Early Showa Period and World War II


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Prince HirohitoDepending on the historian's point of view, the Showa Period of Japanese history begins either with declaration of then Prince Hirohito as the ruling Regent in 1921 or with the death of his father, Emperor Taisho in1926. The early years of Emperor Hirohito's rule was not easy. In April 1927, the Japanese government faced a bank crisis. This was followed by the Great Depression in 1929. There was conflict within the Diet with two main political parties alternating control until 1932. As World War II approached, the government became controlled more and more by the military. This suppressed many of the democratic rights within Japan. Political enemies were assassinated. Censorship was enforced. Government offices occupied by military officers and communists were persecuted.

Manchurian Incident MapJapanese militarism grew under the early Showa period. In 1931, Japan and China's uneasy coexistence met with problems. The Japanese had built up a presence in Southern Manchuria. China was unifying under the Kuomintang Party and Japan thought they were a threat to them. Manchuria was an important source of raw materials Japan was lacking like coal, oil, and iron ore. The Chinese government began expanding a railway and harbor facilities into Southern Manchurian. After a bomb exploded on the Japanese railway in Mukden (Shenyang), the Japanese took over Southern Manchuria in September 1931. Despite opposition from the League of Nations and the Japanese Cabinet, Japan set up a puppet state of Manchukuo in February 1932. The army, which claimed control over Manchuria, could not be controlled by any civilian officials rather only by the emperor. This would continue to play a role in the events leading up to World War II.

Map of Japanese ExpansionFollowing the Manchurian Incident, the Japanese Air Force bombed Shanghai in 1932 to protect Japanese residents from anti-Japanese actions. The Chinese had boycotted Japanese goods in January of that year. The Japanese in turn burned factories and shops before sending an ultimatum to the mayor of Shanghai. They demanded an investigation, an apology and the disbanding of anti-Japanese organizations. The mayor conceded but the Japanese demanded the withdrawal of Chinese troops and attacked two forts. WIthin two months, the Japanese captured Shanghai. Finally in 1933, after heavy criticism, Japan withdrew from the League of Nations.

No longer part of the League of Nations, The Second Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1937. Japanese forces occupied almost the whole coast of China. During their occupation, Japanese forces committed war crimes against the Chinese. The most famous of these being in the capital Nanking. Over 350,000 men, women, and children were killed from 1937-1938 in Nanking and its surrounding area. In addition to the massive killings, approximately 80,000 women of all ages were raped by the Japanese troops. The responsibility for the actions in Nanking has been attributed to General Iwane Matsui and Prince Asaka, the uncle of Emperor Hirohito. Many of the atrocities were recorded by Western observers as well as Japanese soldiers in both photographs and written accounts. One account was wired to the New York Times by F. Tillman Durdin.

During this time period, Japan was advertising through posters Japan's role in reviving Asia. One example of this was the careful creation of the Manchukuo flag. It featured five stripes symbolizing the five ethnic groups of the region. The region contained Russians, Chinese, Manchurians, Koreans, and Japanese. Another message portrayed was that Japan was a friend to traditional Asian culture. In preparation for war in Asia, Japan passed the National Mobilization Law. This allowed the government to secure and assign human and physical resources for wartime use.

Japan's limited natural resources began to hinder the country's movement into the twentieth century. Many of the natural resources a country needs to industrialize were lacking in Japan. Japan lacked mineral resources such as coal, iron, and oil. To fill the gap, Japan had two choices, trade or conquer. Japan's first area of conquer was China.

As Japan's aggressive actions in the Pacific grew, the war in Europe was underway. Japan received an agreement to occupy Vietnam (French Indochina at the time) in 1940. This agreement was reached with the French Vichy government as Japan joined the Axis powers of Germany and Italy. This angered both the US and British governments. The US boycotted the sale of petroleum to Japan. Oil being a necessity for war, Japan made movements to seize oil from Indonesia (Dutch East Indies at the time). The US embargo and growing hostility toward Japan led to the formation of attack plans on the United States.

During the 1941, the United States and Japan were in negotiations to reach agreements about the Pacific Ocean area. Communication between the countries occurred on several occasions. On November 26, the US sent a note to the Japanese government with an outline of an agreement. By December 6, the situation called for more serious correspondence. President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent another message to the Emperor of Japan. This was met with a response generally referred to as the Fourteen Part Message on December 7 and of course the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Within six months of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Japan expanded its territory to include an area as far west as to the border of India and New Guinea in the south. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese military did attempt to gather information and attack the US. One method was balloons flown over the United States.

From June 4th to June 6th in 1942, the Battle of Midway raged in the Pacific. The Battle of Midway was fought near the US mid-Pacific base at Midway atoll. This base was a key holding for the United States. The Japanese viewed it as an "entry for Hawaii." By winning the base, Japan would remove the threat of the US Pacific fleet allowing them to move further south in the Pacific with hope of isolating Australia and eventually removing it as a threat. The Japanese attack included a three-pronged plan involving aircraft carriers approaching from the northwest and battleships attacking from the northwest, west and southwest. The Battle of the Coral Sea badly damaged two of the six carriers that were to be used to assault Midway. This, along with the breaking of Japanese code containing their battle plans by the Americans, led to the defeat of Japan in the Battle of Midway. This battle is seen as the turning point in the war in the Pacific. Before the Battle of Midway, the general consensus was that Japan had naval superiority over the US. After Midway, the two countries were viewed as equals. The US after the Battle of Midway began a naval offensive against Japanese held territory in the Pacific winning these territories slowly.

