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Was the Fifteen Year War inevitable?

Two months following the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the court noble Iwakura Tomomi, in a memorandum sent to fellow statesman Sanjō Sanetomi, stated that “Although there was no alternative to establishing diplomatic relations with foreign nations, we must keep in mind that foreign nations are the national enemies of our imperial land… All countries strive for wealth and power … All try to become superior to the others. A against B, B against A and C. Everywhere is the same.” (Iwakura, 1868, cited in Yoshitake, 1970). With this message from one of the Meiji state’s founding fathers in mind, it is no surprise that seventy years later, that same nation felt it had no choice but to launch an attack against the vastly superior forces of the West, in a desperate bid for survival.

However, a review of the decades between this statement and the Fifteen Year War demonstrates that there was ample opportunity to avoid disaster, and that it was a lack of strong leadership that resulted in the nation’s ultimate defeat.

The change in Japan’s status on the world stage following its victories in China and Russia brought with it changing demands of its leaders. By the time of the First World War the system which had worked so well to create a “Rich Country, Strong Military” was becoming redundant, thus causing considerable problems for the nation. Having been designed specifically as a ‘democracy’ where power rested not with the people but with a few senior statesmen, as those statesmen disappeared so a power vacuum emerged, leading Japan into an era of confused leadership which lasted until its defeat at the end of the Second World War.

Following almost a decade of post-Russo war economic stagnation, the First World War brought about a complete turnaround in Japan’s fortunes as she experienced a huge economic boom. However, the following recession, worsened by the effects of the Kanto Earthquake and a fickle approach to economic policy, eventually led to the 1927 banking crisis which led to the collapse of 32 banks.  Two years later, in a bid to buttress the yen, the government decided to return to the gold standard, unfortunately this coincided with the collapse of the New York Stock exchange, and the effects of the following worldwide depression being felt even more keenly (Duus, 1976; Jansen, 2000).

The impact of the fluctuating economy upon the populace was severe. A doubling in the price of rice in the space of 18 months following the close of the First World War led to severe riots, which, despite resulting in the establishment of the nation’s first true party government, did not alleviate the hardships felt by the majority of the rural population. Their suffering was to continue throughout the 1920s, with ill thought out government policies partly to blame (Duus, 1976; Beasley, 2000).

Not all sectors of the economy were affected equally by the depression. The Zaibatsu (family owned conglomerates that had emerged in the Meiji era and had enjoyed rapid expansion during the First World War) continued to prosper. With their huge resources, they were able to ride above the waves of booms and busts, absorbing shocks to certain industries under their control and reinvesting capital in other areas that held economic promise. However, their policy of buying up smaller businesses, anti-Japanese investment practices, and their heavy involvement in pork-barrel politics created a growing tide of resentment amongst the public (Duus, 1976).

It was against this background that military elements within the Japanese hierarchy were able to extend their influence over the mostly rural population, and ultimately, the state. A powerful military command was not a new phenomenon; indeed, it was the Meiji Oligarchs who, in a bid to keep the military out of the political arena, made the Chiefs of Staff answerable to no-one but the emperor, and gave them the power to effectively dissolve a cabinet by refusing to provide a representative (Beasley, 2000).

This constitutional weakness resulted in a great deal of friction between the ruling governments and the armed forces, most notably when policies of financial retrenchment or international disarmament agreements were debated. As the military were theoretically only answerable to the emperor, when the government made decisions that affected them in a negative manner, those decisions were dismissed as being not only unwise but also unconstitutional - and if the government continued to ignore their wishes, it was not long before it was brought down (Hane, 1992; Beasley, 2000). Thus, it enabled the military to gain increasing influence upon party politicians.

