On September 18, 1931, the Kwantung Army began the unilateral conquest of Manchuria – just over ten years on in what Japanese historians call the 'fifteen years war', Japan would be at war with the United States and China, and be aligned with the Axis against the Western democracies. Militarism in Japan and in Japanese forces abroad can be traced to a political force known variously as 'fascism' or 'ultra-nationalism', which started out as the ideology of a radical fringe but found the state bureaucracy and military amenable organisations in which to grow. Ideologically, fascism involved constructing an economic sphere of 'co-prosperity' in East Asia under Japanese tutelage, and using this sphere to combat the influence of the West on the East. In practical terms, this meant a reorganisation of the relationship of the Japanese state to society at home and the construction of a 'national defence sphere' by conquest abroad.

Japan reached a crucial tipping point when groups within the country began to perceive that the benefits of continuing to adhere to the Washington-Versailles system of international relations were outweighed by the negative effects. The Great Depression, which was particularly harsh on the structurally weak agricultural sector in Japan, was a catalyst for a reassessment of Japan’s position vis-à-vis the Western powers and China. Given the severity of the economic situation, militarism came to be seen as essential to national survival. The world economic crisis and events in Europe also seemed to make it much less likely that the West would intervene, but in the end the logic of war put Japan and the West on a collision course.

Before getting involved in a detailed discussion, it is worth briefly looking at some longer-term explanations of Japanese expansionism. First there is the 'environmentalism' explanation, which stresses the importance of natural resources to Japanese expansion. As Japan lacked the crucial natural resources it needed to build a totally modern industrial base, it needed to interact with the outside world to acquire them: this it could do through conquest or trade. The lure of conquest had excited certain Japanese throughout history, with plans in the early twentieth century to establish an Empire in East Asia and then use it as a base to invade South America. An entirely Asiatic Empire could not provide all the resources Japan needed, so it was necessary to look elsewhere. The sudden outpuring of aggression in the 1930s can be seen as an implementation of tihs strategy to secure resources that were both strategic and essential to national growth. It was deigned necessary to go about it in this way due to the failure of global capitalism that the Depression was seen to represent.

The second longer-term explanation is the idea that democracy had never taken 'deep roots' in Japan, and hence was bound to fail eventually. Fascist ideology in Japan began as a form of dissent against the policies of successive governments in the 1920s, which was the most democratic decade after the Meiji Restoration. It expressed itself through various movements in the bureaucracy and terrorist groups in the military. Calls for militarism abroad were generally linked with calls for reform at home, usually to militarise society and achieve the paradoxical goals of improving the condition of the peasantry who provided the army's conscript soldiers and building a modern industrial economy. The most critical issue in Japanese foreign policy during this period of industrialisation was Japan's economic relationship with the rest of the world, specifically Manchuria, China, and the United States. Japan had important economic interests in China and Manchuria, and these interests were seen as under threat by Chinese nationalism.

Until the Manchuria Incident the policy of the Japanese government was to protect these interests with diplomatic agreements and pressure, and under Tanaka the use of force. Japanese Foreign Minister Shidehara was criticised for being too weak with the Chinese under Chiang Kai-shek. Although he wanted to preserve Japan's special rights in Manchuria, he wanted to do so in such a way that would also preserve Japan's economic interests in the rest of China – by not offending the likely leader of a unified China. However, as anti-Japan violence and trade boycotts followed the Kuomintang during their northern expedition and were even allowed in Manchuria by Chang Tso-lin, Japanese public opinion and opinion among the military and bureaucracy shifted against Shidehara.

Shidehara's successor, Tanaka, was less concerned with diplomatic nicety and viewed Manchuria fundamentally differently to Shidehara. He did not recognise Chinese sovereignty over the region and was prepared to use troops to protect Japanese interests in the region. By the time of the Manchuria Incident, all the factors which had encouraged Tanaka's shift in policy had intensified and seemed to many to have become a state of crisis. This view was particularly rife among the Kwantung Army, a Japanese force stationed in Manchuria to protect Japanese interests there. Following the assassination of the ruler of Manchuria, Chang Tso-lin, by rogue elements in the Japanese forces, his son was understandably unwilling to work with the Japanese and promptly hoisted the KMT flag and allowed the development of Chinese railways parallel to the Japanese-controlled ones. Chinese nationalism now seemed to threaten Japan's position on the Continent, and Shidehara's diplomacy did not seem a force that would combat it. With the KMT calling for 'the rapid abolition of all unequal treaties and the recovery of all rights and interests', the Kwantung Army concluded it could only be a matter of time before Japan's rights in Manchuria were attacked.

