The period after the Meiji Restoration of 1868 is known as the beginning of modernization in Japan; but what occurred during that period went well beyond men adopting Western-style suits and the introduction of streetcars and factories. That’s because many of those factories also quickly went to work building weapons of war, and in the years between 1868 and the attack by the Japanese on the United States territory of Hawaii in 1941, Japan went from a closed, feudal country to a world power the Japanese called Dai Nippon Teikoku: The Great Japanese Empire.
Japan’s meteoric rise stunned the dominant Western powers (the British, French, German, Russian, Dutch and Americans) that had established global dominance and had been carving up the rest of the world, often fiercely competing for territory, resources and influence. Japan, having just come out of its isolation, quickly realized that the only way it would survive in such shark-infested waters was to become a shark itself.
Thus, from the Japanese historical perspective, the four years we know as World War II were merely the climax of several decades of conflict between Japan and China, Japan and Korea, Japan and Russia, and even Japan and its eventual ally, Germany.
The newly-modern country began creating a strong, outward-facing military soon after the Meiji Restoration began in 1868. In 1894, with what the Japanese conceived as a defensive measure to shore up a vulnerable neighboring peninsula, Japan’s military invaded Korea. This became known to history as the First Sino-Japanese War, since it was actually an attack on Chinese (Sino) dominance in the Korean peninsula. When Japan’s modern military defeated China’s in less than nine months, the humiliation upended the Asian power structure, and among other things, set China on a path to revolution and civil war in the 20th century.
After that first war, and its unsatisfactory treaties, Japan became more aggressive, which led eventually to the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. That second war was waged over (and in and around) Korea and northeastern China, which Russia itself had invaded in 1900, using the pretext of defeating the so-called “Yellow Peril” of Japan. But Japan’s preemptive 1904 attack on the Russians led quickly to a second victory, making Japan the first Asian nation in modern times to defeat a Western power. By 1910, Japan had fully occupied Korea, and the seeds of the Great Japanese Empire had been established. It would endure and expand for the next 37 years.
Subsequent conflicts would engage these same states, including newly-powerful Japan, for the next few decades. Japan entered World War I even before the United States, allied with Britain and France against Germany, and many of its warships (and navy) fought as far away from Japan as the Mediterranean. Japan eventually made common cause with its old rival Russia as well. In its home sphere, Japan took control of key Pacific islands until then claimed by Germany: the Caroline, Marshall and Mariana Islands. Japan held these islands until the U.S. took them toward the end of World War II.
The decade after World War I had ended in 1918 was, in Japan as in the Western democracies, a time of relative peace and economic boom times. The vote was expanded, two political parties vied for power, and the Japanese increasingly enjoyed their new position in the world. But the worldwide economic crash at the end of the Twenties came to Japan as well, and Japan entered the Thirties with its military once again politically-empowered. By mid-decade, these conservative military forces had come to envision the recreation of the old shogunate, ruled by the military, and driven by a nationalism that comported nicely with the National Socialism growing in Germany and fascism in Italy.
Adding to that was an old problem the Japanese had long faced: A shortage of raw materials. Now that it was an industrial power, its access to oil, iron and rubber meant it had to buy them from nearby China, eastern Russia and far-away South East Asia. Following the template laid out by the expansionist Western powers, Japan decided to simply take what it needed.
To this end, in 1931, at the start of the Great Depression, Japan launched an invasion of China’s three northeastern provinces, north of Korea. Japan dubbed the conquered territory Manchuria (Manchukuo), after the Manchus who originated there, and installed a puppet regime. A similar puppet state followed in adjacent Inner Mongolia in 1936, and in 1937 Japanese troops entered China proper, taking advantage of the civil war between Mao Zedong’s Communists and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists.
Thus began what would come to be called the Second Sino-Japanese War, vastly larger than the first, which would, with time, morph into the more familiar conflict known as World War II. Japan’s rapid expansion into British Hong Kong, Malaya and Singapore, as well as the Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia), would continue across Asia into the 1940s – eventually leading to total defeat in 1945.