Japanese Imperialism

Japanese Imperialism & Colonialism From the Meiji Period Through Taisho and Early Showa

Philip Beech

Japanese expansionism and imperialism from 1894 can trace its ideological roots to the Edo period and the various responses to the increasing Western power in the region.

The writings of Yoshida Shoin and Sato Nobuhiro urged territorial expansion in Asia to counter the threat of growing Western encroachment on Japan. Although the historian Jansen sees such sentiments as "overblown rhetoric" with little likelihood of being implemented, nevertheless, soon after the Meiji Restoration, Saigo Takamori was calling for intervention in Korea in 1873.

However, Japan began its modern history, like China, as a victim of empire, not its exponent with the imposition of the 'unequal treaties' and extraterritoriality by the Western powers.

British historian W. G. Beasley sees Japanese imperialism divided into two phases. The first phase, lasting from the victory over China in 1895 to the outbreak of the first World War, is described "as the period of 'conformity' [when] Japan sought privilege and prestige within the international system which the West created."

In the second phase from 1914 to 1945 Beasley sees Japan seeking alternatives to the treaty port system through direct intervention on the Asian mainland leading to the New Order in East Asia, announced in 1938 and finally to the 'advance to the south' (nanshin) and the establishment of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

"These Japanese initiatives were contrary to the concept of 'co-operative imperialism' on which the West's position in China had been based. Instead, they incorporated the theme of Asian partnership: joint action under Japanese leadership, supposedly for the common good - a good that was defined as being the termination of western dominance."

Reynolds has a four-fold division for the changing character of Japanese imperialism and sees the period up to 1894 as the period before imperialism, from 1895 to 1914 as the transition to imperialism, 1915-1931 as accelerating imperialism and 1932-1945 as high imperialism.

Contemporary Japanese photo of the Imperial army.
Contemporary photograph of some of the first units of the Japanese national army

First Phase of Japanese Imperialism 1894 - 1914

The period prior to the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 saw the rise of Japanese expansionist thought stimulated by Major Meckel's teaching at the army's new staff college which warned of a Korea under foreign control as "a dagger pointing at the heart" of Japan.

Yamagata Aritomo, Prime Minister in 1890 talked of Korea as part of a "line of advantage" which must be held to protect Japan's "line of sovereignty." Fukuzawa Yukichi justified intervention in Asia as a means of defense against the predatory West in a Darwinian world of jakuniku kyoshoku ("Survival of the fittest").

In the 1880's Tarui Tokichi wrote a proposal to amalgamate Japan and Korea into a new country that would be called the Great East and would be able to withstand the threatening West.

There was also an economic element to early Japanese imperialism to add to the strategic resistance to 'white' imperialism. Japanese actions in Korea can be seen as part of fukoku kyohei ("Enrich the country, strengthen the military") as an opportunistic attempt to increase 'primitive capitalist accumulation' in order to enhance the country's strength.

The Japanese economy lacked capital at this stage, thus forcing industry to look outwards for markets, especially for the growing textile industry. However, strategic interests were still paramount in this period.

Troops at the Satsuma Rebellion.
Contemporary photograph of a unit of the Japanese national army that supressed the Satsuma Rebellion

There is no evidence that the Ito government had any expectations of territorial gain at the onset of hostilities with China in 1894 but the ease of victories and a jingoistic public opinion soon prompted them at the Shimonoseki talks to demand possession of Formosa and the Liaotung Peninsula (though Japan was forced to hand back the latter under pressure from the Triple Intervention from Russia, Germany and France.)

Thus, early Japanese imperialism can be seen to be opportunistic in character and following Western precedent as Japan became a Treaty power in China. Japan also hoped to gain favour with the Western powers by having the concessions made by China applicable to the other treaty powers through the most-favoured-nation clause.

Ideologically, that Japan was following Western economic empire-building can be seen by Inoue Kaoru's comparison of Japan's actions in Korea as similar to "the policy which England follows in Egypt." Inoue's attempts at 'enlightened imperialism' in Korea through investment, cooperation and the achievement of "the reality of independence for Korea" also foreshadow later ideas of 'co-prosperity.'

