1930-1940. The Insatiable Appetite of Imperial Japan

“We viewed Indonesia as a country with abundant natural wealth but lagging behind in development. Japan was to go there to help them put their wealth to good use. » Whoever utters these words is not a political ideologue or an economist. In 1940, Hogi Harmuchi was a simple law and accounting student at the private Nihon University. He was just repeating with passion the regime’s propaganda, that of a “civilizing mission” in the other countries of Asia.

“By dint of hearing that, practically all the students of the time were won over by militarism”, he confides in a testimony collected by two academics, Haruko Tara Cook and Theodore F. Cook, in Japan at War (1992, De Fallois). This speech echoes that delivered by the Prime Minister of Japan, Konoe Fuminaro, on November 3, 1938:

“Japan seeks to establish a new order (…) which aims to achieve close economic cohesion throughout East Asia. This is the way to contribute to East Asia’s stabilization and progress. »

In fact, this “economic cohesion” consisted in the formation, in about ten years, of a colonial empire of more than 7 million km² in the service of Japan.

Annexation, exploitation, diversification

How does this appetite for conquest arise? At the turn of the XXe century, the country already has colonies. In 1895, the First Sino-Japanese War enabled Japan to occupy Taiwan. After his victory over Russia in 1905, he annexed Korea in 1910, and developed his influence in the Chinese region of Manchuria, thanks to the operation of a railway line which crosses this province.

The South Manchurian Railway Company, financed by the state and private capital, then became the main agent of the Japanese presence. It quickly diversified its activities: opening of coal and iron mines and blast furnaces for the production of steel, creation of train manufacturing workshops, new towns, etc.

Finally, to secure this concession, Japan sent soldiers on the spot, the Kwantung army. From the beginning of the XXe century, Japan therefore has an industrial, commercial and military presence in part of East Asia.

Faced with the crisis, a “pan-Asian federation”

With the West, Japan has had commercial relations since the end of the 19th century.e century. In 1868, at the beginning of the Meiji era (enlightened government), the empire emerged from its isolation and modernized, notably through the textile industry. The country imports cotton yarn from Asia and machinery from the West.

Then, it produces locally manufactured textile goods. By increasing yields (by 80% between 1880 and 1914), local producers replaced importers and became exporters: from the end of the 19e century, Japan exported more textiles than it imported. This favorable balance then makes it possible to apply the model to other industrial sectors.

Japan is first eyeing Manchuria where industrial production is growing by 10% to 20% per year

In the 1930s, the economist Kaname Akamatsu analyzed this transformation. The curves of imports, exports and production vary over time: on a graph, this resembles a “flight of wild geese”, in an inverted V. But to continue its development, Japan needs raw materials and commercial outlets.

However, with the economic crisis of the 1930s, trade with the West collapsed. The idea of ​​a kind of pan-Asian federation of which Japan would be the locomotive then developed. Power reactivates the formula “Asia is One”, written in 1903 by the art critic Okakura Tenshin.

According to him, the peoples of the Asian continent have an “attraction for the universal”, unlike Westerners, who are interested in the particular. In the 1930s, this argument was used to justify a policy of conquest. Japan is eyeing Manchuria first, where industrial production is growing by 10% to 20% per year.

Sino-Japanese War

Matsuoka Yosuké, then a member of parliament, even describes the region as “Japan’s lifeline”. But the island wants more and wants to increase its grip on the region. His army applies a Machiavellian plan to achieve his ends: the officers stationed in the region blow up part of the track belonging to the South Manchurian Railway Company, on September 18, 1931. Then, they accuse China !

This is the ideal pretext to precipitate the invasion of the region. In three months Manchuria is conquered. Hundreds of thousands of civilians from the archipelago are encouraged to settle there to make the Empire prosper. “If the Japanese industrial complexes and financial circles did not start the war on their own initiative, they applauded it, and soon reaped enormous profits from it,” explained the Japanese historian Saburo Ienaga in The Pacific War 1931-1945.

