The Rise of Japanese Imperialism

By Andre Lopes Massa

Since the collapse of the Tokugawa Shogunate in Japan in 1868 and the restoration of the emperor to power through the reforms of Emperor Meiji, Japan’s foreign and commerce policy began to change radically in the late 1800’s. Determined never to suffer the humiliation that Japan suffered at the hands of Western powers in the later years of the Tokugawa period, the Meiji regime introduced the Oath of 1868 that claimed to “lay down the foundations of the Empire.” Early in the new regime, Japan was determined to “Westernize” in every way possible, from internal democratic reforms within the government to mimic Western European structures to an aggressive foreign policy driven by the formation of a national conception of self-identity that formed as a result of the demands attempts at western industrialization placed on the Japanese people. Japanese “mimetic imperialism”, it can be said, was initially motivated by a desire for security in East Asia from China and the Soviet Union and subsequently, after the Russo-Japanese War, a formation of Japanese self-identity that necessitated imperialist practices in order to realize that self-identity. The formation of nationalist attitudes among the Japanese workforce led to the conception of imperialist ideas such as a “line of sovereignty” and eventually the conception of the Yamato ideology were used as justification for the most aggressive forms of Japanese imperialism that East Asia would see in the buildup to and throughout World War II. Japan’s “mimetic imperialism”, in turn, had both direct and indirect effects in colonial and post-colonial Korea, taking the form of expressions of mass nationalism in the name of liberating Korea from Japanese rule and the resurfacing of socio-economic divided that were suppressed during Japanese rule that would manifest itself in the form of the Korean Civil War.

When Emperor Meiji ascended the throne of Japan in 1868, aristocrats from Kyoto had diverse goals and interests with regards to the new regime. In order to unify the aristocracy, Emperor Meiji issued the Oath of 1868 that proclaimed, “uncivilized customs of former times shall be broken through and intellect and learning shall be sought throughout the world in order to lay the foundations of the Empire.” (Ebery, Walthhall, Palais, East Asia A Cultural, Social and Political History, pg. 339). Predicting this sentiment of Meiji foreign policy, Daimyo Ii Naosuke in a debate with Tokugawa Nariaki regarding the dilemma of whether or not Japan should engage in war with Western powers wrote on October 1, 1853 regarding Japan’s position in East Asia that Japan should pursue a policy of peace so that, “Our defenses, thus strengthened, and all being arranged at home, we can act so as to make our courage and prestige resound beyond the sea. By so doing, we will not in the future be imprisoning ourselves; indeed, we will be able, I believe, so to accomplish matters at home and abroad as to achieve national security.” (Ii Naosuke to Bakufu, October 1, 1853). It is here that we begin to get a valuable insight into one of the primary motivations of Japanese imperialism; the need for security. Echoing the desire for security, Japanese prime minister Yamagata Aritomo believed that in order for Japan to truly maintain its security and independence, Japan had to “protect its territorial boundary, the line of sovereignty, and an outer perimeter of neighboring territory, a line of interest.” (Ebery, Walthhall, Palais, East Asia A Cultural, Social and Political History, pg. 351). Wanting to protect their interest in Korea, Japan waged war against China in what would become known as the Sino-Japanese War in 1894. This early act of Japanese imperialism indicated belief in the ‘line of sovereignty”, which Korea fell into. Therefore, the root cause of Japan’s motivation was to A) prevent Korea from being annexed by China, thus giving Japan a gateway into Manchuria and vital protection against China proper and B) in order to relieve Russian pressure by expanding outward, thus reinforcing Japan’s security. Further evidence of the need for security can be found in the discursive depiction of Korea by Japanese military leaders as “a dagger pointed at the heart of Japan.” (Chang, lecture, 02/25/14). Japan’s alliance with Great Britain signed in 1902 would further provide Japan the impetus to engage in even more acts of imperialism in the name of security. Forcing Britain to come to Japan’s defense in the event that a third party wage war against Japan, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 was the perfect opportunity for the rising power to fortify its borders against the European threat. (Ebery, Walthhall, Palais, East Asia A Cultural, Social and Political History, pg. 371). With the war resulting in Japan gaining control of Russian possession in Eastern China, Japan had a gateway into Korea, which it declared its protectorate in 1906. This de facto control of Korea essentially allowed for Japan to achieve its security goals through the expansion of Japan’s line of sovereignty through imperialist policy. However, the need for security would only cause early forms of Japanese imperialism. Throughout the early 20th century and World War II, the need for a national self-identity and the desire to unite Asia under Japanese nationalism would motivate Japanese imperialism in the years after the Russo-Japanese War.

