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Japanese Empire

Japanese Empire

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Japan has a long and storied history known as the Land of the Rising Sun. One of the remarkable aspects of Japanese history is how it went from being an isolated country that still resembled a medieval feudal state in 1868 to an industrial and military powerhouse that challenged the world's great empires in less than 70 years. But what were the origins of the Japanese Empire? How did it rise so quickly? And how did its ambition lead to its downfall?

Japanese Empire History

The Japanese Empire's history began in the 1860s due to a complete 180-degree change in Japanese policy.

Pre-Imperial Edo Period

The period preceding the Japanese Empire's history is known as the Edo Period. During this period that began in 1603, the Tokugawa family ruled as the military dictators known as shoguns from the city of Edo (which was later renamed Tokyo by the Japanese emperor).

An emperor of Japan existed, but it was more of a figurehead position.

Edo Period Japan operated as a feudal state and practiced a largely isolationist foreign policy. By the late 1600s, foreign trade was only allowed at Nagasaki. Europeans were forbidden to set foot anywhere else in Japan.

Perry "Opens Japan"

In 1852, US Navy Commodore Matthew C. Perry was sent by US President Millard Fillmore to establish trade relations with Japan. Perry was ordered to use gunboat diplomacy if necessary.

Intimidated by Perry's fleet, Japanese representatives were forced to sign unequal trade agreements with the US and other Western countries.

Perry's visit and the subsequent treaties had been both a humiliation and a wake-up call to some that Japan needed to modernize or face being dominated by foreign powers.

Gunboat Diplomacy

A phrase used to describe diplomacy conducted under the threat of military force, usually by forcing a weaker state to accept the demands of a stronger one.

Japanese Empire History Perry Expedition Fleet StudySmarterFig 1 - Illustration of Perry's fleet.

Empire of Japan

In the 1860s, some lords rebelled against the shogun's rule.

In its place, Emperor Meiji was declared Japan's supreme ruler in what is called the Meiji Restoration, although the real power lay with the lords who had led the war effort. However, the emperor was presented as a powerful and unifying symbol of the transformation Japan was about to undergo.


Chief among the goals of the new oligarchy ruling Japan was modernizing the country's economy, industry, and military. They wanted to emulate the West, hired many Western advisers, and adopted Western clothing and styles.

Japanese Empire History Meiji Emperor StudySmarterFig 2 - Emperor Meiji. Note his western style of dress and haircut.

Expansion and Rise of the Japanese Empire

Japan vastly expanded its army and navy.

Military officials believed that Japan needed overseas territories to truly rival its Western counterparts, setting the stage for the expansion of the Japanese Empire.

First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895)

In 1894, Japan went to war with China to support Korean independence. China was no match for its modernized military and tactics.

The Japanese Empire acquired the island of Taiwan and a dominant status over Korea. They also acquired privileges in the Manchuria region in China.

This war also made it clear that Japan was now the preeminent Asian power.

Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905)

In 1904, the Japanese declared war against Russia over tensions in Korea and Manchuria. They were highly successful against the Russians, shocking many Western observers and showing that Japan could now compete with the European empires.

The war's outcome assured Japanese domination of Manchuria and Korea, which it annexed as part of the Japanese Empire in 1910.

Japanese Empire History Battle in Russo Japanese War StudySmarterFig 3 - Illustration of a battle during the Russo-Japanese War.

World War One

Japan participated in World War One on the Allied side and sent representatives to the Paris Peace Conference. It joined the League of Nations as one of the Council members, a sign it was now considered a major world power.

Japanese Empire Ideology and Government

Although Japan adopted many Western customs, it maintained many of its own, including a religious ideology closely linked to nationalism. The government was organized as a monarchy with limited democracy, but the real political power in Japan was an oligarchy of military leaders.

Japanese Empire Religion

The Meiji Constitution allowed religious freedom, and the Japanese Empire's religion consisted of a mix of Buddhism, Christianity, and Shintoism.

State Shintoism

The Shinto religion originated in ancient Japan and experienced a high degree of syncretism with Buddhism.


Blending or mixing of religious traditions, beliefs, and practices.

