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Saturday, April 09, 2005

Japanese Imperialism

The Search for Explanations

by Tefel Hall (August 14 2003)

Two decades after Commodore Perry used the threat of force to reduce Japan to semi-colonial status, Japan did the same to Korea. The Kuroda expedition of 1876 was not Japan's first foray into imperialism, but it was one its boldest - a decisive step in the acquisition of an empire which would, at its peak, cover much of southeast Asia. The reasons for Japan's expansionism are various. Greed, fear, racism - all contributed to a sense of manifest destiny. But a simple listing of these various elements tends to gloss over the fact that there are still deep disagreements among historians over which of these reasons was predominant. A closer look at this debate reveals how much we have yet to learn about imperialism in general, and Japanese imperialism in particular.

There seems little doubt that Perry's arrival shook the Japanese psyche. Suddenly, Japan realized that the world was not a safe place. Western powers were advancing eastward, carving up China and southeast Asia. A line of defense had to be drawn - but where? As an island nation, Japan has natural borders, but some argued that Korea's independence was also vital to Japan's security. Therefore, Korea had to be modernized - even against its will, if necessary. This view was espoused by Fukuzawa Yukichi, the renowned essayist who, in 1881, compared Korea to a wooden house. Paraphrasing Fukuzawa, historian Oka Yoshitake writes:

"[S]uppose we have a stone house. If there are wooden buildings in the neighborhood, we must still worry about fires. In fire prevention, we have to think about the whole neighborhood, and not only our own house. If there is an emergency, we give aid, of course. But it is a serious matter to enter a neighbor's house on an ordinary day and demand that he reconstruct it with stone, like ours. The neighbor will do as he pleases and may or may not build a new house. In an unusual case, we might have to force our way in and build this house ourselves, not for the sake of the neighbor but to stop the fire from spreading. The way in which Western countries are now expanding their influence in Asia is analogous to the spreading of fire. Neighboring Korea and China, which have no equal in foolishness, are like wooden houses unable to survive a fire. So Japan must 'give them military protection' and 'be their cultural inspiration', not for their sake but for ours. If necessary, 'we must threaten to use force if they don't make progress' and allow no opposition."

Oka, as a historian, does not attempt to prove the validity of Yukichi's analogy. It is enough for him to show that this analogy was roundly accepted at the time, and thus served as a powerful force for expansion. In Studies in the Political Thought of Modern Japan, Oka states: "It is well known that in the final years of the Tokugawa shogunate, the steady progress in Asia of [Western powers] thoroughly alarmed Japan's ruling military class and aroused a profound sense of danger to the nation's independence". This fear, he contends, was the predominant reason that Japan began building an empire.

Other historians claim that greed was a greater factor than fear. Certainly, the interests of Japan's military were compatible with the interests of the powerful merchant families that dominated Japanese politics during this period. Just as in Europe it was customary for the firstborn son to inherit property while the second-born joined the Church, in Japan it was not unusual for one son to go into business while another joined the army. Thus, a military strategist who argues for a vigorous "defense" of the motherland may really be thinking about his family's fortune.

The economic argument owes much to the Marxist-Leninist theory that imperialism is the final stage of capitalism. According to this theory, capitalist industrial societies are compelled to find new markets, sources of raw materials, areas of investment, and outlets for surplus population. Russian historians like O Tanin and E Yohan have applied this theory to the case of Japan, arguing that Japan's rapid industrialization led inevitably to its overseas expansion. This theory has been accepted, with some refinements, by Japanese historians such as Inoue Kiyoshi.

The greatest problem with this theory seems to be one of timing. Prior to Japan's annexation of Korea, there was relatively little trade between the two countries. Historian Hilary Conroy therefore dismisses the idea that a trade rivalry with China had anything to do with Japan's initial expansion into Korea. In The Japanese Seizure of Korea he writes:

"[E]conomic factors were negligible, insufficient, unimportant ... This conclusion is suggested by the fact that during this period [before 1900] the economic stakes in Korea were small, involved only a few Japanese, and the Japanese government accepted ups and downs in regard to them with equanimity."

If economics cannot be blamed for Japan's expansion, then what? Some historians emphasize the role of Japanese culture, in particular the exaltation of military virtues. This approach was especially common among Western scholars who grew up during World War II. One such scholar is John Maki, who writes:

"[Japan's] wars were not wars of defense, although they were treated as such in Japanese propaganda. They were wars of aggression, each of which added something to the wealth of Japan, temporarily at least. They were the logical expression in foreign affairs of the ideas of the authoritarian state. They were the extension beyond Japan's borders of the militarism that had so long been characteristic of Japan."

Maki admits that proving this thesis is difficult, but intuitively it has some validity. Anyone who has studied bushido traditions can attest to a deeply ingrained "warrior spirit" among the Samurai class. According to Maki's theory, the Meiji restoration - as sweeping as it was - did not remove this class from power, and therefore it is not surprising that these people led Japan into a series of foreign wars. In his book Japanese Militarism, Its Cause and Cure, Maki asserts:

"... When the feudal period came to an end, the warriors lost their special privileges as a class, indeed they disappeared as a separate and distinct part of the population. But the ideology of the class became that of the nation. Men whose ideas were essentially those of the vanished warrior class carried the largest share of the burden of building the new government in Japan. They constructed an authoritarian state that was ideally suited for purposes of war. What is perhaps even more important is the fact that they made Japan into a nation of warriors, not in the classical sense of the term as old Japan had understood it, but in the more dangerous sense, that all Japan accepted the ideals of war and its use as an instrument of national policy."

