Japanese Military Aggression in the 1920s

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In the early 20th century, Japan turned very quickly from an advocate for global peace to an aggressive empire. In this lesson we will explore this transition and show how Japan redefined its goals in the 1920s.

Japan - What Happened?

After the end of World War I, several world leaders realized that war was pretty awful. So, they decided to jump on an idea proposed by American president Woodrow Wilson to form a League of Nations designed to bring the world together in cooperation against military conflict. One of the major nations involved in this was Japan, who got a permanent seat on the League of Nations, committing itself to global peace.

Unfortunately, it didn't last. By 1941, Japan was aggressively invading China, allied with Nazi Germany, and preparing to attack the United States at Pearl Harbor. What the heck happened? Well, through the Taisho period, named for the emperor of Japan who reigned from 1912-1926, Japan was caught between various national and international struggles. The 1920s redefined Japanese goals and ideas about the modern world, setting the country on the path to a new kind of empire.

Emperor Taisho
Emperor Taisho

Japan Through WWI

Let's back up just a bit. Japan's role in WWI needs to be understood in context of the early 20th century. From 1868-1912 Japan was under the leadership of Emperor Meiji, whose reign was characterized by dramatic attempts to modernize the country along European models by creating an industrial, factory-based economy. With industrialization well under way, Japan decided to prove its right to participate on a global scale through its military. In 1905, Japan used its new industrialized military to defeat Russia in the Russo-Japanese War. In 1910 they invaded and formally annexed Korea into their empire. Once World War One broke out, Japan joined the allied forces and invaded German territories in China. By the end of the war, the country had gained the respect of the Western nations and was included in WWI peace treaties, and of course, the formation of the League of Nations.

Japan participates in founding the League of Nations
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The 1920s and the Taisho Period

At the start of the 1920s, Japan was in pretty good shape. Its economy was growing, the nation as a whole was respected, and they had expanded their influence into mainland Asia through the aforementioned annexation of Korea and occupation of China during WWI.

However, things quickly started to change. Economic crises of the 1920s hit the Japanese economy hard. Racism in the United States discouraged Japanese emigration there, which promoted a dramatic rise in Japanese pride and nationalism in Japan itself.

To make things worse, Japan's leaders were getting worried that its Western allies didn't take it as seriously as it hoped. The Taisho Emperor's vision for a Japan as a global power did not seem as secure as he had wanted.

One of the events that spurred this insecurity was Japan's participation in the Washington Naval Conference of 1921-1922, a military conference in which the USA called for a reduction in global naval power. Japan, one of the major players in the conference, was amongst the nations to agree to limit the size of its navy and reduce its efforts at building battleships.

The Washington Naval Conference
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So, what was the problem? Well, the conference resulted in setting a specific cap on naval production. The USA and Great Britain, both of whom had many ships sailing in Pacific Ocean, received a higher cap than Japan. This meant that, theoretically, Japan could be outnumbered by American and British ships in its own waters. Many Japanese politicians, including the Taisho Emperor, started to worry that they were not being taken seriously, and they became very suspicious of the intentions of European and American ships in the Pacific. To top it all off, the formation of the USSR, the growth of Chinese power, and renewed attempts by Korea to assert its independence left Japan feeling very insecure by the mid-1920s.

The Showa Period Begins

In 1926, Emperor Taisho died and his son, Hirohito, became the new emperor of Japan. His reign would be known as the Showa period, and it was immediately characterized by attempts to generate a sense of security in the changing world, generally by consolidating the strength and power of the emperor.

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