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Japan Imperialism Essay Question

Japanese imperialism:

Besides changes in domestic values and practices, Japan's relations with its neighbors also changed after the Meiji Restoration.  We have talked about the varied changes in Japanese society, economy, and politics, including the introduction of Western values of civilization and enlightenment, industrialization, abolition of feudalism and establishment of a centralized, constitutional government.  On the other hand, we have also mentioned the conservative backlashes at the introduction of liberal values regarding political participation, women's status, individualism and other Western liberal values, in the Civil Law of 1898, in the Rescript of Education in 1890, in the 1889 constitution, and in the newly defined state Shinto.  Japan's expansion was, similar to other changes taking place, the result of emulation of and conflict with the Western countries.

Japan's expansion was undertaken in an environment of imperialism of European countries. 

  • Colonialism.
  • Imperialism.
  • Governments often used conquests to display their muscle.
  • Imperialism was also often the flipside of nationalism.  


Traditional foreign relations:

Often informal, e.g. no clearly drawn national boundaries.  Same true with China that did not have an accurate map in the 1860s.

Historically, foreign relations among several Asian countries, centered around China, followed more or less the courtesies of a large family clan.  Hence foreign relations in China was conducted by the Board of Rites (rather than Foreign Ministry), and Korea and Vietnam were tributary states.  Japan did not follow the suit of its neighbor Korea, but for some centuries it treated China largely with deference in peacetime.  Although an active learner, Japan did not develop an active foreign policy in the Asian international milieu.

Japanese expansion in early 20th century:

  • Expansion into Hokkaido in the Meiji era and cultural assimilation of the Ainu (287), converting them from hunter-gatherers into agriculturalists. 
  • Opening up Korea's ports for Japanese trade (289) and extraterritoriality for Japan. (in reaction to Korea's initial refusal to accede to the new Meiji government).
  • Subduing the Rhyukyuans (1879).
  • Expansion into China.

Explanation of expansion:

  • Korea: raw materials, farmland, and security.
  • China: raw materials, market, farmland.
  • Hokkaido: farmland, lumber, other resources.
  • Okinawa: resources and security.

Volatilities of East Asian boundaries in the 19th century:

Japanese expansion in Asia was undertaken in an age of active Western expansion into China.  In particular, Russian expansion led to its takeover of large quantities of Chinese territories in the 19th century, including the acquisition of Vladivostok, and various other border regions between China and Russia.  The building of the Trans-Siberian railway from Moscow to Vladivostok (1890s) furthered Russian penetration into Manchuria.  Russian activities in China and Korea clashed with Japanese intentions to expand to these regions.

View map of imperialism in China

Expansion and imperialism:

Like European countries, many in the Japanese government turned expansion into a systematic goal, for security, national pride, resources for industrialization, settlement of overpopulation, and markets for manufactured goods.  These goals were often intertwined.

Q: Did Japanese imperialism differ from European imperialism in any way?

With many similarities to the West, Japanese imperialism differed from Western imperialism in that it was the first non-Western imperial power, and that it rose to imperial status after facing colonization by the West.  Like Western powers, Japanese expansion was fueled with Social Darwinism, and racism:

Need to ruthlessly protect itself, which could mean siding with the Western powers and act as they did to the other Asian countries. (c.f. Fukuzawa Ukichi, in McClain, 293-4)  

Despite Japan's civilization, Western countries, because of racism, treated it the same way as other Asian countries.

Imperial expansion the last chance to win Western respect and ensure security and survival as a nation, and even bring civilization to other countries in Asia.

Imperial expansion went hand in hand with growing Japanese nationalism:

  • Reaction to the Treaty of Portsmouth (284, 306-7)
  • Public opinion urging the country to war with Russia after talks were bogged down (303).

Outline of Japan's war with China (1894-5), and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5)

  • Russia's expansion in China:
  • Impending trans-Siberian Railway in 1889 to Vladivostok.
  • Activities in Manchuria, Mongolia, and Chinese Turkestan.
  • In the face of Russian and European expansion in  general, Yamagata proposed establishing line of sovereignty (borders) and line of advantage, buffer zones (292): drawing borders with Korea, etc.
  • Conflict between China and Japan over Korea and consequent war.
  • Russia's refusal to accept Japanese takeover of Liaodong Peninsula and consequent retaking of it, infuriating the Japanese.
  • The Russo-Japanese War for Japan to settle accounts with Russia over Chinese territory.

The two wars were both causes and results of Social Darwinism and racism:

        The Sino-Japanese War:

1880s: conflict between conservative and progressive factions within the Korean court, ultimately mediation by China and Japan.

In the 1890s, after China dispatched troops to Korea to dispel a peasant uprising, Japanese confrontation with China near the mouth of the Yalu River on the Yellow Sea.  The resulting treaty of Shimonoseki resembled the unequal treaties. (McClain, 299)

Result: 1894, abolition of Anglo-Japanese unequal treaties, and 1897, the other treaty powers, similar agreements that recognized Japan's tariff autonomy and promised complete equalization of all relations by 1911.

The Russo-Japanese War:

Russia's demand for return of Liaodong Peninsula to China, backed by Britain, and the U.S., after the success of Japan over China.

Russia's taking over the Liaodong Peninsula (25 year lease), and building the Chinese Eastern Railway in Manchuria.  Also Russian military presence in Korea.  (McClain, 302)

Japanese decision for war:

  • Take over Chinese territory because Russia refused to concede.
  • Also to enhance Japan's prestige and standing among the Great Powers.

American mediation in 1905: Treaty of Portsmouth: c.f. the wording. (McClain, 306).








