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 imperial japan

Case study 1: Japanese expansion in East Asia (1931–1941)

Causes of expansion

  • The impact of Japanese nationalism and militarism on foreign policy

  • Japanese domestic issues: political and economic issues, and their impact on foreign relations

  • Political instability in China


  • Japanese invasion of Manchuria and northern China (1931)

  • Sino-Japanese War (1937–1941)

  • The Three Power/Tripartite Pact; the outbreak of war; Pearl Harbor (1941)


  • League of Nations and the Lytton report

  • Political developments within China—the Second United Front

  • International response, including US initiatives and increasing tensions between the US and Japan

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Overview of the growth of Japanese ultranationalism, militarism, and expansion up to 1931

Click on the the video on the left on 32.00.  In it Andrew Marr explains how Japan found itself changed almost overnight in the mid 19thC by Western intrusion.

What happened and what impact did this have on a people and society who had been isolated from the rest of the world for over three centuries?

When complete use the attached document to complete notes from C1 of Global War text on Causes of expansion



Ultranationalism was characteristic of right-wing politicians and conservative military men since the Meiji Restoration. Disenchanted former samurai had established patriotic societies and intelligence-gathering organizations, such as the Gen'yosha (Black Ocean Society, founded in 1881) and its later offshoot, the Kokuryukai (Black Dragon Society, of 1901). These groups became active in domestic and foreign politics, encouraging prowar sentiments, and supported ultranationalist causes until the end of World War II. After Japan's victories over China and Russia, the ultranationalists concentrated on domestic issues and perceived domestic threats, such as socialism and communism.

After World War I, nationalist societies became numerous but only had a minority voice during the era of two-party democratic politics. Diverse and angry groups called for nationalisation of all wealth above a fixed minimal amount to fund armed overseas expansion. The emperor was highly revered by these groups, and when Hirohito was enthroned in 1927, initiating the Showa period (1926-89), there were calls for a "Showa Restoration" and a revival of Shinto, the ancient Japanese animist religion. Emperor-centered neo-Shintoism, or State Shinto, which had long been developing, came to fruition in the 1930s onwards


It glorified the emperor and traditional Japanese virtues to the exclusion of Western influences, which were perceived as greedy, individualistic, bourgeois, and assertive. The ideals of a Japanese family-state and self-sacrifice in service of the nation, along with the emperor, were given semi-divine status.  However, the 1930s were a decade of fear in Japan, characterised by the resurgence of right-wing patriotism, the weakening of democratic forces, domestic terrorist violence (including an assassination attempt on the emperor in 1932), and stepped-up military aggression abroad.
















Manchuria 1931

Tanaka Giichi's term as prime minister from 1927 to 1929 began the era. Twice he sent troops to China to obstruct Chiang Kai-shek's unification campaign. In June 1928, officers of the Guandong Army, the Imperial Japanese Army unit stationed in Manchuria, embarked an unauthorized initiatives to protect Japanese interests, including the assassination of a former ally, Manchurian warlord Zhang Zuolin. They hoped the Chinese would be prompted to take military action, forcing the Guandong Army to retaliate. The Japanese high command and the Chinese, however, both refused to mobilize. The incident turned out to be a striking example of unchecked terrorism. Even though press censorship kept the Japanese public from knowing about these events, they led to the downfall of Tanaka and set the stage for a similar plot, the Manchurian Incident in September 1931, which did not fail, and which led to the military takeover of the Japanese government. Guandong Army conspirators blew up a few meters of South Manchurian Railway Company track near Mukden, blamed it on Chinese terrorists, and used the event as an excuse to seize Mukden


Japanese forces then attacked Shanghai in January 1932 on the pretext of Chinese resistance in Manchuria. Finding stiff Chinese resistance in Shanghai, the Japanese waged a three-month undeclared war there before a truce was reached in March 1932. Several days later, Manchukuo was established. Manchukuo was a Japanese puppet state headed by the last Chinese emperor, Puyi, as chief executive and later emperor. The civilian government in Tokyo was powerless to prevent these military happenings. Instead of being condemned, the Guandong Army's actions enjoyed popular support back home. International reaction was extremely negative, with the United States became increasingly hostile. Japan also withdrew from the LON following the Lytton report's criticism of its actions..

The Japanese democratic system  finally collapsed with the May 15th Incident in 1932, when a group of junior naval officers and army cadets assassinated elected Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi. Although the assassins were put on trial and sentenced to fifteen years' imprisonment, they were seen popularly as having acted out of patriotism. Inukai's successors were all military men who recognized Manchukuo and generally approved the army's actions in securing Manchuria as an industrial base, an area for Japanese emigration, and a staging ground for war with China. Increases were seen in defense budgets and naval construction as Japan announced it would no longer obey the London Naval Treaty which put a limit on its navy -  Japan was moving towards a wartime footing.  In November 1936, the Anti-Comintern Pact, an agreement focusing on preventing communist activities, was signed by Japan and Germany with Italy joining a year later.  Japan now had the international alliance and backing it needed for the next step. 

Second Sino-Japanese War 1937-45

Causes of war

  • Economic, ideological, political, territorial and other causes

  • Short- and long-term causes

Practices of war and their impact on the outcome

  • Types of war: civil wars; wars between states; guerrilla wars

  • Technological developments; theatres of war—air, land and sea

  • The extent of the mobilization of human and economic resources

  • The influence and/or involvement of foreign powers

Effects of war

  • The successes and failures of peacemaking

  • Territorial changes

  • Political repercussions

  • Economic, social and demographic impact; changes in the role and status of women







Use the map on the left to access a really useful Swarby podcast on the history of Japanese aggression towards China in the years leading up to the Second Sino-Japanese War erupting in 1937.  Watch the lecture, completing a set of notes under the provided headings in the Word document attached....

