Within 13 years, Japan went from a founder of the League of Nations to being the very sort of state that the League was founded to stop. This lesson explores that radical transformation.
Japan After World War I
By the end of World War I, Japan could rightfully expect to be treated as a major power. Respected as a legitimate power since its victory over the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 through 1905, Japan had now proven itself on a much larger stage. Almost single-handedly, it had cleared German interests from East Asia and put down mutinies of British garrisons in Asia. Additionally, Japanese ships had sailed into the South Atlantic to pursue German U-boats, and even landed in Russia to attempt to contain the Russian Revolution so the Western Allies could focus on defeating Germany.
Additionally, the material needs of Japan's allies meant that manufacturing and industrialization took off quickly, propelling Japan to industrial parity with Western states. In short, Japan had done everything that could be expected of a first-rate power. All the while, Japan had worked to expand its own influence in the East Asian world. After all, since the 1910 invasion of Korea, Japan was an empire in its own right, with significant other island holdings throughout the Pacific. Now, as the rest of the world was busy, the Japanese used their relative strength in the region to ensure that they would gain special treatment in China, especially Manchuria and Inner Mongolia.
Such contributions had not gone unnoticed by the Western powers. Japan was rewarded with legal possession of its gains made during the war and was given additional powers at the newly formed League of Nations. However, within a decade those attitudes had shifted. America especially had been wary of Japan's expansion in China. In fact, when the Japanese had proposed to head west and commit more forces to defeating the Communists in Russia, it had been the Americans who protested loudly enough to convince them to withdraw their army.
By the time of the Washington Naval Conference, those attitudes found their way to the paper of the treaty. The conference proposed limits on the world's navies. The British and Americans, each having interests in two oceans, were allowed a significant margin of ships on Japan. For every five ships that either Britain or America had, Japan could only have three. Obviously, this meant that the Americans and the British, by now closer than ever before, could potentially project many more ships in the Pacific than the Japanese could. Problems plagued Japan's empire, as well. The Koreans were resentful for being under the control of the Japanese, who treated them very badly.
Stability Through Strength
Japanese resentment toward the West soon transformed into protests, and conservative elements of Japanese society saw this as an affront to their power. Between those revolts and the perceived insults from the West, increasingly conservative groups were voted into power. As if that weren't enough, by 1930, Japan's economy was in a recession. Japan had depended on its manufacturing plants to supply much of its economic growth, and much of what was manufactured was destined for export.
However, with the 1929 crash of the stock market in the United States, soon the whole world was in the midst of the Great Depression. These factors combined to greatly limit the role that any except the most ardent of conservatives could have in government. These individuals were increasingly preaching that Japan should find its own way and depend on its own colonies not the other powers of the day. It's probably not a surprise that the people who financed these political beliefs were in fact the owners of the companies that stood to gain the most from such economic movement.
In any event, those groups colluded in support behind the military, wanting to build a nationalistic image of Japan's interests being threatened. Of course, the only reasonable response was a further expansion of the empire. By 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria, a coastal region of China that is close to Japan, and installed a puppet emperor, Puyi, the last emperor of Qing China. By now, Japan was seen as an aggressor. The Japanese walked out of the League of Nations, content to put their faith in their own mechanisms rather than the international ones they had helped to establish.
This lesson looked at the evolution of Japan from a stalwart ally of the United Kingdom and United States to a militaristic, nationalistic empire. Despite Japan's performance during the First World War, continuing concerns about Japan's influence in China was enough to convince the United States and others to oppose further Japanese expansion, even when it could have helped long term by limiting communism.
These prejudices crystallized with the Washington Naval Conference, which severely limited the size of the Japanese navy with respect to the American and British fleets. Meanwhile, growing resentment of Japan in her own colonies, as well as the Great Depression, strengthened the control of more conservative, militaristic elements of Japanese society, which saw strength through force instead of through cooperation with the Western powers.
Once you've finished with this lesson, you should have the ability to:
- Describe the transformation that occurred in Japan and in attitudes toward the country before and after World War I
- Explain the outcome of the Washington Naval Conference