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  • Japan. A small island off the eastern coast of  Asia - and one of the most powerful nations in  

  • the world in the 20th century. As one-third of the  Axis Powers, it helped to launch World War Two,  

  • the largest war in the history of the worldThe Empire of Japan seemed unstoppable, until  

  • a pair of world-shaking bangs  brought an end to its reign.

  • But how did the Empire of  Japan become so powerful?

  • They started out as anything but. In factbefore their rise, they rarely played a role  

  • outside their own borders - and virtually no  one from outside had ever seen Japan. That was  

  • because of the policy of Sakoku, an isolationist  foreign policy translating toclosed country”.  

  • Put in place by the Tokugawa Shogunate starting in  1633, it essentially put the whole country behind  

  • bars. Not only were relations and trade limited  and most foreign nationals barred from entering,  

  • but all but the highest-ranking Japanese  citizens were barred from traveling abroad.

  • How long could a policy like this last?

  • Try over two hundred years - and not by choiceWhile during this period there was some limited  

  • trade, especially with China and the Dutch, the  country mostly remained closed until 1853. The  

  • Black Ships, a military expedition led by American  Matthew Perry, was ostensibly a diplomatic mission  

  • aimed at opening trade with Japan - but Perry  was under orders to not take no for an answer.  

  • Through dramatic shows of military strength  and negotiations with high-ranking officials,  

  • he was able to get a promise to open  Japan to trade with the United States.

  • It would be a show of force the  United States would eventually regret.

  • Not long after Perry's opening of the borders,  

  • a new emperor would ascend the throne. Emperor  Meiji was only fifteen when he took the throne,  

  • but he would soon earn the title Meiji the  Great. He would transform Japan from a feudal  

  • country with limited industry to a political  powerhouse. The era he presided over would  

  • be known as the Meiji Restoration - and he would  be the most powerful emperor in Japan's history,  

  • centralizing all government under him  and reigning for over forty years.

  • But it wouldn't be an easy  journey to become a world power.

  • Shortly after the borders opened, resistance  to the trade deals rose. The terms were deeply  

  • unequal, and many Japanese citizens felt  they were being exploited. Two rival clans,  

  • Satsuma and Choshu, joined forces to end the  current shogunate and restore the Emperor to full  

  • authority over the country. The title of Shogun  was abolished and many lands were confiscated,  

  • leading to a conflict with the  previous leader of the Shogunate.

  • The new Japan was about to  face its first major conflict.

  • The Tokugawa Shogunate had ruled Japan for  two hundred years of isolation, and it was  

  • not going to give up power easily. Tokugawa  Yoshinobu, the powerful leader of the clan,  

  • had his lands confiscated by the new Emperor, and  quickly launched a coup attempt on the Emperor's  

  • court at Kyoto. The Shoguns were older and used  to fighting battles, but the Emperor's forces  

  • were wealthy and had more modern weapons. Soon  members of the Tokugawa army started defecting,  

  • the insurgency was defeated, and the Shoguns went  on the run. The Emperor's forces pursued them,  

  • and Yoshinobu eventually surrenderedJapan once again belonged to the Emperor.

  • And he would live up to the titleimperial”.

  • Until then, Japan's interaction with the  rest of the world was mostly determined by  

  • who visited them. But Meiji was determined  to change that with the Iwakura Mission.  

  • In 1871, a two year mission began as Japan sent  diplomats and scholars to Europe and America.  

  • They wanted to gain diplomatic support for  the new government, re-negotiate treaties,  

  • and learn about the power structures and resources  from the rest of the world. While few countries  

  • were willing to re-negotiate terms, Japan was able  to negotiate with Russia for a trade of islands.

  • But this period would bring  major changes to Japan as well.

  • The Emperor and his advisors were impressed with  the industrial progress and culture they saw  

  • in western countries, and tried to bring it to  Japan. They modeled their new government after  

  • Prussia's constitution and judicial systemand sought to suppress traditions from the  

  • Shogunate era. This meant a ban on traditional  dress and the wearing of weapons like Katana.  

  • But not all members of Japan's society  were willing to abide by the new regime.

  • The Samurai were restlessand it was about to boil over.

  • Under the old regime, the Samurai had an  elite position as the military nobility.  

  • Known for their unique armor, they were the  highly paid protectors of the wealthy. When  

  • their class was outlawed in 1876 as part of  the modernization efforts of Emperor Meiji,  

  • it didn't take long for conflict to  erupt. Nine years into his reign,  

  • the Satsuma Rebellion began. Many unemployed  Samurai had gathered in the territory,  

  • and their leadership felt they had been betrayed  by the emperor after initially supporting him.

  • And their leader, Saigo  Takomori, was ready for war.

