The Rise of 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.
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.