Authoritarianism in Japan

Militarism in the early empire

The Japanese government set out to build an empire in the late nineteenth century. This required internal reforms and progress in industrialization.

The Japanese used a strategy of a close relationship between civilian and military authority. Copying German law, Japan did not put elected officials in charge of the military. Instead, they gave the emperor total control. The military could act without answering to a civilian government. Because the Japanese emperor had little political power, the military was free to conduct its own affairs.

As Japan tried to industrialize and build an empire, a military free of civilian oversight had two big advantages:

  1. The military could inspire national pride by claiming decisive victory in wars.
  2. The military could determine colonial policy and act like an authoritarian government.

Together, these factors made up the fundamental principles of Japanese militarism: strengthening military power and using it for political gain.

Militarism and the rise of fascist imperialism

By 1930, Japanese leaders saw themselves as facing two potential enemies: the Soviet Union and any western liberal capitalist country, such as the United States. Japan shared something with two other regimes of the interwar period: Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, which also saw liberalism and communism as their political foes. Meanwhile, the Great Depression was making the world more unstable.

The Japanese army invaded the northeast Asian area of Manchuria in 1931 after falsely blaming the war on Chinese forces. Two years later, the army had brought a large amount of new territory under its direct control and turned the region into a puppet state of Japan.

The conquest of Manchuria had broad economic and political implications. The occupation brought many resources under the control of Japanese armed forces. The military regime kept a tight grip on the region’s economy to ensure its productivity. Like the Soviet Union’s command economy, this system asserted state control over the economy in the name of national strength.

The controlled economy model started in Manchuria, but it quickly spread throughout the empire. Japan ended its capitalist, free market economic policy. Almost all the empire’s resources were channeled into support for the war machinery of Japanese imperialism. The lines between state and military nearly vanished until the whole empire—including Japan itself—became a military state. At the same time, the state controlled other areas of life to direct the energies and resources of its subjects into the imperial war effort.

Historian Louise Young sees two trends that formed pillars of Japan's “fascist imperialism.”

  1. The military rose as a political force that “connected the inside and the outside” of the empire. By taking over the state, the military was able to feed domestic resources into its wars. Its propaganda swayed the Japanese public into supporting the empire’s overseas conflicts. The homeland became linked to imperial conquests abroad.
  2. Japan developed a deeply authoritarian belief that the state alone could solve the problems of modern life. Obedience to the state was the supreme virtue a person could have.

The Japanese also developed a belief in Japanese ethnic and racial superiority. Like the Italian Fascists, Japanese imperialists depicted their conquests as part of a mission to “civilize” less advanced peoples. But the occupation across the empire was marked more by violence and economic exploitation.

Source: Authoritarianism in Japan
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