  • The Satsuma Rebellion was a brutal conflict raging  for eight months. Unlike past rebellions, Takomori  

  • didn't make the hopeless decision to attack  the well-protected emperor directly. Rather,  

  • he attempted to take territory and establish his  own power base. His allies attacked naval yards  

  • and tried to seize ships, but the Emperor had time  to build his own strength. Takomori found himself  

  • outgunned, and was soon forced into retreatThe army cornered them and demanded Saigo's  

  • surrender. He refused, and died in a final battle  that brought an end to the age of the Samurai.

  • Japan's modernization was about to accelerate.

  • Writers were pressed by the government to write in  favor of the new era, and many faced threats from  

  • traditionalists. Religion soon became another  flashpoint, with Missionaries arriving from  

  • abroad and trying to convert Japanese citizens  to Christianity. While this had previously been  

  • outlawed, Japan slowly became a much more  religiously diverse place - but the state  

  • religion remained Shinto, and the government  took action to protect it. For the first time,  

  • Japan would have a written constitution, and  it formalized the Emperor's powers - as well  

  • as introducing two legislatures, the House  of Representatives and the House of Peers.

  • But greater involvement in the world  meant greater conflict as well.

  • Famous companies would soon be founded  in Japan, including household names like  

  • Mitsubishi. Japan became the go-to place  in Asia for many factory-produced goods,  

  • including textiles. Trade became a major  part of their economy, and they were able  

  • to set the terms of trade with other Asian  countries. They centralized their currency,  

  • established banks, and quickly modernized and  industrialized their society. They had taken  

  • many lessons from trade with Europe and Americaand one of them was aggressive economic expansion.

  • And that would soon enter the military sphere.

  • Japan had learned a lot from the great powers of  the world, and they were ready to show their new  

  • strength. Their first target - Korea, then  a tributary state under China. But in 1876,  

  • Japan imposed a new treaty on the Korean  peninsula and forced them to open trade.  

  • When Korea later requested aid from China to  put down a rebellion, Japan responded with far  

  • greater force and was soon occupying  Korea. They imposed a puppet government,  

  • and China responded with force of their own.

  • It would be the biggest test  of Japan's growing empire.

  • The first Sino-Japanese war broke out in 1894, and  Japan's well-trained forces quickly routed Chinese  

  • armies. They took over the strategic Liaodong  Peninsula and dealt heavy damage to the Chinese  

  • Navy. In the eventual treaty, Japan not only  took territory in China, but took over the entire  

  • island of Taiwan. While Japan was later forced to  withdraw from some of the territory it gained by  

  • European powers, it was the first test of Japan's  power - and they had sent a powerful message.

  • And they would be back in China before long.

  • When the Boxer rebellion broke out in Chinaas a group of warriors sought to expel foreign  

  • influence from China, a global force united  to push it back and maintain a Chinese policy  

  • favorable to them. And the largest group of  forces came from Japan, looking to expand  

  • their influence in the region. Even the  British were forced to ask Japan for help,  

  • as they had the most easily accessible troops in  the region and Britain was overextended around the  

  • world. In exchange, Japan made demands - and they  were rewarded after the rebellion was put down,  

  • gaining the right to station  troops in China in the future.

  • But another world power was making  inroads into the same region.

  • Russia occupied Manchuria, and played a key  role in preventing Japan's expansion after the  

  • Sino-Japanese War. As they expanded into KoreaJapan decided it was time to respond. In 1904,  

  • Japan launched a sneak attack on Russian  forces, damaging their naval fleet and  

  • defeating those who tried to escapeJapan's alliance with Britain bore fruit,  

  • as the Russians were denied passage through the  British-controlled Suez Canal and arrived late,  

  • only to be easily routed. Not only did Japan's  victory lead to more territorial expansion and  

  • mineral rights in Manchuria, but it set the  stage for the annexation of Korea in 1910.

  • But no era can last forever.

  • Emperor Meiji passed away in 1912, and  was replaced by his son, Emperor Taisho.  

  • Only two years after his ascent, World Warbroke out in Europe, and Japan aligned with  

  • Britain and the Allies against Germany's forcesThey took the opportunity to attack many German  

  • properties in China and the Pacific, taking them  over. As their alliance with Britain deepened,  

  • Japan also responded to the rise of  the communist government in Russia  

  • by occupying parts of Siberia, although  they were eventually forced to withdraw.

  • But the Taisho era would be  the calm before the storm.

  • Taisho would only reign for fourteen years,  

  • passing away in 1926 and being replaced  by his son Emperor Showa - better known  

  • around the world as Hirohito. While Japan had  trended towards democracy under his father,  

  • Hirohito favored the military and the society  became increasingly nationalist. By the 1930s,  

  • Japan was slipping back into an expansionisttotalitarian mindset. More people began to  

  • worship the Emperor as a deity, and a failed  coup led to increased crackdowns on dissent.

