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IB DP History Study Notes

3.1.1 Rise of Japanese Nationalism and Militarism

Japan’s early 20th-century trajectory was characterised by political and cultural shifts that heralded the rise of nationalism and militarism. These ideologies played a pivotal role in propelling Japan from being relatively insular to becoming a formidable imperial power.

Historical Context of Rising Nationalism and Militarism

Meiji Restoration (1868-1912)

  • Modernisation and Westernisation: Japan opened its doors to Western knowledge and technologies. This period aimed to consolidate national identity and strength by embracing modernity while preserving Japanese essence. The social, cultural, and economic developments in Meiji Japan laid the groundwork for these significant changes.
    • Industrialisation: The country transformed its agrarian economy, leading to urbanisation and the growth of a middle class. These changes began to shape a new sense of national consciousness.
    • Military Successes: Japan’s triumphs in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) and Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) boosted national esteem. These victories underscored the nation’s newfound military might and augmented its status on the international stage. The victory in the Sino-Japanese War exemplifies Japan's military advancement during this period.

Taishō Democracy (1912-1926)

  • Emergence of Democracy: This era saw increased political participation, the growth of political parties, and a burgeoning civil society.
    • Ultra-nationalistic Groups: While democratic ideals took root, radical nationalistic ideologies also grew. The military, along with some intellectuals, began advocating for an aggressive Japanese presence in East Asia. The rise of militarism and extreme nationalism in Japan details the ideologies that influenced this period.
  • Economic Strains: The Great Depression intensified in the 1930s, causing unemployment and economic stagnation. This economic turmoil heightened public dissatisfaction, making many susceptible to radical ideologies, including militarism.

Influence of Nationalist and Militarist Ideologies on Japan's Foreign Policy

Nationalist Ideologies:

  • Pan-Asianism: This was a potent ideology which proposed the unity of Asian nations against Western colonialism, positioning Japan as the leader.
    • Anti-Western Sentiment: As Western powers colonised large parts of Asia, Pan-Asianism became a rallying cry for resistance, with Japan portraying its expansion as a crusade against Western imperialism.
  • Emperor Worship: The Emperor was venerated as a deity and represented Japan’s cultural and historical continuity.
    • State Shintō: This state-sponsored version of the indigenous Shintō religion reinforced the emperor's divine status, further consolidating national unity and obedience.

Militarist Ideologies:

  • Kodoha (Imperial Way Faction): Their ideology romanticised the Samurai era, envisioning Japan as Asia’s liberator.
    • Political Ambitions: They sought to restore the emperor's direct rule, believing that civilian politicians had weakened Japan.
  • Tōhōha (Control Faction): While advocating for Japan’s territorial expansion, they favoured a methodical approach.
    • Strategic Expansion: Primarily eyeing China, they believed that securing resources and territory was essential for Japan's survival, especially in the face of Western embargoes and economic challenges. This strategy included significant events like the Sino-Japanese War and Communist victory 1937-1945.
IB History Tutor Tip: Understand how Japan's modernisation and militaristic successes shaped a national identity, propelling its imperial ambitions and setting the stage for conflicts in the 20th century.

Key Nationalist and Militarist Figures


  • Ikki Kita (1883-1937): A pivotal figure, Kita's writings laid the intellectual foundation for ultranationalism. He perceived Japan's destiny as Asia's protector against Western colonialism.
    • Showa Restoration: Kita advocated for direct imperial governance, sidelining political parties and civilian rule, to restore Japan’s glory.
  • Kingoro Hashimoto (1890-1957): An influential army figure and ideologue, Hashimoto championed Pan-Asianism and believed in the military's paramount role in governance.
    • Coup Attempts: His desire to reshape Japan led him to be involved in various attempts to overthrow the government.


  • Sadao Araki (1877-1966): A stalwart of the Kodoha faction, Araki's tenure in key ministerial positions allowed him to infuse nationalist and militarist sentiments into various institutions.
    • Education Reforms: As Education Minister, he reoriented the curriculum, emphasising patriotic duty and reverence for the emperor.
  • Hideki Tōjō (1884-1948): A central figure in the Tōhōha faction, Tōjō's leadership would steer Japan towards some of its most consequential decisions, including entering World War II.
    • Premiership: As Prime Minister, Tōjō's policies reflected a blend of militarism and pragmatism, but it was under his watch that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, a pivotal event detailed in the Japan and the Pacific War 1941-1945.
  • Yosuke Matsuoka (1880-1946): A diplomat and statesman, Matsuoka fervently believed in Japan’s preordained leadership in Asia. His decisions significantly influenced Japan's international relations.
    • League of Nations: It was under Matsuoka's guidance that Japan decided to leave the League of Nations following the body's criticism of Japan's actions in Manchuria.
IB Tutor Advice: Focus on how Japan's internal developments, such as the Meiji Restoration and Taishō Democracy, influenced its foreign policy and militarism, linking historical context to Japan's actions on the world stage.

