3. Japanese expansion in East Asia (1931 - 1941) (ATL)

The growth of Japanese nationalism and militarism after 1931 and the consequent expansion of Japan into East Asia led to war with China and conflict with the West. This was to culminate in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941 - an event that transformed the European war into a global war.

The Video Road to War: Japan gives an excellent overview of the events leading up to Pearl Harbour and this could be shown in sections throughout this unit. For timings and questions on this video see this page:  4. Japanese expansion in East Asia: Videos and activities

This topic is also covered under Causes of the Second World War under this page: 2. Second World War - Causes Part II (ATL) and for Asian region Paper 3, Topic 11 on Japan: Topic 11: Japan 1920 to 1990 

Resources on the causes of the Second World War and links to sites with primary sources can be found here: 8. Second World War: Extra resources 


Guiding questions:

What were the origins of Japanese militarism and nationalism?

How important were economic factors in explaining Japan's expansionist foreign policy in the 1930s?

What was the impact of nationalism and militarism on Japan's foreign policy in the 1930s?

What was the international reaction to Japan's international actions?

Why did tension with the West grow after 1938?

Why did Japan attack Pearl Harbour in 1941?

1. What were the origins of Japanese militarism and nationalism?

Starter activity

What is the message of this 19th Century cartoon regarding events in China?

Click on the eye to get some hints:


  • which countries are represented by which animals - this is always useful to know!
  • what the cartoonist is saying about China
  • which countries are most in conflict over China
  • the role of the United States
  • what point the cartoonist is making about Japan

Although this topic actually starts in 1931, it is important to look at events in Japan before this time in order to understand why Japan acts as it does in the 1930s. The first task starts in 1900: if you want to go further back to understand Japan's modernisation before this time, watch the video on Meiji Japan on this page: 9. Japan 1920 to 1990: Videos 

Task One

ATL: Thinking skills

Watch the first 25 minutes of this video which explores Japan's quest for Empire from 1900 through archival footage.

Answer these questions as you watch the video:

  1. What was the impact of the Russo- Japanese War of 1905?
  2. What were the aims of the Siberian Expedition?
  3. What actions did Japan take in Korea after 1924?
  4. Make a note of traditional practices that existed in Japan in the 1920s and make a note of ‘modern’ or ‘western’ influences. Why was there conflict between the modern and the traditional?
  5. Why did conflict start developing with the USA?
  6. What evidence is shown of growing nationalism?
  7. What evidence is there of the growing independence of the army?


Before completing the next task refer to the following pages for more information and ATL on the impact of the First World War on Japan, the impact of the Depression and also the role of events in China in increasing militarism: 1. The impact of the First World War on Japan and 3. The growth of militarism and nationalism in Japan 

Task Two

ATL: Thinking and research skills

Work in pairs or threes.

Your aim is to create a mind map or other infographic to show the state of Japan in 1931. You should make this colourful and informative; include maps/cartoons or any other visuals that you think are appropriate.

Use can the video above as your starting point but you will need to do extra research.

Your mind map should show the following:

  • The strategic and economic concerns of Japan by 1931
  • The relationship with the West
  • Japan’s political situation
  • Japan’s relationship with China
  • Role of the army

Make sure you consider:

Impact of the first Sino-Japanese War of 1894

Impact of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 - 05

The impact of the First World War

The Washington Treaty System

The US policy on Japanese immigration to the US

Impact of the Wall Street Crash

Political instability in China

Task Three

ATL: Thinking skills

Having completed your infographic, consider the following questions:

What were the chief characteristics of Japan by 1931?

What words would you use to describe the country at this point?

Which factors had the greatest influence on Japan before 1931?

Mind map exercise on origins of Japanese nationalism and militarism

2. How important were economic factors in explaining Japan's expansionist foreign policy in the 1930s?


What is the message of this map regarding the importance of Manchuria to Japan?

