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In retrospect, Japan’s conflict with the west during World War II appears almost preordained. Following the forced opening of its ports to the west by Commodore Perry in 1853, the modernization during the Meiji Restoration, and a resounding victory during the Russo-Japanese War, Japan moved swiftly from seclusion to regional dominance by the early part of the 20th century. Despite a meteoric rise in military power, trade and industrialization, Japan still faced western racism directed towards Asians. Nevertheless, by using the strength of its national character, Japan forced itself upon the international stage in an example of Classical Realism by putting the needs of the state over its constituents and other states which in turn led to a global conflagration.
A Seat at the Table
From the time that Japan was first forced onto the international stage at gunpoint in 1853, the country were excellent students and learned from the western powers that attempted to overpower it and with imitation the greatest compliment, Japan continued to expand its holdings in direct response to the cycle of war and conflict so predictable in classical realism.
Japan started from a position of weakness similar to the Melians during the Peloponnesian War as Commodore Perry’s Black Ships sailed into Tokyo Bay in 1853, although submitting to the stronger technology of the west, observant and forward thinking Japanese leaders saw that in order to avoid being rolled over by the barbarians they needed to move rapidly into modernization in order to protect themselves from 19th century colonial servitude. And learn they did, in this paper I intend to identify some of the primary issues that led up to the Japanese declaration of war on the United States, Great Britain and other allied powers in the Pacific region and to show how these actions parallel actions quantify the methodologies as identified by Thucydides, Machiavelli and Morgenthau.
From the forced opening of Japan to the west, Japan began to move out of its isolation and absorb western thought into its collective national identity, although grudgingly at first. Thus during the Meiji Restoration the formerly agrarian based society was forced into its own industrial revolution in order to protect their nation from the encroachment of the west and to catch up with their new rivals in Europe and more importantly America.
In an interesting dichotomy of old and new, after the Meiji Restoration eliminated the Samurai Class in Japanese society and instituted mandatory conscription for all male citizens, the military embraced the folkloric tales of warrior sacrifice and devotion to the state in order to help peasant soldiers took their task of defending the state to heart. Another benefit of the compulsory service was that it cut through all class lines – all males regardless of former status were required to serve their country under arms. This democratization served another purpose by further strengthening the citizenry’s connection to the nation.
The massive expansion of industry starting with the textile industry followed closely by the heavy industry necessary to give depth and breadth to its manufacturing capabilities led in part to the necessity of expanding its borders throughout the Pacific Rim. This expansion was in part necessary to procure the all important raw materials the island nation is bereft, to increase potential markets and to draw from a larger pool of skilled an unskilled laborers. In fact many of the factory workers in pre-war Japan were both Chinese and Korean nationals drawn to Japan by the high wages and opportunities rarely found in their homelands. In fact, Zainichi as ethnic Koreans are called in Japanese make up the largest portion of foreign-born residents in Japan.
The actions of the military-controlled Japanese government was as far as they were concerned, a legitimate response to what they interpreted as western interference with their country’s right to survival. By applying the classical realist model, most of the actions by the Japanese are focused solely on the survival of the state and an expansion of its empire in order to maintain its place in the anarchic world order. Throughout its interaction with the west prior to the world war, Japan’s actions were directed towards maintaining its national identity and responding to direct and indirect threats as well as racial bigotry directed towards their nation.
The Meiji Restoration
As Machiavelli discussed in “The Prince,” to be truly an efficient leader and reform the state, there must only be one sovereign leader that all members of the state swear allegiance, “… rarely does it happen that a republic or a kingdom is organized well at the start or reformed totally with complete disregard for its old institutions, unless this is done by one man.” In 1868 Japan, this one man was Crown Prince Mutsuhito who soon after the beginning of his reign took the name Emperor Meiji (Meiji means enlightened government) and began a program of forced modernization in all aspects of Japanese life, one of the most dramatic was the elimination of the classist society epitomized by the Samurai warriors and the creation of a populist draftee army filled with former peasants. The national conscription act of October 1872 began a melding of rural and urban that prior to that time would never have occurred. From that point on, all males were required to serve a minimum of three years in the military and thus regionalization began to erode as a national identity began to emerge.
Along with this dramatic break with its rigid classist tradition, Meiji was the first Japanese ruler to govern from Tokyo (then called Edo) instead of the traditional capital of Kyoto. In a further attempt to create universal support for a centralized government, radical nationalist groups eliminated the moribund Tokugawa shogunate and replaced it with a unified administration with direct Imperial control. Although the emperor in time became an influential force in the government, he functioned primarily as a symbol of national unity and left the actual business of governing to his ministers. Essential to the new government as a source of legitimacy, the emperor lent authority to the transformation of Japan.
