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The Factors that Gave Rise To 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.

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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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