World War II: The Axis--Japan

Figure 1.--As nations like Japan moved toward war, often lost in the calculations of war and peace was the potential impact on their people--children like these. Here we see Japanese children being prepared for war. This is an Associated Press wire photo dated 1935. Attached is the Associated Press text which was written to provide the caption to subscribing newspapers. It read in part, "JAPANESE CHILDREN LEARN WAR HORRORS. Boys and girls in a Tokyo primary school shown being taught how to act in event an enemy air attack with poison gas catches them without their gas masks. Associated Press Photo 7-12-35." Japan was to be the only country employing poison gas / chenical weapons in World War II, although Italy used poisoned gas in Ethiopia and of course the Germans used poisoned gas on gas chanbers.. Japan used both poison gas and biological weapons in China. Some of the weaons were tested on Allied POWs.

Japan began to develop as an imperial power with the seizure of Formoda (Taiwan) from China (1895). Next Japan seized Korea (19??). Japan's participation in World War I with the allies brought it Germany's Chinese and Pacific possessions. Prince Konoe, a future primeminister, declared that "as a result of [Japan's] one million annual increase in population, our national economic life is heavily burdened. We cannot wait for a rationalizing sdjustment of the world system." (1928) [Schom] The march to World War II began with the seizure of Manchuria (1931) and next the invasion of China (1937). Isolated by world public opinion, Japan withdrew from the League of Nations and looked to two other outcast nations, Germany and Italy, for allies. Japan's desire for colonies brought her into conflict with both the Soviets and the Allies (Britain and France) as well as the Americans. To confront these powers Japan would need allies which in the end lead her to join the Axis (September 27, 1940).

Formosa/Taiwan (1895)

China had always been the principal power in Asia. Japan had managed to maintain its independence from China, but was an isolated backwater. Shocked by the power of European powers, Japanese leaders it contrast to Chinese leaders launched a modernization program. The first glimse of the effectiveness of that program was a war with China in wgich Japan seized Formosa. The first Japan began to develop as an empire with the seizure of Formoda (Taiwan) from China (1895).

Russo-Japanese War (1904-05)

Japan next waged a war with a European power. Both Russia and Japan were competing forvinfluence in Manchria (a province of China) and Korea. The Russians refused to neogtiate soheres of influence with Japan. The Japanese without declaring war seized Port Arthur. They defeated a Russian army at Mukden and the Russian Pacific fleet. The Russians than amassed its Baltic fleet and sent it east. The Japanese defeated that fleet Tsushima. The Russians were forced to negotiate. American President Theodore Roosevelt mediated the negotiations.

Korea (19??)

Next Japan seized Korea (19??). Japan's government-general in Seoul was primarily concerned with the economic exploitation of Korea. Authorities incouraged Japanese migration to Korea as colonizers. Landless Japanese farmers and fishermen were offered Korean land free or at low cost. The Japanese exported large quantities of rice to Japan causing a serious food shortage in Korea itself. The Korean standard of living devlined sharply. Desperate Korean farmers were forced to move to Manchuria or Japan, only to find conditions there also very difficult.

World War I

Japan entered World War I on the Allied sude. This brought Japan Germany's Chinese and Pacific island possessions in the peace settlement.

Washington Naval Confrence (1921-22)

The major naval powers (America, Britain, France, Italy, and Japan) agreed to major limitations on their naval strength which at the time was measured in battleships. American Secretary of State, Charles Evans Hughes organized a conference to address the problem os spiraling naval expendidutres as a result of the naval arms race. Senator William E. Borah, Republican of Idaho, who had ledt the fight againstvAmerican ratification of the Treaty of Versailles and participation in the League of Nations, strongly advocated efforts to limit the arms race. His efforts were not at first favored by the new Harding administration, but was eventually adopted as the Republican alternative to the Democrat's (Wilson's) policy of collective security through the League of Nations. The Confrence opened on Armistice Day 1921--a very meaningful date so close to Workd War I. he American delegation was led by Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes. Hughes shocked the other delegates by proposing a major reduction in naval fleets and not just limitations on new construction. This was far beyond what the other countries had anticipated. Some have called this one of the most dramatic moments in American diplomatic history. ThevAmerican proposals entailed scrapping almost 2 million tons of warships as well as alengthy “holiday” on new building.

