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Discuss the Motivations, Successes & Failures of Imperial Japan During the Second World War

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After leading the United States through nearly a decade of Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt took on the role of Commander-in-Chief when the United States entered the Second World War. Unfounded fears that Japanese American citizens might sabotage the war effort led Franklin Delano Roosevelt to order that all Americans of Japanese descent be forced into internment camps.

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While the United States was still struggling to emerge from the Great Depression at the end of the 1930s, and would do so partly because of the war, Japan had emerged from its own period of depression, which had begun in 1926, by the mid-1930s. Many of the young soldiers mobilized into the Japanese army by the early 1930s came from the rural areas, where the effects of the depression were devastating and poverty was widespread. Their commitment to the military effort to expand Japanese territory to achieve economic security can be understood partly in these terms. The depression ended in the mid-1930s in Japan partly because of government deficits used to expand greatly both heavy industry and the military. Internationally, this was a time when "free trade" was in disrepute. The great powers not only jealously protected their special economic rights within their colonies and spheres of influence, but sought to bolster their sagging economies through high tariffs, dumping of goods, and other trade manipulation. The Japanese, with few natural resources, sought to copy this pattern. They used cutthroat trade practices to sell textiles and other light industrial goods in the East Asian and U.S. markets, severely undercutting British and European manufacturers. They also developed sources of raw materials and heavy industry in the colonies they established in Korea, Taiwan and Manchuria. Japan used high tariffs to limit imports of American and European industrial products. The Japanese military faced a particular tactical problem in that certain critical raw materials — especially oil and rubber — were not available within the Japanese sphere of influence. Instead, Japan received most of its oil from the United States and rubber from British Malaya, the very two Western nations trying to restrict Japan's expansion. U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's embargo of oil exports to Japan pressured the Japanese navy, which had stocks for only about six months of operations. The Japanese army, for its part, was originally concerned with fighting the Soviet Union, because of the army's preoccupation with Manchuria and China

The Japanese army governed Manchuria indirectly through the "puppet" state of Manchukuo and developed heavy industry there under its favorite agencies, disliking and distrusting the zaibatsu (large Japanese corporations). But the Soviet army's resistance to Japanese attacks was sufficient to discourage northern expansion.

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To Japan, to be a modern power, much like that of the west, mean to be a colonial power. After the Meiji Restoration of the nineteen century that reformed Japan’s economic, political and social status, Japan finally had the industrial power to achieve some of its aims. Japan pursued a forceful foreign policy of expansion for the same reasons the Europeans did, including economic as well as nationalist reasons. In 1894, Japan was primarily trade oriented, despite the presence of important elements of industry. By 1930 it was industrial[Beasley, W.G, 1987]. In the twentieth century, Japanese imperialism became more aggressive and confident after successes against foreign powers. Much like the Sino-Japanese war in 1894, which Japan won in 1895, Japan was strengthened by loses on China’s behalf such as Taiwan and the influence over Korea[Blakeslee, George H., 1933]. The victory was proof to the Japanese that modern weaponry worked and raised Japan’s reputation in the eyes of the west. This reputation was greatly magnified to not only the west, but to the whole world, when Japan defeated the Russian Empire during the Russo-Japanese war from 1904-1905. The attack on the Russian Navy moored at Port Arthur before the formal announcement of war was so successful, the tactic was later used on Pearl Harbour[Chang, 1997]. In the eyes of many Asians living under Imperialism, it shattered the myth of European invincibility and proved that an Asian power could defeat a European one. After the First World War, Japan had been accepted by the Western Powers as a notable imperial power. By incorporating some of the European ideologies, Japan had been successful in its advances. Though, in the interwar period, most countries in Europe did not want another war. However, since Japan had not suffered as much as some European countries had, the reluctance to engage in warfare was not instilled in their imperialist actions. The empire, by the First World War, had expanded to Taiwan, Korea, the Pacific Island chains and Manchuria. Initially, Manchuria was a forethought to the expansion of the empire: it was not a strategic focus or had high importance of foreign policy. However after 1931 Japan revaluated their strategic plan and focused their power on expanding their empire in the Northeast. Late in 1931, Japan experimented their power, invading the Chinese province of Manchuria and setting up a violently repressive puppet state. In its invasion of Manchuria, Japan had set into motion the first acts of the steps towards World War II that would start about a decade later

However, China was incapable to fight against the invasion due to national political and economic conflict, the allied countries were also practically helpless. Historian Robert Thompson states that America was not prepared to offer military backing to intervene, it however issued ‘The Stimson Doctrine’ which reinforced the allied interest in China. Thompson states that “by asserting the right to guarantee China’s survival in the face of Japanese aggression, America acknowledged itself as a major player in the East Asian power game”. It is obvious that many foundations were in place for the Second World War almost decade before the conflict had begun.

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To sum up, Japanese Pan-Asianism is based on two contradictory beliefs

On the one hand, the Japanese argued that their expansion into other parts of Asia was for the greater good of their “Asian brothers” and justified their actions by distancing themselves from Europeans. At the same time, the Japanese invoked ideas of racial and cultural superiority that had justified Western imperialism in Asia in a previous era.

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Beasley, W.G.,Japanese Imperialism, 1894-1945. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.

Blakeslee, George H. “THE JAPANESE MONROE DOCTRINE.” Foreign Affairs 11, no. 4 (July 1933): 671-681.

Chang, Iris. The Rape Of Nanking. New York: BasicBooks, 1997

Crozier, Andrew J. The Causes Of The Second World War. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997

Laurie Barber and Ken Henshall, The Last War of Empires: Japan and the Pacific War, Auckland: David Batement Ltd, 1999

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