However, the military did not present a united front in its opposition to party politics. Factionalism was rife, with the biggest gulf lying between the army and the navy, whose imperialistic ambitions lay at opposite poles. Within the forces, opposing ideologies caused further splits.  The most notable example of this can be found in the case of the Imperial Way Faction (Kōdōha) led by the war Minister Araki Sadao, who  believed that the Japanese spirit was the most highly prized weapon that the army possessed, and that this alone, with the aid of bamboo spears, could win wars. Opposing him was a coalition of generals of a more modern outlook, who were critical of his soft attitude towards young radicalists within the army who supported violent means to bring about a change in government (Duus, 1976).

These factional disputes, played out at senior levels of government, had dramatic consequences. Throughout the 1930s, assassination attempts were carried out by young radical patriots (both military and civilian) seeking to bring down the “corrupt” government and bring about a ‘Showa Revolution’ – an end to the corrupt (Western) parliamentary system and a return to ‘Japanese values’ (Beasley, 2000).However, the perpetrators were rarely treated harshly; indeed, following one such successful plot to murder the prime minister, the War Minister publicly praised them as “pure and naïve young men… [their actions were] performed in the sincere belief that they were for the benefit of Imperial Japan” (Araki Sadaō, cited in Duus, 1976, 211).

The string of assignation plots came to an end in 1936, following an ostentatious attempted coup by the First Regiment in Tokyo. On February 26th, almost 1,500 troops stormed the capital, gaining control of the key government buildings and attempting to assassinate key government members. Aghast at such blatant disregard for democracy, the emperor ordered that this attempt to ‘restore the national polity’ be put down. Following the movement of marines into the capital, this was achieved (Duus, 1976; Hane 1992).

This event marked a turning point in Japanese politics. Although there followed a purge of radicals from the armed forces, many politicians had been severely shaken by the dramatic show of force, and so from that point onwards seldom dared to object to controversial policies proposed by military staff.  Others, upon realising that the true power now rested with the military, actively sought to encourage their activities, in a bid for personal gain (Duus, 1976; Beasley, 2000).

Some analysts have claimed that this rise to power of the military was tantamount to a hijacking of a peace-loving, democratic Japan. Spaulding, (1983, in Wray and Conroy, 1983, 253) suggests that the eventual control of Japan by the military was the result of a master-plan that had been long in the making. However, the idea that the army was pursuing its own expansionist policies without the support of the nation is to ignore the true situation. Indeed, when Prime Minister Inukai was assassinated in 1932, a petition containing over one million signatures was received by the court, not demanding a harsh penalty but rather petitioning for leniency when sentencing the perpetrators (Hane, 2000).

In looking for the roots of 1930s militarism, one needs to examine government policies introduced during the Meiji reformation aimed at creating a strong, cohesive nation of like-minded dedicated citizens who together could defend themselves from enemy states (Smethurst, 1983). From the moment children entered school they were exposed to nationalistic indoctrination through, amongst other things, the Imperial Rescript on Education, which taught them the virtues of filial piety, loyalty to the semi-divine emperor, working for national (not individual) good, and co-operation and unity at all levels of society (Smethurst, 1974, 1983). Following graduation from school, the majority of eligible young men would enter a local reservist organisation, which was an accredited member of a network that spanned Japan. There they would be exposed to further indoctrination, through the learning of the Imperial Precepts to Soldiers and Sailors of 1882, which placed particular emphasis on loyalty to the Emperor (Totman, 2005).

In the early 1900s, the government became increasingly anxious about the rising tide in socialist thought that was accompanying a new generation of thinkers - the products of the new education system. To combat this, various governmental and non-governmental organizations were introduced or modified in order to extend its influence into every corner of the nation. By the early 1900s, the majority of the agrarian population was a member of one or more such organisations; in time, the reservists association was merged into this rural framework, and gradually expanded their duties. Soon, under the leadership of the military, members of the local hamlet organisations were not only carrying out tasks such as local improvement works (e.g. repairing irrigation canals),  but also harvesting crops for men who were on active duty, and arranging funerals for those who were killed on the battlefield (Smethurst, 1983).

