Japan's Rapid Rise and Fall, 1868-1945


Japan's Rapid Rise and Fall, 1868-1945

Unit Introduction.

During the period from 1868-1945, Japan underwent a series of rapid transformations.  In 1868, Japan had just undergone an internal transformation, leading to an overhaul of political, economic, and social systems.  As a result of these transformations, Japan rapidly changed from among the weakest nations in the world to a legitimate world power by the end of the 19th century.  As was common at this juncture, Japan also began a campaign of imperial conquest.  These conquests had vast, and ultimately disastrous, consequences for much of East and Southeast Asia, including Japan.  This unit will help student explore the reasons behind Japanese imperialism during this era, as well as learn of domestic life in Japan during this era.

Unit Goals.

  1. Students will describe the challenge Japanese faced in creating a nation and society that was modern yet still Japanese;
  2. Students will evaluate why Japanese at all levels chose Empire as the mark of Japan as a modern state; and
  3. Students will define the role of the Imperial Institution in uniting Japanese in pursuit of modernity.

Key Unit Concept.

The Meiji Era brought modernization to Japan but modernization meant empires and colonies as well as industrialization and representative government.  Japan’s embrace of imperialism set a course for destruction heretofore unknown in the archipelago.

Essential Unit Questions.

  1. How did the Meiji Emperor come to symbolize all the changes Japan was undertaking following the Charter Oath?
  2. Why did Japan turn to democracy following the death of the Meiji Emperor?
  3. Why did  Japan feel the need to expand their empire in Asia?
  4. Why did Japane abandon its experiment with democracy in favor of authoritarian or fascist rule?
  5. Why did Japan pursue its Empire through conquest and then stubbornly resist surrender until the destruction of their cities and the annihilation of hundreds of thousands of their civilians during the firebombing of Tokyo and atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ?

Summative Unit Activity/Assessment.

Essay 1: Contrast Japan under the Tokugawa rule to the Japan that emerged following the Meiji Era.  Be sure to include economic, political, and social contrasts in your essay. 

Essay 2: Assess the reasons why democracy failed in Japan in the 1920’s.  Be sure to include both foreign and domestic elements that contributed to its demise.  

Essay 3: Describe the reasons why Japan felt the necessity to build an empire in Asia.  Be sure to pay special attention to the role of Manchuria.

Essay 4: Outline the causes and results of one of the following conflicts: Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895; Russo-Japanese War 1905; The Manchurian Incident 1931. 

Essay 5: Explain the reasons Japan attacked China and then broadened the war to include the United States and the other Pacific colonial powers.  Be sure to pay particular attention to the Japanese concept of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

Bibliographic Note.

Recently we have been blessed with several excellent histories of Modern Japan by renowned scholars. Though each has their own particular strengths, all are equally good at covering this period.

Three of the best are: Marius Jansen, The Making of Modern Japan, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), James L. McClain, Japan, A Modern History (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002), and Andrew Gordon, A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).  Each of these texts is readily available.  The lesson plans listed below follows Gordon’s basic approach.

Additionally, there is an excellent sourcebook for grades 6-12: Linda K. Menton, Noren W. Lush, Eileen H. Tamura, Chance I. Gusukuma, The Rise of Modern Japan, Curriculum on Asian and Pacific History Series: Book 2 (Honolulu: Curriculum Research and Development Group University of Hawai'i and University of Hawai'i Press, 2003).  It is available along with a teachers’ guide and a music CD.

The Meiji Revolution, episode two of the 1992 PBS series The Pacific Century is also an excellent resource that can be shown in its entirety or in clips to good effect during lessons 1-3.