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  • Hanseul Lee

The Drivers of Japanese Imperialism in the 1930s

After opening its door to the US in 1853, Japan quickly adapted to the Western style of modernisation through the Meiji Constitution. Japan was destined to be a coloniser rather than a colony, as demonstrated by their annexation of Korea and Formosa Island, [1] and their challenge to the West through defeating Russia in the Russo-Japanese War. [2] This was a remarkable achievement when considering the changing polarity of East Asia from the collapse of the Chinese-centred international order. [3] However, the sense of strategic and economic insecurity persisted at the core of Japan’s imperialism. Despite its massive expansion, Japan feared that the Western interests in East Asia might take over their own position in the region. Furthermore, Japan inherently had insufficient strategic and economic resources that would sustain their sphere of influence over East Asia. I argue that the sense of strategic and economic insecurity and the subsequent quest for autarky was the backbone of Japanese imperialism. However, the varying interpretation of these concepts by the Kwantung Army and the central government of Japan led the nation to the unwinnable wars against the Western powers.

The idea of strategic insecurity was one of the key drivers of Japanese imperialism. The First World War (WWI) brought an important shift to Japan’s perception of strategic insecurity. Until 1915, the Japanese army did not prepare the nation’s economy for a full war because the “neutral powers had supplied” [4] the finance and materials to combatants. However, those ‘neutral powers’ were now all waging WWI by the summer of 1915, [5] thus proving the significance of self-sufficiency in terms of preparing for the war. Since it was apparent that international powers will no longer provide war material for belligerents anymore, autarky was imperative and Japan had to prepare its national capacity if they were to go on a war. The significance of autarky was once again highlighted in the aftermath of WWI. In the Paris Peace Conference (1919-20) and the subsequent Washington system, the West did not recognise Japan as having an equal international status with them. Japan’s proposal for the racial equality clause was deliberately rejected by the Western powers. [6] Not only that, Japan was forced to return Shantung area back to China due to the Nine-Powers Treaty despite earlier promises that it would remain in their possession. [7] China, meanwhile, had been granting concessions to the West, which enabled Western access to their natural resources. [8] In the eyes of Japan, these incidents indicated the encroachment of Western interests in East Asia, and an intentional move to prevent Japan from increasing their sphere of influence. As Konoe claims, Japan would be “forever a backward country” [9] under this Western-centric system. Anti-Western sentiment grew within Japan, which in turn motivated them to seek for strategic resources such as “iron ore” [10] that would industrialise and mobilise their economy vis-à-vis the West. To compete with Western interest in the region whilst securing a Japanese foothold, gaining strategic resources was crucial. Manchuria and North China had more abundant strategic minerals than the Japanese colonies and homeland combined, [11] which led Japan to expand their sphere of influence to these areas. Not only that, the location of Manchuria could also act as a strategic buffer of Japan against Russia. Therefore, the successful expansion would not only give Japan a relative advantage of resource self-sufficiency, but also demonstrate Japanese power despite being a latecomer expansionist.

In a similar vein, economic insecurity was a core driver of Japanese imperialism. As an island country, Japan was dependent on foreign imports for access to strategic raw materials, which was also economically important. In fact, Japan’s record of foreign trade in the twentieth century indicates that Japan relied on China to provide materials – including “coal, iron, oil, tin, metals” [12] – that would run Japan’s heavy industrial complex. The importance of these materials to Japan’s economic security helps to explain why they prioritised expansion into China. At the same time, Japan’s economic insecurity further heightened in response to the Great Depression in 1929. Although not as critically hit as the United States, the Depression was a deadly blow to the Japanese economy;their foreign exports of cotton textiles and consumer goods became uncompetitive as the Western nations pursued protectionist policies. [13] Simultaneously, domestic unemployment surged to “1 million”, [14] which was even more critical combined with Japan’s overpopulation issue. Under this socioeconomic catastrophe, the inability of the Japanese government to deal with the global crisis and their prioritisation of the interests of zaibatsu – Japanese industrial and trading conglomerates – led to the emergence of ultranationalists. [15] They claimed to establish a “new Manchuria” [16] to solve domestic issues and resolve economic insecurity, which justified Japan’s expansion. The idea of a new Manchuria was widely accepted in Japanese society because different interest groups were all to benefit from Manchurian expansion. For instance, as Fletcher argues, the zaibatsu viewed Manchuria as an opportunity for large-scale investments and a market for Japanese goods. Politicians aimed to solve the population issue, gain strategic resources for economic mobilisation and strengthen Japanese foothold in the region, while the leading Japanese intellectuals wanted to experiment with their state planning in Manchuria. [17] These vested interests supported the Kwantung Army’s expansion into Manchuria, rather than curbing them. Overall, the Kwantung Army justified their expansionist policies on the grounds of resolving economic security and meeting domestic needs.