This natural progression resulted in the poverty-stricken rural majority being seamlessly co-opted by the military, so that whenever there was a face-off between the ‘corrupt, greedy aristocratic government’ and the military, it was the latter that the rural majority supported (Smethurst, 1974). In addition, it was those living outside the cities that objected strongly to the manner in which young Japanese in urban areas had ‘sold their souls to the West’; flamboyant shows of individualism by the middle class elite prompted disgust and a call for a return to traditional Japanese values – a call echoed by the military (Duus, 1976).

It was under these crisis conditions that, in September 1931, the Kwantung Army, operating without the authority of Tokyo, created an incident in Manchuria, giving them an excuse to move vast numbers of troops into the area and take control over the Chinese province.  Although there had been a considerable Japanese economic presence in the region for over a decade, only at this point was military control assumed. The increasing strength of Chinese nationalist forces to the south had brought about a sense of urgent need within military circles to protect an area that provided a quarter of the empire’s income tax, in addition to vital supplies. Sensitive to how the West might react, the government in Tokyo requested that the issue be kept localised – but it was too late, and it was not long before the conflict spread to China, thus marking the outbreak of the Fifteen Year War (Beasley, 2000).

The inability of the central government to control the highly nationalistic Kwantung army in 1937 was but a taste of what was to follow. The public’s reaction to the news that Manchuria had been taken by their brave troops was greeted with absolute joy. Having learnt from an early age about the Japanese superiority to other races, they saw it as only right that the lands be ‘liberated’ from the ‘backwards Chinese government’, and be led to a prosperous future under Japan’s guidance. In the face of such strong patriotic pride by a nationalistic populace, the government felt unable to demand that the military cease operations in the region, which by July of that year had become an all out war, following the military’s disregard for diplomatic efforts at reconciliation during the Marco Polo incident (Hane, 1992).

Throughout this period, relations with the West, and most noticeably the United States had been worsening. Japan’s presentation of the ’21 Demands’ to China in 1915 (which essentially demanded that China submit to Japan’s superior strength and knowledge), put the US, which viewed China as its own India ripe for exploitation, on alert (Duus, 1976; Beasley, 2000). The next notable deterioration in relations occurred following the Manchurian incident. This resulted in Japan leaving the League of Nations in February 1933 in protest at the refusal by the other members to recognise their new ‘puppet state’.  Two years later by Japan refused to sign up to naval disarmaments agreements made at the Washington Conference some 14 years previously, thus sparking off a naval arms race (Beasley, 2000).

During the late 1930s Japan becoming increasingly bogged down in China. The desire to bring the conflict to an end led her to sign the Tripartite Alliance with Nazi Germany and Italy – a measure to curb the possibility of a Russian attack – however this naturally rang alarm bells in Washington and London, who grew increasingly wary of Japan’s intentions in East Asia. Shortly after this, intoxicated by the news of Hitler’s victories in Europe, the military moved south into French Indochina. It was this blatantly imperialistic act that finally tipped the balance, and in the summer of 1938 the US introduced an oil embargo (Hane, 1992).

This event marked a critical turning point for Japan. Starved of oil, the very lifeblood of its industries and armed forces that were now spread out across the homeland, Korea, Taiwan, China and Indochina, the empire could not survive for long without taking some kind of decisive action. In a desperate bid to relieve the situation, Japan opened negotiations with the US in 1941, but due to their fundamentally incompatible views on the China issue there were unable to come to an agreement (Duus, 1976).

The choice facing Japan was now simple: give up all its hard-won territorial acquisitions of the past two decades, or go to war with the US. There was only little support for the former option, although the Emperor himself implored that every effort be made to settle the dispute by peaceful means. However, those voices in support of military action were overwhelming. The nationalistic fervour that gripped the populace meant that any politician who dared speak of retreat would be in fear for his life, whilst the Thought Police (who had been increasingly active throughout the late 1930s) had seen to it that any dissident voices amongst the intellectual community were silenced. The press, which had been under government control for a number of years, were also clamouring for action (Bunso, 1971; Kasza, 1988; Hane, 1992).

