Interwar Conflict in Asia Between World Wars: History & Response

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  • 0:05 Conflict in Interwar Asia
  • 0:29 Rise of Japan
  • 2:28 China
  • 4:43 Japanese Aggression
  • 6:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we discuss Japan and China and the disparate fortunes of the two nations during the interwar period, including Japanese military aggression toward China.

Conflict in Interwar Asia

Most groups of friends won't kick a guy when he's down. For example, when your buddy loses his job, the last thing you do is make fun of him. Well, someone forgot to tell that to Japan in the early 20th century. Indeed, rather than pick up its neighbor, China, and dust off his shoulders for him, Japan exploited the weakness and internal strife of China to aggressively invade Chinese territory.

Rise of Japan

Prior to the mid-19th century, Japan had been closed to any foreign travelers or traders. This xenophobic policy, that had been in place since the early 17th century, was extreme; stories emerged of shipwrecked sailors from Western Europe being killed just for washing up on the island nation's shores. However, this changed in the 1850s, when an American fleet led by Commodore Matthew Perry forced the Tokugawa shogunate, which ruled Japan, to sign treaties that opened its ports to foreign trade.

The ensuing flood of foreign cash into the Japanese market exacerbated preexisting economic problems, and the Tokugawa government fell shortly after. It was replaced by the first Meiji Emperor, and the powerful nobles who surrounded him intended to modernize and industrialize Japan as quickly as possible. In relatively short order, railroads crisscrossed the island nation and Japan's shipping industry, virtually non-existent due to the laws against foreign trade, rose dramatically.

As quickly as Japan industrialized, the country began looking to expand its foreign influence. In 1894, Japan fought a two-year conflict with China, which freed the Korean peninsula from Chinese control and opened Chinese ports to Japanese trade. Ten years later, Japan went to war again, this time against the encroaching Russian presence in Manchuria. Victorious again, Japan gained protectorate status over the Korean peninsula and forced Russia out of Chinese land.

By the time World War I broke out in 1914, Japan was looking to extend its influence into China proper while Europe was occupied elsewhere. In 1915, they presented China with the Twenty-One Demands. Though not all the demands were recognized, Japan gained protectorate status and effective rule over large areas of Northern China including Manchuria and Inner Mongolia, as well as economic interests in Chinese state-owned mining operations. As part of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, Japan further gained the rights to Germany's sphere of influence in China's Shandong province.


As one might guess by the developments just discussed, as Japan's star rose in the international sky, the power and clout of the Chinese state was falling in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The 19th century saw China's long period of stability under the Ming Dynasty interrupted by the arrival of Western powers. Through several conflicts that the Chinese were ill-prepared to fight, Western powers carved out of China economic spheres of influence - regions that were still under nominal Chinese control, but whose economic profits were largely shaved off by foreign, Western European powers.

In reaction to the humiliation caused by this blatant foreign incursion into Chinese lands, nationalist sentiment grew within China, often calling for China to 'self-strengthen' from within. This anti-foreigner movement was best exemplified by the Boxer Uprising in 1900. In the uprising, Chinese nationalists spread across Northern China, murdering foreigners and missionaries, and eventually laying siege to the foreign-controlled cities of Beijing and Tianjin. The rebellion was brutally put down by a group of Western allies, and most of Northern China was occupied by Western troops afterwards. A 1911 revolution in China installed a republican form of government.

After World War I, internal Chinese politics saw an internal power struggle between the republican nationalists and the growing, Soviet-supported, Chinese Communist Party. After an attempted kidnapping of the nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-Shek, in 1926, Chiang imposed severe restrictions on communist activities, although a communist underground was slowly growing support in the countryside. A librarian and devoted communist from Beijing, Mao Zedong, was slowly building soviet-style enclaves in rural China and recruiting a guerrilla force.

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