Rising Nationalism

Allied pressure on Japan yo withdraw from Siberia in the ftermath of World War was not well receuived by the Japanese military. Relatively moderate policies of Japan's post-World War I democratic Government as well as concessions at the Washington Naval Accords angered elements in the Japanese military. Anti Western sentiment gained strength within the military which had no sympthy for democratic government. There was also substantial opposition to capitalism among military elements. Fervent nationalism was especially strong in the the Kwantung army in Manchuria, young army and navy officers, and various patriotic socities such as the Amur River Society, which counted prominent individuals among its membership. included many prominent men. Anti-western feeling was fed by the Depression (1929) which devestated Japan's silk trade and other export markets.

Prince Konone

Prince Konoe, a future primeminister, declared that "as a result of [Japan's] one million annual increase in population, our national economic life is heavily burdened. We cannot wait for a rationalizing sdjustment of the world system." (1928) [Schom]

Manchuria (1931)

The march to World War II began with the seizure of Manchuria (1931). the Kwantung army staged an incident at Shenyang (Mukden) and used it an excuse to seize all of Manchuria, nominally Chinese territory (1931). This was done without the authorization of the Japanese Government, but the Goverment subsequently apprived the ction and established the satellite state of Manchukuo with the last Chinese Emperor Pu-yi as Emperor. Pu-yi was flown to Tokyo to meet with Emperor Hirohito. Japan was isolated by world public opinion, with Britain and France sharply critical. Stung by the criticism, Japan withdrew from the League of Nations and looked for allies. The Soviet Union protested Japan's seizure of Manchuria where the Soviets had considerable interest. A poorly defined border was a further source of tension.

Militarists Dominate the Government (1930s)

The militarists gradually increased their control over the Government during the 1930s. The Government increased military spending. This enable the militarist party came to terms with the zaibatsu (family controlled commercial groups) which benefitted from lucrative military contracts. Military officers had Prime Minister Inukai assasinated (1932). Other officers attempted a coup (1936). The economic situation improved. A currency devaluation aided exports. Japan persued a policy of penetrating China, especially northern China, both politically and economically. The Chinese organized boycotts of Japanese products. The Japanese military was clearly ibtent on building a colonial empire. They wanted both raw materials and guaranteed markets. Historians, however, debate as to whether these economic and strategic concerns were the dominant motivation. Some historians contend that it was the prestife of having colonies like the European counntries that was most appraling to the militarists. What is not disputed is that as the militarists gained control over the Japanese Government that the focus of Government policy was the creation of a colonial empire.

Anti-Comintern Pact (November 1936)

Relations with the Soviets which had been damaged with the seizure of Manchuria worsened when Japan and Germany signed the Anti-Comintern Pact (1936). The Japanese and Germans signed a protocol in Berlin aimed directly at the Soviet Union (November 25, 1936). The purpose was to "guard" against the Communistic International. The agreement was very simple. It read, " The Imperial Government of Japan and the Government of Germany, In cognizance of the fact that the object of the Communistic International (the so-called Komintern) is the disintegration of, and the commission of violence against, existing States by the exercise of all means at its command, Believing that the toleration of interference by the Communistic International in the internal affairs of nations not only endangers their internal peace and social welfare, but threatens the general peace of the world, Desiring to co-operate for defense against communistic disintegration, have agreed as follows. Article I The High Contracting States agree that they will mutually keep each other informed concerning the activities of the Communistic International, will confer upon the necessary measure of defense, and will carry out such measures in close co-operation. Article II The High Contracting States will jointly invite third States whose internal peace is menaced by the disintegrating work of the Communistic International, to adopt defensive measures in the spirit of the present Agreement or to participate in the present Agreement. Article III The Japanese and German texts are each valid as the original text of this Agreement. The Agreement shall come into force on the day of its signature and shall remain in force for the term of five years. The High Contracting States will, in a reasonable time before the expiration of the said term, come to an understanding upon the further manner of their co-operation." It was signed by Viscount Kintomo Mushakoji Imperial Japanese Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary and Joachim von Ribbentrop German Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary. The agreement was clearly aimed at the Soviet Union. Japan and Germany agreed if attacked by the Soviets to consult on what measures were needed. The two countries also agreed that neither would conclude political treaties with the Soviet Union. Germany agreed to recognize the Japanese puppet regime of Manchuko. Italy subsequently joined the Anti-Comintern Pact (1937). Hitler subsequently violated the terms of the pact when he negotiated NAZI-Soviet Non-Agression Pact (August 1939).