In the period up to the Russo-Japanese War (February 1904 – September 1905), Japanese imperialism and expansion took the form of building up spheres of influence on the Western model and "depended on the co-operation, or at least the acquiescence, of the major European powers.". This consisted of mainly government investment in railways in Korea and Dai Ichi becoming in effect the nation's central bank. War with Russia over their competing interests in Korea and the Russian presence in Manchuria ended in a Japanese victory - the first Asian victory over a Western power in modern times - and led to Japan taking over Russia's concessions in Manchuria, Liaotung (Kwantung) and the railway to Harbin (renamed the South Manchuria Railway).

Japan also secured the southern half of Sakhalin (Karafuto). Thus, Japan's 'line of advantage' now included Manchuria, another distant frontier to be defended. In this respect, Japanese imperialism resembles the 'frontier imperialism' of Britain in India or Russia in central Asia. The Foreign Minister, Komura Jutaro wrote in 1904 that "the integrity of Manchuria" was vital to "Japan's defence... and her lasting security."

This was the beginning of a policy split between the military and the civilian government's handling of empire. The army wanted to directly 'manage' Manchurian affairs while Ito, wary of offending the Western powers, believed its administration "must be left to the Chinese government."

Such divergence was to lead to the growing willingness of the army to disregard the opinions of the cabinet in trying to forge a close political relationship with Manchuria or even to separate it from China entirely to counter the possibility of a Russian revenge attack.

The Treaty of Portsmouth in 1905 allowed Japan a free hand in Korea, which was duly annexed in 1910.

This can be seen as confirming the division of formal empire in Taiwan and Korea and informal empire and spheres of interest in Manchuria and the treaty ports in China. Though increased Japanese economic expansion, immigration and special privileges in Manchuria seemed to threaten the policy of the Open Door in China it was not until the Chinese Revolution in 1911 and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 that Japanese imperialism began to take on a different character in response to the breakdown of central authority in China and the inability of the Western powers to intervene to protect their interests.

Contemporary Japanese print showing anti-western feeling.
Contemporary print showing a Japanese sumo wrestler tossing a Westerner to the ground

Second Phase of Japanese Imperialism 1914-1945

The Twenty One Demands of 1915 mark a turning point in Japanese imperialism. The 1911 Chinese Revolution strengthened the idea of Asian partnership between Japan and China directed against Western imperialism, as a reformed China might be willing and able to cooperate with Japan, rather than any kind of Treaty power cooperation.

Group V of the Demands (though later dropped) called for prior consultation with Japan about any proposed foreign loan for transport development in Fukien, the employment of Japanese political, financial and military advisers and priority for Japanese firms in the provision of arms to China.

These proposals were clearly going beyond the premises of the Open Door. Meanwhile, Japan had seized the German bases in Shantung and her Pacific Island territories (which she later administered under a League of Nations' mandate.)

Another change in the development of Japanese imperialism came with the idea of economic help to China begun by Prime Minister Terauchi Masatake in 1916 to pursue concordat (teikei) with China.

Economic assistance would thus ensure the existence of a stable government, friendly to Japan. Nishihara Kameso, Terauchi's representative in Peking writes of an economic integration that was later to be known as 'co-prosperity and co-existence' (kyoei kyozon): Japan was to "develop the limitless natural resources of China and the industry of Japan by coordinating the two, so as to make possible a plan for self-sufficiency under which Japan and China would become a single entity."

Though Japan's development plans came to nothing at this stage, as they consisted of loans to the warlord, Tuan Ch'i-jui, who was not able to achieve a decisive victory in China's civil war, they had clear economic and political implications. "Economically, policy was to be made appropriate to the stages of Chinese and Japanese economic growth. Politically, it must reflect the special bonds between the two."

After 1930 these two strands come together in the pursuit of self sufficiency as a consequence of the Depression and the decrease in international trade. After the Mukden Incident of 1931 and the establishment of the Manchuko puppet regime , Ishiwara Kanji's programme of a planned economy and industrial development through direct Japanese investment was put into practice through the establishment of Manchurian Heavy Industry Development Company (Mangyo).