Starter activity

'In this climate of economic despair and political decline, the military emerged as a seemingly shining and pure example of the true spirit of the nation. Aided in part by decades of indoctrination, the military found its most fervent support in the down-trodden rural areas'. (A contemporary observation, 1929)

What point is this observer making as to reasons why the military grew in prestige in the late 1920s?

Economic factors are crucial for explaining Japan's expansionist foreign policy in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century. Integral to this issue was the proximity of Manchuria with its economic resources to Japan.

Task One

ATL: Thinking skills

According to this extract from a recent text-book, why was Manchuria of growing importance to Japan by the 1930s

Eastern parts of Manchuria and most of the Korean peninsula had already been under the control of the Japanese empire for three decades after the First Sino-Japanese War of 1895. Japan had gained control of Port Arthur, as well as control of railway and mineral rights when it defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War in 1904 - 05. With the growth of nationalism in Japan, and also the economic crisis that started in 1930 following the Wall Street crash, the attraction of Manchuria as 'a lifeline' for Japan grew. It's wealth of resources (coal, iron and timber) and its potential as a market for Japanese goods, were increasingly enticing to a Japan suffering the deprivations of the depression. In addition, it could provide living space for an over-populated Japan. Diplomat Yosuke Matsuoko described Manchuria as as a 'lifeline' and 'our only means of survival'.

Japan's economic position in Manchuria was crucial, but was unsteady due to the reliance on local warlords and governors (see  3. The growth of militarism and nationalism in Japan ). Many of the large industrial combines - the Ziabatsu were keen on stabilising the situation there, as were elements of the Kwantung Army. Thus, a group of Kwantung Army officers made a plot to seize Manchuria once and for all; this was against the policies of their own government which still focused on peaceful principles to maintain Japan's position in North-East China. Prime Minister Wakatsuki was warned of the plan by Japanese consul officials in Manchuria. He informed the emperor who ordered the minister of war, General Minami to restrain the army. However, Minami's letter to the commander of the Kwantung Army was intentionally delayed and the plan was executed before it could be halted and in direct contradiction to the wishes of the Emperor.

The first two tasks in this section can also be printed off on the PDF which is attached below.

Task Two

ATL: Thinking and research skills

Carry out research on Manchuria to answer the following questions.

For question 4 see the video The Road to War: Japan from 14 minutes in. This can be found here: 4. Japanese expansion in East Asia: Videos and activities 

  1. Identify the reasons why Manchuria was seen as a ‘lifeline’ to China. Consider economic and strategic factors. You may wish to annotate a map of the region to help explain your answer.
  1. What was the significance of the economic crisis following the Wall Street Crash in the USA for Japan’s interest in Manchuria?
  1. What was the significance of The Northern Expedition in China for Japan’s plans for Manchuria?
  1. Explain what happened in the Mukden Incident of 1931

    Task Three

    ATL: Thinking and communication skills

    As a class discuss why you think that the historian Kenneth Pyle has described the Manchurian crisis of 1931 as ‘a turning point’ for Japan?

    Worksheet on Manchuria

    Task Four

    ATL: Thinking skills

    Read the following extract from a modern text-book:

    Japan's leaders justified their actions in Manchuria by stressing the need for national security, raw materials and the need for territory. The global economic crisis of the late 1920s and early 1930s, alongside the growing international tension, only gave extra weight to their claims. Manchuria, they argued, would allow Japan to withstand any economic blockade from hostile nations, would provide space for Japan's increasing population and would also allow Japan to maintain its status as a great power.

    According to this source, why was it necessary for Japan to takeover Manchuria?

    3: What was the impact of nationalism and militarism on Japan's foreign policy in the 1930s?

    Starter activity

    Look at this cartoon from January 1938 by David Low.

    What is the message of this cartoon?

    Click on the eye to get some ideas as to the points you should be considering in your answer.

    Consider the following questions:

    • Who do the different characters represent and what is the significance of their position in the line?
    • Why is the character at the front shown chasing a butterfly?
    • What is the meaning of the caption of the cartoon?

