The 1930s marked the high point of Japan’s pre-World War II empire, when Imperial Japan’s territory stretched from mainland China to Micronesia. Japan’s empire would grow even larger during World War II, extending almost as far south as Australia, which Japan directly attacked in 1942 and 1943. Japan's fifty year rise into imperialism ended with Japan’s defeat in the summer of 1945 when the country was occupied and stripped of imperial possessions and influence.
The 1930s were not the beginning of Japan’s imperial ambitions, notes Susan Townsend of the University of Nottingham. Taiwan had been a Japanese possession since 1895, while the brief Russo-Japanese War of 1905 secured Japanese influence in the Manchuria region of mainland China. In 1910 Japan moved to formally annex Korea. After taking part in World War I on the Allied side, Japan gained the former German territories of Tsingtao and some Micronesian islands in 1919. The Japanese focus on imperialism, military might, political force, and expansion continued with the 1931 invasion of Manchuria. The Japanese expansive imperialistic actions eventually lead to the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941.
Major Japanese Imperialism Events of the 1930s
In September 1931, the Japanese army moved into Manchuria after an explosion damaged a railway line near the city of Mukden. Japanese leaders took this opportunity to set up what they called the autonomous state of Manchukuo. Although in reality it was a simply a military state controlled by the Japanese imperial army. In the aftermath of the invasion, Japanese delegates walked out of the League of Nations when the League supported China. In 1937 Japanese and Chinese troops clashed at a border crossing near Peking. This resulted in a formal declaration of war between the two nations. Following in line with their other imperialistic expansion, Japanese soldiers moved quickly southward and captured the city of Nanjing along with large swathes of the Chinese coast.
Japan's Military Motivation
Japan’s imperial expansion in the 1930s was due to the long-term view taken by the country’s military elite, argues Louise Young, author of “Japan’s Total Empire.” Japanese military leaders believed that seizing control of areas like Korea was vital to securing Japan’s security in the East Asia region. In addition, the reputation of the military was largely based on battlefield successes, meaning imperial expansion boosted military prestige. The move towards imperialism began far earlier in 1868 with the Meiji restoration. Along with the radical modernization that came to Japan during that time, the nation began a march towards imperialism and the inherent need for wealth, prestige and reputation that Japan equated with being an imperialistic military power.
Industrial Japan also favored the expansion of the country’s empire because of the availability of raw materials. With the industrial expansion goal in mind, Japan established plantations in its colonial territories including those growing sugar in Taiwan, soybeans in Manchuria, and rice in Korea. These commodities helped develop the commercial side of Japan’s economy through trading with the United States and Europe. Eventually, international trade would draw Japan into World War II when the United States threatened to cut off oil supplies in 1941.