By the start of the 20th Century, Japan had turned from a pre-industrialized isolationist state into a modernized regional power, defeating both the Chinese and Russian Empires, annexing Korea and Taiwan, and expanding their sphere of influence across East Asia. But after the death of Emperor Meiji, new problems would arise, opportunities would be taken and Japan would continue to expand and develop itself as a rising great power. Today, we’re going to continue analyzing the evolution of the Japanese Empire during the Taishō and Early Shōwa eras, covering its role in the Great War, subsequent expansionist developments, and the start of its trajectory towards fascism and the Pacific War.
It is July 30, 1912. Emperor Meiji is dead, his family is mourning him, and his heir is preparing to ascend to the Chrysanthemum Throne as Emperor Taishō. For the past four decades, Meiji had overseen the modernization and industrialization of the Japanese Empire, which underwent an extensive political, economic and social revolution. On his funeral, a massive procession gathered to pay homage to the Emperor that had brought a new era for Japan. Of this event, the New York Times wrote that “the contrast between that which preceded the funeral car and that which followed it was striking indeed. Before it went old Japan; after it came new Japan”. And in this new Japan, many differences could be already noticed, such as a great economic growth in many sectors, aided by the financial power of the Zaibatsu business conglomerates and by the introduction of electric power; a heavy government investment in engineering, industry and railway building that resulted in the rapid industrialization of Japan; the establishment of a Western-based education system; and the complete modernization of the Army and Navy.
Yet the death of Meiji would also spark a political crisis in the Japanese Empire, as the Meiji Constitution was written in such a way that the military had dominance over the civilian government: if the IJA or the IJN refused to appoint a minister for the new cabinet, then the cabinet couldn’t be formed and the government would be interrupted. When this happened two times in 1912 and 1913, the acting Prime Ministers were forced to resign. In response, the public was outraged due to the military manipulation of the cabinet, and soon, demands against the oligarchic system of the Japanese Empire began to emerge.
But the political uprisings would have to temporarily take a break, as in Europe, the First World War broke out in 1914 between the Central Powers and the Entente. As a consequence of the Anglo-Japanese Treaty, Japan entered the war on the side of the Entente, seizing the opportunity to expand its sphere of influence in China and the Pacific, where the German Empire had colonial possessions. While Australia and New Zealand launched invasions against German Samoa and German New Guinea, Vice-Admiral Sadakichi Kato of the 2nd Fleet started the blockade of the German colony of Tsingtao and Vice-Admiral Yamaya Tanin of the South Seas Squadron started to pursue the fleeing German East Asia Squadron towards the Marshall Islands. Quickly, the IJN seized the Mariana, Caroline, Palau and Marshall Islands with virtually no resistance, and the IJA landed on Shandong to start the Siege of Tsingtao. After two months, Tsingtao fell on November 7, and the city was occupied by Japanese troops. The IJN would also continue to support naval operations in the Pacific against German raiders and, eventually, it would even send squadrons into the Mediterranean to help the Entente in the region.
During the war, Japan increasingly filled orders for needed war material for its European allies. The wartime boom helped to diversify the country's industry, increase its exports, and transform Japan from a debtor to a creditor nation for the first time, although this industrial boom also led to a rapid inflation and the outbreak of rice riots throughout Japan. Meanwhile in China, the Empire attempted to consolidate its position in the region by presenting the Twenty-One Demands to Chinese President Yuan Shikai in 1915. These demands essentially transformed China into a Japanese protectorate, and in response, the Japanese earned the international condemnations of their allies, particularly from the United States. In the end, Japan withdrew the demands, but it would continue to extend its influence in China via more subtle means. The Fall of the Russian Empire in 1917 also saw the Japanese wanting to increase their influence in the region with an intervention in Siberia, landing almost 70000 men under the orders of General Otani Kikuzo and penetrating as far west as Lake Baikal. In 1919, as the British and American expeditionary forces withdrew, the Japanese decided to stay for three more years with the objective of creating an anti-Bolshevik buffer state in Siberia; an enterprise that would fail, costing a lot of money for the Empire. That same year, Japan’s representative, Saionji Kinmochi, sat alongside the “Big Four” at the Paris Peace Conference. As a result of the peace treaties, the Japanese Empire gained a permanent seat on the Council of the League of Nations, annexed the German leased territories in Shandong and was granted the South Seas Mandate over the Pacific islands they had occupied.
After the war ended, the Japanese Empire emerged as a naval powerhouse, having the third largest navy in the world and learning important anti-submarine warfare techniques and technologies that contributed to future Japanese submarine developments. Back home, the political strife ended with the adoption of a two-party political system known as the Taishō Democracy. But the failure of the Siberian Intervention and the termination of the Anglo-Japanese Treaty would leave Japan alone and weakened, forcing the Empire to adopt a more neutral attitude towards China and to sign the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 and the subsequent London Naval Treaty of 1930, that established an international capital ship ratio, limited the size and armaments of capital ships and forced Japan to return the leased territories in Shandong. Furthermore, the national debt started to grow again because of the renewed export competition, the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923 devastated the capital, a Communist Party dangerous to current regime was founded, and the rise of the tenant farmer movement led to the outbreak of social unrest. Although the communists and the tenants were brutally repressed, thus ending the threats they posed, economic and political pressures forced the government to enact the Peace Preservation Law of 1925 that essentially criminalized socialism, communism, republicanism, and democracy. This was the end of the Taishō Democracy, with Emperor Taishō dying himself the next year. Upon the death of his father, Prince Hirohito ascended to the Chrysanthemum Throne on December 25, 1926.