However, even these changes were nothing compared to the modernization of Japan’s industrial base as they began to turn away from their agrarian based society and worked towards an urban, industrial society. With its designs for a ‘Rich Country, Strong Army,’ Japanese economic expansion took off apace in a concerted effort to gain recognition from Western nations. The industry that spearheaded this advancement was the garment and cloth industry which surpassed all production worldwide. In fact by 1914 a full quarter of the world’s cotton yarn exports were Japanese. Although much of Japan’s industrial expansion was a direct response to a deep seated fear of Western domination of the island nation farm workers moved from the rural areas into the rapidly expanding industrial centers in large numbers. By the end of hostilities in 1918 and with an expanding industrial base, Japan was fully involved with the West; its merchant marine had increased dramatically as well as a substantial increase in cloth production that a full quarter of all cotton yarn sold worldwide was produced in Japan. So much that Great Britain began to consider increasing their protective tariffs despite their well established trade with Japan.
Due in part to this urbanization and expansion Japanese citizens enjoyed civil liberties and an increase in personal wealth unheard of only a few generations before. The primary beneficiaries of the initial industrialization were young women who were prized workers especially in the garment and cloth industries due to their manual dexterity, small hands and willingness to follow directions without fail. As Professor Hanneman pointed out in her book, that despite the brutal working conditions and shabby living arrangements, it was far better than the backbreaking work they left in their home villages. Former peasants (especially women) flocked to the city centers to collect real wages and to escape their stultifying rural lives – thus the Japanese middle class “Salari-man” was born.
Regardless of how successful the garment and clothing industries were, heavy industry was an absolute necessity to ensure Japan’s position in the world. Steel manufacturing was essential as was shipbuilding and other heavy machinery, but in order to accomplish this feat Japan needed a more literate population.
The Educational Rescript of October 1890 was the royal guidance that directed this new emphasis in education that mandated compulsory four-year education for both males and females, the literacy rates of Japan skyrocketed. As the appreciation for universal education and literacy took hold of the country, the mandate expanded the requirement from four years of required education to six years, largely unheard of within the region. As Professor Hanneman pointed out, the Imperial mandate created a literate urban populace with many young men being sent abroad to study as well as to work in foreign manufacturing plants.
As industrialization worked its changes and led to the development of an urban working class, so too did a new urban culture develop. Three things in particular helped to shape Japan’s urban culture in the 1920s: the expansion of education that had occurred after the Meiji Restoration, Japan’s increased contact with foreign nations, particularly with the West and the impact of universal male military service.
One of these travelers was the grandson of Emperor Meiji, the first Japanese royal to travel outside the country, the Crown Prince who would later sit on Chrysanthemum Throne as his country ran headlong into war with the western world, Prince Showa or as he was later known to the western world – Emperor Hirohito.
Despite increased contact with the west, there was still a huge chasm of understanding between Oriental and Occidental that persists to this day and as Thomas Cleary points out in The Japanese Art of War not all of this misunderstanding is because of western ignorance but a failure to value the other’s culture, … that the real enemy on either side is ignorance, whether it be natural or contrived. Japan had become fully involved with the West; its merchant marine had increased dramatically as well as a substantial increase in cloth production that a full quarter of all cotton yarn sold worldwide was produced in Japan. So much that Great Britain began to consider increasing their protective tariffs despite their well established trade with Japan.
The Russo-Japanese War
During the Meiji Restoration and national conscription, the Japanese military forces were modernized along German lines (sorry Mr. Cruise) during the later part of the 19th century. These newly created land and sea forces proved themselves very capable and had the additional strength of loyalty to a nation, not a local Shogun (warlord) and as Machiavelli pointed out, there is nothing so weak and unstable as a reputation for power not based ones own strength. Japan honed its sword in China with a decisive defeat of woefully unprepared and antiquated Chinese forces during the Sino-Japanese War (1894 – 1895) which led to the acquisition of the island of Taiwan in the Treaty of Shimonoseki. Another example of Japan’s martial prowess was her memorable participation in the relief of the international legation during the so-called Boxer Rebellion where the Japanese army showed itself to be more professional than most of its international counterparts. Japan was a fully modernized land and sea force that would later soundly defeat Russian forces during the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-5.