They hence decided to carry out their long-term goal of bringing about a solution to the Manchurian problem by the use of force, and in September of 1931 unilaterally occupied the region in response to a staged terrorist incident. The Chinese reaction to the earlier attempt by the Kwantung Army to gain control of Manchuria by force, the assassination of its ruler Chang Tso-lin, had made life more difficult for the Japanese, which had in turn forced an even more extreme policy. Throughout the decade up to the bombing of Pearl Harbour, the pattern would be repeated – Japanese aggression begat more aggression, until the final conflagration of the Pacific War.

Domestic public opinion stiffened overnight in support of the fait accompli in Manchuria, and a Cabinet which accepted it came to power. Following the perceived weakness of the Cabinets of 1929 – 31, such a bold move by the Army abroad was welcomed by nationalists in Japan. The 'reform movement' in the military resented Shidehara binding Japan to treaties with the Western powers which restricted her freedom of action, such as the London Naval Treaty of 1930. The reform movement saw the military as a potentially positive force in politics and linked up with elements of the technocratic bureaucracy to oppose the political parties, which were perceived as weak and conflict-oriented. The reform movement would have preferred national unity through a reaffirmation of traditional modes of loyalty and deference, bound together by the divinity of the Emperor.

Barrington Moore and Masao Maruyama have both offered analyses of the psychology and ideology of Japanese fascism, and both conclude that its content had continuity with previous Japanese political thought and considerable emotional appeal to broad strata of the population. As liberalism, democracy, and the concept of a private sphere had never taken deep route in Japan, no revolution was needed to overthrow the existing order and promote militarisation at home and aggression abroad. It grew within and out of existing institutions, especially under the pressure of the countryside during the Depression. The Depression hit the already impoverished rural regions hard, and hastened disatisfaction with modernity in the countryside. An agrarianism grew up which rejected the cities and all they stood for, including democracy, which had never really touched the countryside. The Army in particular had to pay attention to conditions in the countryside, from where most of its soldiers were drawn.

The continuing influence of the military in politics following the sidelining of the political parties and their inability to engage with the population was matched on the Continent by continuing adventurism by military commanders. By the mid 1930s, effective control of foreign policy had passed to the military. The military was much pleased with its success in creating the puppet state of Manchukuo, which served as a buffer against a threatening Soviet Union and a site of economic development. Some of the rationality for acquiring colonies sounded just like that used by Westerners – they could be developed in a co-ordinated way with the Japanese economy, and they could be used as an outlet for a growing population. The fear of Malthusian checks was huge in Japan in the 1920s and 1930s, and it was thought immigration had to be encouraged as an outlet - the Japanese concept of Lebensraum.

Junior military commanders believed that Japan could and should engage in further expansion into northern China, as the more territory that could be brought into the 'co-prosperity sphere' the better off Japan and, so they claimed, Asia would be. The focus on external aggression and the necessary concomitant of militarisation at home was cemented by the victory of the 'Control' faction in the Army after the purge following the February 26th Incident. The Control faction believed in the 'rational' application of the nation's entire resources to imperial expansion, a philosophy embodied in the National Mobilisation Law of 1937. The reasons for doing so were explained in rhetoric about removing Western influence from Asia and also dressed up in racial terms. Recent historians have begun to take the ideology more serious than has been done so in the past, stressing its importance in the minds of actors, especially on the Continent.

The dominant discourse on race in Japan stressed that the Japanese race was synonymous with the nation, based on the idea that the Japanese people were one big extended family with the Emperor as the head. Combined with rhetoric about the divinity of the Emperor and Japan's racial superiority to the backwards people of Continental Asia, this made for lofty rhetoric about Japan's mission in East Asia and even global domination. Such theories, grounded in emotion more than practical reality, no doubt encouraged junior commanders on the ground in their adventures, which could be justified in the name of the Emperor and the Imperial race. It was just such adventures that restarted again in 1935 and culminated in the Sino-Japanese war, when Japanese forces invaded all parts of mainland China.