Hirohito would have a rough start as Emperor, with the outbreak of the Shōwa Financial Crisis in the first year of rule. Many businesses went bankrupt, exports decreased, silk and rice prices plummeted, and unemployment skyrocketed. The situation worsened with the Great Depression of 1929, but Japan’s Finance Minister, Takahashi Korekiyo, would start working to devalue the currency and to provide economic relief, measures that would be very successful. The four major Zaibatsu also managed to avoid great losses in the panic, leading to their domination over every field of Japanese industry in the following years. In the countryside, the establishment of nohonshugi organizations led to the emergence of emperor-centered ultranationalism and Japanese fascism. The nohonshugi won increasing support because they offered solutions to the economic problems of the rural countryside: it was their practical program of cooperatives and credit associations, not their ideology, that accounted for their growing popularity and local influence.
This new Japanese nationalism leaned on the Bushidō moral code and the idea of racial superiority over other Asian nations. It was aimed against Western criticism and restrictions on Japanese immigration. In the military itself, an ultranationalist faction known as the Kōdōha was formed by General Sadao Araki, seeking to purge the corruption in the government by establishing a militaristic administration run by Emperor Hirohito himself. Moreover, the Kōdōha disliked modernization and the economic control of the Zaibatsu, and also wanted to crush communism once and for all by attacking the Soviet Union and expanding into Siberia. Opposed to them was the more moderate Tōseiha faction, which was also right-wing, but acknowledged that the IJA needed the support of the Zaibatsu and the continuation of a modernization process to wage global war.
Meanwhile in Manchuria, the Kwantung Army had been established back in 1919 to defend the Liaodong Peninsula and the South Manchurian Railway. In the following decade, this army would become a stronghold for the Kōdōha, advocating for a more aggressive expansionist policy in mainland Asia and going so far as to plot the assassination of the Manchurian warlord Zhang Zuolin. In 1931, seeking the perfect excuse to expand into the rich region of Manchuria, the Kwantung leaders purposely sabotaged the Japanese-controlled railway to blame the Chinese garrison nearby and thus start a conflict in the region. On September 18, the plan of the Kwantung Army was executed and the Mukden Incident soon sparked a full-blown Japanese Invasion of Manchuria. Soon, every city along the South Manchurian Railway fell into Japanese hands, and by October, the Kwantung Army had occupied the Jilin, Taonan, Yanbian and Eastern Liaoning areas. Although initially shocked by the insubordination, the government was now impressed by the quick victories in Manchuria and was starting to send reinforcements on their way. In the following months, the Jiangqiao and Jinzhou Campaigns secured the Western Liaoning and Qiqihar areas, and the fall of Harbin finally destroyed the remaining resistance in the region. With Manchuria firmly under Japanese control, the Kwantung army established the Manchukuo puppet state and started a pacification campaign that allowed them to control the political administration of this new state. Despite its insubordination, the Kwantung Army would be rewarded for its great success, establishing a new era of gekokujo inside the IJA. In response to the Western condemnation of the Japanese aggression, the League of Nations ordered the Lytton Commission to investigate the incident, which prompted Japan to exit the League of Nations, a decision that was influenced by the military and the nationalists.
By 1933, Takahashi’s policies had managed to bring Japan to an economic recovery; but the next year, the Finance Minister reduced military spending to avoid inflation, which resulted in a strong negative response from the strong militaristic fascism that was rising in Japan. As the military’s dominance over the government continued to grow after the May 15 Incident, the country saw the emergence of right-wing admirals that wanted unlimited naval growth and the Empire started to dream about a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. From 1933 to 1936, the Japanese would use proxy armies in Inner Mongolia with the objective of creating a Mongolian buffer state next to Manchukuo. The successes in the provinces of Jehol and Chahar allowed for the establishment of the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Government, a Japanese puppet state under the rule of Prince Demchugdongrub. Since 1934, the retirement of General Araki led to the decline in influence of the Kōdōha faction, culminating in the February 26 Incident of 1936, an attempted coup d’état by Kōdōha followers. The coup resulted in the death of several government members and Tōseiha followers, including Minister Takahashi and General Jōtarō Watanabe, yet Hirohito opposed the coup and the uprising was crushed after two days. The following months saw the purging of the Kōdōha, the abandonment of the London Naval Treaty and a rise of tensions with China that would inevitably lead to war.
Next week our coverage of the prelude to the Pacific War will continue - we are going to turn to the other side of the Pacific to look at the United States, its objectives in East Asia and the consequences of World War I, Unfortunately, not every event and fun detail can be told in a 20-minute video. And in order to alleviate that, we decided to create a new podcast that will cover the events of the Pacific War every Tuesday for 4 years to accompany these videos. You can find these 1-hour episodes with interesting additions in the description and pinned comment. Consider following and leaving a review - it helps immensely! So make sure you are subscribed and have pressed the bell button to see the next video in the series. Please, consider liking, commenting, and sharing - it helps immensely. Our videos would be impossible without our kind patrons and youtube channel members, whose ranks you can join via the links in the description to know our schedule, get early access to our videos, access our discord, and much more. This is the Kings and Generals channel, and we will catch you on the next one.