With Tsar Nicholas II steadily encroaching into Asia with each section of railway laid for the Trans-Siberian railway Japan grew more concerned with the effects it would cause. So with national survival in mind Japanese forces laid siege to Port Arthur, the Russian port and military position on the pacific coast of Manchuria. In what turned into a relatively protracted siege, the Japanese army soundly defeated a demoralized, poorly trained and equipped Russian army. The Japanese navy was also able to prove its mettle by sinking all but one Russian vessel in the historic naval battle of Tsushima straights (The Russo-Japanese War research society, 2002). The Tsushima straights are a narrow slot of water in the Sea of Japan that was a natural choice for a sea battle. Admiral Togo positioned his battle force and waited of the Russians to appear. On the 27 May, 1905 after a grueling 18,000 sea mile trip from the Baltic Sea and almost a year at sea, Rear Admiral Rozhdestvenski’s antiquated Pacific Fleet was crushed by Admiral Togo’s modern British-inspired navy in the classic “crossing the T” maneuver.
With their decisive victories on both land and sea in the first occasion of an Asian nation defeating a western power with cheering and praise throughout the eastern world, Asians discovered that the whites were not invincible. Smug with the resulting land acquisitions despite a terrible cost of lives and treasure, Japan ultimately suffered what they considered major humiliation with the treaty of Portsmouth brokered by American President Theodore Roosevelt. During the negotiations to end hostilities between Japan and Tsar Nicholas’ Russia, the negotiated peace settlement was far more generous to Russia than the victorious Japanese with little provision for war reparations provided Japan was forced deeper into debt with little recourse to recoup their losses.
The crushing national debt incurred by their military expansionism led to riots throughout the island nation as citizens demonstrated their displeasure at the rude treatment meted out to their country by foreigners while ignoring their own government’s role in the conflagration. Nevertheless, Japan continued its steady progress away from its former feudal agrarian society and was accepted albeit grudgingly into the mainstream of modern international relations. Japan then expanded its overseas holdings again by establishing a Protectorate of Korea after the end of the Russo-Japanese War that ultimately led to full annexation of the Korean peninsula in 1910.
In 1905, Japan established a protectorate over Korea, and in 1910, Japan “annexed” (heigo) the country by force, in effect colonizing Korea. In 1909, on the eve of colonization, only 790 Koreans were reported to be living in Japan. During the early years of Japan’s colonization of Korea, the number of Koreans migrating to Japan increased steadily—more than 30,000 Koreans lived in Japan by 1920, almost 300,000 by 1930, and approximately 626,000 by 1935 by conservative count (Nozaki, Inokuchi, & Tae-young, 2007).
WWI and the Treaty of Versailles
In mid-1914 as Europe was being distracted by WWI, Japan, seized the opportunity to gain land and further its credibility with western nations by siding with the allies during World War I against Germany. In a logical and well thought move and despite strong military ties to Germany, Japan declared war on its mentor on 15 August 1914, occupied the port of Tsingtao on the Shandong peninsula and took possession of numerous German-held islands in the Northern Pacific. With no practical way to defend their Pacific holdings, Germany quickly surrendered their interests in China, the Marshall, the Carolines, and the Marianas Islands in order to focus on the realities of a collapsing war effort closer to home. In a fait accompli, Japan consolidated its newly acquired property but did little else to support the Allies for the remainder of the war.
In 1918 as a member of the victorious Allied force; Japan was included as one of the delegations at the peace negotiations held in Versailles France despite the minimal assistance provided during the war. Although they were hardly given the respect by the other victors, as part of the Treaty of Versailles, Japan was officially ceded small German holdings in China and the Northern Pacific island chains already occupied by Japanese forces since 1914 and not much else. Nonetheless, Japan would later ignore international mandates that forbade militarizing her Pacific holdings as she sent colonists and construction workers to build up these formerly obscure assets into deep-water ports and military strongholds at places that would in a few decades become well know in American households: Tinian, Saipan, and Truk.
The rationale behind this build up was a matter of national survival as the innate drive for power and more territory. The Japanese military insisted that in order to protect its interests and control access to markets and raw materials in the mainland of Asia that Japan should be allowed to create these military bases unimpeded. After all, didn’t they defeat both China and Russia before 1914, sign a naval treaty with Great Britain and help defeat the global German threat? The only undecided aspect of their expansion was that of the United States, but they accepted the fact that that was unlikely to end amicably. Thus, Japan’s hubris like that of Athens confirmed the aphorism of Thucydides that action purely on the basis of power and self-interest without any consideration of moral and ethical principles frequently results in self-defeating policies.