As well as idealistic justifications, Japanese expansionism had practical ones – the need to bring more economic resources under Japan's control to create a 'national defence sphere'. Japanese fascists saw as the 1930s drew on and culminated in the war in Europe that the world was been atomised into spheres of interests which would be dominated by the hegemonic power in the region – the USA in the Americas, Germany or Britain in Europe, and the Soviet Union in the Eurasian heartland. As the first developed country in East Asia, Japan had a world-historic mission to lead the region's development. Social Darwinism enforced this view – it was inevitable that Japan's racial dynamism would involve it in the mission of civilising lesser races on the Continent.

Expansion in northern China by junior Army commanders was hence based on the twin planks of a sense of ideological mission and practical considerations. The practical considerations were the perceived threat of nationalism from the Chinese and the desire to expand Japan's economic resources. The Manchuria Incident had an effect on the Japanese economy similar to the New Deal in the United States, stimulating production and employment. The economy could be further lifted by the capturing of more territory to economically develop, especially where natural resources could be found. This culminated in the Sino-Japanese war, which was started on the initiative of Japanese forces on the Continent, and eventually in the invasion of south-east Asia.

North China contained high-quality coal and iron, and south-east Asia contained a wealth of resources. The Sino-Japanese war started as a result of the continental policy of Japan, which left initiative in the hands of the military. The large amount of power in the hands of a military committed to expansionist goals and with the means to carry them out would inevitably lead to continuing conflict, and the entry into the Sino-Japanese war was the start of a stalemate which would necessitate further conflict. It also transformed the domestic scene – no-one had predicted a long war of attrition, but when it became clear that Japan was engaged in one the Control faction's idea of harnessing all of the nation's resources to war seemed to be the way to win it. The stage was set for fascism from above, which became reality when the Tojo dictatorship was established.

Now entirely on a war footing and determined to win success in the Chinese war so as to be in as powerful a position as possible to survive in the world order than emerged out of the European war, Japan turned her eyes to south-east Asia. Indeed, the European war provided the opportunity needed to make gains in this region following the over-running of France and the Netherlands, who along with Britain were the colonial powers in the region. The region contained vital resources which would allow Japan to sustain its war machine and continue the fight in China. The advance southwards had always been favoured by groups in the military, especially the navy, who saw the south as an essential component of Japan's empire. The over-riding obstacle in the way of a southwards advance was, however, the United States of America.

With France and the Dutch out of action, and the British tied up with Hitler in Europe, the USA stood as the guardian of south-east Asia. The necessity to confront this problem led to the conclusion of the Axis treaty between Japan, Italy and Germany, designed to discourage the USA from intervention in either Europe or Asia for fear of fighting a two-front war. However, Japan had merely increased the hostility of the Western democracies towards it and sealed the USA's determination to strike decisively against the Axis with an alliance that brought little direct benefit to itself. Japan's range of options became narrower when the Soviet Union refused attempts to draw it into the Axis, and by now a confrontation with the United States became inevitable.

The United States and Japan could not reconcile their competing objectives in world politics without compromise, something neither side was willing to consider. The United States could not allow its source of rubber in south-east Asia to be disrupted, nor for the opportunistic carving up of Western interests that supported the war against Hitler. In a dramatic policy shift, it called for a return to the status quo ante bellum of 1931 in East Asia. When Japan instead imposed another fait accompli by the conquering of all of French Indochina, the USA and the Dutch government-in-exile imposed an oil embargo.

The Japanese now had only two options remaining – accept the Hull note and repudiate all the gains of the last decade, or take over the Dutch possessions and their oil supply. To give up at this point would be unthinkable, when so much seemed to be at stake militarily and economically. Tojo predicted that a policy of withdrawal and compliance would lead to Japan becoming a second or third rate power within a few years. Hence the decision to bomb Pearl Harbour was taken, in an attempt to put the USA's presence in the Pacific out of action while the conquest of south-east Asia could be accomplished. From this position of renewed strength it was hoped that Japan could defeat the Chinese and pursue its global ambitions as head of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. The result had terrible consequences for Japan and all of East Asia.

Complete bibliography

P. Duus (ed.), The Cambridge History of Japan vol. 6: the Twentieth Century
C. Totman, A History of Japan
M. Maruyama, Thought and Behaviour in Modern Japanese Politics
B. Moore, The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy
F. Dikotter (ed.), Construction of Racial Identities in China and Japan
W.G. Beasley, Japanese Imperialism, 1894 - 1945
S. Ogata, Defiance in Manchuria: The Making of Japanese Foreign Policy, 1931 - 32
H.P. Bix, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan