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Japan, Empire and War, to 1941

World War I began with Japan still allied with Britain, and Japan agreed to declare war on the German Empire. Then it sent a force of 30,000 men to overrun the German-controlled Shandong peninsula in China's Pacific northeast. And during the war, Japan sold supplies to the belligerents. Its output of steel by 1920 would be almost double what it had been in 1913. By 1920 it was manufacturing much of what it had been importing from Europe before the war. Japan was now supplying China, India and other Asian countries with manufactured goods. And it had expanded its empire, having gained a League of Nations South Pacific Mandate consisting of islands that had been part of Germany's empire.

Between 1921 and 1922, the victor powers, including the United States, gathered in Washington DC and agreed to a reduction in the size of their navies. Also, the US called for Japan to respect the territorial and administrative integrity of China, and the US asked for equality in commercial opportunity in China. It called for China to be allowed to make its own import-export laws, and the conference pressured Japan's delegation to agree to return to China control over Shandong province. Japan agreeing to a smaller navy was greeted back home in Japan with indignation. Favor regarding foreign affairs shifted to the military, especially to its younger officers, who were zealous in their desire that Japan pursue its interests in Asia independent of agreements with Western powers.

Britain emerged from the Washington Naval Conference disturbed by Japan's concern about naval bases in the Pacific. The British saw the possibility of Japan becoming a rival, and they decided not to renew their military treaty. And Japanese responded by viewing their rivals in the Pacific and Far East — Britain, the Netherlands and the US — as having a greater potential as enemies.

Japan, meanwhile, was more dependent on trade with the West. Japan needed to sell goods abroad in order to buy food. The economic crisis that began in the US in the late 1920s reduced Japanese sales to the US. Economic depression hit japan hard. Children were begging in the streets. In distressed rural areas, 70 percent of the population had been tilling an average of 1.5 acres, and many of Japan's enlisted men and its young military officers were from rural areas. They tended to dislike big-city businessmen, whom they saw as self-indulgent rather than as servants of the nation and the emperor. And they tended to dislike foreigners, especially Westerners. Some among them dreamed of Japan creating a new order for all of Asia – an Asia free of Western influences, an Asia for Asians.

There was devotion to the nation's religion: Shintoism. Patriots believed the emperor, Hirohito, was a deity. Hirohito had ascended the throne in 1926 at the age of twenty-five. As a young a constitutional monarch and somewhat a figurehead he was not inclined to impose himself on the traditional his elder-statesmen advisors (the Genro) or on his prime minister. He favored peace and cooperation with foreign powers and was viewed by some among the young military officer class as weak — while they continued their worship of what he represented.

During the Great Depression war erupted in Manchuria between Japan and China. Strategists in Japan viewed the enterprises of their fellow Japanese in Manchuria and the resources they provided as vital to their nation's well-being. In 1931 they saw a threat from the Chinese building rail lines in Manchuria parallel to Japanese rail lines. On the night of 18 September 1931, members of Japan's army in Manchuria (the Kwantung Army) blew up a section of railway just north of the city of Mukden, and they blamed it on Chinese subversives. Using their authority to respond immediately without waiting for approval from higher military, Japan's military in Manchuria took over Manchuria's capital, Mukden. They occupied a number of strategic points and all Chinese towns within a radius of 200 miles north of Mukden. This they accomplished in four days, facing only a token Chinese force.

In October, the commander of the Kwantung Army declared his intention to pacify all of Manchuria and Mongolia. This angered the emperor. According to Japan's constitution the military was responsible to the emperor, and only the emperor. Hirohito told a palace official of his desire to preserve world peace, his worry about intervention by Western powers and his inability to sleep at night. His brother, Prince Chichibu, suggested that he take control of the government and suspend the Constitution if necessary. Hirohito responded that he would never do anything that would "besmirch the honor of his ancestors."

