Empire of Japan

Empire in the Asia-Pacific region from 1868 to 1947

The Empire of Japan, also referred to as the Japanese EmpireImperial Japan, or simply Japan, was the Japanese nation-state that existed from the Meiji Restoration in 1868 until the enactment of the reformed Constitution of Japan in 1947.


  • The astonishing modernisation of Japan since she had abandoned her self-imposed isolation from the West in 1868 had left her traditional society and its moral code little changed. She had copied German and American industry, the German army and the English and German navies. She had not copied the liberal assumptions by which English statesmen governed their actions. The Japanese view of international relations owed nothing to Christianity, evangelical or otherwise; and the internationalist moralising and idealism then current in Britain were as foreign and incomprehensible to the Japanese as to thirteenth-century English barons. For Japanese society remained feudal, hierarchical, obedient, each man looking to his patron and so on upwards to the emperor, who was not only the ruler of the country, but divine and therefore an object of worship. The Japanese venerated the ideal of the warrior brave in battle, jealous of honour, loyal unto death and achieving fulfilment in dying by violence. It was not therefore the gentle dreams of League-of-Nations believers in the West, but bloodthirsty reveries of a destiny of conquest which inspired the most powerful groups in Japanese society, the leaderships of the armed forces.
  • The main driving force has been a primitive lust for power and dominion among a powerful section of Japan's warrior caste. Just as in the days of feudalism the warriors—the shoguns, the daimyos and the samurai—dominated the domestic political scene, so the successors of that caste to-day—a section of the military and naval leaders and of the corps of "Younger Officers"—aspired to dominate the world outside Japan. They looked upon war as their chosen instrument. Taken as a whole—there are of course many individual exceptions—these successors of the samurai are arrogant, cruel, conceited and possessed of an overweening ambition to dominate and conquer for the greater "glory" of Japan. I do not suggest that this primitive lust of conquest is confined to the Army; but the Army is unquestionably its spiritual home and, but for Army influence in the State, it would never have played such a part in the shaping of Japan's destinies.
  • [Japan is] a restless and aggressive Power, full of energy, somewhat like the Germans in mentality, seeking in every direction to push out and find an outlet for her ambitions.
  • Japan had much in common with Great Britain, besides high population density. An archipelago of islands located not far from a well-developed continent with a longer-established civilization, Japan had emerged from an era of civil war to embrace constitutional monarchy. Japan was Asia's first industrial nation, just as Britain was Europe's. Both rose to economic power by manufacturing cloth and selling it to foreigners. Victorian Britain was famous for its stuffy social hierarchy; so too was Meiji Japan. The English had their state religion, propounded by the Church of England; the Japanese had theirs, known as Shinto. Both cultures engaged in what looked to outside eyes like emperor- (or empress-) worship. Both cultures venerated and romanticized the chivalric codes of a partly imagined feudal past. The enduring power of Second World War propaganda still makes it hard for Western observers to acknowledge these similarities; we prefer to accentuate the 'otherness' of inter-war Japan. To ignore them, however, is to miss the essential legitimacy of the basic Japanese objective after 1905: to be treated as an equal by the Western powers. To the Japanese this meant more than the share of the Chinese market that was on offer under the system of unequal treaties. The British had acquired a large and lucrative empire, the core of which was their total control of the defunct Asian empire of the Mughals but which also afforded them vast tracts of living space in North America and Australasia. The Japanese saw no reason why they should not build an empire of their own, complete with living space, in the ruins of the no less defunct Qing empire. The biggest difference between Japan and Britain was one of timing. Economically, at least in terms of per capita gross domestic product, Japan was around a century and a half behind, if not more. Strategically, too, Japan was roughly where Britain had been in the first half of the eighteenth century. Her opponents, however, were more numerous and more formidable than Hanoverian Britain's had been.
    • Niall Ferguson, The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West (2006), p. 286
  • If new warships are considered necessary we must, at any cost, build them: if the organization of our army is inadequate we must start rectifying it from now; if need be, our entire military system must be changed...
    At present Japan must keep calm and sit tight, so as to lull suspicions nurtured against her; during this time the foundations of national power must be consolidated; and we must watch and wait for the opportunity in the Orient that will surely come one day. When this day arrives, Japan will decide her own fate, and she will be able not only to put in their place the powers who seek to meddle in her affairs, she will even be able, should this be necessary, to meddle in their affairs.
    • Hayashi Gonsuke, statement after the end of the First Sino-Japanese War when the Triple Intervention by Russia, France and Germany compelled Japan to surrender its claims to Port Arthur and the Liaotung Peninsula, quoted in Richard Storry, Japan and the Decline of the West in Asia, 1894–1943 (1979), p. 30
  • It seems indisputable that the strong Japanese sense of cultural uniqueness, the traditions of emperor worship and veneration of the state, the samurai ethos of military honour and valour, the emphasis upon discipline and fortitude, produced a political culture at once fiercely patriotic and unlikely to be deterred by sacrifices, and reinforced the Japanese impulse to expand into "Greater East Asia", for strategical security as well as markets and raw materials... On land and sea, the better-equipped Japanese forces seemed driven by a will to succeed.
  • Frankly he liked the Japanese. The reasons they gave very often for doing things were quite unintelligible, and they might have no conscience, but they did stand by those who stood by them ... Japan, on the whole, had been faithful to her obligations.
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