However, after the Meiji Restoration, the ruling class purged Buddhist influence from Shinto and established it as a pseudo-state religion. They encouraged the idea that the emperor was a supreme being or kami.

State Shinto was closely associated with nationalism, devotion to the emperor, and support for the empire's expansion.

Japanese Empire Political Structure

The Meiji Constitution technically gave the emperor near absolutist power while also creating a parliament known as the Imperial Diet with some limited democracy.

In reality, the emperor served more as a figurehead than exercising real political power.

Taisho Democracy

There was an expansion of democracy under Emperor Taisho in the 1910s and 1920s. Democratic reforms were adopted that allowed all men over 25 to vote, quadrupling the number of people able to vote. Japan was also active in the League of Nations and international diplomacy.

However, this more liberal period would be short-lived.

Rise of Militarism and Showa Period

Emperor Taisho died in 1926, and rule passed to his son Hirohito, also known as the Showa Emperor.

The first years of his reign were marked by a conservative backlash to left-wing political movements and an economic crisis in 1927. The onset of the Great Depression only made things worse.

Increasingly, Japan turned towards militarism and totalitarianism to address the crises; throughout the 1930s, the Japanese military came to exert more and more influence and control in Japanese politics.

Japanese Empire Ideology and Government Emperor Hirohito leads Military StudysmarterFig 4 - Emperor Hirohito marches with military officers in military garb.

Road to World War Two

The domination of Japanese politics by the military eventually led to the outbreak of World War Two in the Pacific.

Expansion into China

Many Japanese military and business leaders wanted to expand to gain natural resources, as the island had few resources of its own.

Manchurian Crisis

In 1931, an explosion on the Japanese-owned railroad in Manchuria became a pretext for an invasion and annexation of Manchuria by China.

The League of Nations condemned the invasion, prompting Japan to withdraw from the League and pursue continued military buildup outside the international diplomatic system.

Second Sino-Japanese War

Japan invaded the rest of China in 1937, leading to the Japanese occupation of much of central and eastern China. Resistance forces prevented Japan from controlling rural territories, but it controlled major cities.

Japanese Empire Achievement Occupation of Beijing StudySmarterFig 5- Japanese troops enter the Forbidden Palace in Beijing.

Confrontation with the US

The US grew increasingly critical of Japan after reports of atrocities during the Second Sino-Japanese War, especially during the Nanjing Massacre, sometimes called the Rape of Nanjing, where Japanese soldiers killed tens of thousands of civilians.

Tensions had already flared earlier when the US heavily restricted Japanese immigration.

More importantly, though, each saw the other as a threat to their economic and strategic interests in the Pacific.

Did You Know?

One of the secondary motivations for occupying China was to have a place for unemployed Japanese to go and work after the US restricted Japanese immigration.

Japanese Empire Nanjing Massacre StudySmarterFig 6 - Civilian bodies after the Massacre of Nanjing.

Occupation of French Indochina and Oil Embargo

Japan invaded French-held Indochina (modern-day Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam) in 1940.

Did You Know?

Ho Chi Minh's communist guerilla group, the Viet Minh, first emerged as a resistance to the Japanese occupation of Vietnam.

The US responded by banning the sale of scrap metal to Japan and closing the Panama Canal to Japanese ships. On August 1, 1941, the US placed an oil embargo on Japan.

More than 80% of Japan's oil came from the US, so the Japanese looked to the South Pacific to secure oil reserves from Dutch-held Indonesia.

Pearl Harbor

Seeing war with the US as inevitable, the Japanese planned a surprise attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, designed to cripple the US Navy. As the attack occurred on December 7, 1941, the Japanese launched simultaneous invasions of US and British-held colonies in the South Pacific.

Did You Know?

Although occurring just a few hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the invasions of the other islands in the Pacific occurred on December 8 due to the time difference between Hawaii and the South Pacific.

Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere

By early 1942, the Japanese had occupied most of the South Pacific.

They called their new Japanese Empire the Great East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere and attempted to promote it as a way for Asian unity and strength against the west. However, the occupations in other countries often involved the mistreatment of local populations by the Japanese.

