World at War: 1931-1945
While the United States was still struggling to
emerge from the Great Depression at the end of the 1930s, and would do
so partly because of the war, Japan had emerged from its own period of
depression, which had begun in 1926, by the mid-1930s. Many of the young
soldiers mobilized into the Japanese army by the early 1930s came from
the rural areas, where the effects of the depression were devastating
and poverty was widespread. Their commitment to the military effort to
expand Japanese territory to achieve economic security can be understood
partly in these terms. The depression ended in the mid-1930s in Japan
partly because of government deficits used to expand greatly both heavy
industry and the military.
Internationally, this was a time when "free trade" was in
disrepute. The great powers not only jealously protected their special
economic rights within their colonies and spheres of influence, but sought
to bolster their sagging economies through high tariffs, dumping of goods,
and other trade manipulation. The Japanese, with few natural resources,
sought to copy this pattern. They used cutthroat trade practices to sell
textiles and other light industrial goods in the East Asian and U.S.
markets, severely undercutting British and European manufacturers. They
also developed sources of raw materials and heavy industry in the colonies
they established in Korea, Taiwan and Manchuria. Japan used high tariffs
to limit imports of American and European industrial products.
The Japanese military faced a particular tactical problem in that certain
critical raw materials — especially oil and rubber — were
not available within the Japanese sphere of influence. Instead, Japan
received most of its oil from the United States and rubber from British
Malaya, the very two Western nations trying to restrict Japan's expansion.
U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's embargo of oil exports to Japan
pressured the Japanese navy, which had stocks for only about six months
The Japanese army, for its part, was originally concerned with fighting
the Soviet Union, because of the army's preoccupation with Manchuria
and China. The Japanese army governed Manchuria indirectly through the "puppet" state
of Manchukuo and developed heavy industry there under its favorite agencies,
disliking and distrusting the zaibatsu (large Japanese corporations).
But the Soviet army's resistance to Japanese attacks was sufficient to
discourage northern expansion.
Meanwhile in 1937, the intensification of Chinese resistance to the
pressure of the Japanese military drew Japan into a draining war in the
vast reaches of China proper, and in 1940 into operations in French Indochina,
far to the south. Thus, when the navy pressed for a "southern" strategy
of attacking Dutch Indonesia to get its oil and British Malaya to control
its rubber, the army agreed.
While it seems that economic factors were important in Japanese expansion
in East Asia, it would be too much to say that colonialism, trade protection,
and the American embargo compelled Japan to take this course. Domestic
politics, ideology and racism also played a role.
The political structure of Japan at this time was
inherited from the Meiji era and was increasingly dominated by the military.
During the Meiji period, the government was controlled by a small ruling
group of elder statesmen who had overthrown the shogun and established
the new centralized Japanese state. These men used their position to
coordinate the bureaucracy, the military, the parliament, the Imperial
Household, and other branches of government. Following their deaths in
the early 1920s, no single governmental institution was able to establish
full control, until the 1931 Manchurian Incident, when Japan took control
of Manchuria. This began a process in which the military behaved autonomously
on the Asian mainland and with increasing authority in politics at home.
From 1937 on, Japan was at war with China. By the time General Hideki
Tôjô became prime minister and the war against the United
States began in 1941, the nation was in a state of "total war" and
the military and their supporters were able to force their policies on
the government and the people. The wartime regime used existing government
controls on public opinion, including schools and textbooks, the media,
and the police, but Japan continued to have more of an authoritarian
government than a totalitarian one like Hitler's Germany. In particular,
the government was never able to gain real control of the economy and
the great zaibatsu, which were more interested in the economic opportunities
provided by the military's policies than in submitting loyally to a patriotic
The emperor has been criticized for not taking a more forceful action
to restrain his government, especially in light of his own known preference
for peace, but Japanese emperors after the Meiji Restoration had "reigned
but not ruled." One wonders if a more forceful emperor in fact could
have controlled the army and navy at this late date. The doubts are strengthened
in light of the difficulty the emperor had in forcing the military to
accept surrender after the atomic bombings. The emperor's decision at
that point to bring agreement among his advisers was an extraordinary
event in Japanese history.
The emperor-based ideology of Japan during World War II was
a relatively new creation, dating from the efforts of Meiji oligarchs
to unite the nation in response to the Western challenge. Before the
Meiji Restoration, the emperor wielded no political power and was viewed
simply as a symbol of the Japanese culture. He was the head of the Shintô religion,
Japan's native religion, which holds, among other beliefs, that the emperor
is descended from gods who created Japan and is therefore semidivine.
Westerners of that time knew him only as a shadowy figure somewhat like
The Meiji oligarchs brought the emperor and Shintô to national
prominence, replacing Buddhism as the national religion, for political
and ideological reasons — since Buddhism had originated in India
and come to Japan via China. The people were not allowed to look at the
emperor, or even to speak his name; patriotism had been raised to the
unassailable level of sacredness.
It is sometimes difficult to comprehend the extreme sacrifices the Japanese
made in the name of the emperor. This can perhaps best be viewed, however,
as extreme patriotism — Japanese were taught to give their lives,
if necessary, for their emperor. But this was not entirely different
from the Americans who gave their lives in the same war for their country
and the "American" way.
The kamikaze pilots, who were named for the "divine wind" (kami
kaze) that destroyed the Mongol fleet in the thirteenth century and saved
Japan from invasion, might be compared to the young Iranian soldiers
fighting in suicide squadrons in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, or even
to fanatical Shiites responsible for the truck bombing of the U.S. Lebanese
embassy in 1983.
The Japanese were proud of their many accomplishments and resented
racial slurs they met with in some Western nations. Their attempt to
establish a statement of racial equality in the Covenant of the League
of Nations was vetoed by the United States (because of opposition in
California) and Great Britain (Australian resistance). The Japanese greatly
The Japanese military was convinced of the willingness of its people
to go to any sacrifice for their nation, and it was contemptuous of the "softness" of
the U.S. and European democracies, where loyalty and patriotism were
tempered by the rights and well-being of the individual. The military's
overconfidence in its own abilities and underestimation of the will of
these other nations were thus rooted in its own misleading ethnic and
racial stereotypes. While Asians, the Japanese saw themselves as less
representatives of Asia than Asia's champion. They sought to liberate
Asian colonies from the Westerners, whom they disdained. But although
the Japanese were initially welcomed in some Asian colonies by the indigenous
populations whom they "liberated" from European domination,
the arrogance and racial prejudice displayed by the Japanese military
governments in these nations created great resentment. This resentment
is still evident in some Southeast Asian nations.