Childhood, education and youth in Imperial Japan, 1925-1945: the historical setting

During the twenty years from 1925 to 1945, Imperial Japan had become a major world power and launched multiple wars of aggression against its neighbours, culminating in the attack on Pearl Harbor in the United States and the ‘Pacific War’ (1941-1945). After devastating firebombing campaigns over cities, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Soviet invasion of Manchuria in 1945, the empire fell apart and Japan began a process of post-war reconstruction and democratisation. The young people who grew up during these years were thus living through what was arguably the most important phase of Japanese modern history.

In 1868, revolutionaries overthrew the Tokugawa shogun and established a new government under the Emperor Meiji. Education, the military, and the political economy all experienced dramatic, and often traumatic, reforms. In its government, from 1889 the Empire of Japan was a constitutional monarchy that was in many respects similar to that of Western powers like Germany and Great Britain. Japan’s parliament, called the Diet, had a House of Peers, which was an unelected body of hereditary aristocrats and important figures from business, politics, and the military. The Lower House, which was primarily responsible for approving the budget and taxing the people, was directly elected, but women did not have the right to vote until after 1945, and all men only received this right in 1925; previously, only wealthy men could participate in elections, and the group of potential voters was expanded slowly through history, much like the case in Great Britain. Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, progressive democrats demanded the expansion of the voter base, and political parties became increasingly active in determining government policy.

It may surprise many of us today that Japan’s democratisation did not lead the country away from conflicts with other countries, but actually made its foreign policy far more aggressive. Much like Britain and France, most children and teenagers at this time would have accepted the fact that their government invaded, occupied, and annexed foreign countries as a necessity for defending their nation’s interests. Even before the modern era, the formerly independent Kingdom of Ryūkyū on the Okinawan archipelago and the Ainu in the northern island of Hokkaidō, were subjugated by Japanese feudal lords. From 1868, the Japanese Empire, aided by modern military equipment and organisation, quickly acquired Taiwan (1895), Korea (1910), German colonies in Asia and the Pacific (1918), a puppet state in Manchuria (called ‘Manchukuo’, 1932), and many special rights and privileges in mainland China. Once the Japanese government announced its war against Western colonial powers in the Asia-Pacific region in 1941, claiming it would ‘liberate Asia for the Asians’, it rapidly became one of the largest empires in world history, including the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, and other puppet regimes in mainland China. Most Japanese people supported wars of expansion, which was also the case in other empires (e.g., Britain and France), and millions of Japanese citizens moved into the empire, often bringing their children with them.

While the Japanese government pursued the business of empire, they began to neglect the growth of militant nationalism in mainland China. In particular, when Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese Nationalist Party gained power in 1927, it adopted a stridently anti-Japanese stance. In 1937, local Japanese forces at Marco Polo Bridge (near Beijing) created a ‘crisis’ by engaging Chinese units, and the Chinese responded by sending troops into Shanghai to eradicate Japanese influence there. The Japanese army arrogantly estimated that the government in China would fall in four months; four months later, they were just out of Shanghai and were engaged in the most destructive war in Japanese history. The Chinese refused to surrender, and so the Japanese Empire had lost both credibility internationally and considerable wealth, resources, and manpower. Furthermore, the Japanese people were growing anxious and frustrated with their government’s inability to resolve the war as rationing began at home.

Without any particularly helpful allies, many more opponents, and dwindling reserves of critical resources like oil and steel, the Japanese government launched the strike against Pearl Harbor in 1941. The US, which was sympathetic to the Chinese government, organised economic embargoes against Japan. By seizing the resource-rich colonies of Europe, such as the oil fields of Dutch Indonesia, the military planned to resolve the China war, then wage a war of attrition with America and try to hold on to its empire. Although a string of Japanese victories occurred in the Pacific, because the Pearl Harbor attack missed the US aircraft carrier fleet, at this stage the empire was counting down its final days; this was not apparent to most people in Japan, however, who celebrated the great ‘victories’ that followed. Indeed, Japan’s invasion of the Asia-Pacific theatre irrevocably damaged European empires there, and inflicted on Great Britain its greatest military defeat at Singapore in 1942. Inside Japan, the government dissolved political parties in the Diet and created a one party state. By urging industries to combine and reduce competition, eliminate labour unions, establish a strict, pro-war censorship regime in the mass media, and support pro-government social organisations (including youth groups), Japanese government and society began to resemble other ‘fascist’ states in Europe.

Following a naval victory at Midway (1942), the US Marine Corps and Army managed to establish a foothold in Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands (1942-1943), taking and inflicting heavy casualties. Conducting an ‘island hopping’ campaign, US forces brought unrelenting pressure on Japanese defenders of the empire. From the end of 1944, launching from mainland China and the Pacific, American B-29 bombers, which were too high for Japanese anti-aircraft gunners to strike, began a terrible aerial bombing campaign over Japan. More importantly for the war effort, perhaps, was the fact that a US naval blockade cut off the main islands from the food-producing empire, which literally starved the Japanese people going into 1945. The US dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, despite the fact that most observers agreed that the country was on its knees. After the Soviet invasion of Manchuria on 9 August, military defences in China crumbled and the Russian forces were nearing Korea, so even Japanese military stalwarts now faced the possibility of Soviet occupation, war crimes trials, and division of the country as Germany had endured. On 9 August, the United States dropped a second bomb in Nagasaki, testing its new military technology further. On 15 August the Japanese government publicly accepted the terms of the Potsdam Declaration and the war finally ended. The Allies took apart the empire, excluding pre-modern conquests such as Okinawa, and began forcing reforms on Japan, meaning that generations after 1945 would grow up with very different experiences from those who experienced the pre-war system. While many Japanese people openly cried at their country’s failure to secure victory, many more were relieved the nightmare was over and they could get on with their lives once more.

Aaron William Moore

How to Cite This Source

Aaron William Moore, ‘Childhood, education and youth in Imperial Japan, 1925-1945: the historical setting’, in Childhood, Education and Youth in Modern Japan [add URL and access date].