World History: Japanese Imperialism

Before Meiji Restoration (1867), which led to Emperor Meiji’s ascension to power, Japan was basically a feudal state with a confusing and ambiguous power structure. With this key event in Japanese history, Japan embarked on a meteoric rise as a regional and world power with industrialization, westernization, and militarization as core components of Imperial Japan. Racism against other groups such as Chinese / Korean and Nationalism also grew among Japanese people.

Key elements of Meiji Reforms

Following reforms were undertaken by Meiji government:

  1. Government shifted from Edo to Tokyo
  2. A national constitution, bicameral parliament (diet).
  3. Dismanted of the old feudal regime and introduced prefecture system of administration.
  4. Administration was centralized
  5. Modern civil service bureaucracy was setup.
  6. Modern banking and fiscal system.
  7. Modern industrial enterprises; railroad, telegraphs.
  8. Universal primary education
  9. Modern army and navy and adopted western military technology.

At that time, Korea was under Chinese Qing Dynasty. As Japan grew in power, it sought to flex its muscle power with an eye on Korea’s resources. This led to First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) for control over Korea. In this war, China was defeated and was forced to cede Island of Formosa {Taiwan} to Japan. Korea also came under Japanese Sphere of Influence.

Russo-Japanese War & the Takeover of Korea

After winning China, Japanese imperialist ambitions collided with those of Russia in Manchuria. For centuries, China, Japan and Russia had fought over Manchuria, but none of them had complete control. After the Sino-Japanese war, Japan gained a strategic port from the Chinese called Port Arthur.

However, this could not be digested by the Western Powers, who indeed were more powerful. They overruled the treaty, stripped Port Arthur from the Japanese, and gave it to the Russians. This triggered the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) over control of portions of Manchuria and Korea. Japan surprised the world by winning this war. This was a huge shocker as an Asian force had defeated a European power. Japan’s victory against Russia paved the way for a complete takeover of Korea. After the war, in 1905, Korea basically became a protectorate of Japan. A few years later, the Japan-Korea Treaty of 1910 resulted in the complete annexation of Korea to Imperial Japan. Korea was placed under Japanese police rule.

20th Century Expansion & Defeat

In the 20th century, Imperial Japan was a powerful force in the Eastern Hemisphere. When World War I broke out, Japan cast its lot in with the Allied Powers. Although it came out on the winning side, Japan did not receive the same kind of spoils and concessions that other victors did. This caused Japan to feel that they had been cheated, and it resulted in anti-Western resentment throughout the 1920s and 1930s.

In the 1930s, conflict again broke out among the regional Asian powers. In 1931, Japan invaded and took over Manchuria. A few years later, in 1937, Japan invaded China, beginning the Second Sino-Japanese War. Initially, the Japanese scored victories with the capture of cities like Nanking and Shanghai. Japanese imperial soldiers behaved mercilessly toward the Chinese.

The term Rape of Nanking refers to the atrocities Japanese soldiers committed toward civilian and unarmed Chinese throughout December 1937 and January 1938 as they occupied the capital city of Nanking. This included mass rape, torture, and the slaughtering of innocent men, women, and children. Estimates vary, but it is suggested that between 40,000 to 300,000 Chinese were killed in the Rape of Nanking.

The Second Sino-Japanese war came to a close in September 1945 when Japan surrendered to Allied Forces, ending World War II. With the surrender came the end of Imperial Japan. Japan was occupied by Allied Forces before adopting a democratic government in 1947.


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