China (1937-45)

Next Japan invanded Japan proper (1937). An incident at Beijing, resulted in a full scale invasion of northern China (July 1937). The Chinese Army resisted inefectually, but a full-scale war developed throughout China. The Japanese military with modern weapons swept through China sizing the costal areas. The Japanese persued the war with unprecedented barbarity. The Rape of Nanking and bombing of undefended Chinese cities apalled world opinion. Despite success after success on the battlefield, the invasion did not bring about the quick victory that some army officers had anticipated. Japan was unable to completely defeat the Chinese and bring the war to a successful conclusion. The war dragged on, becoming a costly prolonged struggle in which the bulk of the Japanese army was committed. The Japanese set up a puppet government Nanjing (1940).

War Crimes and Attrocities

The Japanese in the process of invading China committed war atrocities on an unpresidented level against the Chinese civilian population. The most savage of these explosions of barbarity was the Rape of Nanking, after the fall of the capital Nanking. Here European diplomats and missionaries witnessed the brutality of the Japanese. It should be noted that these attrocities were not inherent in the Japanese caharacter. The Japanese conduct and treatment of both prisionors and civilians during the Russo-Japanese War and World War I had been correct and in accordance with accepted international standards. The Japanese military invading China behaved very differently.

American Pressure

War between America and Japan was not a war that had to be fought. The two countries did not have overlapping terrutorial concerns. The United States, however, had historically persued an Open Door policy in China that Japan colonization threatened. Japan's aggression first in Manchuria and then in China proper had been opposed by the United States. Americans were horrified of the movie newsreels and press images of Japanese attrocities in China. Even though still isolationist, American public opinion while fearful of European involvement tended to favor a hard line with the Japanese. The United States used diplomatic approaches in an effort to contain Japanese encroachments in China. The United States supplied more than half of Japan's iron, steel, and oil giving it some diplomatic leverage. The Japanese militarists resented American interference, but the Government was reluctant to openly confront the United States. American pressure appears to have convinced the Japanese military that the country needed to gain control of the sources of the raw materials it needed.

Soviet Clashes (August 1939)

The Soviets like the Western powers objected to the Japanese seizure of Manchuria. The Soviet premier On January 31, 1935 demanded Japan leave Manchuria. The Japanese refused. Large scale clashes occurred between Japanese and Soviet forces occurred along the border of Manchuria in 1939. Fighting went on for 129 days during the Summer 1939. The Japanese released photographs of captured Soviet soldiers (July 1939). The conflict was little reported in the West. An offensive planned and executed by Marshall Zukov snashed an impending Japanese offensive. The Soviet success convinced the Japanese to seek an armistace (September 1939). About 20,000 Japanese soldiers were killed. The Japanese defeat was not publicized in the country's press. The clash was, however, of imense strategic significance. It was undoubtedly a factor encouraging Stalin to respond favorably to NAZI initiatives for a Non-Aggression Pact (August 1939) to ensure that the Soviet Union would not face a two-front war. Hitler ignored the Soviet performance and instread saw the inept Red Army offensive in Finland as evidence that the Soviets couls be easily defeated. The Japanese Army concluded that further attacks on the Soviets were unwise. This was an important facyor in attacking south in 1941 at America rather than north at the Soviet Union. It was also a major factor in refusing entrities from Hitler in 1942 to attack the Soviet Union.