The intertwining of nationalism and militarism during this period forged a path for Japan that had profound domestic and international repercussions. The zeal of its leaders, combined with societal changes, set the stage for Japan’s ventures in East Asia and its eventual clash with global powers.


State Shintō was a state-sponsored version of the indigenous Shintō religion, which was institutionalised as a means of promoting nationalist ideologies. The cultural implications were profound. By emphasising the emperor's divine status and his direct descent from the Shintō deities, the state fostered a deep-seated reverence and obedience towards him. It blurred the lines between politics and spirituality. Moreover, rituals, ceremonies, and events linked to State Shintō became avenues for inculcating patriotic duty and consolidating national unity. By intertwining religious practices with political imperatives, State Shintō became an essential tool in cementing the cultural foundation of Japanese nationalism.

The Great Depression had a catastrophic impact on Japan's economy, leading to skyrocketing unemployment rates and severe economic stagnation. These hardships intensified public dissatisfaction with the existing political structure. In this atmosphere of economic uncertainty, many found solace in radical ideologies, including militarism. Militarists propagated the idea that territorial expansion was crucial for Japan's survival, as it would secure essential resources and buffer against economic challenges. Additionally, militarists argued that civilian politicians were unable to pull Japan out of its economic woes, advocating instead for a more aggressive, military-led approach to both domestic and foreign policy.

Yes, there were opponents to the rise of militarism and nationalism within Japan. The Taishō era (1912-1926), remembered for the Taishō Democracy, witnessed burgeoning political parties and a growing civil society. Liberal intellectuals and politicians championed democratic principles and resisted the aggressive nationalistic and militaristic tendencies. Additionally, sections of the population, especially those within the urban middle class, were wary of military adventurism due to its potential economic implications. However, the influence of these opponents waned significantly by the 1930s, as militarists gained stronger footholds in the government and societal institutions, combined with a context of economic turmoil and perceived external threats.

Education reforms under figures like Sadao Araki played a vital role in perpetuating nationalist and militarist ideologies. As the Education Minister, Araki overhauled the curriculum to emphasise patriotic duty, reverence for the emperor, and Japan’s destiny as Asia's leader. Textbooks were rewritten to extol Japan's virtues and historical mission. Schools became venues for inculcating discipline and loyalty to the nation and the emperor. Moreover, martial training and patriotic events became commonplace. By targeting the youth, the very foundation of Japan's future, these reforms ensured that nationalist and militarist ideologies became deeply embedded in the psyche of the subsequent generations.

Western imperialism in Asia presented a dual-faceted influence on Japanese nationalism. On one hand, as Western powers increasingly colonised Asian territories, Japan felt a pressing need to modernise and strengthen itself, fearing they might be the next target. This motivation partly spurred the Meiji Restoration's ambitions. On the other hand, Japan positioned itself as Asia's protector against Western encroachment. Ideologies such as Pan-Asianism arose, wherein Japan saw itself as the leader uniting Asian nations against Western colonialism. The Western imperialist presence, therefore, indirectly contributed to Japan's heightened nationalistic sentiments and its aspirations for regional dominance.

Practice Questions

How did the Meiji Restoration and the subsequent Taishō Democracy lay the foundation for the rise of nationalism and militarism in Japan?

The Meiji Restoration initiated Japan's modernisation journey by embracing Western technologies and knowledge, leading to industrialisation and urbanisation. These transformations not only modernised Japan but fostered a renewed national consciousness. Japan's victories in the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese Wars further augmented this national pride. However, during the Taishō Democracy, despite the growth of political parties and civil liberties, the country also saw the emergence of ultra-nationalistic groups. The juxtaposition of democracy with radical nationalism, against the backdrop of military successes and economic strains like the Great Depression, made Japan ripe for the surge in both nationalism and militarism.

Evaluate the influence of key nationalist figures like Ikki Kita and Kingoro Hashimoto in shaping Japan's expansionist ambitions.

Ikki Kita played an instrumental role in laying the intellectual groundwork for ultranationalism in Japan. His writings portrayed Japan as Asia's protector against Western imperialism, promoting the idea of the 'Showa Restoration' which aimed to restore Japan to its perceived past glory through direct imperial governance. Kingoro Hashimoto, on the other hand, was an army ideologue championing Pan-Asianism and the military's role in governance. His involvement in coup attempts reflected his determination to reshape Japan's political landscape. Both figures, with their fervent ideologies, significantly influenced Japan's expansionist ambitions, asserting that Japan had both a right and duty to lead Asia against Western threats.

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Written by: Maddie
Oxford University - BA History

Maddie, an Oxford history graduate, is experienced in creating dynamic educational resources, blending her historical knowledge with her tutoring experience to inspire and educate students.

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