Focusing on Imperial Japan

by About Japan Editors

“…Imperial Japan encompasses some of the most controversial topics that arise in discussions about Japan…”

As experienced teachers know, the opening minutes of a class set the intellectual and atmospheric tone for rest of the lesson. Scholars understand that the opening lines of a monograph shape how readers will interpret the entire text. It is no accident the first image to greet visitors when we first launched the  About Japan website was the iconic image of Itō Hirobumi posing with Eumin, the child Crown Prince of Korea (which appears below). As you have experienced, clicking on the image introducing our focus on Imperial Japan brings you to this essay, which aims both to initiate a discussion of the teaching of Imperial Japan and to invite and perhaps provoke scholars and K-12 educators to be active participants in the newly forming About Japan community.

Out of all possible starting points for About Japan, we chose to focus on the theme of Imperial Japan, which we defined both to include Japanese imperialism as well as domestic Japan during the period when Japan was engaged in overseas imperialism in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Starting with this period serves several purposes. First, it is widely taught in English-speaking schools, even when little time is devoted to the teaching of Japan specifically. Broad issues of imperialism and the Pacific War are usually covered in this context, and the resources developed for this site can be used even when not formally teaching a course about Japan.

Second, About Japan aims to foster and provide a forum for an engaged community to discuss the most important issues related to Japanese history and culture, consider the multiple ways to teach about Japan, and provide the resources (or point community members towards the best resources) for teaching about Japan. As a community, the site also aims to break down many of the barriers that often exist among its members in the real world of both K-12 schools and universities, and thus serve the mutual interests of both communities—to promote intelligent dialogue, scholarship and teaching about the subject.

Third, Imperial Japan is a complex period in which Japan both influenced and was influenced by global cultural, political and technological developments. Unfortunately, it is also a period that is too often oversimplified, frequently devolving into rigid dichotomies such as “Westernization” versus “Traditionalism” or good vs. evil. That said, Imperial Japan encompasses some of the most controversial topics that arise in discussions about Japan, and we hope About Japan serves as a resource for informed and nuanced discussions about this controversial period. Last, we hoped to indicate that About Japan will not shy away from controversial issues, and, depending on the topic or time period, will always consider the larger regional and global contexts of Japanese developments.


Photograph from the 1920s of women bringing petitions to the Imperial diet demanding the right to vote.

Credit: Donated by Corbis-Bettmann 

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Initiating the process, we asked five professors specializing in Imperial Japan each to create a five-lesson unit about Imperial Japan, broadly defined. These units, reflecting the practical needs of many teachers, are divided into three social studies units, one unit in the visual and performing arts, and one unit in English and Language Arts. We then asked experienced K-12 teachers to revise the lessons, particularly the classroom activities, to maximize their effectiveness with their own students. We also selected and synthesized a selection of unit materials to create a series of lessons appropriate for a K-5 classroom. Though the units were devised as complete lessons, our intention is that they be viewed more as a series of suggestions for classroom activities, perhaps with modifications based on teaching styles and the student body.

We have developed technology to allow our editors to continue to edit lessons collaboratively now that the site is live. In addition, this technology allows any community member to submit teaching ideas related to the units, which the editors can then incorporate. We also encourage a less mediated discussion of the lesson plans, including comments regarding modifications of suggested activities or alternative resources that worked well with your own classes. Needless to say, we anticipate that content will grow and modify on a continuous basis.

Over time, we expect that our coverage of Japan, defined in terms of both theme and time period, will be wide-ranging. Using our collaborative publishing software, a select team of K-12 teachers and university professors will create five new units on a given theme three times per year. Planned upcoming units include Japan, 1945-2007; War and Occupation in 20th Century Japan; Panic Sites: Using Japan to teach about Terrorism, Political Violence, and Natural Disasters; and Teaching Pre-Modern Japan, among others. As with the Imperial Japan theme, we hope these will serve as a launch pad for further development and discussion by the About Japan community.



Itō Hirobumi and Crown Prince of Korea Euimin in 1907. 

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In fact, one of the key reasons for launching the site with the iconic image of Itō and the Crown Prince it is that it symbolizes, or at least hints at, many of the complexities of teaching about Japan, while offering a visual document that can be used as a practical resource in the K-12 classroom. For example, the image of Itō raises questions about the possibility of noble aspects to his intentions. The image also raises the issue not just of Japanese military domination, but cultural domination. The picture of the Crown Prince cannot be looked at without considering the role of collaboration on the part of elite members of Korean society. (These issues are highlighted in the K-5 lesson on heroes.) Last, by selecting this particular image, we hoped to underline that we are viewing the Imperial Japan theme not just in terms of imperialism, but domestic history as well, since Itō played a key role in domestic Japanese politics and democratization.

I am sure that the above paragraph raises a number of topics that many readers would like to take issue with – a central purpose of the essay section of the site. We created this space to serve as an area of reasoned, informed debate about Japan studies issues relevant to K-12 classroom teaching. We invite all community members to participate in these discussions, which we view more along the lines of a university seminar than a talk radio program in both tone and substance. Whether a discussion of the role of the “modern girl” in early 20th century Japan or the role and responsibility of Itō Hirobumi in Japanese imperialism, we look forward to the discussions that will follow.

 Please find our current collection of Lesson Plans about Imperial Japan listed below:

Building "Greater" Japan, 1890-1905

The Sino-Japanese War, 1894-1895

The Russo-Japanese War, 1904-1905

Empire and Imperial Democracy, 1918-1932

Empire at All Costs, 1932-1945

The Fifteen Year War, 1931-1945

Shifting Perceptions: Japan and the World in the late 19th Century

What Defines a Hero?





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