The idea that there is something especially malignant about Japanese imperialism has persisted to this day. It has, however, been ameliorated by another generation of historians who grew up after 1945. These revisionist scholars have pointed out that Japan's expansionism can just as easily be attributed to Japan's imitation of the West. Evidence for this thesis can be found in the words of Meiji writers like Fukuzawa:

"We must not wait for neighboring countries to become civilized so that we can together promote Asia's revival. Rather we should leave their ranks and join forces with the civilized countries of the West. We don't have to give China and Korea any special treatment just because they are neighboring countries. We should deal with them as Western people do."

Sugita Teiichi, a member of the Liberal Party, agreed. He wanted Japan to join the Great Game, or, as he put it, to become "a guest at the table", lest it end up as "meat". Revisionist historians have taken him at his word. If Japan committed the crime of plundering its neighbors, it was only because it was following the example of the West. The Japanese, too, succumbed to the facile logic of social Darwinism.

This view has created a backlash, with some scholars accusing the revisionists of trying to whitewash Japan's war crimes. The revisionists counter that they are only seeking balance. In the words of author Marlene Mayo:

"If there must be judgements or condemnation, then let them be fair, for in the early period at least Japan, as a member of the club of gentlemen powers, was playing the imperialist game by western standards. If scholars can agree that the explanation of Western imperialism is complicated, demanding a sophisticated assessment of evidence, then why not grant the same to Japan's experience."

Another more nuanced view is that societies become more liberal as they modernize - and thus it is somewhat unfair to compare Japan to the western powers against which it was then competing. A more apt comparison, perhaps, is between Japan's Meiji era expansion and other, more virulent forms of imperialism, such as Britain's colonization of Ireland. Scholars that accept this theory see Japan's modernization as a perversion of the normal process. Forced by outside threats to modernize rapidly, Japan skipped the "liberal stage", and thus, in the 1850s, it was still "a half-primitive, half-sophisticated society". This may account for the horrific nature of Japan's wartime atrocities.

It is equally plausible that modern societies are not necessarily any less ruthless, but simply more aware of public opinion, and therefore more calculating in their acquisition of new territories. This view is held by Robert Pollard, who in 1939 wrote:

"It is only very recently that the Japanese themselves, having taken on the sophistication of the modern world, have seen fit to offer explanations of or excuses for territory grabbing. The history of Japanese expansion suggests, incidentally, that the Japanese had no need to follow the bad examples of the empire builders of nineteenth century Europe. Indeed, the plea that the imitative and realistic Nipponese have, since 1871, merely copied the technique of the imperialistic white world, while plausible, is at times just faintly amusing."

Pollard thus dismisses the notion that Japan was imitating the West. Why would it? Japan was already, according to Pollard, quite as expansionist as any western nation: what it learnt from the West was only the art of justifying foreign conquests with lofty-sounding excuses - in other words, western hypocrisy. Pollard is equally dismissive of other theories of Japanese imperialism, saying that Japan's habit of territorial acquisition seems "to bear little relationship to population pressure, the need of markets and raw materials, political necessities, or strategic needs". Instead, he argues, Japan's expansion was simply an expression of national pride.

Other historians also stress the influence of nationalism. They point to the many patriotic societies that sprang up during the Meiji era, partly as a reaction to the perceived threat from the West. According to historian Herbert Norman, these societies were not a "lunatic fringe" of Japanese political life, but rather a driving force behind Japanese imperialism. He claims that the Genyosha (Dark Ocean Society) and the Kokuryukai (Black Dragon Society) were particularly powerful. After examining the origins of these societies and the history of their various machinations, he concludes: "These societies thus are the cement which holds together the whole edifice of Japanese aggression - the army, big business and the key sections of the bureaucracy".

Since many of Japan's patriotic societies were more or less secret, it is easy to ascribe to them grandiose plans of conquest. Some historians take these allegations seriously. George Kerr, for example, is one historian who, in 1945, gave credence to the charge that Japan's expansion was the result of careful planning by power-hungry individuals. In particular, he cites a document called the Kodama report, a secret "blueprint for conquest" purported to have been written by General Kodama and presented to the Tokyo cabinet in 1902. The authenticity of this document is in dispute, but Kerr has no difficulty believing that it is proof that Japan had a sinister plan to conquer much of Asia. After citing ex post facto evidence that the document is genuine, he concludes:

"The specific lesson to be learned needs little discussion: Japanese policy since 1868 has shown a singular consistency and uniformity, and undeviating purposefulness that has been objective, cold, and calculating to a degree inconceivable in American thinking. No true democracy could project such grandiose schemes for aggression; no democratic government could so commit future generations to conquest and inevitable conflict with other peoples ..."

