped, formed mainly of police troops, it was effective, since the Chinese troops were also badly equipped.

The Manchukuo army turned against its own population. After the invasion from the rest of China continued, they helped the Japanese in the war. The police force, the main weapon of repression, guarded the local population in forced labor camps. Many Chinese died, being forced to work in inhuman conditions. They were building roads and highways, to facilitate the rapid transport of the army and of Japanese provisions during the war. It is estimated that over 10 million Chinese suffered this treatment.

The militarists committed countless crimes against humanity in Manchukuo. After the war, an infinitesimally small number of these were taken to trial in Tokyo. Examples are countless. The abuses were not ordered by the central government; the government simply closed its eyes and did not stop the excesses of the militarists. The crimes were so chaotic that there are no realistic estimations to tell us how many victims there were. On the other hand, many testimonies remain. There are descriptions of the starvation of Chinese workers, summary executions, throwing bodies into mass graves or burying prisoners alive.

Japan had signed international treaties forbidding trade in drugs. Using the puppet state, Tokyo conducted large-scale business in drugs. This fact is confirmed by reports from the League of Nations. It was nothing other than a new return to the European model of expansion. One century earlier, Great Britain sparked an opium war with China, with the aim of extending business in the region. A second opium war was provoked by the British Empire and the Second French Empire. Still, the militarists took drug trade to a completely new level.

The arrival of the Japanese also had some positive effects. Before, Manchuria was a very poor region. Investments in infrastructure and industry helped. A good educational system was created. There were 12,000 schools, serving 600,000 Chinese students. However, the educational system supported Japanese propaganda, of loyalty to the emperor in Manchukuo and friendship with the Japanese people. The idea was promoted that the Japanese had good intentions and had come to civilize the Chinese. Japan had become more westernized than it realised.

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.

In the Middle Ages, Japan was divided into castes. The emperor was declared supreme ruler. However, he was only a symbol. The real power was held by Shogun, the supreme general of the country. The state was divided into provinces, ruled by daimyo, feudal lords. The political system was decentralized, with taxes collected only at regional levels, by each daimyo. In reality, the shogun could not do everything he wanted to, since he was always forced to have the most influential daimyo on his side. A policy of compromise was necessary in order to maintain peace. This tradition of compromise was continued in the interwar period.

In the year of the Immigration Act, relations between Japan and the western powers continued to decline. A new civil war had broken out in China. Many Chinese nationalists had attacked the properties of Europeans in the area. Great Britain asked for Japan’s support. Shidehara Kijuro, the Japanese foreign minister, refused to get involved. Three years later, during the Nanking incident, many westerners were attacked by the Chinese. The United States asked for Japan’s support, but Japan maintained its neutrality. Tokyo was accused of being hostile to the interests of the Western powers.

Modernization eliminated the caste of the samurais, and all their privileges were withdrawn. Carrying a sword was forbidden. In their place, a new social class arose, called zaibatsu, made up of business people with conservative or liberal views. These were the equivalent of small bourgeoisie in Europe, during the first phases of the industrial revolution. The interwar period favored another category, called the new zaibatsu, made up of entrepreneurs who rose up out of nothing. Most of them were laborers or engineers, who had higher technical education. These left small businesses and arrived at big companies. The American dream was alive in Japan.

After the Meiji revolution, the Japanese military doctrine had copied the western model, using modern war tactics. A few years before the First World War, the perspective had radically changed. A new generation of generals stressed absolute loyalty to superiors, gaining victory at any price, and spectacular attacks lacking in efficiency. The new rules were in conflict with the entire Japanese military tradition. In spite of the importance accorded to discipline, soldiers and officers repeatedly scorned the orders of their superiors. Most war crimes were committed by soldiers who were out of control.

Gradually, the old generation of moderate politicians was replaced by fanatical leaders. The peak of militarist ascension was reached at the ‘February 26 Incident’ of 1936 when approx. 1,500 young officers attempted a coup. The army stepped in only when the emperor ordered the imperial guards to suppress the revolt. The rebels surrendered, 19 leaders of the revolt were executed, and 40 received heavy prison sentences. From that moment, the army obtained a majority in the government, offering to guarantee domestic order.

The break between the United States and Japan became more accentuated after the Immigration Act of 1924. In practise, this law made it impossible for many nationalities to immigrate to America. It explicitly forbade Japanese, Chinese and other Asiatic nationalities to try to settle there. These articles were considered racist by the Japanese. Even Nitobe Inazo, a great supporter of the west, declared he would never visit the United States again. It had come to the situation in which even the most moderate politicians began to agree with the militarists.

There were significant dissensions between the army and the navy. The conflict between the two camps destabilized the political atmosphere even further. The origin of the conflict was found in the Russo-Japanese war. In this war, the army and the navy were fighting to attract government funds. In the end, a compromise was reached, with the money divided almost equally. Geopolitics was another apple of dissension. The generals in the navy saw the USSR as the greatest danger. Avoiding a war with the United States was another goal. The army wanted to invade the rest of China, which was the view that triumphed.