Defeat and End of the Japanese Empire

Despite the early success of the Japanese war effort after Pearl Harbor, they eventually were defeated.

The rebuilt US Navy also achieved naval supremacy after the Battle of the Midway in mid-1942. The occupation of China also proved increasingly costly.

By 1945, US bombers could strike Japan. The US dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945, and Japan surrendered.

Japanese Empire History Ruins of Nagasaki StudySmarterFig 7 - Ruins of a Buddhist shrine in Nagasaki after the dropping of the atomic bombs.

The Emperor after WW2

The US established an occupation government until 1947.

A new constitution was created, and the country transitioned to democracy. Still, the US chose to maintain Emperor Hirohito as a symbol the Japanese people could rally around behind the new government.

Legacy and Japanese Empire Achievements

The Japanese Empire is often remembered for its militarism, atrocities committed in China, and its ultimate defeat with the atomic bombs.

However, the modernization effort after the Meiji Restoration was a monumental Japanese Empire achievement. In less than 50 years, the country grew from an agrarian feudal society to one that successfully defeated Russia in a war in 1905. In just 74 years, from 1867 to 1941, it became an industrial powerhouse that successfully challenged France, Britain, and the US in the Pacific.

Despite its defeat in the war, this modernization program laid the foundations for Japan's more peaceful prosperity after WW2.

Japanese Empire - Key takeaways

  • The Japanese Empire was created after the Meiji Restoration.
  • It modernized and built a strong economy and military.
  • It expanded in a series of wars.
  • This expansion eventually sparked Japan's attack on the US, leading to WW2 and defeat.

Frequently Asked Questions about Japanese Empire

The Japanese Empire fell after its defeat in World War II with the taking of many of the islands they occupied and the dropping of the atomic bombs.

The Japanese empire's ruling family has served in a line of succession for nearly 1,000 years, with its origin dating to sometimes between the 3rd and 6th Century CE, although legend claims it was established in 660 BCE. The era when the Japanese Empire controlled overseas territories lasted for around 50 years from 1895 to 1945.

While there is still an emperor who serves as a figurehead and symbolic leader of Japan, the government is a democracy and Japan does not have any overseas territories or colonies.

The United States, Soviet Union, and Britain defeated the Japanese Empire, led primarily by US forces and the dropping of the atomic bombs. Chinese and Vietnamese resistance forces also fought Japanese occupation in their countries, play a large role in the defeat of the Japanese Empire.

The Japanese Empire had become the dominant power in Asia by 1895 and was a major world power by 1905. I succeeded in conquering much of China and the South Pacific between 1931 and 1942.

Final Japanese Empire Quiz

Japanese Empire Quiz - Teste dein Wissen


What marked the beginning of the imperial period for modern Japan?

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The Meiji Restoration of 1868

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What ended the Japanese Empire?

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Defeat in World War II with the dropping of the atomic bombs and surrender.

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What events prompted some in Japan to realize they needed to modernize?

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Commodore Perry's Expedition to Japan

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Which of the following were reforms adopted as part of modernization efforts after the Meiji Restoration? (check all that apply)

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Railroads were built.

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What was the previous name for Tokyo before Emperor Meiji renamed it?

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Show question


What was the war that overthrew the Tokugawa shogunate?

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The Boshin War

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What best describes the outcome of the First Sino-Japanese War?

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Japan acquired Taiwan, controlling influence in Korea, and a presence in Manchuria

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Why was the outcome of hte Russo-Japanese war shocking to many western observers?

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Japan had defeated a major European power.

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What traditional religion did the Japanese Imperial government promote as a form of patriotism?

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True or False? The emperor made most decision during the Japanese Imperial period.

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Which side did Japan join during World War I?

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The Allies (Entente)

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Which European power did the Japanese Empire defeat in a war in 1905?

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Russian Empire

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In what year did Japan formally annex Korea?

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Show question


Which war of the Japanese Empire began in 1937?

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The Second Sino-Japanese War

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Which of the following were considerations in the Japanese plan to attack Pearl Harbor? (check all that apply)

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The US imposed an oil embargo on Japan

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What was the end result of World War II for the Japanese Empire?

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The loss of overseas territories and American occupation

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