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What Defines a Hero?

Background Information.

Japan was known as Imperial Japan from the late 1800’s until the end of the Second World War. During this time Japan’s leaders were very concerned with the protection and expansion of Japan’s borders. There were four main reasons cited for Japan’s desire to expand: power, preservation of national independence, economic growth, and respect. Japanese leaders believed that Japan’s ability to successfully colonize beyond its border would prove that Japan was just as “modern” as the Western nations, and would consequently gain international respect.

Korea became Japan’s main focus during this time because of its proximity to Japan. Japan fought two wars during this period, both over control for areas in and around Korea. In the Sino-Japanese War (1894) Japan went to war with China over political influence in Korea and shocked the world by defeating China. Japan gained its first major colony, Taiwan, as a result of this victory over China, but was forced by Russia, France, and Germany to give South Manchuria back to China. This upset many Japanese who resolved to stand up for themselves the next time they were challenged by a Western power.

The perfect opportunity arose in 1905 when Russia began to move in on Korea and Manchuria, which had resources such as minerals and railroads. Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese war again shocked the world because it was the first time a “Western” nation was defeated by a “non-Western” one. However, the resulting Treaty of Portsmouth was perceived as unfair by the Japanese and caused anger and rioting among the people who were anticipating economic relief from an indemnity but instead would be forced to support the expansion of the empire through higher taxes.

Having won the right to colonize Korea, Japan launched aggressive efforts in the following years. Ito Hirobumi, who was the first Prime Minister of Japan, was instrumental in the colonization of Korea from 1905 to 1909 and in 1910 Korea was officially annexed as a colony. For his leading role in Japanese history from the mid-1860s until his death in 1909, Hirobumi was considered a hero by many Japanese, but was assassinated in October 1909 by a Korean independence activist named An Jung-geun, who was later caught and hanged. Hirobumi’s image was on the 1000 yen bill for a number of years and An Jung-geun is considered a hero and martyr by many Korean people and is remembered in two exhibits at the Independence Hall of Korea (museum of independence history).

Over the next two decades Manchuria became a “life-line” for Japan and the Japanese continued its push into China launching a full-scale invasion of Northeast China in 1931. This met with widespread approval among the Japanese public and in 1937 Japan officially declared war on China. By 1939 the Japanese army had taken control over most of China’s vital cities. Japan’s goal was to become the major power in Asia but other nations opposed Japan’s actions in China. Because of Japan’s refusal to concede to pressure from other nations and withdraw from China, the United States and Britain imposed an oil embargo on Japan. Using this as a reason for war, Japan launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on December 7, 1941. Only after the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 did the Japanese surrender under the Potsdam Declaration.

Learning Goals.

Students will be able to define imperialism.

Students will understand that historical people and events may be viewed as positive or negative, depending on a person’s perspective.

Key Concept.

The focus of Japan’s leaders during this period was to become the major power in Asia by gaining control of other countries.

Essential Question.

Were Japanese leaders’ reasons for Imperialism during this period justified?

What are some reasons that countries engage in imperialism or seek to gain territory?

How can historical individuals be viewed positively by some people and negatively by others?



Focus Activity Ideas.

Present a basic moral dilemma to students. Ask them to try to generate (on their own) two different perspectives on the issue (one that defines the choice as “right,” and one that defines the choice as “wrong.”

Main Lesson Activity Ideas.

  1. Show an image of the Japanese 1000 Yen bill with Ito Hirobumi’s portrait on it.
    1. Compare Hirobumi’s portrait with portraits of figures on United States bills.
    2. What kinds of people get printed on a nation’s money?
    3. (optional: distribute and have students work on currency handout)
    4. Describe who Ito Hirobumi was and some of his accomplishments. Focus on his imperialist policies by introducing a map showing Japan’s imperialist conquests from 1870-1943.
    5. Introduce the idea of imperialism.
    6. Discuss reasons why Japan might want to control these areas: Power (land=power; asserting leadership role in Asia against the West); preservation of national independence (defend against China & USSR); economic growth (need to import raw materials for manufacture); respect (Westernization; asserting the right to colonize)
  2. Return to the image of the 1000 yen bill.
    1. Based on what you know about Ito Hirobumi, why might his face have been printed on Japan’s money?
    2. What might this say about how Japanese people felt about Hirobumi?
    3. How do you think people in Korea (a country he took control of) felt about Hirobumi at the time?
    4. Think about significant figures in American history. Can you think of American “heroes” who would have been considered good by one group of contemporaries but bad by another? (i.e. Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Ulysses S. Grant, Harriet Tubman, Ghandi, etc.)
  3. Let students know that Ito Hirobumi was assassinated by An Jung-geun (show his image), a Korean man who cared about Korean independence. He was considered a hero by many who wanted Korea’s independence.
    1. Ask students to consider reasons why An Jung-geun would have been seen as a hero by some people.
  4. Show an image of the proclamation banner that An Jung-geun wrote in prison in 1910 that translates: “If wishing to make peace in Asia, Japan must correct its political policy...”
    1. Discuss with students what An Jung-geun means by this statement (basically: change what you do, don’t take over other countries, and this will lead to peace in Asia). 
    2. Ask students if they agree with An Jung-guen’s statement (If Ito Hirobumi changed his imperialist policies, would this have led to “peace in Asia?” Why or why not?)

Summative Activity Ideas.

  1. Imagine you are Emperor Ito Hirobumi (ca. 1905) as you look at his picture on the 1000 yen bill.  Write at least two reasons why it is a good idea for Japan to continue to occupy and acquire other territories.

    Now imagine you are An Jung-geun living in Korea (ca. 1905), as you look at his image. Write at least two reasons why Japan should let Korea be its own country.
  2. Consider what would have happened if An Jung-geun had never assassinated Hirobumi.
    1. What do you think would have happened?
    2. Do you think that Japan would have continued to occupy Korea or not?  Provide reasons for your answers.


Duus, Peter. Modern Japan. 2nd ed. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998.

Gordon, Andrew. A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Jansen, Marius. The Making of Modern Japan. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Lu, David, ed. Japan: A Modern History. Volume II, The Late Tokugawa Period to the Present. New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1997.

McClain, James. Japan, A Modern History. New York: W.W. Norton, 2002.

Menton, Linda et al. The Rise of Modern Japan, Curriculum on Asian and Pacific History Series: Book 2. Honolulu, HI: Curriculum Research and Development Group University of Hawaii and University of Hawaii Press, 2003.

Pyle, Kenneth. The Making of Modern Japan. 2nd Ed. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Company, 1996.

Wray, Harry and Hilary Conroy, eds. Japan Examined: Perspectives on Modern Japanese History. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1983.

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About Japan: A Teacher’s Resource
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