There was one small benefit for Japan about the blatant racism of Versailles; the anemic Korean delegation was totally ignored when they petitioned for the return of self-rule. Also ignored was the more robust and vocal Chinese delegation which wanted a similar end to foreign involvement in the Middle Kingdom, but also to no avail. Ironically, China provided a far more substantive presence during the war than that of Japan by sending over 100,000 laborers to Europe who in turn freed up Allied soldiers from the drudgery of manual labor by digging much of hundreds of miles of trenches on the Western Front and suffered greatly while doing so. Another minor Asian envoy to the proceedings was similarly rebuffed when he petitioned for an end to French Colonial rule in Indochina. This diminutive man would come to be known as the Vietnamese nationalist and communist Ho Chi Minh.
“The So-called Civilized World”
Japan’s delegation was routinely ridiculed for their poor English – Clemenceau, the French delegate frequently made disparaging remarks specifically directed towards them without hesitation. A more telling event was to take place as the Japanese delegates considered President Wilson’s Fourteen Points of Light.
In what would become to be known as “the racial equality clause,” an well thought out response to frequent harassment on the international stage, the Japanese called for a concerted effort on the part of the international players to dispense with what they perceived as worldwide racial inequities. Citing such cases as the San Francisco school board’s 1906 decision to segregate Chinese and Japanese school children from whites (which ultimately required then-President Roosevelt’s personal involvement to defuse) as well as other more blatant acts of racism, the Japanese championed a call for all Asians, that of equality. In another example of prejudice, during WWI, Japanese emigrants found it virtually impossible to enter Canada, America and Australia even though they were on the same side!
During the negotiation process as President Wilson maneuvered delegates to empower his nascent ideal of a league of nations, the Japanese delegation worked quietly on their proposal of equality to present to the collected representatives:
The equality of nations being a basic principle of the League of Nations, the High Contracting Parties agree to accord, as soon as possible, to all alien nationals of States members of the League equal and just treatment in every respect, making no distinction, either in law or in fact, on account of their race or nationality.
As they expected, Japan’s proposal fell on deaf ears and was quickly disregarded by the gathered diplomats. Although Japanese ambassador Makino acknowledged that racial prejudice was indeed prevalent but believed in the necessity to have the principle of equality accepted worldwide; he held that if different races could fight and die side by side, they should also expect the same rights as each other. Nonetheless, the die had been cast that demonstrated the realities of racial prejudice throughout the world and the call for justice was ignored by what the Japanese press called the, “so-called civilized world”. Japan would continue alone to maintain their position in the anarchic world stage.
Adventurism into China
With an eye towards acquiring more land and resources, Japan began to move into mainland China in earnest during World War I. In a decision undoubtedly based on the fact that other nation’s attention was distracted by the war. Japan’s adventurism was also spurred on by the collapse of Qing Dynasty in 1911 and the ongoing civil war and banditry throughout the Middle Kingdom as warlords fought to supplant the impotent central Chinese government of Sun Yat-sen (and later ultra-nationalist Chiang Kai Scheck) who also fought the Communist Chinese led by Mao Tse-tung. Nonetheless, Japan wanted to collect the land, resources and manpower that the vast expanse of China could provide while serving to protect her borders from the encroaching westerners as well.
Prior to the end of WWI, Japan sought to make inroads into the Chinese mainland to take advantage of the widespread disruption with the so-called “21-Demands” that in part demanded that China cede even more land to the Japanese invaders. Japan’s expansion into China and elsewhere was seen by most observers as an expansion of markets and sources of raw materials since as an island nation of limited natural resources, Japan had to find some way to feed its growing population and support its burgeoning industrial base.
Although the expansion of Japan’s sphere of control can be directly attributed to its increased population and genuine concerns of how to feed and house its rapidly increasing population, it cannot be discounted that its expansion was primarily an action of an individual state in an anarchic world collecting all that it could regardless of the effect on other more peaceful and/or defenseless states. This can especially be said about China, and Manchuria. Part of Japan’s excuse for finally occupying deep into mainland China was the fabricated Mukden incident where in 1931 a small group of “bandits” attacked a Japanese army unit and the Japanese acted in self-defense. This small event turned into something much larger as Japan took the opportunity to establish the Japanese-controlled puppet state of Manchukuo. Although only Japan’s fellow Tripartite members acknowledged this sham-state, there was little other nations could do except exert pressure through the League of Nations – an organization that had already proven itself impotent to influencing international peace and justice. Nonetheless, the raw materials in Manchukuo and its central location in China made the gambit worthy of the cost as Japan began to build up the infrastructure to protect and supply the state and the non-state actors in the form of Japanese industry.