A similar programme was followed in North China and Inner Mongolia. This was to be the highly integrated economic, industrial and cultural heartland of Konoe's New Order comprising Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Manchuko and North China.

Japanese Economic Imperialism

Japanese imperialism changed its economic character significantly from 1894. Up to 1914 Japanese investment in Asia was relatively small in comparison with the other powers due to a lack of capital and, indeed, represented a narrow version of the Open Door with the Japanese investing in particular projects in which the country had an immediate stake such as the Hanyehping mines rather than participating in international loans to the Chinese government.

After 1914 as Japan became an industrial power in its own right the nature and value of its overseas trade and investment changed. The value of Japanese exports rose from 85 million Yen in 1890 to 2,841 million Yen in 1925-1929 with China accounting for 20% of this figure.

Japan became an exporter of manufactured goods to Asia and an importer of primary products from the region. Although Hilary Conroy writes that "economic matters ...had no important effect in determining the Japanese course toward the annexation of Korea." The Meiji oligarchs knew that it was important for Japan to expand economically as part of the policy of fukoku kyohei and thus foreign trade and the race for concessions were seen as a vital adjunct to the nation's strength and strategic advantage.

Exports were needed to balance trade, pay for the army and feed a growing population. Thus Korea and later Manchuria were to serve as markets for industrial goods, food producers and 'living space' for Japanese settlers. Japanese business tended to support expansion and investing in stock for Korean railways was seen as a patriotic act.

Thus, government, business and the Japanese public clearly saw the connection between strategic and economic imperialism. The appointment of the ex-deputy Governor General of Taiwan Goto Shimpei as the first President of the South Manchuria Railway Company reveals this connection of strategic and economic imperialism.

Mantetsu until superceded by The Manchuria Industrial Development Company (Mangyo) was used to expand Japanese influence in Manchuria and was influential in creating central planning and a controlled economy which was an essential part of Ishiwara Kanji's plans for establishing an 'independent' Manchuria and a garrison state centred on Japan.

The Mukden Incident in 1931, engineered by Ishiwara marked the end of Japan's informal empire in North East China and a new era in Japanese imperialism. The Great Depression of 1929 and the policies of economic autarky undermined the idea of co-operative imperialism in China. Men such as Ishiwara and Matsuoka (significantly a former vice-President of Mantetsu) went beyond Yamagata's 'line of advantage' to seek "not only lines of military defence....but also control over markets and resources, in order to sustain the industry on which modern warfare depended."

Combined with the thinking of a special relationship with China and desires for Asian solidarity to end Western imperialism the construction of an autonomous Japanese bloc centred on heavy industry led to the creation of the Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere. The other areas brought under Japanese control- South China, south-east Asia and the islands of the south-west Pacific (the outer zone) would serve the countries of north-east Asia (the inner zone) as a source of export earnings and raw materials.

Thus, Japanese imperialism adopted a definite economic plan though the exigencies of war made it difficult to realise this "economically self-sufficient national defence sphere."

Prime Minister Tojo Hideki speaking in 1942 stated that the aim of the Dai Toa Kyoei Ken was for each member nation to "be made one with Japan, each being brought to contribute its strength for the sake of our empire."

The Ideology of Japanese Imperialism

The ideology of Japanese imperialism and its corollary, colonialism also went through various changes up to 1945. European theory underpinned early Japanese colonial ideology. In 1895 the new colonies were looked on as a source of pride, "a symbol of the nation's equality with the West and of its participation in the great work of modern civilization." (M.R.Peattie)

Goto Shimpei in Taiwan attempted to practice a 'scientific colonialism' on the German model. He restructured the political, social and economic conditions as part of the civilizing task in which Japan now felt it participated. He also "adopted to the Japanese colonial scene British concepts of physical grandeur to reinforce colonial authority."

On a limited scale Goto encouraged education for Taiwanese especially at the primary level and he supported a medical college and a teacher training centre. However, education provided for the children of Japanese officials and settlers was on a much grander scale "to remind native islanders of the superiority of their new rulers."

Tokutomi Soho wrote in 1913 of Japan's imperial mission and compared it to the Romans in Europe and the Mediterranean and a chair in colonial studies was established at Tokyo University in 1908.