So it was, that on the 7th December 1941, Japan made the fatal decision to go to war with the United States – an irrevocable step.

It would seem that from the perspective of 1941, Japan’s choices were so limited that war with the US was, essentially, inevitable. To have chosen to swallow the bitter pill at that stage would have caused such outrage in the homeland that the nation would quite possibly have been destroyed from within. However, taking a step back and reviewing the choices Japan made in the years preceding this, one can see several key moments when the course of history could have been rapidly altered.

Firstly, one can see that whilst the Meiji government was effective in bringing about vital changes in the late 19th century, there was little in the way of appropriate reforms in the early 20th century to ensure conditions for a stable democracy, free from corrupt opportunist politicians. Looking at the economic situation in the 1920s, had the government been stricter in terms of stringent retrenchment policies to curb spending, and acted to relieve rural poverty, the effects of the recession could have been negated. In addition, the rural majority would have had little cause to become highly critical of their leaders, and would not have been drawn militant arguments. The early 1930s provided ample opportunity for the government to get a grip of the situation, with adequate excuses (in the form of assassination attempts) for radical action to be taken to rid politics of military influence. Once again, a lack of strong leaders (including the emperor himself) resulted in a continuation of violence, with the support of a now highly nationalistic public. The Manchurian incident provided another such opportunity, but yet again, this was missed as those in command showed a lack of courage in bringing about necessary reforms. As the Pacific war drew near, the Prime Minister realised that there was the possibility that even the emperor, in whose name this was all being carried out, no longer had the power to change the course of events.

Each passing event reduced the number of choices open to Japan’s elite. As the nineteen thirties came to a close, there were very few strong, liberal-minded voices suggesting any peaceful course of action, and with an ever-expanding empire to support, securing resources through warfare appeared to be the only option available to those in command.

References and Bibliography

Beasley, W. G. (2000), The Rise of Modern Japan (3rd Edition), London: Orion Books Lt

Bunso, Hashikawa (1971), “The ‘Civil Society’ Ideal and Wartime Resistance” in Koschmann, J. Victor (ed.) (1978) Authority and the Individual in Japan: Citizen Protest  in Historical Perspective, Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press

Duus, Peter (1976), The Rise of Modern Japan, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Hane, Mikiso (1992), Modern Japan: A Historical Survey (2nd Edition), Oxford: Westview Press.

Jansen, Marius (2000), The Making of Modern Japan, London: Harvard University Press.

Kasza, Gregory (1988), The State and the Mass Media in Japan, 1918-1945, Berkley: University of California Press.

Large, Stephen (2001), “Nationalist Extremism in Early Shōwa Japan: Inoue Nisshō and the ‘Blood-Pledge Corps Incident’, 1932” in Modern Asian Studies Vol. 35, (3), 533–564

Mayo, Marlene (ed.) (1970), The Emergence of Imperial Japan: Self Defence or calculated Aggression?, Lexington, Massachusetts: D.C. Heath and Co.

Montgomery, Michael (1987), Imperialist Japan: The Yen to Dominate, London: Christopher Helm.

Smethurst, Richar (1974), A Social Basis for Prewar Japanese Militarism: The Army and the Rural Community, Berkley: University of California Press.

Smethurst, Richard (1983), “A Social Origin of the Second World War”, in Wray, Harry and Conroy, Hillary (1983), Japan Examined: Perspectives on Modern Japanese History, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Spaulding, Robert (1983), “Detour Through A Dark Valley”, in Wray, Harry and Conroy, Hillary (1983), Japan Examined: Perspectives on Modern Japanese History, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Totman, Conrad (2005), A History of Japan (Second edition), Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Yoshitake, Oka (1970), “Prologue” in Mayo, Marlene (ed.) (1970), The Emergence of Imperial Japan: Self Defence or calculated Aggression?, Lexington, Massachusetts: D.C. Heath and Co.


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© Joseph Tame 2000~2006