Japanese PropagandaPart of World War II was the use of propaganda. Both the United States and Japan used propaganda to advance their war efforts. While US propaganda took aim at its enemies, Japanese propaganda was two fold. While taking aim at the US, it also directed propaganda toward Asian countries they wanted to conquer. Japan used the ides that through their countries leadership, all of Eastern Asia would have a better economy that was free of Western influence. The Japanese government maintained that their efforts were for the good of the Asia people, yet there were underlying motives for Japan. They justified their aggressive actions based on the idea that the rest of Asia was not doing their part. To back this claim up, the Japanese government would often site the Sino-Japanese War in 1904-1905. The war was between Russia and Japan over territory in China. This Japanese defense of China would be used to justify later actions during World War II. Japan would later claim they acted in self-defense. Two very famous pieces of Japanese propaganda literature were Korea dake Yomeba Ware wa Kateru (Read this and the War is Won), and Shinmin no Michi (The Way of the Subject). These pieces of literature depicted the US and other Western nations as immoral and greedy for Asian colonies. Later the US placement of Japanese-Americans in interment camps was used to further this view. The Japanese were easily sold that Japan had a divine purpose to defeat the enemy. Two other pieces of propaganda art work were "Fire and Never Quit" and a army recruitment poster not unlike the US Uncle Sam poster.

In November of 1944, the United States began intensive air raids of Japan. The United States began bombing military targets including military bases and munitions factories. Large cities like Tokyo and Osaka were bombed during the night with incendiary bombs. The air raids spread to small and medium sized cities and factories. The total damage to human life is placed at around 700,000 people killed or injured.

Enola GayIn July of 1945, the Allied Powers met at Potsdam and requested that Japan surrender unconditionally or face further destruction. The Japanese refused and the United States put in motion the plan to drop the Atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The United States had several arguments for using the Atomic bomb. They thought to minimize American casualties that were to be caused by an invasion of Japan, to bring the USSR into the war against Japan, and to study the effects of the atomic bomb. Which city to drop the bomb on became a heated debate. The candidate cities included Kyoto, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Yokohama, Osaka, and Kobe. By May 11 the candidate cities had been narrowed down to Kyoto, Hiroshima, Yokohama, Kokura, Niigata and Nagasaki. As of May 28, 1945, air raids against those cities stopped. After developing the bomb over three years, the US tested the new weapon in New Mexico on July, 16, 1945. Less than one month later, the first atomic bomb would be dropped on Hiroshima. By July 25, the order was given to bomb, Hiroshima, Kokura, Niigata or Nagasaki as soon as possible after August 3, 1945. The Enola Gay was the B-29 plane that dropped "Little Boy" bomb on Hiroshima. Hiroshima was chosen due to the geography of the city, the concentration of military troops and factories, and the ability to commit a visual bombing and good weather. The target for the bomb was the T-shaped Aioi Bridge. At 8:15 A.M. on August 6, 1945 the bomb was dropped. As a result of the bomb, 90% of the buildings were destroyed by either fire of the 1,000 mph wind that was created by the blast. In 1945, Hiroshima's population was estimated to be 245,000 people. 80,000 people were killed immediately by the bomb with another 60,000 dying by December 1945. In the six years that followed another 60,000 people died. The effects on survivors included hair loss, keloids (heat burns), cataracts, leukemia and other cancers, stillborn and mentally retarded children. After the war is over, a gradual rebuilding of Hiroshima begins in 1946. In 1949, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial City Construction Law is passed and the area around the hypocenter is rebuilt as a park named Hiroshima Memorial Park.

On August 9th, the Soviet Union entered the war against Japan as agreed. The Soviet troops attacked Japanese forces in Manchuria while the United States dropped a second bomb on Nagasaki. The original primary target of Kokura was abandoned due to smoke cover. The bomb was dropped at 11:02 AM. The hypocenter was an area known as Urakami. The area was chosen due to a break in the cloud cover that morning and the industrial zone within the area. Unfortunately, the areas was also home to around 15,000 Japanese Catholics, the Nagasaki Medical College and other school zones. Almost all humans and animals living within one kilometer (less than 1 mile) were killed instantly due to to the explosive force and heat. In all 73,884 people were killed. Like Hiroshima, most of the buildings were leveled. The events that day in Nagasaki and Manchuria led to Japan suing for peace on August 10. On August 14, 1945, Emperor Showa decided to surrender unconditionally. The final terms were signed aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay in September 2.

One of the more uplifting stories to come from this era is of Hachiko, the faithful dog. Hachiko was an Akita dog who began his life in 1923 is still popular today. He and his owner, Eisaburo Uyeno, moved to Tokyo in 1924. Every day Hachiko would walk with his master to the train station. Mr. Eisaburo Uyeno was a professor at Imperial University. The faithful dog would then return to await his arrival home. This was their routine until one day in 1925 when the professor became ill at work and died before he could return home. Hachiko returned daily to the train station until he died there on March 8, 1935. The people who passed him daily were so inspired by him that they commissioned Ando Teru, a famous artist, to begin a statue of the dog in 1934. During World War II, the bronze statue was melted down for the war effort. Gone but not forgotten, The Society for Recreating the Hachiko Statue commissioned Ando Tekeshi, the son of the original artist, to sculpt a new statue. The present statue outside Tokyo's busy Shibuya Train Station has been there since 1948. It is a common meeting place for people in the busy Shibuya section. People can pay their respects to Japan's most loved dog, buy a souvenir, or just admire the story of a dog and his master.

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July 2005 Created - | Saturday, February 25, 2006 Last Revised -