In the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, Japan stunned the world with its swift and decisive victory over Russia, becoming the first Asian country to defeat a Western power. It was a victory not only over Russia, whose eastern territorial ambitions clashed with Japan’s western ones in Manchuria, but also over an endemic Western racism that thought the Japanese incapable of fighting a modern war.

Which Direction?

The question for the victorious Japanese in 1905 was, what path to take? They could stay a middle-sized nation, heavily dependent on other countries for crucial foreign trade goods, or they could emulate Western imperialism and strike out on their own. Japan’s need for resources, coupled with its distrust of the West, was the main reason the nation decided to expand after 1905.

Economic Expansion

The need to expand for economic reasons became all-important as the Great Depression of 1929 began. Unlike other nations, Japan had suffered a severe economic slowdown during the 1920s, and needed both strong export markets and a guaranteed flow of imports to jumpstart its economy. The Japanese already governed Manchuria indirectly, but in 1931 the military seized the country under the pretext of defending itself from terrorism; the Japanese planted a bomb on the railroad tracks of the South Manchurian Railroad, which Japan owned, and blamed Chinese terrorists for the act. They did so because Manchuria provided the coal and iron needed to support Japan’s heavy industries and its continued military buildup. And Manchuria’s wide-open spaces would also help with Japan’s overpopulation, which was further inhibiting economic growth at home.

War With China

Expansion into China was next. The Chinese Civil War between nationalist and communist forces had begun in 1927, and there was concern in Japan that whichever side won would threaten Japan’s extensive commercial interests by nationalizing China’s industry. In 1933, having turned Manchuria into a puppet-state, Japan annexed China’s northern Jehol Province. By 1937, Japan was engaged in an all-out war with China, which drained its resources, causing the increasingly powerful military to demand that the government shift its strategy southward in search of raw materials. When the Japanese moved into Indochina in 1941, the United States responded by embargoing exports of scrap steel and oil to Japan; the Japanese then felt they had no choice but to seize the Dutch East Indies for oil and British Malaysia for rubber.

Other Reasons

There were other reasons for Japanese expansion after the Russo-Japanese War. One was Western racism against the Japanese. In the United States this took the form of the Japanese Exclusion Act, passed in 1924, which limited Japanese immigration to America. Another reason was the rise of Japanese nationalists and a war-hungry military machine. But its pressing need for unrestricted sources of trade goods and raw materials was the major reason for Japanese expansion.