War was launched against China the next year after the Marco Polo Bridge Incident of July 7, 1937, in which an allegedly unplanned clash took place near Beiping (as Beijing was then called) between Chinese and Japanese troops and quickly escalated into full-scale warfare. The Second Sino-Japanese War had started, and relations with the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union deteriorated. The increased military activities in China--and the Japanese idea of establishing "Mengukuo" in Inner Mongolia and the Mongolian People's Republic--soon led to a major clash over rival Mongolia-Manchukuo border claims. When Japanese troops invaded eastern Mongolia, a ground and air battle with a joint Soviet- Mongolian army took place between May and September 1939 at the Battle of Halhin Gol. The Japanese were severely defeated, sustaining as many as 80,000 casualties, and thereafter Japan concentrated its war efforts on its southward drive in China and Southeast Asia, a strategy that helped propel Japan ever closer to war with the United States, UK + allies.







































































Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere

Under the prime ministership of Konoe Fumimaro, the government was streamlined and given absolute power over the nation's assets. In 1940, Konoe's cabinet called for the establishment of a "Greater East Asia Coprosperity Sphere," a concept building on Konoe's 1938 call for a "New Order in Greater East Asia," encompassing Japan, Manchukuo, China, and Southeast Asia. The Greater East Asia Coprosperity Sphere was to integrate Asia politically and economically--under Japanese leadership--against Western domination and was developed in recognition of the changing geopolitical situation emerging in 1940.  Also in 1940, political parties were ordered to dissolve, and the Imperial Rule Assistance Association, comprising members of all former parties, was established to transmit government orders throughout society. In September 1940, Japan officially joined the Axis alliance with Germany and Italy when it signed the Tripartite Pact, a military agreement  directed primarily against the United States.

Tripartite Pact + Pearl Harbour

There had been a long-standing and deep-seated antagonism between Japan and the United States since the first decade of the twentieth century. Each perceived the other as a military threat, and trade rivalry was carried on in earnest. The Japanese greatly resented the racial discrimination perpetuated by United States immigration laws, and the Americans became increasingly wary of Japan's expansionist military empire. This military expansionism and quest for national self- sufficiency eventually led the United States in 1940 to embargo war supplies such as oil, cancel long-standing commercial treaties, and put greater restrictions on the export of critical commodities. These American tactics, rather than forcing Japan to a standstill, made Japan more desperate.

After signing the Japanese-Soviet Neutrality Pact in April 1941, and while still actively making war plans against the United States, Japan participated in diplomatic negotiations with Washington aimed at achieving a peaceful settlement. Washington was concerned about Japan's role in the Tripartite Pact and demanded the withdrawal of Japanese troops from China and Southeast Asia. Japan countered that it would not use force unless "a country not yet involved in the European war" (that is, the United States) attacked Germany or Italy. Further, Japan demanded that the United States and Britain not interfere with a Japanese settlement in China (a pro-Japanese puppet government had been set up in Nanjing in 1940). However, because certain Japanese military leaders were working at cross-purposes with officials seeking a peaceful settlement (including Konoe, other civilians, and some military figures), talks were deadlocked. On October 15, 1941, army minister Tojo Hideki  declared the negotiations ended. Konoe resigned and was replaced by Tojo. After the final United States rejection of Japan's terms of negotiation, on December 1, 1941, the Imperial Conference (an unplanned meeting which met only rarely and in the presence of the emperor) made the decision to embark on a war of "self-defense and self-preservation" and to attack the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor later that month.

(Source: adapted from Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress as part of the Country Studies/Area Handbook Series sponsored by the U.S. Department of the Army between 1986 and 1998) - Japan: A Country Study. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1994.

....always OPCVL your source!!!!


David Low cartoon, 1931, criticising both the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the muted response from both the Great Powers + the League of Nations.

- click on the cartoon to complete class feedback + access qs about the impact of Manchuria...

This is a military history podcast which starts at 1.10 in...the two guys explore why our understanding of the 2SJ War has been limited over time and it is only recently that we have had access to more balanced sources (historiography gold!)

They then dissect causes, events and impact

This is something to listen to and make occasional notes of nuggets of information that you can see would have value in terms of our work on essay structure + allow you to answer those extra questions that need developing beyond narrative..

This is a radio programme from the 'In Our Time' series on BBC which examines important historical, political, cultural etc events and analyses why they happened and what impact they had.  as such it is a fantastic source for gathering perspectives about events - you can access more from this series by looking at the icon bar which appears when you tap on IB History.....

Use the Word document bottom right to help with your listening and notes you want to make - also included are reviews of their books + and works by the historians featured...

Overview of the growth of Japanese ultranationalism, militarism, and expansion 1931 - 1941

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Click for interactive document on dev of Meiji foreign policy and reasons 20thC

00:00 / 09:07
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2nd Sino-Japanese War 1937-45

- Yunan Soviet

- Japanese occupation

- 2nd United Front + GMD tactics

Click on the book cover bottom left...

How did these involve the GMD?

How did these involve the CCP?

Read and compile summary notes on:

- Tactics + technology used

- Economic + human mobilisation

- Influence of foreign powers

SinoJapanese War II

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