Modern Japan: A History in Documents

By James L. Huffman | Go to book overview

Chapter Six
The Dark
Era:1930–45

Few nations boast a more peaceful history across the centuries than Japan. For the nation's first thousand years, fighting was so scattered and sporadic that its cities did not need the walls that Asia's other urban centers required. And for nearly 300 years after 1600, Japan avoided wars completely, experiencing the [Tokugawa peace] that provided such rich education and culture. The common narrative of outsiders, however, tells a different story, describing the Japanese as a people of war. The reason for the error lies partly in the dramatic legends that grew out of Japan's one long warring period during the medieval centuries when the samurai class ruled, and it lies even more in the brief but devastating years of 1931–45, when Japan took on much of the world in World War II.

The 1920s came to a close with Japan in conflict, torn between the forces of pluralistic democracy and authoritarian imperialism. Some historians argue that the latter was dominant, while others contend that the forces were in balance, or that momentum lay with pluralism and diversity. Whoever is right, a series of events occurred at the turn of the decade to stop movement toward openness and push Japan in a darker, more aggressive direction. One of these was the worldwide depression, which followed on an already tumultuous economic decade, throwing the country's finances into disarray and undermining confidence in the internationalist policies of big business. Farmers were hit especially hard, particularly after bad harvests in 1931 and 1932, and workers by the hundreds of thousands lost their jobs, creating widespread anger and malaise.

A second development that propelled the national mood in a chauvinist direction was the Manchurian Incident of September 18, 1931. On that night, Japanese military officers in the Manchurian city of Mukden, known today as Shenyang, secretly bombed a segment of track on their own South Manchurian Railway, hoping to push Japan

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