Japanese Imperialism 1894-1945 Review
In the space of 50 years, Japan built an empire that stretched from northern Manchurian down to the tip of Australia. Though its existence proved ephemeral, this was a staggering accomplishment for an island nation that had remained largely (though not completely) disconnected from the Western world until the mid-19th century and had only begun to modernize in 1868. In Japanese Imperialism 1894-1945, W.G. Beasley provides an overview of Japanese territorial expansion and imperialism, beginning with the Sino-Japanese War and ending with Japan’s defeat in the Second World War. In Beasley’s own words, the thesis of this book is as follows; “I do not believe the human impetus towards imperialism needs explaining…What the character of a society, or the international circumstances with which it has to deal, does indeed determine the timing and direction of the impetus, the degree of its success or failure, the kind of advantages that are sought, the institutions that are shaped to give them durability…That is what I propose to examine with respect to Japan” (Beasley, 13). This thesis struck me as vague and somewhat ill-defined. Essentially Beasley does not intended to examine why Japan attempted to carve itself an empire out of East Asia but how it did so. Much of this book is merely a summary of the conventional narrative on the subject with exhaustive references to names and dates. Ultimately, Beasley does not substantially contribute to the historical debate on the subject and merely synthesizes existing lines of thought. Upon turning the last page, the reader knows nothing more than the standard facts and is left to wonder what the point of picking up the book was in the first place.
That said, this book is a very well-written piece of historical scholarship. It’s greatest strength is Beasley’s ability to highlight the differences between Western and Japanese imperialism and he touches on this point throughout the book. Japanese imperialism is fundamentally different from Western imperialism for a number of reasons. First, Japan’s motives for adopting imperialist policies were quite different. According to the orthodox Western explanation, imperialism is an economic, and often exclusively capitalist, phenomenon and fueled by a search for new markets to absorb a country’s excess capital. The words of Lenin provide the most archetypal example, “Imperialism is the highest form of capitalism…the inevitable product of capitalism in its monopoly stage” (Beasley, 2). Beasley points out that while these explanations fit the British imperialist model rather well, they are inadequate at explaining the motivations of other, less-industrially advanced countries that also pursued territorial expansion. Japan’s quest for empire cannot be described as ‘the highest form of capitalism’ because the island nation often suffered from a lack of capital during this period. Instead, Japan pursued an expansionist policy to secure its position in the world. Put simply, Japanese imperialist ambition “was a logical response to…living in an imperialist world” (Beasley, 9). The Meiji government saw a clear connection between national security and empire and saw imperialism as the best way to escape European control and secure Japanese autonomy. Due to these security concerns, imperialism quickly took root in Meiji Japan and, with the help of politicians, journalists and military officials, by the 1930s the Japanese public had come to see imperialism as a necessity if the country wished to avoid complete economic disaster (Beasley, 190).
Initially, Japan considered their colonies as areas to produce the necessary agriculture and foodstuffs for export back to the home islands and as a way to absorb Japan’s rapidly expanding population. By the late 1920s and early 1930s, Japan’s plan for its empire was significantly expanded and deviated even further from the Western model. Japan adopted a number of policies (such as the five year plans) to extensively develop the manufacturing and railway industries within their colonies. This was strikingly different from “the standard [Western] ‘imperialist’ doctrine that the role of dependencies is to provide the homeland with food for its workforce and raw materials for its manufacturing industries” (Beasley, 213). Western imperialist powers had very little to gain from developing manufacturing in their colonies due to the distance separating them. Even if Britain, for example, had developed a munitions or rail-stock industry in India, the cost of shipping such heavy manufactures back to the British Isles would have eliminated any potential profit. Japan’s close proximity to Korea, Taiwan, and China made such activities potentially very profitable.
I agree with Beasley’s assessment of the roots of imperialism in Japan and his assertion that Japanese imperialism is different from Western imperialism. However, by separating Japan from the ‘orthodox’ interpretation, Beasley implies that all Western forms of capitalism are the same, or very similar. This line of reasoning is potentially extremely misleading because it is clear that countries adopt imperialist policies for a wide variety of reasons and motivations. Perhaps Britain was motivated by economic concerns, but Germany clearly wished to expand its empire to increase its international prestige and Russia had always sought territory that possessed the coveted warm-water port. Therefore, while Japanese motivations were very different from many Western countries, Japanese imperialism is not inherently unique. It is also important to remember that mono-causal explanations are always insufficient because they fail to take into account the many disparate influences that exist within a nation.
