Empire And Imperial Democracy, 1918-1932

Empire And Imperial Democracy, 1918-1932

Background Information.

Japan was one of the victorious allies at the end of World War One and acknowledged as one of the Great Powers.  It was one of the “big five” at Versailles and one of the “big three” at the Washington Conference in 1921-1922.  At the Washington Conference Japan agreed to a series of treaties (the Four, Five, and Nine Power treaties) that codified the strategic situation in the Pacific. Japan assumed the role of a cooperative world power.  Yet many Japanese continued to feel that their nation was not properly respected abroad and that it should go its own way.  At the same time it began to appear to some that having an empire could be more trouble than it might be worth.  Koreans attempted to declare their independence from Japan in March 1919 (but were brutally suppressed by the Japanese).  Chinese protested against Japan taking over German possessions in China (resulting in the Japanese eventually returning them in 1922).  The pointless and profitless Siberian Intervention dragged on through 1922 until the Japanese finally withdrew.  The rise of the Soviet Union and, more ominously, the Nationalist government in China in the late 1920s, seemed to threaten Japan’s continental position as never before.

In 1926 the Taishō emperor died and was succeeded by the Shōwa emperor.  The new, young monarch was able to resume the key symbolic role of rallying the nation, which his grandfather had played.  Meanwhile, democratic government was proving incapable of dealing with the domestic problems affecting all Japanese.  Life in the countryside was hard and the number of poor farmers forced to become tenants on their lands increased.  A serious banking crisis hit the nation in 1927.  Finally the worldwide depression  starting in 1929-1930 destroyed Japan’s vital export industry.  All of this led many Japanese to believe that there was no future in continuing to uphold the international order.  Rather, Japan should break free and decide its own destiny, and it should do it through the quest for empire.

Increasingly voices within the military and the bureaucracy argued that the civilian politicians were failing to keep the popular and imperial will in harmony.  The junior officers of Japan’s Kwantung Army in Manchuria, who staged the Manchurian Incident in September 1931 and launched a full-scale invasion of Northeast China, acted without orders from the central government.  But widespread approval of the invasion among Japanese, along with the assassination of key civilian politicians, made it impossible to repudiate their actions.  Instead, a new government was formed from the military and the bureaucracy.  The experiment with democracy was abandoned in favor or authoritarian or fascist rule.

Learning Goals.

  1. Students will identify the threats to democracy in Japan during the 1920s and 1930s;
  2. Students will explain Japan’s brief role as a cooperative world power in the 1920s;
  3. Students will describe how domestic problems shook people’s faith in Democracy; and
  4. Students will assess why the Japanese embraced the actions of junior army officers in Manchuria in 1931.



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.

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.
  • Standard 4.  Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
  • Standard 6.  Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and communicative tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate. 
McRel Standards
World History


  1. McRel Standard 39Understands the causes and global consequences of World War I.
  2. McRel Standard 40Understands the search for peace and stability throughout the world in the 1920s and 1930s.
  3. Mcrel Standard 42Understands major global trends from 1900 to the end of World War II.
  4. McRelStandard 46.  Understands long-term changes and recurring patterns in world history.

Key Concept.

The Japanese experiment with democracy was abandoned in favor or authoritarian or fascist rule.

Essential Question.

Why did the Japanese abandon their experiment with democracy in favor of authoritarian or fascist rule?

Primary Source.

The Washington Conference Treaties (Four Power, Five Power, Nine Power)

Korean Declaration of Independence, March 1, 1919

Thought Questions.

  1. Why did Japan change from a cooperative power and signatory to the Washington Treaties in 1921-1922, to one that sought to overthrow the international system by the 1930s?
  2. What domestic and foreign problems made Japanese loose faith the in effectiveness of democratic governments?
  3. Why did Japanese approve of the actions of renegade military officers in 1931?
  4. Why did Japanese embrace the mission of continuing to build their empire?



Focus Activity Ideas.

Ask students to write answers to one of the following questions: Are democratic institutions inherently at odds with imperialistic designs?  Can a nation be both Democratic and an Empire?  Why might Japanese people have found the Emperor and the Empire more attractive than democracy and freedom?

Main Lesson Activity Ideas.

  1. Students will identify the various parties to the Washington Conference and what they wanted.  (The basic purpose of the agreements that came out of the conference was to codify the strategic situation in East Asia left by the end of World War One.  This included naval arms control, the end of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, which the British and US wanted so Japan would no longer have cover to pursue expansionist policies, and the recognition by all parties with treaty rights in China, including Japan, of the “open door” policy of respect for Chinese sovereignty and autonomy.]
  2. Students will break up into groups according to participants in the Washington Conference (Japan, Great Britain, United States, France, Italy).  Each group will research what their particular country hoped to achieve and what they actually achieved from the Conference.
  3. Students will debate the issues of the Conference and try to win a better outcome for their country than was historically accomplished.
  4. Students will discuss why the Japanese were dissatisfied with the outcomes of the Conference.
  5. Students will discuss why junior officers provoked an invasion of Manchuria and why the Japanese government let them get away with it.

Summative Activity Ideas.

Democracy was fragile in the 1920’s in Asia and in Europe.  Write a paragraph summarizing the forces undermining democracy both domestically and internationally.