Internal changes and foreign threats that began in the 1860s launched Japan towards a militaristic government and society that culminated in World War II.
While it has to be recognized that Japan had a deep individual (the famous Bushido code was not as prevalent as is popularly believed) warrior tradition that went back to feudal times, it was mostly confined to the aristocracy.
Historians trace the initial stages of the rise of the Japanese military to 1868 when the last Shogun was overthrown and the emperor was reinstated as the supreme ruler of the land. This is called the Meiji (Enlightened Rule) Restoration.
Two factors set off the start of the martial growth: fear of Western imperialism and the makeup of the business, political and military leadership, all of which were either former samurai or descendants thereof. Samurai were the military nobility of preindustrial Japan.
These reasons combined into a policy of strong economic and industrial development that could support modern – Western style – armed forces.
Internal instability also contributed to the idea that a strong military was needed to rule.
The reason for the militarism in Japan, however, can be organized in five general categories.
Western Imperialism Impact
Led by the U.S. who first forced Japan to open some of its ports to trade in 1854, the Western powers descended upon the islands and imposed similar arrangements, which limited Japanese sovereignty in those regions. This had a negative effect on the Japanese.
First there was the sense that the Western powers had humiliated Japan and, secondly, it brought unfamiliar customs that clashed with tradition. Furthermore, Western influence kindled a craving for Western style imperialism among the Japanese ruling class and the armed forces.
But, the West did not see Japan as an equal. Even though Japan had taken over Taiwan after defeating China in 1895, beaten the Russians in the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War and held the Krieg marine in check during World War I in the Pacific, the Big Four treated the Tokyo envoys to the Versailles peace conferences with disdain.
In addition, Japanese officials in Europe and the United States were regularly ridiculed by the media and powerful individuals in their attempt to wear Western style clothes.
The obligatory trade treaties and the derision suffered by its representatives, convinced Japanese authorities that an invasion by the West could happen at any time. Thus a strong military was needed and the empire’s borders had to be expanded to better protect the Home Islands.
While Japan rapidly developed its industrial base during the first quarter of the 20th Century, it lacked the raw materials to keep it going. Oil, coal, iron and rubber had to be imported, mostly from other Asian nations.
Tokyo cast covetous eyes toward China, Indochina, the Philippines and Indonesia for their natural resources. Taiwan and Korea were already, for all practical purposes, colonies that provided agricultural products.
Japan’s View of Itself
During this period, Japan began seeing itself as the leader of Asia, and why not? It had defeated the Russians, more than held its own against the German navy, its industrial output was as prominent as that of any nation and its military was rapidly modernizing.
The Japanese military victories during the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries led the government and the armed forces to rely on military solutions.
Japan also saw itself as the organizer of a resurgent Asia that would cast its colonial shackles and take its place in the world stage as the equal of Europe.
Autonomy and Influence of the Armed Forces
The Imperial Army General Staff was set up in 1878, and the Imperial Navy’s in 1893. Both were detached from and on a par with the Ministry of War; did not come under the control of the Prime Minister and had direct access to the emperor.
The armed forces could also manipulate the formation and stability of any civilian government. Under Japanese law, a Prime Minister was forced to resign if he could not fill of his cabinet’s positions. The posts of ministers of the Army and Navy had to be filled by active duty officers selected by their particular branch. By withdrawing support on their ministers or refusing to nominate a successor, either branch could control the formation or make up of the government as well as bring it down.
Since the Army was the senior service it had a larger say in matters than the Navy.
The real and imagined insults to Japanese sovereignty and culture; the real and imagined needs for raw materials and the desire to be considered a world power, planted the seeds of ultranationalism.
The spark that lighted the definitive spur of nationalistic feeling was the London Naval Treaty of 1930. When the pact, which harshly restricted Japanese naval forces, was ratified, there was no turning back.
The armed forces considered that such reduction of naval power jeopardized national defense. A number of cadets and junior officers from both branches of service went on a rampage. Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi was assassinated. The military was now in control of the empire.
A little over a decade later, Japan would be at war with the Western Allies.