Early emphasis was laid on overseas settlement to create 'new Japans' but this faded (until the 1930s and Manchuria) with the realization that Korea was already full - with Koreans. Attention then turned to the idea of assimilation (doka) which ran counter to principles established within European colonial empires. "Affinities of race and culture between Japan and her colonial peoples ... made possible the idea of a fusion of the two and suggested that ultimately Japanese colonial territories had no separate, autonomous identities of their own, but only a destiny that was entirely Japanese."

Such thinking was linked to the idea of the Emperor as head of the Japanese race and extended out to include those under Japanese rule. This process later came to sanctify the increasing regimentation and subjugation of Japan's colonial peoples. 'Japanization' through Japanese language education and the fostering of Shinto beliefs were deeply resented in Korea, and "played a central role in the formation of a modern Korean nationalist consciousness which was bitterly anti-Japanese," (E.P. Tsurumi) so much so that Yoshino Sakuzo, a liberal journalist on a tour of Korea, reported that "to be educated was to be anti-Japanese."

Though plans to expand the rights of the Constitution to the colonies during the liberal administration of Hara Kei were rejected there was a move from budan seiji (military rule) to bunka seiji (cultural rule) in Korea during his term.

Yanaihara Tadao's hopes for home rule in the colonies and the idea of colonial trusteeship were also doomed and he was finally dismissed from his lectureship in colonial studies at Tokyo University in 1937 and his works banned.

The atmosphere of growing militarism and the desire for economic autarky in the 1930s was linked to the a growing sense of Pan-Asianism to destroy 'white imperialism' in Asia. This led to an increasingly coercive attempt to assimilate and Japanize the subject peoples (kominka) under the leadership of the Emperor and was based on the supposedly divine origins of the Japanese race.

Emperor Hirohito.
Emperor Hirohito in full military uniform

It took the form of accelerated efforts to diffuse the Japanese language, abolish indigenous cultures and promote youth movements to inculcate loyalty to the Emperor. Phrases such as hakko ichiu and kokutai began to appear in the Japanese Colonial Ministry's propaganda.

Japanese colonial policy was no longer seen as being within the Western framework of a mission civilisatrice but as a desire to unite the Asian peoples into a Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere and expel the Western imperialists. Thus references to colonies - shokuminchi were replaced by naichi (the Japanese home islands) and gaichi (Japan overseas).

Goto's imperial trappings of colonial white uniforms and pith helmets were also down-graded to be replaced by the drab serge of the kokuminfuku. The Colonial Ministry was replaced by the Greater East Asia Ministry in 1942 and in the same year Korea was brought under the control of the Home Ministry. In 1944 Karafuto became just another prefecture.

However, these theories of Pan-Asian solidarity were full of contradictions as seen by a 1942 Army General Staff memorandum which spoke of shujin minzoku (master peoples), yujin minzoku (friendly peoples) and kigu minzoku (guest peoples) to differentiate between the Japanese, East Asians and the rest.

Thus, ideas on colonial ideology merged with economic imperialism in the formation of Japan's empire after 1941. The inner zone representing an industrial manufacturing core and the outer zone a market and source of raw materials.

Genuine feelings of Asian brotherhood as expressed by the Miyazaki brothers and Kayano Choichi and their "search for a hero who could arouse patriotism and regenerate China for the cause of the Yellow race" and led them to life-long support of Sun Yat-sen was subsumed by men like Toyama Mitsuru, Arao Sei, Uchida Ryohei and the patriotic societies who sought Japanese 'guidance' and control of any revolutionary movements in China.

Toyama, Uchida and Arao (the guiding light of the Toa Dobun Shoin) may have been 'Asia firsters' but they were moreover 'Japan firsters' who were not critical of Japanese expansionism. By the time of the Twenty One Demands the Japanese government was not interested in support of liberal and republican forces in China and the military was looking to impose a Manchu puppet state in Manchuria.

Bureaucrats like Yoshida Shigeru (later a post-war Prime Minister), Japanese consul in Mukden in the late 1920s, reveal their contempt for "vague notions of Sino-Japanese goodwill."

