Japan’s political journey from its quasi-democratic government in the1920’s to its radical nationalism of the mid 1930’s, the collapse of democraticinstitutions, and the eventual military state was not an overnighttransformation. There was no coup d’etat, no march on Rome, no storming of theBastille. Instead, it was a political journey that allowed a semi-democraticnation to transform itself into a military dictatorship. The forces that aidedin this transformation were the failed promises of the Meiji Restoration thatwere represented in the stagnation of the Japanese economy, the perceivedcapitulation of the Japanese parliamentary leaders to the western powers, acompliant public, and an independent military. The ground work for Japanese militarism was a compliant Japanese public. This pliant public was created through a variety of factors.Order now
Beginning in the1890’s the public education system indoctrinated students in the ideas ofnationalism, loyalty to the emperor and traditionalist ideas of self-sacrificeand obedience. Thus ideas that were originally propagated to mobilize supportfor the Meiji government were easily diverted to form broad support for foreignmilitarism. Japanese society also still held many of the remnants of feudalculture such as strong confusion beliefs that stressed support for social orderand lack of emphasis on individualist values. These values taught obedience notto a democratic but to the emperor; so the fact that the militaristic governmentof the 1930’s ruled under the emperor meant that the Japanese were loyal to thisgovernment just as they had been to the government of the 1920’s. So whenJapan’s militaristic government implemented programs characteristic oftotalitarian governments such as strong media control, a thought police, andcommunity organizations the public did little to protest. Shintoism provided areligious justification for nationalism and support for the militaristicgovernment.
Shintoism before the 1930’s was primarily a nativistic religionwhich stressed nature and harmony. But during the 1930’s it became a ideologicalweapon teaching Japanese that they were a superior country that had a right toexpand and that its government was divinely lead by a descendent of the sun god. The independence and decentralization of the military allowed it to actlargely on its own will as characterized in the Manchurian incident in 1931 andthe Marco Polo bridge explosion in Shanghai. Because these incidents wentunpunished and the Japanese public rallied around them the military was able topush for greater militarism and an increasingly active role in government tillthe entire government was run by the military. The London Treaty and Japan’srejection by large European powers at the Versailles conference angered many inthe military who felt that Japan was being denied its place at the table withthe great powers. This lead to a disenfranchisement with the parliamentarygovernment who the military felt had capitulated to the western powers intreaties and by stopping its colonial expansion during the nineteen twenties.
Once Japan commenced on the path of militarism it found that because of itstechnological edge it could defeat other Asian powers this increased Japan’ssense of superiority and feed the fires of nationalism. These fires grew asfollowing the 1931 Manchurian incident Japan invaded Manchuria then most China. In South East Asia Japan quickly expanded breaking up British, Portuguese, andDutch colonialism. Japanese militarism occurred not by an organized plan butrather through passive acceptance by the Japanese public. A compliant Japanesepublic coupled with a independent army were two factors that pushed Japan towardmilitarism in the 1930’s.