While strategic and economic insecurity were primary motivators of Japanese imperialism to all, the interpretation of these concepts differed by interest groups when it came to determining Japan’s trajectory of expansion in the 1930s. In 1930, Japan’s foreign policy goal was “protecting Japanese treaties and rights” [18] in Manchuria. However, after the Manchurian crisis, it shifted aggressively to maintaining the peace and co-prosperity as a leader of East Asia. This drove Japan to engage in direct conflict with China and the West in the second Sino-Japanese War and the Pacific War. These sudden expansionist moves of Japanese foreign policy had to do with the different interpretations of pan-Asianism and how Japan would achieve strategic and economic security. To begin with the interpretation of pan-Asianism, the central Japanese government perceived it as an anti-Western sentiment based on the West’s racial discriminatory attitudes toward Japan. This aligns with Best’s argument that Japan aimed to create an ‘East Asian Monroe Doctrine’ after the rejection of the racial equality clause proposal in the Treaty of Versailles. [19] On the other hand, the Kwantung Army officials viewed pan-Asianism as an ideological justification for their expansion, cementing Japan as a leader of East Asia. This stark difference between the two perspectives resulted in an internal division. The Prime Minister Shidehara asserted his policy of non-intervention in Chinese domestic affairs in order to maintain good relations with China and secure the Japanese concessions in the region. [20] This was agreed by Nagata, the Chief of Military Affairs Bureau within the War Ministry, who believed that domestic economic mobilisation should be prioritised over access to raw materials. [21] However, Tategawa – the leader of the Kwantung Army – preferred immediate action to gain resources and achieve autarky. [22] Under this disagreement, the Kwantung Army initiated the Mukden incident – without permission from the central government – and assassinated Chang Tso-lin, the warlord who had rights to grant permission on building new Japanese railways in China. This conflicted with Shidehara’s assertions, and soured Japanese relations with China and the West.Chang’s son refused to grant further concessions to Japan, the League of Nations released the Lytton Report which condemned Japan’s aggression, [23] and Great Britain supported China through the Leith-Ross mission. By this point, the radical advance of the Kwantung Army forced the Japanese government to focus on territorial expansions, inevitably triggering conflict with China. Additionally, Chiang Kai-Shek was forced to abandon the non-resistance policy and take a harsh stance against Japan after the Xi’An incident of 1934. Therefore, once the second Sino-Japanese war broke out in 1937, the scale of the conflict grew so large that it could not be taken back. With no choice left, Japan developed ties with the Axis powers, which drove them to the Pacific War. Under this chaos, Japanese media praised Kwantung Army’s achievements to increase their readership, [24] and Emperor Hirohito, as Large argues, was powerless to stop the Army despite his personal rejection of Japanese foreign aggression. [25] This left the Kwantung Army uncontrollable. However, the sense of economic insecurity still prevailed at the core of the Kwantung Army, given that Japan suffered from insufficient materials needed for mobilisation despite massive expansion. Thus, economic and strategic insecurity was the core driver of Japanese imperialism, while the failure to reach consensus on how to maintain security changed Japan’s level of aggression.

It could instead be argued that Japan’s militaristic imperialism was possible because of the lukewarm international reaction towards their aggression. Although the League of Nations produced the Lytton Report in 1932, it was the only collective action from the West to sanction Japan. In fact, by the time of the Manchurian crisis, the West was preoccupied with reviving their domestic economies following the Great Depression, as Iriye argued. [26] The emergence of Mussolini’s fascist Italy and Hitler’s Nazi Germany also diverted Western attention away from Japanese aggression in East Asia. [27] The relative Western indifference to Japanese aggression was again confirmed by their reaction to Italy’s aggression in Abyssinia in 1934. When the League appeased Italy, [28] Japan gained confidence that pursuing radical aggression would not trigger an international backlash. Although Japan’s Nanjing Massacre in 1937 aggravated their international image, the international society did not punish Japan until they militarily confronted Japan in the Pacific War and the Second World War. Nevertheless, Japanese imperialism began in the early 1920s as a result of the Western threat to their strategic and economic security, before they turned to aggressive policies.