Military and Political Developments (1938-40)

The Japanese Government continued to increase military spending. The Government increased state control over industry with the passage of the National Mobilization Act (1938). The Government also expanded repression of dissident elements, especially the Communists. The Government dissolved political parties and replaced them with the Imperial Rule Assistance Association (1940).

Japan Joins the Axis (September 1940)

Japan's desire for colonies brought her into conflict with both the Soviets and the Allies (Britain and France) as well as the Americans. To confront these powers Japan would need allies which in the end lead her to join the Axis. Japan was, however, cautious about openly joining with NAZI Germany. Finally after the international power ballance was irevocably changed with the NAZI military victories, especially the fall of France, Japan joined the Axis (September 27, 1940). The Japanese adherence to the Axis Pact was accompanied by intensive publicity. What was not fully understood at the time was the signing was not followed by any serious effort to coordinate strategic planning.


After the fall of France (June 1940), Japan seized Indochina. Vichy France was unable to resist and acceoted the Japanese action. President Rooselvelt, however, did react. When Japan moved into northern Indochina, President Roosevelt embargoed aviation gasoline, scrap metal, steel, and iron. When Japan subsequently seized the remainder of Indochina (July 1941),President Roosevelt not only closed the Panama Canal to Japanese shipping, but added all petroleum products to the embargo list.

Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere

Japanese Prime Minister Matsuoka Yōsuke announced his country's plans to create a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. The plan was to create a group of countries that would be economically independent of the rest of the world. The announcement was accompanied with extensive propaganda concerning the benefits of Asians in overthrowing colonial regimes and associating themselves with Japan. This was in fact essentially a facade for the Japanese colonization of Asia. The economic underpinings of the Co-Prosperity Sphere was at the hear of Japan's decessions to go to war. No country voluntarily joined with Japan, butvthe territories involved would colonial territories or a country like Thialand that was unfer colonial influence. Japan for its war in China and even more so for a war with America, required raw materials from East Asia. Especially critical was the oil from the Dust West Indies and rubber from Indochina and Malay. American embargoes made obtaining these resources even more critical. These resources would help make Japan independent as well as providing markets for Japanese manufactured goods. The Japanese were also interested in finding land for their surplus population.

Neutrality Treaty with the Soviet Union (April 1941)

After meetings in Berlin with Hitler and others, Japanese Foreign Minister Matsuoka went on to Moscow to finalixe a neutrality treaty. At the tine, Stalin was still hoping to join the Axis and the Japanese were supporting him on this. They wanted the Soviet Union in the Axis as it would strengthen their pososition vis-ą-vis the Americans. The Soviets wanted no distraction in the Far East as they expanded their territory in Europe. The Japanese wanted a quiet morthern frontier as they planned war with America and Britain. Japan and the Soviets signed the Soviet–Japanese Neutrality Pact, only 2 years after their border conflict along the poorly defined on the Manchurian-Mongolian frontirt. border. It was signed April 13, 1941 Japan and the Soviet Union pledged to mutually respect each other's territorial integrity and inviolability. The Pact had a provision that it would remain in force for 5 years. If the two contracting parties denounced it a year before its date of expiration, it was to be automatically extended for the next 5 years. The Agreement was signed by Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov and Japanese Foreign Minister Yosuke Matsuoka. Goebbels noted in the his journal that The Führer will not be at all pleased.