    With the failure of the politicians within Japan to stand up to the Kwantung Army, and indeed the popularity of its actions within Japan, the conquest of Manchuria effectively became Japanese policy. Once Manchuria was conquered it was declared to be the independent state of Manchukuo under the last Emperor of China, PuYi. The military went beyond Manchuria however and advanced into Jehol. In May 1933 the 'Tanggu truce' was signed between the Kwantung Army and Chinese Nationalist commanders. This recognised the status quo and in addition China had to recognise a demilitarised zone between Beijing and the Great Wall. (China's ability to resist was crippled by civil war; indeed Jiang responded to Japanese aggression with an attack on Mao's Communists in 1934.)

    There was thus steady pressure by Japan to increase its power and influence in Northern China even before 1937. By this time the Kwantung Army had grown from 10,000 in 1931 to 164,000 in 1935.

    In 1937 another incident took place between Japanese and Chinese forces - the Marco Polo Bridge Incident. Historians now believe that this was not engineered by the Japanese army in the same way as the Mukden Incident had been. However, once again, although Prince Konoye attempted to contain the army, the government was powerless to stop the actions of the army and to prevent a full scale war developing between China and Japan. Indeed, given the strength of support for the Army's actions, it became unpatriotic to even speak of peace.

    Task One

    ATL: Research skills

    1. In small groups research further the impact of the Japanese invasion on China in the months after the invasion. In particular research the 'Rape of Nanjing'.
    2. Why does the historian Akira Iriye write that 'The 'rape of Nanjing would make it all but impossible for Japan to still be accepted as a respectable member of the international community'?
    3. What potential problems faced Japan in starting a war against China?

    Japanese leaders hoped that China would quickly capitulate and would accept Japanese leadership in a new Asian order. However this view underestimated the extent of Chinese nationalism and the outrage caused by such events as the Rape of Nanjing. With the Chinese refusing to agree for terms to peace, the Japanese were forced to fight further into the interior of China leading to overstretched supply lines which were vulnerable to Chinese attack. The key problem for the next few years for Japan would be how to end the war in its favour.

    4. What was the international reaction to Japan's actions?

    'In 1933 Japan left the League and effectively removed the Far East from the system of collective security' R. J Overy

    Japan's action in the Mukden Incident was the first significant challenge by a major power to the new international system that had been set up in Europe after the First World War. This system was based on the idea of collective security - that states would work together to deal with aggression. The League of Nations as well as the various treaties signed in the 1920s such as the Washington Conference System, the Nine-Power Treaty and the Kellogg-Briand Pact all reinforced the idea of co-operating internationally to minimise the threats to international peace.

    Task One

    ATL: Research and thinking skills

    Read the articles of the Covenant of the League of Nations which can be found here.

    Look carefully at Articles 10 to 15 in particular.

    1. According to these articles, what actions could the League take against aggression?
    2. Discuss in pairs how effective you think each of these might be in dealing with aggression.

    One year after the Mukden Incident, the Lytton Commission published its report. It stated the following:

    • While Japan did have special interests in Manchuria, its use of force and its takeover of the whole of Manchuria was unacceptable and unjustified
    • Japan should give up the territory and withdraw its forces
    • Manchuoko was not an independent state and could not be recognised as such
    • Manchuria should become independent but under Chinese sovereignty

    Task Two

    ATL: Thinking skills

    Read the following statement which was written by the Japanese government in response to the Lytton Commission's Report.

    What response does it give to each of the recommendations (see above)?

    What is the tone of this response?


    In the 1930s, America followed a policy of isolation.

    For more discussion, ATL and video content on this, go to this page: 1. Reactions to events in Europe and Asia, 1933 - 1941. In particular look at Question 4 and the ATL linked to the interactive timeline on the US' reaction to events in Asia.