In conclusion, strategic and economic insecurity were primary motivations of Japanese imperialism. These insecurities led Japan to choose outward expansion to maintain their influence in East Asia and solve domestic issues simultaneously. Keeping these anxieties at the core, what put Japan into international conflicts is the internal divisions on how these insecurities were interpreted by different actors. Kwantung Army’s radical and immediate actions, based upon their interpretation of this insecurity, left them uncontrolled by the central government as they continued their quest for autarky.

Hanseul Lee is a student at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). She is interested in transitional justice in historical perspectives, especially in regards to Asian and Latin American history. She is reachable at for enquiries about this essay or her wider research interests.

Works Cited

[1] Antony Best, “Japan, China and the origins of the Pacific War,” in International History of the Twentieth Century and Beyond, ed., Antony Best et al (London: Routledge, 2014), 65.

[2] Ibid, 63.

[3] Ibid, 64.

[4] Michael Barnhart, Japan Prepares for Total War: The Search for Economic Security, 1919-1941 (New York: Cornell University Press, 1987), 22.

[5] Ibid, 23.

[6] Best, “Japan, China,” 67.

[7] Ikuhiko Hata, “Continental Expansion, 1905-41,” in The Cambridge History of Japan: Vol 6: The Twentieth Century, ed. Peter Duus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 283.

[8] Laura Victoir and Victor Zatsepine, Harbin to Hanoi: The Colonial Built Environment in Asia, 1840 to 1940 (Pokfulam: Hong Kong University Press, 2013), 95-96.

[9] Yabe Teiji and Konoe Fumimaro, Nihon oyobe Nihonjin (California: California University Press, 1918), 77.

[10] Barnhart, Japan Prepares, 40.

[11] Ibid, 23.

[12] W. G. Beasley, Japanese Imperialism 1894-1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 32.

[13] Best, “Japan, China,” 74.

[14] Akira Iriye, The Origins of the Second World War and the Pacific (London: Routledge, 1987), 6.

[15] Best, “Japan, China,” 73.

[16] Ibid, 73.

[17] W. Miles Fletcher, “The Fifteen-Year War,” in A Companion to Japanese History, ed. W.M.Tsutsui (New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 246.

[18] James B. Crowley, Japan’s Quest for Autonomy: National Security and Foreign Policy, 1930-1938 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966), 379.

[19] Best, “Japan, China,” 75.

[20] Hata, “Continental Expansion,” 284.

[21] Barnhart, Japan Prepares, 37.

[22] Ibid, 33.

[23] Hata, “Continental Expansion,” 298.

[24] Iriye, The Origins, 9.

[25] Stephen Large, Emperor Hirohito and Showa Japan: A Political Biography (London: Routledge, 1992), 87.

[26] Best, “Japan, China,” 74.

[27] Iriye, The Origins, 26.

[28] George W. Baer, “Sanctions and Security: The League of Nations and the Italian-Ethiopian War, 1935-1936,” International Organization 27, no. 2 (1973): 169.


Baer, George W. “Sanctions and Security: The League of Nations and the Italian-Ethiopian War, 1935-1936.” International Organization 27, no. 2 (1973): 165–79.

Barnhart, Michael. Japan Prepares for Total War: The Search for Economic Security, 1919-1941. New York: Cornell University Press, 1987.

Beasley, W.G. Japanese Imperialism 1894-1945. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Best, Antony. “Japan, China and the origins of the Pacific War.” In International History of the Twentieth Century and Beyond, edited by Antony Best et al, 63–86. London: Routledge, 2014.

Crowley, James B. Japan’s Quest for Autonomy: National Security and Foreign Policy, 1930-1938. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966.

Fletcher, W. Miles. “The Fifteen-Year War.” In A Companion to Japanese History, edited by W. M. Tsutsui, 241–264. New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

Hata, Ikuhiko. “Continental Expansion, 1905-41.” In The Cambridge History of Japan: Vol 6: The Twentieth Century, edited by Peter Duus, 271 – 314. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Iriye, Akira. The Origins of the Second World War and the Pacific. London: Routledge, 1987.

Large, Stephen. Emperor Hirohito and Showa Japan: A Political Biography. London: Routledge, 1992.

Teiji, Yabe and Konoe Fumimaro. Nihon oyobe Nihonjin. California: California University Press, 1918.

Victoir, Laura and Victor Zatsepine. Harbin to Hanoi: The Colonial Built Environment in Asia, 1840 to 1940. Pokfulam: Hong Kong University Press, 2013.

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