Rebutting Kerr's argument, Conroy cites a different kind of evidence - evidence that Japan's foreign policy was far from consistent, and more often characterized by ineptitude and blundering. He claims that Japanese diplomats - contrary to popular opinion - most often negotiated in good faith, a clear indication that they were realists with limited ambitions. However, at some point they lost control of events, and thus felt compelled to continue their outward expansion.

Losing control is also a feature in a different kind of theory - the belief that Japanese leaders were largely altruistic. At first this theory may seem ridiculous, considering the suffering and devastation that Japan inflicted on its neighbors. Yet in many ways, this theory is the most plausible - at least the part about losing control of events.

Historian Marius Jansen has shown that many Japanese nationalists sincerely wanted to help Asia. These people believed it was their duty to help Asia resist Western imperialism. They saw themselves as pan-Asian leaders, obliged, by their superior position, to extend a helping hand to those less fortunate. In the past, Japan had been a grateful recipient of Chinese culture - now Japan could repay the debt by "holding the West at bay". Furthermore, these people had a deep reverence for traditional values and they wanted to help Asians "wipe out the shame of Western domination ..."

So what happened? The answer is captured in the famous maxim: "The road to hell is paved with good intentions". At first, a backward civilization may be grateful for the guidance of a paternalistic power. Indeed, some Chinese nationalists were receptive to the initial overtures of Japanese nationalists. But "liberation" soon turns to "occupation", and the occupied grow weary and resentful. Insurgencies are brutally suppressed, leading to a cycle of oppression, violence, and retribution. Since the days of ancient Rome, this cycle has repeated itself more times than can be counted, and Japan simply fell into this same, age-old trap. In the words of John W Dowyer, a leading historian of twentieth century Japan:

"Despite the deepening quagmire of occupation and empire, Japanese leaders and followers alike soldiered on - driven by patriotic ardor and a pitiful fatalism. It was only afterwards, in the wake of defeat, that pundits and politicians and ordinary people stepped back to ask: How could we have been so deceived?"


Historians usually hedge their conclusions, and therefore most would readily concede that Japan's expansion had many different causes. For some people, that is enough. But others want "a yardstick for measuring the guilt of Japan, for ascertaining whether her actions in Korea could be classified as those of a 'good' government pursuing legitimate security interests or those of a 'bad' government bent on aggression". Needless to say, different historians provide different yardsticks.

And thus this issue remains politicized, as evidenced by the contentious debate in recent years over the contents of Japanese history textbooks, and Korea's insistence that Japan has not yet sufficiently apologized for the various atrocities it committed during its 45-year occupation of that country. Other Asian nations are similarly resentful. And of course this is but a small part of a wider debate. There are many countries, including the US, that judge their own actions with different yardsticks than those they use to judge the actions of others.

As noted by Mayo, there is a vague boundary "between benevolent and correct expansionism on one side and irrational imperialism on the other". There is little doubt that Japan crossed that line, though when and where depends on whom you ask. Defining this line should be a top priority for humankind, in order to better prevent wars of aggression in the future.


Conroy, Hilary. "From The Japanese Seizure of Korea, 1869-1910" in The Emergence of Imperial Japan, edited by Marlene J Mayo. Lexington, Heath, 1970.

Dower, John W. "Lessons From History: Imperial Japan and Imperial America". Reckonings (August 07 2003).

Fukuzawa, Yukichi. "On Shedding Asia", Jiji Shimpoo, 1885. Quoted in Oka Yoshitake, "National Independence and the Reason for the State's Existence" in The Emergence of Imperial Japan, edited by Marlene J Mayo. Lexington: Heath, 1970.

Herbert, Norman E. "The Genyosha: A Study in the Origins of Japanese Imperialism" in The Emergence of Imperial Japan, edited by Marlene J Mayo. Lexington: Heath, 1970.

Jansen, Marius. "The Japanese and Sun Yat-sen" in The Emergence of Imperial Japan, edited by Marlene J Mayo. Lexington: Heath, 1970.

Kerr, George. "Kodama Report: Plan for Conquest" in The Emergence of Imperial Japan, edited by Marlene J Mayo. Lexington: Heath, 1970.

Maki, John M. "From Japanese Militarism, Its Cause and Cure" in The Emergence fo Imperial Japan, edited by Marlene J Mayo. Lexington, Heath, 1970.

Mayo, Marlene J. The Emergence of Imperial Japan, edited by Marlene J Mayo. Lexington: Heath, 1970.

Oka, Yoshitake. "National Independence and the Reason for the State's Existence" in The Emergence of Imperial Japan, edited by Marlene J Mayo. Lexington: Heath, 1970.

Pollard, Robert. "Dynamics of Japanese Imperialism" in The Emergence of Imperial Japan, edited by Marlene J Mayo. Lexington: Heath, 1970.

Sugita, Teiichi, "Lingering Impressions from a Tour of China, 1884", quoted in Oka Yoshitake, "National Independence and the Reason for the State's Existence" in The Emergence of Imperial Japan, edited by Marlene J Mayo. Lexington: Heath, 1970.


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