It is unfortunate that Beasley does not examine in more detail how the newly designed structure of the Meiji state influenced Japan’s turn towards militarism and expansion. It would be informative to examine how the strong influence of the system of emperor-worship (tennōsei) influenced the operations of the Meiji state, which rigidly insulated the bureaucracy and military from popular control and subordinated them directly under the authority of the emperor and allowed a small group of statesmen, military officers, and business leaders to create a monopoly of power. Nor does Beasley examine the emergence of ultranationalism, how it reinforced Japan’s imperialist policies, and why Japan abandoned diplomacy as a tool to achieve its foreign policy goals.
Beasley focused most of his research on official documents and memorandums from the Japanese government. He is clearly a well-trained historian and his use of primary sources is thorough and impressive. However, the breadth of his sources leaves something to be desired. Official documents issued by the Japanese government were often slapdash, schizophrenic pieces that expressed a variety of disparate viewpoints and were not intended to clarify or define official policy. Such documents were usually an attempt to placate demands, both international and domestic. With this in mind, it is clear that official documents can only go so far in explaining the actions and objectives of the Japanese imperial institution. Therefore, Beasley’s argument can almost be described as a ‘state-centric’ approach to examining the subject of Japanese imperialism.
A key element of the book is Beasley’s examination of the bureaucratic and administrative systems of the Japanese colonial regimes. While this approach effectively explains the integration of Manchuria and Korea into the Japanese empire, it becomes increasingly inadequate as Japan extended its influence deeper into Southeast Asia during the 1930s. As explained by Beasley, “The Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere was not a blueprint so much as a ‘vague aspiration’ cobbled together to serve short-term goals”(247). In other words, territorial expansion became less a realization of long-term historic objectives dictated by clear government policies and more a means to accommodate short-term needs. By the 1940s, Japan had extended its empire well beyond its military and financial capabilities. Japan lacked the capital for overseas development, lacked an adequate transportation system to provide an effective infrastructure, a domestic market to absorb its resources, and a surplus of manufactured goods to provide it with exports. Plans to develop heavy manufacturing in both Korea and Manchuria, the colonies were still viewed primarily as sources of foodstuffs and raw materials for Japanese industry. Furthermore, Ishiwara’s Five Year Plan was blocked by both the increasingly disruptive nature of Chinese nationalism and the Pacific War. Ultimately, the “scale of conventional bombing demonstrated that the enemy’s [the United State’s] ability to destroy Japan’s industrial heartland from the air and made possession of an empire an irrelevance”(Beasley, 250).
Despite the rhetoric of cooperation and equality found within many of these official documents, Japanese imperial rule was always brutal, repressive, and never upheld the ideals of pan-Asian brotherhood. Such inequality is highlighted by the nature of the colonial administrations and educational systems. The Japanese founded schools in their colonies and occupied territories and forced colonial subjects to learn Japanese and adopt Shinto and Confucian practices. Within Korea and Taiwan, use of native languages was prohibited and indigenous education systems were dismantled. The claim that Japanese expansion was driven by a desire to liberate and aid other Asian countries wears thin upon examination of the harsh treatment of civilian populations by the Imperial Army. The brutal authoritarian control of Korean, manifested in locked factories, forced labor, and compulsory education receive no attention and the rape of Nanking receives a cursory nod. In their essay “Japanese Colonialism and Korean Development: A Critique,” Haggard, Kang and Moon explain, “[Japanese] imperial strategy was built around a pattern of industrialization dominated by a handful of foreign firms…exploiting cheap energy and natural resources, and making a limited contribution to both local value added and employment” (Haggard et. al, 871). Clearly not a social historian, Beasley does not describe the reality of Japanese rule as experienced by the average ‘colonial subject.’ However, by treating the assertions found in official documents as real and legitimate and not as rhetoric aimed at the pacification of both the Western powers and their own civilization population, Beasley not only understates the racial and cultural differences between Asian countries but also creates a skewed image of both the motives and reality of Japanese imperial expansion.
