Japan’s involvement in World War II arose out of a complicated interplay of philosophical beliefs, political changes and reactions to previous humiliations from Western powers. To understand the nature of Japan’s motivations for war it is important to review in brief those events.
Japan restored the emperor during the Meiji Restoration in 1868. There was a widespread belief that the emperor was divine and strong sense in Japan of national identity built on the belief of Shintoism, of ancestor worship. During the Meiji Restoration the focus had been on transforming the nation that could compete with west. Lingering memories of Commodore Perry’s entry into Japanese waters in 1853 forcing the surrender of the Shogun left a scar on Japan’s national consciousness. The emphasis in the years that came were on transforming Japan into a modern nation state with a diversified economy that would not be further humiliated.
During the 1920’s under the guidance of Liberal Political policies Japan focused on economic growth and experienced an until then unprecedented growth. This growth was curtailed by the world wide Depression late in the decade. In a reaction to the economic hardship and in part keeping with Japan’s wish to rise as real world power during the 1930’s the government came to be dominated by right wing and nationalist forces, dominated by a military expansionist agenda. The expansionism arose out of a need for resources to fuel the growing economy.
In 1931 perhaps the first turning point in Japan’s expansionary intentions was the the Mudken or Manchurian incident where a group of military
officers framed the Chinese for a bomb attack on a railway station as a pretext to annex the province. the event as Kitchen outlines was staged by a group of,
"dissident officers who were determined to force the Japanese Government to reject the system of international co-operation established at the Washington conference of 1921-22. They wished to break away from a liberal and capitalist system which seemed to them to be based on a set of alien values which subordinated Japan’s traditional interests to the needs of the western powers, and which was designed to frustrate the country’s legitimate aspirations in the Asian Pacific. (Kitchen 140)
This followed with a full invasion of China in 1937 that forced Japan to leave the League of Nations. The underlying motivation for colonization of neighboring countries lay in acquiring a resource base to fuel their growing economy, and a military option was pushed by the military government. This aim was thwarted by the embargo placed on Japan by the United States in response to Japan’s expansionism. Japan then declared war on Japan by invading Pearl Harbor. Bruce Russet in No Clear and Present Danger: A Skeptical View of the United States Entry into World War II has suggested that the declaration of war on the United States was made with the foresight that victory was not possible but rather the goal was to force a reasonable stalemate to allow Japan to negotiate for resources in other countries without sanction.
The fateful decision that drew the United States led to a protracted war with the burden of casualties being on the Japanese side. Following the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki , Emperor Hirohito
unconditionally surrendered on August 14, 1945 paving the way to the next stage in Japan’s remarkable history.
Divine, Robert A., ed. Causes and Consequences of World War II. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1969. Questia. 8 Apr. 2006 .
Kitchen, Martin. A World in Flames A Short History of the Second World War in Europe and Asia, 1939-1945. London: Longman, 1990. Questia. 8 Apr. 2006 .
Lee, Loyd E., ed. World War II in Asia and the Pacific and the War’s aftermath, with General Themes: A Handbook of Literature and Research. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998. Questia. 8 Apr. 2006 .
Russett, Bruce M. No Clear and Present Danger: A Skeptical View of the United States Entry into World War II. Boulder,Colo.: Westview Press, 1997. Questia. 8 Apr. 2006 .
Young, Louise. "9 Japan at War." The Origins of the Second World War Reconsidered: A.J.P. Taylor and the Historians. Ed. Gordon Martel. London: Routledge, 1999. 155-177. Questia. 8 Apr. 2006 .
Meiji Restoration 1868 following the humiliation of Commodore Perry’s forced entry into Japan in 1853.
The transformation of Japan into a modern nation state in the 1920’s.
The rise of right wing nationalism in the 1930s increasing after the Manchurian Incident in 1931.
The invasion of China in 1937 and the expulsion of Japan from the League of Nations.
The Invasion of Pearl Harbor in 1941.
The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 followed by the unconditional surrender of Emperor Hirohito in 1945.