The growing Japanese industrial appetite for raw materials had to be met somehow and as these new home industries began to have competition from imports the Japanese government began the protectionist policies that would become their hallmark and by 1925 the Ministry of Commerce and Industry (MICI) was established and tariffs on imports were in place.
The MICI continued to monitor exports and prevent excessive imports throughout the 20’s and 30’s, especially anything that could be considered of strategic military importance: steel, aluminum and oil. By maintaining special enterprise laws these commodities were channeled towards the needs of the state. This redirection of funds and materials allowed the Japanese military to build up their forces sufficiently despite the restrictions emplaced by international treaties. By ignoring treaties or portions thereof, the Japanese held to the opinion espoused by Machiavelli in the Prince which stressed that most people (in this case states) lived in the present and therefore were not capable of imagining alternatives to the phenomena they encounter.
Washington and London Naval Treaties
With the third strongest navy in the world by 1920, second only to Great Britain and the United States, Japan had the ability to project its military power far beyond its shores. Coupled with its new island holdings in the northern pacific, Japan began moving east in an attempt to counter America’s westward expansion into the Pacific. However, diplomatic roadblocks thrown up by the Washington treaties that sought to limit the number of “hulls in the water,” that established a 10:10:6 ratio of battleships and aircraft carriers for the three major naval powers. This treaty was in part designed to reduce an inevitable arms race by the three nations, it was explained to the world that since Great Britain and America had interests in both the Atlantic and Pacific they needed a larger naval force than the Japanese. Although despite the reduction in their ability to counter American expansionism in the Pacific as well as influencing China, these parameters were acceptable to the Japanese. However, the London treaties’ ratio of 5:5:3 some eight years later in 1930, was received with much less acceptance, which indicated a growing anti-westernism sentiment in both the military and the population at large.
Japan Withdraws from the League of Nations
"We are not coming back,"
In February, 1933 during a meeting of the general assembly of the league of Nations, a report recommending that Japan withdraw her troops occupying Manchuria and restore the country to Chinese sovereignty, was adopted, 42 to 1, Japan voting against it. In a move defying world opinion, Japan declared that based on their victory during the Russo-Japanese War and the fact that they occupied the land in question that their outpost in Manchuria was rightfully theirs and they would relinquish control despite the international call to do so. Instead the Japanese delegation led by Ambassador Yosuke Matsuoka walked out of the assembly hall, simply stating, “We are not coming back".
As Thucydides said, “the underlying cause of … war was ‘the growth of … power and the fear which this caused …” , this anarchic approach toward international relations indicated that as Japan grew in strength so too did the fear of other nations. Neighbors who had cheered on Japan’s defeat of the Russians in 1905 and their parity with western powers were now beginning to wonder if their countries would be next to fall before the Rising Sun.
With Japan’s withdrawal from the League of Nations it had become isolated from the rest of the world’s states with the exception of the other two members of the tripartite states: Germany and Italy. Despite the tacit agreements to work together to establish world domination there really wasn’t much in the way of collaboration between the three rogue states. Japan would eventually spread its influence from the Arctic Circle to the coast of Australia, from the eastern coast of Africa to the west coast of the United States with little substantive assistance from either of its fascist partners.
Based solely on the classical realist interpretation of international relations, Japan acted aggressively towards all other actors in order to improve its position in the hierarchy of the international stage although even the most ardent nationalists would agree that despite even the most generous potential outcome would entail a negotiated peace with the powerful juggernaut that was the United States. That being said, the tremendous early successes against their White foes and their Asian lackeys most certainly led the Japanese people to believe their own propaganda that they were destined to establish a new Asian sphere of co-prosperity – with them in the lead of course!
As discussed previously, the gathering of Japanese strength and increase in power throughout the Pacific Rim initially showed Japan’s fellow Asians that they could overthrow the Whites. After Japan’s resounding successes a scant generation before quite possibly blinded their leaders to the realities of a post-recession world. Despite this fact, the Japanese could not or would not draw enough other states onto their side to help them win final victory; Japan’s heavy-handed treatment of conquered people in occupied lands went contrary to Machiavelli’s recommendations of treatment of conquered people and ultimately helped lead to their defeat.