Finally, I question the way Beasley structured his discussion of the subject. Beasley’s analysis of Japanese imperialism can be divided into three distinct phases; from 1895-1905 the rudiments of empire were put together, between 1905 and 1930 Japanese imperialism became more ‘self-assertive’ and Japan considerably expanded its sphere of influence, and after 1930 the Japanese attempted to displace the Eurocentric imperial system with a ‘Japanocentric system’ of their own devising (Duus, 450-451). I believe that the development of Japanese imperialism should be divided into its pre- and post-1930 phases, with the Great Depression as the linchpin around which the character of Japanese imperialism evolved.
Prior to 1930, Japan considered empire as a way to secure its independence in the face of Western pressures in Asia. It was not seen as an outlet for excess capital, as in the Leninist model, but as a way to achieve national security. Thus, Japan preferred to pursue its economic interests through diplomatic and political channels. Foreign policy was predominantly influenced by business interests and bureaucrats within the Foreign Ministry. Though Japan sought to extend its sphere of influence to included Korea and parts of Manchuria, it was quite willing to conform to an international framework that included the Western powers. Additionally, the central government sought to separate Japan from Asia and become more integrated into the Western system, as demonstrated by its inclusion into the treaty port system and the alliance with Britain and the US in 1902.
The Great Depression and decline of international trade and cooperation in the early 1930s fundamentally altered Japan’s imperial goals. National security could no longer be guaranteed through trade and diplomatic channels. Rather than cooperation, economic autarky seemed the best way to ensure Japan’s continued growth. To this aim, Japan sought to establish a regional trade bloc, first by solidifying control in Korea, supporting the creation of a puppet-government in Manchuria, and eventually aggressively pursuing territory in mainland China.
By organizing the discussion of Japanese imperialism in such a fashion, I believe it better demonstrates the shift in Japanese foreign policy from diplomacy to military action that occurred after the Great Depression and also highlights the shift of power into the hands of the military, which had become more violent and aggressive. Furthermore, Beasley’s outline of Japanese imperialism gives the reader the impression that this was a well though-out policy created and pursued by the Japanese government. In truth, the Japanese government and military were institutions that had great difficultly defining goals, developing plans, and implementing them within their own administrations. Cooperation between these disparate groups was rare and often proved impossible. Any study of Japanese imperialism must acknowledge the haphazard, unplanned nature of its evolution.
Ironically, the strengths of this book are also its weakness. While Beasley clearly intended this book to serve as an overview and introduction to the subject, these characteristics have severely limited the effectiveness of his argument. The book covers a time span far too big for its length. While Japanese imperial expansion lasted for only about 50 years, these years included two emperors, various administrations, several attempted coups, and 3 to 4 different wars (depending on how you count them). In a book of roughly 250 pages, nothing can be examined at great detail, and therefore everything seems lacking. I do not believe that Japanese imperialism can be fully understood without a closer examination of the society and institutions from which it originated. Insubordination within the Imperial Army (and to a lesser extent the navy) played a major role in pushing evermore aggressive imperialist policies into action. Why did these radical elements exist and why was such insubordination tolerated? Why were imperialism and nationalism so interconnected during this period? What was the experience of colonial citizens under Japanese imperial rule? By failing to examine these questions, Beasley weakens his book, which is a fine example of historical scholarship, and condemns it to being just a mere overview of the subject. If this was Beasley’s intention, then I suppose Japanese Imperialism 1894-1945 should be considered a success, but it seems an empty one.
Beasley, W.G. Japanese Imperialism 1894-1945. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.
Duus, Peter. “Japanese Imperialism 1894-1945 by W.G. Beasley,” Journal of Japanese Studies, vol. 14, no. 2, 1988, pp. 449-454.
Stephen Haggard, David Kang, and Chung-in Moon, “Japanese Colonialism and Korean Development: A Critique,” World Development, vol. 25, no. 6, 1997, pp. 867-881.