The world was stunned by Japan's aggressions in Manchuria. China appealed to the League of Nations, believing that Japan was in violation of the League of Nations' covenant against making war, while Japan claimed that it was not making war, that it was involved only in "police operations" to protect Japanese lives and property. On 24 October 1931, the League passed a resolution demanding that Japan withdraw from areas it had conquered. Japan voted against it, and because such resolutions required unanimity, Japan interpreted it as not binding.

On 24 December 1931, the Japan's military in Manchuria an offensive southward along the coast toward China's Great Wall, using bomber aircraft. Chiang Kai-shek responded by ordering Zhang Xueliang to stop the Japanese advance, but Zhang Xueliang's demoralized army made no determined stand. The Japanese overran the cities of Chinchow on December 28. On 4 January 1932, it reached the town of Shanhaikwan, where the Great Wall meets the sea.

Japan's press was patriotic and supported the army, and the military won the support from a good portion of the public, whose impulse was to support "our boys" in Manchuria. Elections brought to power a party with roots in rural areas that favored cooperation with the military – the Seiyukai Party. But ultra-nationalistic junior officers wanted more, and they organized a coup, hoping to establish a military government. The prime minister was assassinated, but the coup failed. Public support and perceived patriotic motives for those on trial led to light sentences.

This was followed in October by another failed ultra-nationalist coup. Masterminded the plot was Shumei Ōkawa, a friend of persons at the royal court, including the Emperor's brother, Prince Chichibu. He had become Japan's leading advocate of fascistic ideas. Ōkawa was arrested and sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment for his involvement in the March plot and assassination of the prime minister. Fifty-four of the coup participants were sentenced, and by 1935 all would be free except for six, who would be free by 1940.

The Seiyukai Party withdrew from power, and Emperor Hirohito requested a government that would uphold the constitution and work for peace. He accepted a recommendation that made a retired admiral, Makoto Saito, head of a new government. The new government claimed to be non-partisan and a national unity coalition, but it was dominated by military men. In reality, parliamentary government and government by political parties had come to an end.

In late February 1936 came a bigger coup attempt yet. It began with a Shinto fundamentalist, Lieutenant Colonel Saburo Aizawa, killing with his sword the chief of the Military Affairs Bureau who had dismissed a director of military education, whom Aizawa had admired. Aizawa stood trial, and firebrand defense lawyers turned the trail into another spectacle of patriotism, the courtroom filled with off-duty army men supporting Aizawa. Young army officers believed there was a plot to transfer them to Manchuria to remove them from Tokyo during the trial. These officers responded by leading about 1,500 soldiers in an attempt to overthrow the government. A leaflet announced the purpose of the coup: "remove the villains who surround the Throne." The soldiers murdered several persons including the former prime minister, Saito, firing forty-seven bullets into him and then giving three cheers for the emperor. They believed they also killed the existing prime minister, Okada Keisuke, but they had killed his brother-in-law instead. The prime minister survived by hiding under a pile of laundry for a couple of days. The insurgents burned down one building, turned a hotel into a command post and occupied various other buildings.

On the third day of the crisis, after waiting for dithering generals to act, Hirohito issued an edict ordering the rebels to "speedily withdraw." He told the army that if the rebels did not withdraw he would personally lead the Imperial Guard Division against them. Facing what they perceived to be their failure, some of the rebels wished to commit suicide in the presence of an official representing the emperor. Hirohito refused. "If they want to kill themselves," he said, "let them do as they please."

The coup leaders surrendered, some of them hoping for more show trials at which they could make speeches and win leniency. Hirohito was determined to make examples of them. There were to be no public trials and no speeches. Over one hundred officers and under-officers were charged with treason and tried in a series of courts martial secluded from public view. Fifteen were executed by firing squad. No dates were given for the executions, and no ashes were returned to their relatives.

The attempted coup brought shame to those in the army who had wanted a spiritual reformation and a more conservative, pre-industrial, non-Westernized Japan – a faction called the Kodoha, consisting mainly of younger officers. A rival faction became dominant in the army. It consisted of older officers who saw that industrialism was needed in making the military strong, and these were leaders willing to work with government bureaucrats and leading industrialists. Among them was General Hideki Tojo, destined to become Japan's wartime prime minister.

