Empire in Asia

A New Global History

Japanese Imperialism 1894-1945

Book Cover

Book Title

Japanese Imperialism 1894-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987


Beasley, W.G.


This book will examine Japanese imperialism from its origins, its motivations as well as its engagement on the international stage, where the framework of empires becomes the main context in which Japan plays an active role in. The emerging parliamentary system developed in a domestic atmosphere that equated empire with patriotism. This in turn leads to imperialism becoming the social norm. After the trading crisis of 1929-30, Japan was seeing itself as threatened economically. Japan had feared that she would be shut out by her rivals from markets for its manufactures, outlets for its surplus population as well as access to the raw materials it required. Unfortunately, Japan returned to military solutions as answers to these severe problems. The product of the discussion was the decision to build a Co-prosperity Sphere, necessitating war against the European colonial powers which had already established hold over territories in Asia.

Economic modernization in the Meiji period was part of a wider program of reform, undertaken by men predominantly of feudal origin - that is ex-samurai - with the objective of defending the country from foreign threat. Brought up as members of a military ruling class, these ex-samurai were inclined to give special attention to Japan's defense perimeter. As a result, securing a foothold in Taiwan, Kwantung and Korea was seen as a vital priority for Japan. Whereas the first phase of Japanese imperialism was one of dependency on a good relationship with Britain and America, the second phase accorded more closely with the patterns of European imperialism where Japan turned towards creating a sphere of influence in Manchuria.

Beasley provides a detailed account of the Japanese empire, which began with the taking of Taiwan in 1895, and ended with the close of World War II in 1945. He discusses a variety of political, economic and cultural factors for the rapid emergence of Japanese imperialism, and argues that, while it was not purely an heir of Western imperialism, it was certainly influenced by Western presences in Asia, most notably in the form of the treaty port system. He also traces the evolution of Japanese imperialist attitudes throughout the years, noting that imperialism is never static and reacts to changing circumstances. Within these broad theoretical frameworks, Beasley also examines each major colony in turn: Korea, Taiwan, the Co-Prosperity Sphere, and so on. China, while never a colony, receives special attention due to its unique relationships with the Japanese Empire. The book thus presents the Japanese empire as a collection of three different categories: treaty port system, a series of colonies, and a special industrial relationship with China.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

The book covers a large scope; including the early form of treaty port system of Japan, its responses to the West, its intervention in Korea 1894-95, the peace settlement reached with China 1894-96 and the forms of empire in Northeast Asia between 1905 and 1910. Aspects of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere are examined as well. Japanese imperialism is dated from the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95. It is therefore compared with modern Western imperialism.

Geographically, Beasley discusses each colony in turn, and in roughly chronological order. Discussion however is by no means limited to Asia, as Beasley draws regular and significant connections between Japanese practices and those of the Western powers. Developments in Britain and America also factor into the establishment and maintenance of Japanese colonies, particularly during the two World War periods. The book is thus global in terms of its territorial scope.

Apart from examining colonies and other relationships, Beasley also engages in broader, more theoretical discussions. He begins the book by introducing the treaty port system, which originated from the Opium War between China and Britain, and whose framework shaped the Japanese attitude toward the Western powers. He also discusses theories of economic imperialism from both Western and Japanese scholars in relation to the Japanese model.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

The author forms an interesting theoretical framework. He concludes with the observation that imperialism is like the blind men's elephant: the nature depends on which part of it one studies.

The writer examines the various possible factors for the origins of Japanese imperialism. For example, Marxist writers of Japanese imperialism maintained that the existence of an international imperialist structure, by which Japan was threatened, provided an external impulse working in the same direction; thus Japan imperialism was borne out of Western imperialism and international rivalry.

The writer asserted that the nature of its origins lent a special character to Japanese imperialism. It had begun in the 1868 as an internal self-strengthening mission. The development of Japanese imperialism however reflected the continued influence in society of a military and a landowning aristocracy, whose traditional ideology, which included elements of protectionism and territorial expansion, had not been wholly replaced by that of the bourgeoisie.

After 1880, statesmen were more inclined to choose 'imperialist' solutions. However, this was not because of the change in the nature of capitalism, but a change in the situation with which the great powers had to deal. The Western powers assumed that they could not find any system of control, short of annexation or protectorate, in areas where indigenous states were unable to provide a satisfactory political and economic environment for European enterprise and where rivalry between European states were excessive.

By 1930, Japanese imperialism comprised of the need to establish a network of colonies and spheres of influence, setting up fortifications in the gateways to the home islands. In addition, Japan desired to secure their food supplies and succeed in becoming a member of an international system based on treaty rights. They also expressed the need to confer trade and investment privileges throughout East Asia, and maintain a special relationship with China.

Beasley argues for a multi-causal approach: he claims that Japanese imperialism was the product of a collection of intertwined push and pull factors, and should not be tied to any single isolated explanation. Of these factors, the existence of the treaty port system, the introduction of Western modernization, and the strong alliance among the bourgeoisie, monarchy and military are particularly significant. For example, modernization was the link between the treaty port system and the emergence of Japanese imperialism: the Japanese elite viewed it as the means by which they could extract themselves from the unequal treaties they were locked in with the Western powers. In turn, the establishment of colonies in Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia would contribute to a large-scale economic plan that would further feed such modernization in order to reach the peak of the social Darwinist triangle. The existence of such a plan makes the Japanese empire unique.

Beasley also emphasizes that Japanese imperialism experienced fundamental changes throughout the years, and that no one model will encapsulate it in its entirety. Generally, Japanese imperialism was “dependent” on Western powers when it began in 1894; became more assertive in 1905 after the Russo-Japanese War; and adopted Western-style imperialist practices after the 1930s. The Great Depression, which began in 1929, was a pivotal moment, as the collapse of international trade made cooperation no longer feasible and monopolistic control over economic relationships grew more attractive as a policy.

Finally, Beasley argues that the consequences of Japanese imperialism did not end in 1945. Rather, it undermined European imperialism sufficiently to encourage successful independence movements after World War II, and resolved internal struggles between Chinese political rivals. The economic prowess of South Korea and Taiwan today can also be linked back to intense industrialization during Japanese rule.

Annotated by Michelle Djong/Jennifer Yip