Empire At All Costs, 1932-1945

Empire At All Costs, 1932-1945

Background Information.

With the conquest of Manchuria and the establishment of the puppet state of ManchÅ«kuo, the Japanese under the leadership of a government increasingly dominated by the military embarked on a campaign of “autonomous empire.” Japan would become one of the most powerful and modern states through the conquest and construction of an overseas empire in North China.  Indeed, calls for Japan to halt its conquests in China were rejected because Manchuria had become “Japan’s lifeline.”  It became an article of faith that to step back from empire on the continent was to abandon the very project of Japan as a modern state.  Letting go of the empire was seen as nothing less than embracing national destruction.  This notion was shared by the Japanese people who widely supported the quest for empire at China’s expense throughout the 1930s, even when this resulted in full-scale war with China from 1937 on.

Yet the pursuit of empire through conquest brought no victory.  Although Japan achieved all its goals in the war against China by 1940, the Chinese would not make peace.  The Japanese military seemed incapable of realizing that their brutal occupation regime, punctuated by more spectacular acts of violence like the “Rape of Nanjing” in December 1937, only spurred further resistance.  Increasingly desperate to end the “China Incident,” the Japanese expanded their area of operations.  In order to isolate Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalist regime and secure the resources necessary to make Japan a strong industrial power the Japanese military leaders chose to invade the colonial territories of the western powers in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific.  This brought war with Britain and the United States.

The Japanese people were not consulted on these decisions yet they supported them wholeheartedly.  The Japanese people greeted the attack on Pearl Harbor and rapid conquest of the Western Pacific enthusiastically.  To build the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” Japanese conquerors relied on the same techniques of violence and repression that had singularly failed in China.  Yet after 1942 there were no new victories to report.  Rationing and increasing social controls bound the Japanese ever tighter in a vision of a militarized state that a growing number wanted no part of. People began to note that the site of the next “decisive battle,” against the Americans kept moving closer and closer to Japan.  Then, in the fall of 1944 and especially after March of 1945, American bombing brought devastation to Japanese cities.  The military authorities rallied the people around the symbol of the Showa emperor, especially their obligation to fight to the death to preserve his rule.  As the American invasion of Japan grew closer and closer the people were urged to sacrifice themselves and the nation they had built rather than surrender.  Only the sudden surrender of Japan after two atomic bombs and the declaration of war by the Soviet Union released them from this burden.

Learning Goals.

  1. Students will identify reasons the Japanese leaders started and then expanded war on the continent; and
  2. Students will describe why the Japanese people supported the war; and
  3. Students will explain the brutal nature of Japanese occupation policies in China and Southeast Asia; and
  4. Students will assess why Japan lost the war and her empire.



Common Core Standards
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 2.  Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.   
McRel Standards
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 Japanese pursuit of Empire through conquest was a disaster for the nation and its people.

Essential Question.

Why did the Japanese pursue their Empire through conquest and then stubbornly resist surrender until the destruction of their cities and the annihilation of hundreds of thousands of their civilians (Firebombing of Tokyo, Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki)?

Primary Source.

The Imperial Surrender Announcement, August 15, 1945. Excerpts from Sam Yamashita, Leaves from an Autumn of Emergencies (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2005), or Haruko and Theodore Cook, Japan At War: An Oral History (New York: W.W. Norton, 1991).

Thought Questions.

  1. Why did the Japanese embark on full-scale war with China in 1937?
  2. Why did the Japanese embark on wider war against Britain and the US in 1941?
  3. What made the Japanese so successful early in the war?
  4. Why were they ultimately defeated, and what was the cost of that defeat?
  5. Were there alternative courses the Japanese could have taken, and how likely were they?



Focus Activity Ideas.

Ask students to briefly answer, either as a list or in paragraph form, the following question: Why do nations go to war?

Main Lesson Activity Ideas.

  1. Using a map of the Pacific, identify the territories that Japan conquered from 1931 to 1942. Draw a border around the furthest extent of the Japanese Empire.  Historical maps in our resources sections, such as the World War II in Asia, 1941 can be helpful.
  2. Students will discuss reasons why the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and widened the Pacific War.
  3. Students will contrast how Japanese felt about the war in the spring of 1942 and how that changed over time.
  4. Students will create a timeline of Japanese defeats beginning with the Battle of Midway. Students will then trace the advance of the allies using their map.  Use of various historical maps of Japan and Asia can be particularly useful.  Amongst the useful examples are comparing the two maps created by the U.S. military in our resources section: Plans and Forces at the Beginning of the War, 1941 and Summary of Allied Campaigns, 1945. The activity can be made more challenging through selection of different maps.
  5. Students will examine photographs of Tokyo after the firebombing and of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the atomic explosions. Students will assess the impact of the war on Japan’s economy, morale, and infrastructure.
  6. Discuss the condition of Japan at the end of the war.  While it had not been fought over by conquering armies in the same way as Nazi Germany, the war devastated Japan.  Its industrial capacity was used up or destroyed, much of its cities were burned out shells, the destruction of shipping meant severe shortages of food and materials and internal transportation was severely disrupted.  The Japanese people suffered from the bombing but much more so from starvation, disease, and an acute weariness from constant exhortation to fight and die for the emperor.

Summative Activity Ideas.

Historians often engage in “what if” scenarios.  Write an alternate history to Japan’s pursuit of Empire through conquest.  Be careful to consider alternate courses Japan could have taken.  In the end, the Japanese came to equate the continued existence of an overseas empire with the continued existence of Japan.  They could not conceive of one without the other.  This led to disaster and defeat.