Early Showa Japan and Total War, 1937-1945

Early Showa Japan and Total War, 1937-1945

Background Information.

As Japan entered into war with China, it abandoned a more flexible, conciliatory foreign policy for a determined drive to guarantee the resources needed for survival, security, and the respect of the Western powers that many in its government believed was deserved but not shown.  Japan’s attempt to build a regional sphere of influence in Asia and the Pacific came to a crashing end as the United States proved just how limited its resources were from mid-1942 to the summer of 1945.

Learning Goals.

  1. Students will describe several points of view regarding the contributing factors that led to the Pacific War;
  2. Students will describe ways in which the move to total war increasingly impacted Japanese society as the war progressed to its bitter end; and
  3. Students will describe how the lives of the Japanese citizenry were impacted by the war over time, and the causes of increased constraints placed upon the Japanese people during the wartime years.


Common Core Standards 
College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading

  • Standard 1.  Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
  • Standard 3.  Analyze how and why individuals, events, and ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.
  • Standard 7.  Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing

  • Standard 2.  Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.

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
Language Arts


  1. McRel Standard 4Gathers and uses information for research purposes.
  2. McRel Standard 5Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process.
  3. McRel Standard 7Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of informational texts.
  4. McRel Standard 8Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes.

United States History

  1. McRel Standard 25Understands the causes and course of World War II, the character of the war at home and abroad, and its reshaping of the U.S. role in world affairs.

World History

  1. McRel Standard 40Understands the search for peace and stability throughout the world in the 1920s and 1930s.
  2. McRel Standard 41Understands the causes and global consequences of World War II.
  3. Mcrel Standard 42Understands major global trends from 1900 to the end of World War II.

Key Concept.

The impetus for war was based on complex variables.  Different nations attribute different causes for the causes of conflicts.

Essential Question.

How and why were there major shifts in Japan’s foreign policy during the early Showa period?

Primary Source.  

Thought Questions.

  1. What does Japanese and American propaganda concerning this conflict tell us about how political leaders on each side attempted to convince their people of the righteousness of their cause?
  2. How did the war impact Japanese society and its people’s lives during from 1937 through 1945, and what explanations can be offered as to why the Japanese social fabric continued to hold even in the latter months of the war?
  3. In what ways does the Japanese expression—Greater East Asian War—or what Americans refer to as the Pacific War—represent different temporal and spatial understandings of the conflict?



Focus Activity Ideas.  

Main Lesson Activity Ideas.

  1. Video clip viewing and discussion (15 minutes plus discussion):
    View clip from The Road to Disaster (Directed and Produced by Smokey Forester. 30 minutes. Japan: The Changing Tradition. Vol. 20. 1978. Videocassette), which covers the events leading up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The clip leaves out most of the names of events and historical figures, but this can be supplemented with a handout. Focus the discussion that follows on how the video portrays Japan’s move onto the Asian continent and into the Pacific. Is it portrayed as naked aggression, a calculated move for world dominance, or self-defense?

    Discussion topic:
    1. What rationale does The Road to Disaster offer for Japan’s move onto the Asian continent and into the Pacific?
    2. Who does it argue was responsible?
  2. Analyzing political propaganda:
    Discussion questions are based on images from John Dower’s book, War Without Mercy. For context, create a gallery exhibit and ask students to look at and analyze American (Dower, pages 181-90) and Japanese cartoons (pages 191-200). There is also a short Japanese propaganda cartoon in The Road to Disaster that could be viewed to illustrate the Japanese perspective.

    Discussion topics:
    1. What do the images tell us about what each side thought of the other? Do you observe any differences between the ways in which Americans saw the Japanese and the Japanese saw the Americans?
    2. How did the images make it easier for each of the two sides to commit wartime atrocities?
    3. Based on the cartoons, what were the opposing rationalizations for fighting the Pacific War?
  3. Analyzing images of war and modernity:
    This set of activities is based on images from Jacqueline Atkins (ed.), Wearing Propaganda (Yale, 2005).

    1. Summarize or have students read John Dower's catalogue essay, "Japan's Beautiful, Modern War" (pages 93-111).
    2. Create a slideshow or gallery activity in which students take turns, individually or in small groups, to present and comment on a specific piece’s meaning and how it functions as propaganda, linking it to the ideas in Dower’s essay.
    3. Students who have worked on earlier activities involving woodblock pints, postcards and matchbook covers should be able to make some observations about continuities in Japanese visual culture and graphic design.
  4. Secondary source discussion (10-12 minutes):
    Assign Michael A. Barnhart’s short article entitled “Japan’s Drive to Autarky” in Japan Examined: Perspectives on Modern Japanese History, which compares the Japanese view of their expansion onto to the Asian continent with the American government’s perspective.
  5. Analyzing primary sources:
    The move to total war forced major changes in Japanese society as evidenced by the following primary sources: (1) Chapter 14 of David Lu’s edited volume, Japan: A Documentary History, entitled “Rise of Ultranationalism and the Pacific War,” under subsections “Imperial Rule Assistance Association,” “Students in War,” and “Life in Wartime Tokyo, ” and (2) “An Undeclared War,” the introductory section of Haruko and Theodore Cook’s, Japan at War, An Oral History.