The Final Act

1941 was a critical turning point in Japan's modern history and the progression of Japanese imperialism, as diplomatic conflict with the United States turned into the Great East Asian War. Japanese propaganda presented the war as one to free the Asian peoples from 'white' imperialism rather than a grab for their natural resources, the Army and Navy General Principles of National Policy of 1936 was an important forerunner of this policy.

Once in control of the previously Western colonies in south-east Asia, Japanese colonial policies varied from place to place. In Indonesia nationalist politicians were not allowed to form a cabinet and political parties were banned. In Malaya, Malays were favoured as officials but patronage was given to religious rather than political organizations. In Burma, a different approach was adopted with a provisional government under Ba Maw, but the Japanese army commander retained extensive powers over defence, foreign policy and political appointments. In the Philippines, Jorge Vargas' government was subjected to similar controls by the Japanese military.

However, as the war began to go against Japan from the summer of 1943 the "Tojo cabinet decided to make political concessions in the occupied areas to win greater cooperation from their inhabitants in an essentially defensive struggle." (W.G. Beasley)

Thus, there were promises of independence for Burma and the Philippines effected in August and September 1943 respectively, Thailand was granted the four border provinces it claimed from Malaya and there was a move to greater political participation for the people of Malaya and Indonesia.

In addition to this, Japan sponsored mass movements, organizing youth associations and auxiliary military units. Later, in 1944 the Koiso Declaration gave nominal 'independence' to Indonesia. These changes meant that Japan in reality intended to control Burma and The Philippines in the manner of Manchuko, Thailand and Indo-China remained virtual protectorates and Malaya and Indonesia were to be colonies on the lines of Korea and Taiwan.

Colonial policy encouraged respect for native culture, languages and religions which was a change from the Japanization policies of assimilation adopted in East Asia. However, actual implementation on the ground often had the effect of alienating the local population through co-opting them into Japan's war effort and through crippling economic policies such as paying for provisions in military scrip.

Gone were the days of government-led investment as in China and Manchuko and development was left in the hands of private enterprise.

Japanese imperialism changed from strategic and commercial expansionism operating within the Western dominated world order in 1894 to a desire to control markets and raw materials for industrial and military growth which in itself was a challenge to the West by 1930.

This change mirrors Japan's development into an industrial nation after the First World War. The rise of the military's autonomy in the 1930's was both a cause and a result of expansion in East Asia and the Depression of 1929 led to a collapse of 'cooperative imperialism' in the region.

Some earlier support for Asian liberation movements gave way to ideas of Japanese 'guidance' and then 'Japanization' and assimilation as Japan led the Asian races in a 'co-prosperity and co-existence' league against the Western oppressor. However,as empire became equated with defence and economic expansion it was absorbed into military strategy and "imperialism came to seem the only path to national security."

The legacies of these changes in Japanese imperialism have had a defining influence on the region to this day.

Sources & Books on Japanese Imperialism

M.B. Jansen, Japanese Imperialism: Late Meiji Perspectives, in The Japanese Colonial Empire, 1895-1945, ed., R.H. Myers & M.R. Peattie, Princeton, 1984
W.G. Beasley, The Nature of Japanese Imperialism, University of London, 1986
M.B. Jansen, Japan And China: from War to Peace, 1894-1972, Chicago, 1975
W.G. Beasley, Japanese Imperialism, 1894-1945, Clarendon Press, 1987
H. Conroy, The Japanese Seizure of Korea, Univ. of Pennsylvania Press,1960
M.R. Peattie, Japanese Attitudes towards Colonialism, 1895-1945, in The Japanese Colonial Empire, 1895-1945, ed., R.H. Myers & M.R. Peattie, Princeton, 1984
E.P. Tsurumi, Colonial Education in Korea and Taiwan, in The Japanese Colonial Empire, 1895-1945, ed., R.H. Myers & M.R. Peattie, Princeton, 1984
M.B. Jansen, The Japanese & Sun Yat-Sen, Harvard, 1954
J.W. Dower, Empire & Aftermath, Yoshida Shigeru and the Japanese Experience, 1878-1954, Harvard,1988
Jan Pluvier, South East Asia from Colonialism to Independence, OUP, 1974

Books on the History of Japan