  • In 1931, the final push of the  Japanese empire was about to begin.

  • The powerful nation, suffering under the  Great Depression that had spread worldwide,  

  • needed more resources. They got them  by invading Manchuria and conquering  

  • it with little resistance. While they claimed  this was liberating the Manchu ethnic group,  

  • the result was a brutal occupation. They soon  occupied much of Mongolia as well, and by 1937  

  • they had invaded China proper. China was involved  in its own domestic conflict between communists  

  • and nationalists, and Japan took advantage - with  horrible consequences. Japanese troops may have  

  • massacred as many as 300,000 people in what would  come to be known as the Nanking Massacre, and it's  

  • estimated that as many as 20 million  Chinese may have died in the coming decade.

  • But Hirohito was about to make a historic mistake.

  • Japan's aggression had not gone unnoticed by  the rest of the world. Britain and the Soviet  

  • Union were increasingly opposed to their  expansion, and conflicts with the Soviet  

  • Union were common. Eventually, the United  States placed embargoes on Japan as well,  

  • keeping them from obtaining the metal and oil they  needed for their war with China. So Japan signed a  

  • deal with Germany and Italy - the Axis powers  - as World War 2 was starting on the European  

  • continent. The United States was still staying  out of the war, but with the European powers  

  • occupied with Germany and Italy, Japan knew its  biggest threat came from across the Pacific.

  • And it decided to strike first.

  • The Japanese Government developed a plan  to target the heart of the American Naval  

  • fleet at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. While the  United States was still neutral, Hirohito was  

  • convinced that this was necessary to neutralizepotential enemy - and it was a stunning success.  

  • The Japanese sneak attack destroyed many  of the US battleships and killed almost  

  • 2,500 people. Japan knew this would  mean war - which was declared the  

  • next day - but they hoped that the US had  been delayed enough that they could expand  

  • into the Pacific and build their empire to  the point where no country could touch it.

  • It didn't work out that way.

  • The American public was enraged, and  President Franklin Delano Roosevelt  

  • roused them for a war effort. The Japanese  continued to expand, occupying Hong Kong,  

  • the Malay peninsula, and the Philippines  in short order and routing the Americans  

  • and British in the early going. The  Japanese took over a hundred thousand  

  • Allied troops as prisoners and seized much of  Indonesia, as well as islands in the Pacific.

  • But the tide would soon turn.

  • While Japan's sneak attack had given them the  advantage, America had superior manufacturing  

  • capabilities. A massive rebuilding effort  led to a swift counter-attack against the  

  • Japanese Empire.. Japan lost four fleet carriers  at the Battle of Midway, was routed by Australia,  

  • and by 1944 was on the defensive. Japan was under  heavy bombing, but refused to surrender. World War  

  • 2 was quickly becoming an arms race, and it would  be determined by who got to the finish line first.

  • And it was the Americanswith not one but two bangs.

  • The city of Hiroshima was the first to be targeted  by a nuclear weapon in March 1945, followed by  

  • Nagasaki only days later. The massive explosions  killed over 100,000 people in a matter of minutes,  

  • with the full effect of the radiation killing  countless more for years. At the same time,  

  • the end of the war in Europe freed up countless  forces, and the Soviet Union agreed to join the  

  • war effort against the Japanese. The Japanese  were quickly routed by the Soviets in Manchuria,  

  • and the increasing defeats left the Emperor  and his military command only one choice.

  • Surrender.

  • On August 15th, 1945, Emperor Hirohito announced  his surrender before a likely ground invasion of  

  • Japan. Japan was occupied by Allied forces led by  General Douglas MacArthur, and a new constitution  

  • was imposed on the country. This essentially  led to the end of the Empire of Japan, as it  

  • was transformed into a pacifist democracy. While  many of the architects of the war in Japan were  

  • taken into custody by the Allies and executed for  war crimes, Hirohito was spared - with him being a  

  • religious figure among much of the population, his  execution was seen as likely to incite a rebellion  

  • and cause more death. But he was stripped of much  of his power, essentially becoming a figurehead.

  • But he would continue to reign until  1989, the longest-serving Emperor in  

  • Japanese history - and one who saw it at  the beginning of its empire, and at its end.

  • To learn about the last Japanese  soldier fighting World War 2,  

  • check outSoldier Continued Fighting WWII  Because He Didn't Know It Ended”, or watch  

  • What Was It Like to Be A Kamikaze Pilotforshocking true story from the Japanese war effort.

Japan. A small island off the eastern coast of  Asia - and one of the most powerful nations in  

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The Rise and Fall of the Empire of Japan

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    Summer posted on 2021/08/25
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