The Meiji regime, realizing that Japan would be in a vulnerable position if it did not modernize its economy, engaged in Western style industrialization in the 1870’s. However, the Meiji realized that mimicking Western style industrialization could result in the loss of the unique identity that shaped Japan for years in the lead up to the Meiji restoration. Wanting to industrialize and preserve a Japanese identity, the Meiji regime desired to instill a “sense of national identity that could unite factory owners with factory owners demanded imperialist enterprises to divert attention away from their differences.” (Ebery, Walthhall, Palais, East Asia A Cultural, Social and Political History, pg. 349). Japanese imperialism represented the means by which the Meiji could unify Japan ideologically through the maintenance of Japan’s “self-identity”. After the Russo-Japanese War, the Japanese’s perception of their self-identity was that they were, “the yellow race that could beat the ‘white’ that they could throw off the colonial yoke.” (Ebery, Walthhall, Palais, East Asia A Cultural, Social and Political History, pg. 371). While many argue that Japan’s primary motivation for imperialism were purely economic, such a simplistic view fails to analyze the deeper social factors that drove Japanese imperialism to the extremes that were seen during the build-up to World War II and during the war. One only has to look at the Group V of the Twenty-One demands sent to Chinese warlord Yuan Shikai on January 18, 1915 to see the desire to express mass Japanese nationalism in China. In Group 5, sub points 6 and 7, Japan demands that China, “In view of the relations between the Province of Fukien and Formosa [Taiwan] and of the agreement respecting the non-alienation of that province, Japan to be consulted first whenever foreign capital is needed in connection with the railways, mines, and harbor works (including dockyards) in the Province of Fukien” and that “China to grant to Japanese subjects the right of preaching in China.”(Twenty-One demands, January 18, 1915, Group V, Sub points 6 and &). Japan’s demand to be consulted with regards to China’s economic development is a manifestation of Japan’s nationalist desire to see itself as “the guardian of Asia”, as a benevolent imperialist who wants nothing more than to free China from the clutches of Western power while sub point 7 (Japan’s demands to let their subjects preach in China) is an indication of Japan’s desire to assimilate all of Eastern Asia under a normalized Japanese identity. Japan’s relative lack of gains in the aftermath of World War I would lead to a feeling that the Japanese were “cheated by Western nations” and lead to even more distrust of the West by the Japanese. This increasing distrust would serve to reinforce Japan’s desire to maintain their self-identity of being “liberators of Asia”, a perception that would reach its extreme apex of the Yamato ideology that would drive Japan’s imperialist war effort during World War II. The Yamato, as defined by Japanese propaganda during World War II, were the “pure master races” that Japan saw themselves as during the war. The Japanese believed that they, as the Yamato, had a divine ancestry and had an “ultimate destiny” as the master race. In his book, War Without Mercy, John Dower notes that Japan’s goal during World War II, as conveyed by Japanese propaganda, was to create an East Asian, “Co-Prosperity Sphere” and that the new order would, “was to be constructed in accordance with Japanese characteristics. Japanese would become the main language of the bloc, and Japan would assimilate all other races into Nipponism”. (Dower, War Without Mercy, pg. 284). Japan’s treatment of the Chinese in Manchuria and Japan’s treatment of the natives in Papua New Guinea, where many of the natives were forced to learn to speak Japanese, are prime examples of Japan’s desire to assimilate all of East Asia under Japanese culture in order to maintain their self-identity as “liberators of Asia”. The Yamato ideology was the apex of this self-identity that has motivated Japanese imperialism since 1905.