    The final section on the video Road to War: America also deals with the American reaction to Japanese aggression. This video can be found also on this page: 1. Reactions to events in Europe and Asia, 1933 - 1941

    The following activity will test students' understanding of the different factions within Japan as well as the views of the international community towards Japan's actions. Students should be given a lesson and/or homework to prepare for this to ensure that they fully understand the views of their character. They should be encouraged to give a formal speech setting out their views and why they hold these views.

    Task Three

    ATL: Thinking and communication skills

    A conference has been called in 1937 following the Marco Polo Bridge Incident to discuss the Sino-Japanese war and its implications for international security.

    Can Japan be stopped?

    Key players and interested parties are attending this conference; these people are listed below.

    You will be given one of the people below who is attending and your task is to:

    • research the events leading up to 1937 and how would they have impacted on your character and/or the institution/country that your character represents
    •  write a speech setting out the views of your character regarding the situation in 1937 (give details of how events have impacted on you) and your views on what should happen regarding Japan e.g. should there be international action against Japan? If so, what kind of action?

    The Characters

    • General Tojo of the Kwantung Army
    • Prince Konoye
    • A Japanese citizen
    • A Chinese citizen
    • US government representative in favour of US isolationism
    • US government representative in favour of US intervention
    • Jiang Jieshi  (leader of GMD)
    • A representative of the League of Nations
    • A member of the British government

    This will be a formal debate. Each character will be given the opportunity to speak.

    Any students in the class who do not have a specific character should ask each character questions.

    One student will need to chair the conference and to summarise the conclusions of the conference at the end.

    1937 role-play exercise

    5. Why did tension increase between Japan and the West after 1938?

    From 1938, the US began to carry out a more aggressive policy towards Japan. Roosevelt did not share the sentiments of the isolationists regarding the Neutrality Acts which treated aggressor and victim alike and so in 1938 he used his Presidential powers to stop applying the Neutrality Acts to China and to give more support to the Nationalists.

    There were several reasons for this change of approach:

    • The US was worried that if it did not give enough aid to Jiang, the Soviets would increase their support for the Nationalists
    • US public opinion began to swing in favour of Roosevelt's campaign to end the Neutrality Laws
    • Japan had taken advantage of the defeat of European countries to take over Dutch and French colonies in South East Asia. In June 1940, Japan proposed its vision for a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere under the leadership of Japan (see below). There was growing concern in the US concerning this new 'order' especially as Japan had suggested to Jiang that China could join this new order
    • In September 1940, Japan entered into the Tripartite Pact with the Fascist powers Germany and Italy. This stated that if Japan, Germany or Italy was attacked by any third power not then engaged in the European war or the China War, the other two Axis powers would aid the victim of the attack. This convinced many Americans that the war in Europe and the war in Asia were the same war.

    Task One

    ATL: Thinking skills

    Japan's justification of the establishment of 'a new order' was announced on the radio June 29 1940 by Foreign Minister Arito Hachiro.

    What, according to Japan's foreign minister, was the rationale for Japan establishing 'a New Order'?

    Japan's ideal since the foundation of the empire has been that all nations should be enabled to find their proper places in the world. Our foreign policy has also been based upon this ideal, for which we have not hesitated at times even to fight by staking our national existence.

    What all mankind longs for is the firm establishment of world peace. but it goes without saying that peace can never endure unless it is a peace in which all nations enjoy their proper places. Unfortunately , however, the establishment of world peace in this sense is difficult of speedy realization at the present stage of human progress. In order to realize such a high ideal, therefore, it seems to be a most natural step that peoples who are closely related with one another geographically, racially, culturally and economically should first form a sphere of their own for coexistence and co-prosperity and establish peace and order within that sphere and, at the same time, secure a relationship of common existence and propserity with other spheres...

    It is in this spirit that Japan is now engaged in the task of establishing a new order in East Asia..

    The countries of East Asia and the regions of the South Seas are geographically, historically, racially and economically very closely related to each other. They are destined to cooperate and minister to one another's needs of their common well-being and prosperity and to promote peace and progress in their regions. The uniting of all these regions under single sphere on the basis of common existence and insuring thereby the stability of that sphere is, I think, a natural conclusion.

