The Rise of Japanese Militarism


Japan's political journey from its quasi-democratic 
government in the 1920's to its radical nationalism of the mid 1930's,
the collapse of democratic institutions, and the eventual military 
state was not an overnight transformation. There was no coup d'etat, 
no march on Rome, no storming of the Bastille. Instead, it was a 
political journey that allowed a semi-democratic nation to transform 
itself into a military dictatorship. The forces that aided in this 
transformation were the failed promises of the Meiji Restoration that 
were represented in the stagnation of the Japanese economy, the 
perceived capitulation of the Japanese parliamentary leaders to the 
western powers, a compliant public, and an independent military. 
 The ground work for Japanese militarism was a compliant 
Japanese public. This pliant public was created through a variety of 
factors. Beginning in the 1890's the public education system 
indoctrinated students in the ideas of nationalism, loyalty to the 
emperor and traditionalist ideas of self-sacrifice and obedience. Thus 
ideas that were originally propagated to mobilize support for the 
Meiji government were easily diverted to form broad support for 
foreign militarism. Japanese society also still held many of the 
remnants of feudal culture such as strong confusion beliefs that 
stressed support for social order and lack of emphasis on 
individualist values. These values taught obedience not to a 
democratic but to the emperor; so the fact that the militaristic 
government of the 1930's ruled under the emperor meant that the 
Japanese were loyal to this government just as they had been to the 
government of the 1920's. So when Japan's militaristic government 
implemented programs characteristic of totalitarian governments such 
as strong media control, a thought police, and community organizations 
the public did little to protest. Shintoism provided a religious 
justification for nationalism and support for the militaristic 
government. Shintoism before the 1930's was primarily a nativistic 
religion which stressed nature and harmony. But during the 1930's it 
became a ideological weapon teaching Japanese that they were a 
superior country that had a right to expand and that its government 
was divinely lead by a descendent of the sun god. 
 The independence and decentralization of the military allowed 
it to act largely on its own will as characterized in the Manchurian 
incident in 1931 and the Marco Polo bridge explosion in Shanghai. 
Because these incidents went unpunished and the Japanese public 
rallied around them the military was able to push for greater 
militarism and an increasingly active role in government till the 
entire government was run by the military. The London Treaty and 
Japan's rejection by large European powers at the Versailles 
conference angered many in the military who felt that Japan was being 
denied its place at the table with the great powers. This lead to a 
disenfranchisement with the parliamentary government who the military 
felt had capitulated to the western powers in treaties and by stopping 
its colonial expansion during the nineteen twenties. Once Japan
commenced on the path of militarism it found that because of its 
technological edge it could defeat other Asian powers this increased 
Japan's sense of superiority and feed the fires of nationalism. These 
fires grew as following the 1931 Manchurian incident Japan invaded 
Manchuria then most China. In South East Asia Japan quickly expanded 
breaking up British, Portuguese, and Dutch colonialism. Japanese 
militarism occurred not by an organized plan but rather through 
passive acceptance by the Japanese public. A compliant Japanese public 
coupled with a independent army were two factors that pushed Japan 
toward militarism in the 1930's.


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