Read this article to learn about the expansionist policy, political repression, military fascism between the two world wars in Japan!
The drive for expansion had been a marked feature of Japanese history since the beginning of her modernisation in the second half of the nineteenth century.
At the end of the First World War she made major colonial gains in the Pacific and over a large part of China.
The treaty she signed in Washington, though restricted the growth of her navy, had still left her as the greatest naval power in the Pacific. For a time, she pursued ‘peaceful’ ways of extending her domination over China as well as South-East Asia through economic means.
However, the growth of the movement for Chinese national unification, as well as the influence of the Chinese Communist Party created major hurdles for extending her control over China. One of her major objectives was to prevent Chinese national unification.
One of the first major acts of aggression after the First World War was committed by Japan when she occupied Manchuria in 1931 and later set up a puppet government there. This was followed by a massive invasion of China in 1937. In 1936 she had signed the Anti-Comintern Pact with Germany. She planned to establish her hegemony over the entire
Asian continent and the Pacific, as Germany along with Italy had planned to do it over the rest of the world. The Japanese economy continued to grow after the war and she became the biggest exporter of cotton textiles, rayon and raw silk. However her dependence on other countries for raw materials, machinery and foodstuffs had made the economy somewhat fragile.
In order to overcome some of these problems, she underwent extensive industrial expansion particularly in iron and steel and heavy engineering industries. But direct control over the resources and markets of China and other countries was considered essential by Japanese industrialists and political and military leaders.
The Japanese industrial expansion had taken place under conditions of extreme exploitation of the workers. The industry and the banks were under the domination of the zaibatsu, a small group of money- cliques. The zaibatsu had close links with the Japanese government and politicians. The living condition of the workers was miserable.
The condition of farmers was no better. Most of the peasants had extremely small holdings, a little more than an acre, and a large number of them worked as tenants. The Japanese agriculture was unable to absorb Japan’s growing population or meet its food requirements. There was widespread unrest in the country.
In 1919, there were disturbances throughout the country over the high price of rice which most people—the general level of their wages being low—could not afford to pay. These are generally referred to as ‘rice mutinies’.
Factories, the houses of the rich, and the shops of rice traders were attacked and burnt. In the 1920s, there was a wave of strikes, and trade unions began to gain strength. Communist and Social Democratic Parties were also formed and they tried to organise workers and peasants against the oppressive economic system.
These parties also aroused the people of Japan against the policy of imperialism and war. However, they were suppressed ruthlessly as were the trade unions and the peasants’ organisations.
In 1925, the Peace Preservation Law was passed to suppress ‘dangerous thoughts’. According to this law, anyone forming or joining an organisation which advocated change in the form of government or the abolition of private property could be arrested. Even academic discussions on these questions or other political problems were banned.
‘Military Fascism’ in Japan:
Japan seemed to be making some progress in having a parliamentary form of government in the 1920s. In 1924, the franchise was extended to all males—women continued to be denied the right to vote. For sometime the government seemed to work under the control of the civilians. However, the military continued to be a major force in the political life of the country and from the early 1930s increasingly dominated the government.
Even before the military had established its domination over the government, it would openly defy the government, and the government could do nothing to control it. The Japanese military was the most aggressive force in the Japanese society.
It had close links with a number of secret societies, which had been formed. All these societies attacked ideas of liberalism, pacifism and democracy, and advocated ideas of national chauvinism, the superiority of the Japanese culture and preservation of the purity of Japanese culture from foreign influences.
Ideas of peace, socialism and democracy were considered foreign ideas from which Japan had to be protected. These societies had their own notions of what constituted the ‘national essence’ of Japan. Emperor-worship was an idea common to most of them.
They advocated the belief that “to die for the Emperor is to live forever”. They had their armed gangs, and resorted to political assassinations. The ideology of the armed forces and of many political leaders of Japan was largely shaped by these secret societies.
The imperialist expansion of Japan was considered a desirable aim by all political forces except the Communists and the Social Democrats. The latter had been reduced to a position of insignificance by the repressive policies followed by the Japanese government during the inter-war period.
The political system which emerged in Japan may be called ‘military fascism’. Its growing affinity with the fascist governments of Germany and Italy was natural.
In 1926 Emperor Hirohito succeeded to the throne of Japan. The reign of the emperor under whom modernisation of Japan had begun in 1868 was known as Meiji, meaning “enlightened government”. Emperor Hirohito took the title of showa for his reign, which means “enlightened peace”.