    Arita, The International Situation and Japan's position' June 29, 1940 reprinted in Tokyo Gazette (August 1940) pg 78 - 79.

    Note that you can read the full speech here

    Task Two

    ATL: Thinking skills

    In pairs, read the Tripartite Pact below.

    1. What were the motives of the Japanese in signing this pact?
    2. What was the reaction of the Western powers likely be to this pact?

    The Governments of Japan, Germany, and Italy consider it as the condition precedent of any lasting peace that all nations in the world be given each its own proper place, have decided to stand by and co-operate with one another in their efforts in Greater East Asia and the regions of Europe respectively wherein it is their prime purpose to establish and maintain a new order of things, calculated to promote the mutual prosperity and welfare of the peoples concerned. It is, furthermore, the desire of the three Governments to extend cooperation to nations in other spheres of the world that are inclined to direct their efforts along lines similar to their own for the purpose of realizing their ultimate object, world peace. Accordingly, the Governments of Japan, Germany and Italy have agreed as follows:[1]

    ARTICLE 1. Japan recognizes and respects the leadership of Germany and Italy in the establishment of a new order in Europe.

    ARTICLE 2. Germany and Italy recognize and respect the leadership of Japan in the establishment of a new order in Greater East Asia.

    ARTICLE 3. Japan, Germany, and Italy agree to cooperate in their efforts on aforesaid lines. They further undertake to assist one another with all political, economic and military means if one of the Contracting Powers is attacked by a Power at present not involved in the European War or in the Japanese-Chinese conflict.

    ARTICLE 4. With a view to implementing the present pact, joint technical commissions, to be appointed by the respective Governments of Japan, Germany and Italy, will meet without delay.

    ARTICLE 5. Japan, Germany and Italy affirm that the above agreement affects in no way the political status existing at present between each of the three Contracting Powers and Soviet Russia.

    ARTICLE 6. The present pact shall become valid immediately upon signature and shall remain in force ten years from the date on which it becomes effective. In due time, before the expiration of said term, the High Contracting Parties shall, at the request of any one of them, enter into negotiations for its renewal.

    In faith whereof, the undersigned duly authorized by their respective governments have signed this pact and have affixed hereto their signatures.

    Done in triplicate at Berlin, the 27th day of September, 1940, in the 19th year of the fascist era, corresponding to the 27th day of the ninth month of the 15th year of Showa (the reign of Emperor Hirohito).

    Task Three

    ATL: Thinking skills

    Read through the source below.

    What does Ienaga suggest about the issues facing Japan in its war with China?

    An extract from Saburo Ienaga, The Pacific War, 1968.

    The army had prepared carefully for war against the Soviet Union, but had done no planning worthy of the name for a general war with China.  Army leaders could not conceive of the Chinese putting up a good fight… How could China be brought to its knees?  That was the major problem.  Unable to get a negotiated settlement on favourable terms or win a final military success, Japanese leaders sought victory by expanding the conflict. 

    Task Three

    ATL: Thinking skills

    Read the source below and then answer the following questions (click on the eyes for hints)

    1. What, according to Source A, are the justifications for Japan’s expansion?

    Hint: As you read the source, highlight the three key points which answer the question. When writing your answer, use can use Firstly, Secondly, Thirdly..to help you structure the answer and ensure that you get your three distinct points.

    2. With reference to its origin, purpose and content, analyse the values and limitations of Source A for historians studying the actions of Japan in the 1930s.

    Hint: Notice the title of the source, the date and the views of the writer and his influence within the government; this will help you assess the purpose of the source. How does the writer use language to strengthen his argument?

    Source A

    An extract from ‘Some Questions for President Roosevelt’, 1939, by Nagai Ryutaro. Originally a reformer and social activist, Ryutaro became conservative and nationalist in his views and went on to hold several key positions in the government during the war.

