Building "Greater" Japan, 1890-1905

Building "Greater" Japan, 1890-1905

Background Information.

The Meiji Emperor bestowed the Constitution, which bore his name (but was written by the Oligarch Ito Hirobumi) as a gift to his people in 1889.  However, with the opening of parliament in 1890, a new class of politicians, journalists and political activists began to demand that they be allowed a voice in how the empire was run.  The issue that allowed them to rally public support was foreign policy and the acquisition of an empire.  In the 1890s the Japanese embarked on the project of building an empire. They defeated Qing China in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 (thereby adding Taiwan to their overseas possessions), but Russia, France and Germany forced them to give back Southern Manchuria to the Chinese.  This upset the Japanese who were determined that they would not back down from a Western challenge again.  When Russia began to menace Northeastern China and Korea, Japan fought Russia in 1904-1905 (adding South Manchuria, and Southern Sakhalin to the empire and establishing a “protectorate” in Korea).

The victory of Japan over Russia was a sensation; the first time a non-Western nation had defeated a Western nation.  This was noted around the world, especially by colonial peoples in Asia and Africa.  Yet when the terms of the Treaty of Portsmouth were announced many Japanese reacted with angry, violent street protests and bitterly denounced their Oligarchic government.  Russia had not been forced to pay an indemnity, which meant Japanese, especially those living in cities, which had had to pay for expanded empire would be forced to continue to do so.  Many Japanese people were determined that if they were going to pay for the empire they wanted a say in how it was run.  1905 saw the beginning of demands for democracy.

Learning Goals.

  1. Students will identify the characteristics of the Meiji Oligarchs;
  2. Students will explain who else wanted to have a say in how Japan was run;
  3. Students will describe how building an empire was THE key question driving the Japanese; and
  4. Students will demonstrate how Japan built its empire at the expense of China, Korea, and Russia.


Common Core Standards 
College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading

  • Standard 2.  Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.
  • Standard 10.  Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening

  • Standard 1.  Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
McRel Standards
World History


  1. McRel Standard 36Understands patterns of global change in the era of Western military and economic dominance from 1800 to 1914.
  2. McRel Standard 37Understands major global trends from 1750 to 1914.
  3. McRel Standard 38Understands reform, revolution, and social change in the world economy of the early 20th century.
  4. McRel Standard 42Understands major global trends from 1900 to the end of World War II.
  5. McRelStandard 46Understands long-term changes and recurring patterns in world history.

Key Concept.

Japan’s drive for empire brought the country into conflict with Russia resulting in both a material expansion of the empire and a psychological need for more imperial rewards.

Essential Question.

Why did the Japanese feel the need to expand their empire in Asia?

Primary Source.

Wood Block Prints of Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese War; Autobiography of Fukuzawa YĆ«kichi; Historical maps of Japanese territorial expansion from 1894-1905; Portsmouth Peace Treaty website.

The Treaty of Portsmouth, 1905 - September 5, 1905

Thought Questions.

  1. Why did the Japanese choose to build an overseas empire?
  2. Why were Japanese not satisfied with the victory over China in 1895?
  3. Why were Japanese not satisfied with their victory over Russia in 1905?
  4. How did this dissatisfaction with the Oligarchs lead Japanese to demand a greater voice in imperial affairs?



Focus Activity Ideas.

Either in pairs or individually, have students guess at reasons that nations built empires in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Based on their studies, have them, if feasible, begin to answer the following questions:  Why did Japan build an overseas empire?  In what ways were Japan’s reasons similar and dissimilar from the West’s?  (The latter half of this activity works particularly well if the previous night’s homework assignment addressed these issues.)

Main Lesson Activity Ideas.

  1. Students will discuss how Japan was able to defeat both the Chinese (1894-1895) and the Russians (1905).
  2. Students will read the Treaty of Portsmouth and look for clues as to why the Japanese would be outraged over the terms of the treaty
  3. Students will assess why the Oligarchs would settle for such a treaty and why the Japanese would demand a greater say in the running of their empire.
  4. Students will work with maps to identify the territories Japanese incorporated into their empire up to 1905.
  5. Students will break into groups and assess the significance of Japan defeating a Western power, Russia for the following groups: Japanese industrialists; Chinese Nationalists; African Nationalists; British Administrators in India.

Summative Activity Ideas.

Create a map that would show what most Japanese civilians, industrialists, and nationalists would have approved as a result of the Russo-Japanese war.