Japan’s political journey from its quasi-democratic government in the 1920s to its radical nationalism of the mid-1930s, the collapse of democratic institutions, and the eventual military state was not an overnight transformation. There was no coup d’état, 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, which were represented in the stagnation of the Japanese economy, the perceived capitulation of the Japanese parliamentary leaders to the Western powers, and an independent military. The groundwork for Japanese militarism was a compliant Japanese public, which was created through a variety of factors.
Beginning in the 1890s, the public education system indoctrinated students in the ideas of nationalism, loyalty to the emperor, and traditionalist ideas of self-sacrifice and obedience. These ideas were originally propagated to mobilize support for the Meiji government but were easily diverted to form broad support for foreign militarism. Japanese society also held many remnants of feudal culture, such as strong Confucian beliefs that stressed support for social order and a lack of emphasis on individualist values. These values taught obedience not to a democratic government but to the emperor. Therefore, the fact that the militaristic government of the 1930s ruled under the emperor meant that the Japanese were loyal to this government, just as they had been to the government of the 1920s. 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 1930s was primarily a nativistic religion that stressed nature and harmony. However, during the 1930s, it became an ideological weapon teaching Japanese that they were a superior country with a right to expand, and that their government was divinely led by a descendant of the sun god. The military’s independence and decentralization allowed it to act largely on its own will, as seen in the Manchurian incident in 1931 and the Marco Polo bridge explosion in Shanghai. These incidents went unpunished, and the Japanese public rallied around them, enabling the military to push for greater militarism and an increasingly active role in government until 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 led to a disenfranchisement with the parliamentary government, which the military felt had capitulated to the western powers in treaties and by stopping its colonial expansion during the 1920s.
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 fed the fires of nationalism. These fires grew following the 1931 Manchurian incident, when Japan invaded Manchuria and then most of China. In Southeast 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 an independent army, were two factors that pushed Japan toward militarism in the 1930s.