By now, economic recovery in Japan was well underway. The government of the new prime minister, from March 1936, signed a pact with Germany and Hitler, a pact hostile to Communism (anti-Comintern) and that offered mutual assistance in case of war with the Soviet Union. A new prime minister beginning February 1937 was an army commander. In June 1937, the new prime minister was a member of Japan's House of Peers, Fumimaro Konoe. In early July, a clash between Chinese and Japan's occupation forces occurred about eight miles west of Beijing. Japan's high command didn't want the incident to escalate, but a faction within the army urged using the incident as an opportunity to send more troops to China. Konoe and his cabinet supported this recommendation, and the army high command went along with it. But it would be a couple of months before those troops would arrive in China.

Japan's newspapers made a sensation of the new crisis, most of them editorializing that agreements with the Chinese had to be backed by Japan's military force rather than "trusting" the Chinese. And an excited public was giving renewed enthusiastic support for their boys in China. People gathered at public meetings and contributed money to the nation's defense.

A second incident between Chinese and Japanese soldiers occurred in late July. The Japanese general in charge believed he had the right to chastise the Chinese soldiers was necessary. Chiang Kai-shek's government launched an all-out military campaign of resistance to Japan's expansion on its territory in Eastern China. Beijing and its port city of Tianjin fell to Japanese forces. The fighting included a three-month Battle of Shanghai, with reinforcements from Japan, aerial warfare and bombing.

Following their bloody victory at Shanghai, the Japanese turned their attention towards Nanking. The advancing Japanese soldiers blamed the war on the Chinese, and seeing themselves as doing right by their God, they were outraged that Chinese soldiers were trying to kill them. Japanese soldiers in China were depicting the Chinese as monsters – while the Chinese were depicting the Japanese as devils. What followed would be called the "Rape of Nanking." The historian Jonathan Spence estimates that 42,000 soldiers and citizens were killed and 20,000 women raped.

Japan failed to convince Chiang Kai-shek to make a settlement and retaliated with air raids against civilian targets. Japan's forces pushed inland, taking Wuhan in November 1938. And that month the Japanese announced a New Order for East Asia, which they claimed would include trade mainly between Japan and China — while nations such as the United States, Britain, Germany and France would have to settle for leftovers.

In 1939, with Japan's lines of communications stretched, the war became stalemated. And in 1939, Japanese and Soviet forces warred against each other along the Manchurian-Soviet border. A concerned Japan responded to Germany's call for another pact, the Tripartite Pact, a military alliance that including Italy that aimed at the possibility of a second world war.

In October 1940, Prime Minister Konoe created his "New Order" movement. It aimed at maximizing efficiency in Japan's effort against China, and it sought to create a totalitarian one-party state. Konoe was hailed as the nation's "political savior."

Meanwhile, to continue its war in China, Japan needed a continuous supply of oil. The Japanese could have decided to pull back from its war with China, taking the route of peace and trade with the Western world and putting its energies into economic advancement. But a backdown in China was unthinkable. Instead, Japan was taking the military option (historical circumstances rather than being inherently more warlike than others). Japan was eyeing the oil in British and Dutch-ruled territory in the Indonesian Archipelago. Japan told Hitler's Germany of its preparations to send its military southward. And believing US resistance possible it told the Germans that war with the United States should not be ruled out.

Strategists were concerned that a rapid deployment of US naval forces from Pearl Harbor could hit the flanks of expanding Japanese forces. And they saw a need to eliminate US bases in the Philippines and Guam. So, continuing its war in China, Japan decided to strike at and cripple the US in the Hawaiian Islands — without landing troops, which they believed they could not spare.

The strategists viewed their country's strike against the United States, British and Dutch in the Pacific as a good gamble. Much in life was a gamble, but Japan's patriots and political figures viewed their nation's cause as right, and with much at stake they looked forward to divine assistance. Kami (God) they thought was surely on Japan's side.

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.