Japanese-German Discussions (April 1941)

Matsuoka continued on from Moscow to meet with Von Ribentrop and Hitler. Hitler had seen the Axis allience as part of his overall war policy. He had hoped that the Japanese fleet would help counter the British Royal Navy and the American Fleet, but he also hoped that Japan would join his crusade against the Soviet Union. Here was the crucial point in the War for the Axis. The period after the signing of the Tripartate Agreement (September 1940) was the time for the parties to coordinate their strategies. This did not occur. The suprise signing of the Neutrality pact with the Soviet Union was an example of this. We do not yet have full details on the discussions that took place in Berlin. We know that Matsuoka argued forcefully for peace with the Soviets. Although undoubtedly concerned with the Japanese action, Hitler was convinced that the Wehrmacht would smash the Red Army in a massive summer campaign. He did not believe that Japanese assistance was needed. Clearly the Japanese after fighting the Soviets in Manchuria (1939), were not eager for another campaign against them. The Japanese appear to have argued for an alliance with the Soviets. Hitle would not, however, be disuaded from his planned attack on the Soviet Union. This was the critical point of World War II. The Axis had the clear preponderance of military power. Had the Japanse convinced Hitler to maintain his alliance with the Soviets or haf Germany convinced Japan to join in the attack on the Soviets, the world today would be a very difference place.

Operation Barbarossa (June 1941)

Hiitler launched the struggle that Hitler had he had been dreaming of for years. His plan was in a massive summer campaign not only destroy Bolshevism, but gain the Lebensraum he had dreamed up for the German people. The NAZIs struck (June 22, 1941), setting in motion the most titantic military struggle in history. The Wehrmact achieved staggering successes, surounding an anialating whole Soviet armies. Hitler's mismanagement, however, left the Panzers short of Moscow when the cold weather hit. By the time the Japanese struck at Pearl Harbor it was becoming increasingly clear that the NAZIs were not going to destroy the Soviet Union in a quick summer campaign.

Complelete Military Control (October 1941)

Gen. Hideki Tojo succeeded a civilian, Prince Fumimaro Konoye, as prime minister (October 1941).

Japanese Policy Debates

We are not yet fully aware of the debates within the Japanese military about their next step. Some wanted to strike north at the Soviet Union. Others wanted to strike south at the United States and the European colonian possessions in Southeast Asia. The strength of the Red Army disuaded many military commanders from striking at the the Soviet Union again. Interestingly Japan's poor performance against an industrialized power does not seem to have let the milirtary of the advisability of going to war. The NAZI successes against the Allies and Soviets appears to have convinced some Army commanders that the time was ripe to strike the Soviets again. The strike south was advocated by the Imperial Navy. A key factor was the oil resources of the Dutch East Indies (DEI). But to seize the DEI was impractical because of the American control of the Philippines and the Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor. American demands that Japan end its aggression in China appear to have settled the issue. Not only did the Japanese not strike north at the Soviets, but Soviet spies learned of the decession and important elements of the Soviet Siberia army were rushed west to defend Moscow.


Negotiations between Japan and the United States continued. It became increasingly clear, however, that it was impossible to negotiate the issues. Both American and Japanese offivials began to see that war was inevitable. The Japanese continued the foction of neogtiation even after dispatched a carrier task force to attack Pearl Harbor. Other operatiins were prepared to attack Malay to take the British stronhold of Singapore. Other operations were prepared for KOng Kong, the Philippines and the American outposts on Guam and Wake Island. Ameruican military planners were expecting an attack, they were not, however, expecing an attack as far east as Pear Harbor.

Pearl Harbor (December 1941)

A Japanese carrier taskforce composed of six carriers on December 7, 1941, executed a surprise attack on the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. It was a brilliant tactical victory for Japan, but perhaps the greatest mistake in modern military history as it brought a suddenly united America with its vast industrial capacity into the War. The Japanese launched 360 aircraft which in 2 hours struck Peal Harbor just as the American sailors were waking up on a sleepy Sunday morning. The strike sunk or heavily damaged six of the eight American battleships, thrre cruisrs, three destroyers, and most of the Army Air Corps planes on the island. America was at war.


Schom, Alan. The Eagle and the Rising Sun: The Japanese-American War 1941-1943 (Norton, 2003).


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Created: May 3, 2004
Last updated: 4:40 PM 7/12/2019