In July 1937, following friction between Chinese and Japanese soldiers – the Marco Polo Bridge incident – ​​Japanese army troops advanced on Beijing. This time, the whole of China is threatened by Japan. The Chinese Nationalist Army stands against the invaders. She was defeated on August 9 in Shanghai. China bends but does not break. The war is becoming more and more deadly.

Massacres and looting

Japanese soldier Nahora Teishin was just 20 years old when he was sent to the front in September 1937, he says in Japan at War :

“There are many rivers in central China. The dead fell into it and became entangled on the surface. Hundreds at a time. It was dreadful. (…) You could push them away with a stick, and the clumped bodies then moved away from the surface of the water. This is the water we used to drink and cook our rice. Cholera soon spread. »

The high point of Japanese repression was the Nanjing massacre between December 1937 and February 1938. Between 150,000 and 200,000 Chinese civilians perished. But on the northern border, Soviet military power threatens. And in 1939, a blow for Japan, Germany and the USSR signed a non-aggression pact.

The empire knows that it cannot count on any German help against the Russians. He then folds his expansionist views on southern Asia.

Foreign Minister Matsuoka Yosuke evokes in 1940 the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”. Its mission: to liberate the Asian peoples from the colonial yoke of the West.

Because during this time, in Europe, France has been defeated, the United Kingdom is bloodless: it is the right time to get their hands on their colonies. In July 1941, Japanese troops moved into southern Indochina. In 1942, they conquered Singapore, Indonesia, Burma, the Philippines, Thailand, Borneo.

But how to justify this new front? Having become Minister of Foreign Affairs Matsuoka Yosuke evokes in 1940 the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”. Its mission: to liberate the Asian peoples from the colonial yoke of the West.

In truth, a real looting is organized. Rice, rubber, metals, coal, oil, tea or coffee, are requisitioned without compensation from the occupied countries. In Japan, it is even said that “the cat has conquered the whale”, in reference to the immensity of the territory conquered by the army of the small archipelago.

As for the workforce of the colonized countries, it is largely exploited. In 1942, Ahn Juretsu was a young Korean conscripted by force to work for the war effort in Hokkaido. He tells in Japan at War :

We started by leveling the ground. By digging into the mountain and filling in the holes. Then we spread ashes and volcanic rocks, then covered everything with asphalt. Our hands were raw (…) We were reduced to slavery. The supervisors had sabers on their belts as well as pistols. »

Expansionism reduced to nothing

But in June 1942, the Japanese were defeated by the Americans in Midway Atoll. A halt to the Japanese advance in the Pacific. Since December 7, 1941, the United States has indeed entered the war following the attack on the base of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese naval air forces.

Why this surprise offensive? Because the United States opposes Japanese expansionism through economic sanctions, with the total embargo and the freezing of Japanese capital in July 1941, but also by helping China militarily.

The Japanese objective is to neutralize the American fleet to prevent it from intervening in the Pacific. Bet lost. During 1943, the Americans took turns at enemy supply posts in the Pacific. After nearly four years of a murderous war (and two atomic bombs dropped on Japan), it capitulated on September 2, 1945. It was the end of its expansionist ambitions.

Between 1931 and 1945, nearly two million Japanese soldiers and 3.8 million Chinese soldiers perished, as well as more than 25 million civilians, including 20 million Chinese. In 1945, nearly 700,000 soldiers were abandoned by the Japanese general staff in the jungle or isolated islands. Imperialism, “supreme stage of capitalism” according to Lenin, does not shrink from war to impose its law. The United States, winners of Japan, have shown this themselves time and time again. But there are other much more effective and sustainable means.

Find the articles of our series “The economy goes to war”

We want to say thanks to the writer of this write-up for this remarkable web content

1930-1940. The Insatiable Appetite of Imperial Japan

Our social media profiles here and other pages on related topics here.https://nimblespirit.com/related-pages/