With the Napoleonic era setting the template for analyzing the relationship between imperialism and nationalism, it can be said that imperialism often stirs attitudes of nationalism among the colonized. With regards to Japanese imperialism, one of the most lasting effects Japanese imperialism had on the history of Eastern Asia was the spurring of nationalist feelings within Korea and Japan. On August 29, 1910, the Japanese had announced to the Korean people that their country had become a colony of Japan. Before becoming a colony, the seeds of nationalism were already be sowed in Korea with the formation of the Independence Club in 1897 in Korea, an organization dedicated to the modernization of Korea in order to truly ensure Korea could function as an independent nation. (Ebery, Walthhall, Palais, East Asia A Cultural, Social and Political History, pg. 388). With this historical development, we can already see the formation of a distinct Korean identity, one that their citizens would fight with their own blood to keep. Much like guerilla warfare originating in the Iberian Peninsula in 1812 in response to French occupation, Korean nationalism during Japanese colonial rule manifested itself very subtly up to 1919, with movements mostly being organized underground and by religious groups. (Ebery, Walthhall, Palais, East Asia A Cultural, Social and Political History, pg. 391). However, Korea’s self-identity could not be suppressed underground any longer and on March 1, 1919, thirty-three Korean patriots signed a Declaration of Independence and protested in the streets. (Ebery, Walthhall, Palais, East Asia A Cultural, Social and Political History, pg. 391). The interview of Kim Sunok (male, peddler/fireman, born 1910, Kyonggi Province) taken from Hildi Kang’s book Under the Black Umbrella Voices from Colonial Korea gives a unique insight into the feelings of nationalism that erupted in the streets of colonial Korea during the March 1st movement. Kim Sunok states that, “One day when I was ten years old, I was playing near the tracks and I saw people in the tram. They wore Korean clothes, but western hats. Those hats- they took them off and waved them in the air, screaming at the top of their lungs, ‘Independence now!’ I asked the grownups what was happening. They said they wanted to get their country back.” (Kang, Under the Black Umbrella Voices from Colonial Korea, pg. 17). Note that Sunok describes the feeling of “wanting to get one’s country back” is a crucial aspect of nationalism; having your own political entity that represents your own ethnic group and culture is the ultimate symbol of expressing one’s self-identity. These protests alerted the Japanese colonial government of the need to continue to suppress Korean identity and initiate a policy of “forced cultural assimilation”. One such policy that represents this is the forced worship of Shinto Shrines imposed on Korean by the Japanese in 1939. (Kang, Under the Black Umbrella Voices from Colonial Korea, pg. 111). Yi Okhyon (born 1911, housewife, Hwanghae Province) described the sentiments here husband had with regards to having to worship the Shinto statues when she stated, “My husband had to go. He had been in prison already and the police watched his every move. He’d come back and tell us that he had gone, but once there, he just said some bad things under his breath and came away.” (Kang, Under the Black Umbrella Voices from Colonial Korea, pg. 114). This policy is a crucial focal point in analyzing the effect Japanese imperialism had on Korean nationalism because having to worship the Shinto statue is viewed as compromising one’s self identity. It is the highest dishonor to forgo own national pride and compromise it in favor of worshiping the very entity responsible for the oppression of the Korean people. It is important to note that Okhyon’s husband expressed his sentiments very subtly; understandable considering the coercive measures the Japanese employed in the aftermath of the March 1st revolution. These suppressed nationalist sentiments would manifest itself in the socio-economic divisions that characterized the Korean Civil War. Japanese rule had left unresolved debates about the true definition of Korean self-identity. Many Koreans whom identified themselves, as nationalists were attracted to Marxist-Leninist philosophy as it offered them insight into their country’s plight. Many Koreans came to believe that imperialism was the final form of capitalist development, which necessitates acquiring colonial possessions in order to outsource excess labor and acquire cheap raw materials and markets to which they can export their manufactured goods. (Ebery, Walthhall, Palais, East Asia A Cultural, Social and Political History, pg. 396) Japanese rule only temporarily “suspended” these debates as “nationalists”, whether they be capitalist or communist, united under the common goal of overthrowing their Japanese oppressors. The establishment of the Korean Communist Party in 1925 serves as evidence that these divisions still existed during colonial rule but were “suspended” in favor of liberating Korea from Japan. (Ebery, Walthhall, Palais, East Asia A Cultural, Social and Political History, pg. 396). With Korea liberated after Japan’s surrender in World War II, these suppressed divisions would resurface and dictate the very geography of Korea after liberation; “Communist nationalists” would settle in the North as the Soviet Union and Kim Il Sung were the only political entities who offered any kind of support while “capitalist nationalists” settled in the South, backed by the United States. While Japanese policy and administration of colonial Korea directly causes the solidification of a perception of Korea self-identity and the unification of nationalists despite socio-economic divisions, it can be said that the temporary suspension of the socio-economic debates among Korean nationalists was an indirect result of Japanese imperialism and the Korean War is a representation of these divisions which were suppressed for so long in the name of liberating Korea from the Japanese.

The era of imperialism is a complex period in Japanese history that had numerous social and political motivations and consequences for East Asia. While many seem to regard the causes of Japanese imperialism as being motivated simply by economic motives, such a viewpoint is epistemologically bankrupt and fails to take into account the geography of the region and the social attitudes the characterized the period of early Japanese imperialism. Yamagata Aritomo’s conception of the line of sovereignty was a political representation of Japan’s desire for security from China and Russia. Subsequently, the Sino-Japanese War was waged for this purpose of solidifying Japan’s security, with the Russo-Japanese War in 1904 proving the apex of solidifying Japan’s security. Subsequently, the formation of Japan’s self-identity as “liberators of Asia” would come to characterize and motivate Japan’s imperialist policies since the Russo-Japanese War, with attempts of cultural assimilation in Korea and Papua New Guinea evidence of Japan’s desire to create an East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. Subsequently, the temporary unification of Korean nationalists under a common good and the suspension of class divisions in Korea would characterize the colonial and post-colonial history in Korea and create divisions that still exist to this day. Only by truly examining the social attitudes of both the public and political leaders in Japan and Korea can we understand the roots behind Japanese imperialism and the dynamic effect it had on East Asia’s history.





Works Cited

Dower, John W.. War without mercy: race and power in the Pacific war. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986. Print.

Ebrey, Patricia Buckley, Anne Walthall, and James B. Palais. East Asia: a cultural, social, and political history. 2nd ed. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 2009. Print.

Chang, Michael . “Japan: Late Meiji, 1880-1912.” History of East Asia. George Mason University. Music Theather Building , Fairfax. 25 Feb. 2014. Lecture.

Kang, Hildi. Under the black umbrella: voices from colonial Korea, 1910-1945. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001. Print.

Lu, David John. “Twenty-One Demands.” Japan: a documentary history. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 1997. 382-386. Print.

Lu, David John. “Debates Over the Opening of Japan.” Japan: a documentary history. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 1997. 281-288. Print.







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