    “The people who live in Europe and America can keep their resources for themselves and make their economy so that it is only supported by their own country. If this is so then the people of Asia should have the same freedom. They should be able to take advantage of their own natural wealth and make their own economy so that it is supported by only their own country…. Japan is excited to work with other powerful countries that will respect the independence of all races in Asia. And with countries that will work with these races on the rule of equality. With those nations, Japan is ready to grow the natural wealth of Asia, to open up its markets, and build a new community without being held back or used. Japan truly believes that it is her duty to build a new Asian empire in which the people of Asia will really enjoy freedom, independence, and peace.

    6. Why did Japan attack Pearl Harbour?

    Task One

    ATL: Thinking skills

    Read the following source and discuss how realistic the objective of ‘isolating’ the US from events in the Pacific was by 1940.

    An extract from Kenneth Pyle.  The Making of Modern Japan. 1996.

    By the Spring of 1940 the Japanese navy General Staff had concluded that America’s crash program [of strengthening its navy] would result in it gaining naval supremacy in the Pacific by 1942, and that Japan must have access to the oil of the Dutch East Indies in order to cope with American power… In the autumn of 1940 [Japan] signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy, in which the signatories pledged to aid one another if attacked by a power not currently involved in the European war or in the fighting in China.  Matsuoko thereby hoped to isolate the United States and dissuade it from conflict with Japan, thus opening the way for Japan to seize the European colonies in Southeast Asia, grasp the resources it needed for self-sufficiency and cut off Chinese supply lines. 

    Task Two

    ATL: Thinking skills

    What factors, according to this extract from a modern textbook, led to Japan deciding on a military attack against the US?

    In July 1941 Japan occupied Indo China in spite of US warnings. The US response was swift and an embargo on the supply of oil, lubricants and high grade metal to Japan was imposed. Japan's assets in the USA were frozen. This was now a serious economic war. For Japan it meant that she had two years' supplies in store - she would then face exhaustion and collapse. Japan would either have to concede to US conditions for a resumption of trade, or she would have to extend her imperialism to find alternative supply sources. The Japanese government now believed that the Western powers were attempting to encircle Japan and destroy its 'rightful' place in the world.

    There followed negotiations and a diplomatic mission to the USA. However, agreement stalled over the fact that the USA now also insisted that Japan withdraw from China; this of course would be unacceptable to the Japanese military and the Japanese people. In order to get the resources they needed, the Japanese decided that a war of conquest was necessary.

    In December 1941, Japan launched a massive attack on the US base in Hawaii. 

    Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s plan involved the deployment of the largest naval task force to sail across the Pacific Ocean to strike at the heart of the US fleet. Yamamoto planned to use the new technology of aircraft carriers to deliver an aerial assault on the US fleet. If the Japanese could destroy US naval power, it could consolidate its position in Asia before the United States could recover its ships. On 7 December, the first wave of Japanese planes, launched from nearby aircraft carriers, struck Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt called on Congress to declare war on Japan the following day, and was joined by Britain. Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Cuba, Guatemala, and Panama also declared war on Japan. Hitler’s Germany then declared war on the US on 11 December. Pearl Harbor therefore led to a global war and US direct engagement in the war in Europe and Asia.

    Task Three

    ATL: Thinking and self-management skills

    It is important to keep analysing the reasons for Japan's actions in the 1930s; its foreign policy is linked to political and economic events and the growing influence of the military. Events in China and the actions of the West also have a role. This exercise focuses on the causes of each key event.

    As a follow-up to completing this grid, you could then decide which factor/s were the most significant in causing each event. Another approach to this exercise would be to divide the class into groups and give each group one of the key events. Each group would then have to do a brief presentation to the class on the role of each of the factors in causing their event.

    Grid activity on factors affecting Japan's actions in the 1930s

    For the US' reaction to Japan's attack on Pearl Harbour go to this page: 2. Involvement and participation of the US and Canada 

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