    1. Ask students to make a timeline of the Japanese involvement in China from 1894–1939.
    2. The Cooks list three characteristics of the Japanese government’s conduct which became apparent in the invasion of China. Ask students to make notes about each of them under these headings: unrealistic inflation of goals; complex attitudes towards other Asian peoples; and mobilizing and controlling the domestic population. Introduce students to the Cook's interview project. Summarize or have students read pages 3-8 of their "Introduction to a Lost War" to provide a brief overview of the context in which these narratives were recounted. Ask students to read specific narratives, dividing some from the home front and some from the military among the class.
  6. Discussion or writing topics:
    The first set of discussion topics is based on Nohara Teishin’s narrative, “A Village Boy Goes to War,” pages 29-34.
    1. Nohara came from a fairly modest social background. What aspects of Nohara's life reflect his family’s poverty?
    2. What were the results of the army physical examination that Nohara and his schoolmates took? What do you think is the significance of those results?
    3. Nohara entered the 35th Regiment in January 1935. What were Japan’s military involvements at that time?
    4. What was Nohara's understanding of the army’s role in Manchuria?
    5. What aspects of China were most impressive to Nohara? What aspects of his job were the most physically demanding? What was his greatest responsibility?
    6. What specific memories does Nohara have in mind when he speaks of “the wretchedness and misery of war?”
    7. Nohara has some vivid memories of Nanking. What were some of his impressions of the city?
    8. On the way to Hsuchow, the need for the regiment to keep moving necessitated some desperate measures. Give some examples.
    9. What does the phrase “returned home in triumph” mean? What is Nohara's attitude to official rhetoric?
    The second set of discussion topics is based on Nogi Harumichi’s narrative, “I Wanted to Build Greater East Asia,” pages 50-55.
    1. What were the various motives involved in the promotion of a “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere?” Include economic, political, military and idealist motives.
    2. What lessons did Nogi feel that Japan could learn from Mussolini and Hitler?
    3. What beliefs about democracy were common in Nogi's circle?
    4. What was the Patriotic Students’ Alliance? What were some of its key ideas and what was its reputation among students?
    5. What views did Nogi and his circle have about the nations of Southeast Asia?
    6. What was the Sumera Study Group? What were its beliefs?
    7. What was the relationship between the student groups that Nogi belonged to and the military?
    8. What does Nogi mean by the phrase, “the day the war broke out in victory”? What were Nogi’s thoughts at this moment?
    The third set of discussion topics is based on Fukushima Yoshie’s narrative, “Manchurian Days,” pages 56-60.
    1. What different kinds of people were attracted to settling in Manchuria?
    2. Describe Fukushima as a person. What is her social background, her character, and what were her goals?
    3. How did Fukushima get to Manchuria? What route did she take? Where is Fushun?
    4. What did Fukushima find particularly impressive about Manchuria?
    5. What were her reactions on learning about the war with the U.S.?
    6. When Fukushima was planning to marry another Japanese settler and return to Manchuria with him, her aunt warned her about the risks. What was her aunt afraid of? What in her own life made her feel those fears were valid?
    7. What was Fukushima's husband’s job? His reputation?
    8. What kind of relations do Fukushima and her husband have with Manchurian people? With other Japanese people?
    9. “I had no idea what lay ahead” says Fukushima. What did lie ahead for her as a Japanese settler in Manchuria?
    The fourth set of discussion topics is based on Tanaka Tetsuko’s narrative, “Making Balloon Bombs,” pages 187-191.
    1. What was a balloon bomb?
    2. Tanaka entered high school “the year the Pacific War broke out.” When was that? What were her feelings when she heard about the war?
    3. How did the war affect Tanaka's life as a student? What ideas did she associate with her sense of mission?
    4. Describe step by step the process of making the balloons.
    5. At what stage in the war was the balloon bomb strategy adopted? What was its significance?
    6. What was the response of the Yamaguchi High School principal to the prospect of the girls being sent to the military base?
    7. Describe the scene as the girls finally left for the base. Did they think they might be risking their lives?
    8. What did the girls look like as they dressed for the day at work?
    9. The Imperial Precepts for Soldiers and Sailors were recited every day by this group of 150 teenage girls. What were the central values in those precepts does Tanaka remember?
    10. Describe the work routine of the girls in the arsenal. What was the significance of the two white tablets?
    11. What were Tanaka’s thoughts on looking at her own will 30 years later? What were her thoughts on learning 40 years later what had become of some of the balloon bombs?
    12. In the discussion between Tanaka and her ex-classmates, what different points of view were expressed?
    The fifth set of discussion questions is based on Araki Shigeko’s narrative, “Bride of a Kamikaze,” pages 319-326.
    1. What was the relationship between Araki and the boy who became her first husband?
    2. How did the war affect the daily life of Araki and her family?
    3. What feelings surrounded Haruo’s marriage proposal and the wedding ceremony?
    4. What happened on Shigeko’s and Haruo’s wedding night?
    5. What did Araki believe was the purpose of Haruo’s death?
    6. What lingering questions does Araki have about Haruo’s death?
    7. What does Araki do to remember and memorialize Haruo?
    8. What is the significance of the bamboo spears and the phrase “Yamato damashii?”
  7. Video:
    Isao Takahata’s 80-minute anime film, Grave of the Fireflies (Directed by Isao Takahata. Produced by Toru Hara. 88 min. Central Park Media, 1988), provides a gripping and emotional look back at the experience of children in a city during the firebombing raids of 1945, and will help students appreciate the hardships of life on the Japanese home front.

Summative Activity Ideas.

  1. Ask students write a counter-argument to a quote illustrating a commonly held belief regarding the entry of Japan into the Pacific War, defending their position with specific examples.
  2. Ask students to write an essay in answer to the question: Why did the Japanese social fabric continue to hold throughout the waning years of the war even when it was obvious to most Japanese citizens that the war was being lost?



Theme,History; Topic,History-Modern; Theme,Imperial Japan; Unit,Imperial Japan 1890-1945; Topic,International Relations; Type,Lesson Plan; Topic,Politics; Grade Level,Secondary; Subject Area,Social Studies; Topic,War & Conflict;
war, showa, imperial Japan