Index > Research
Wednesday, January 06, 2021
Nationalism Went Astray: Japan's Road to Self-destruction
Yu (Tony) Pan & Qin Zheng

Yu (Tony) Pan | Research Fellow, Center of International Relations, ANBOUND; Research Assistant of the Chief Researcher at ANBOUND

Qin Zheng | Research intern,Center of International Relations, ANBOUND; Graduated from the University of Southern California


Throughout the modern history of the world, Japan was undoubtedly an interesting case: from a "small country" surrounded by great powers, it ascended to the only independent Asian country, and by the end of the First World War, Japan even became one of the "great powers." From a higher perspective, Japan's success at that time objectively proved that Asian peoples were not naturally inferior to Westerners. Unfortunately, Japan, which was supposed to be the leader of a bright future, chose an expansive path and eventually became the primary source of fascist powers in the Pacific region.

It is undeniable that from the Meiji Restoration until the early Showa period (the end of World War II), Japan's foreign policy was expansionary. This expansionary national policy brought significant suffering to its neighbors also ultimately dragged Japan into the abyss of destruction. When World War II ended, Japan's developments of decades were basically erased by the war. As a result, Japan's expansionist policies, both on their own and from a broader perspective, ultimately brought disasters and nothing else.

In this context, several questions that we need to ponder are: what has led Japan down a path of expansionary self-destruction? Moreover, at what point did Japan's foreign policy start to lose its mind? What can future generations learn from Japan's harrowing experience to prevent the same fate from repeating itself? As a country that has been entangled with Japan for generations and has a complicated relationship right now, these issues have even greater relevance for Chinese researchers today.

Fortunately, there is actually a fair amount of academic research on this issue, and there are roughly four main explanations for the expansive history of the Empire of Japan.

First, there is the "structural explanation", most commonly used by scholars of international relations (especially realists), which argues that Japan's expansion and the origin of World War II were deeply rooted in the decisive function of the international structure toward states' actions. In other words, the post-World War I "Versailles-Washington System" was unable to adapt to Japan's policy needs. From this angle, Japan's expansion between the two wars was, in fact, a result of its attempt to change the international structure into its own disadvantage.

Secondly, there is the "domestic explanation", which is more common among Western scholars. Scholars of this view argue that the root of Japan's expansion was the failure to establish a mature, modern democratic institution during the Meiji Restoration period and its inability to impose reasonable constraints on the power of the military and the Emperor, which ultimately led to the military's seizure of power and the hijacking of Japan's foreign policy, leading to Japan's expansion.

The third explanation focuses mainly on the constructivist perspective, the "Pan-Asianism". A considerable number of Japanese scholars hold this view. They believe that there was a deformed understanding within Japanese society at that time: that Japan should lead Asia against the European and American powers, while the Asian countries generally still have not completed their own national-buildings, combined with Japan's own geographical characteristics of scarce resources, it is necessary for Japan to join the process peacefully or forcefully, and for all kinds of reasons, Japan chose the latter method, using its iron fist to integrated Asia from the Western colonists. It should be noted that most post-war Japanese scholars have examined this idea in Japanese society from a critical point of view, but on the other hand, the objective existence of this idea cannot be denied. In fact, this idea of "Pan-Asianism" actually evolved into the actual policies like the "Continental Policy" and the "Manchurian-Mongolian Lifeline."

Finally, there is the IPE explanation of expansionary policies, the core logic of which is the Marxist assertion that economic foundation determines the superstructure. However, as the IPE theory evolves, different scholars have deepened and expanded the economic explanation, although the core remained the same, making Japan challenging to realize its economic independence. From this perspective, Japan's expansionist attempts at foreign soil essentially compensate for the deficiencies and shortcomings in its own economic structure.

At first glance, it may seem that each of these explanations has its own rationale. However, this is all the more reason why none of the four answers may really get to the essence of the matter. Therefore, this question is still of considerable theoretical values.

In addition to its theoretical significance, this study has considerable relevance for today's world. Many observers have already noticed the similarities between today's international situation to 1930s: a new phase in productivity and production relations; the accumulation of confrontation between old powers and its emerging challengers; the global resurgence of populism; the radicalization of social trends, and the fact that many countries are in the grip of an economic crisis (even though the crisis today is mainly caused by the COVID-19). A fair question, therefore, is whether humanity is once again heading toward another global warfare. Furthermore, if there is another world war, can humanity ever be reborn from the ashes as it did 75 years ago? Thus, it is undoubtedly necessary to address these questions and understand why the fascist state moved towards expansion back then, which is the most crucial value of this report.

This report argues that Japan's expansion prior to World War II was essentially the physical manifestation of its domestically uncontrolled nationalism. As to the reasons for this phenomenon, this paper argues that the four mainstream explanations regarding why Showa Japan took an expansion road, actually, can be integrated into the uncontrolled-nationalism perspective, and all four of them are, to some extent, correct. Of these four mainstream explanations, Snyder's view that the navy and army were becoming more and more extreme in their struggle for policy dominance has the most substantial explanatory power.

However, we also argue that the four existing explanations are incomplete, although they can be included in the "uncontrolled nationalism" framework. On the other hand, whether nationalism inevitably expanded without outside interference and whether this trend inevitably leads to expansionist policies has not been addressed.

In this regard,

  • this paper argues that due to nationalism's natural characteristics, there does exist a natural tendency to expand in the process of nationalism's development. The main reason for this phenomenon is the cognitive dissonance of nationalists in defining the boundaries of the "rightful" national interests, and due to the unreliability of group rationality, nationalism, as a group ideology, tend to become increasingly extreme and irrational on its way of becoming a major social trend. When such movement is not reasonably controlled and eventually hijacks the national policies, the state tends to embark on a path of self-destructive expansion. The Empire of Japan was one of the most typical cases.

It should be noted that, although this paper is directly targeted with pre-World War II Japan, we believe that, in a broader context, the judgment that "uncontrolled nationalism will lead to irrational expansion" is equally applicable beyond this case. For example, although the pattern is slightly different, the case of the Third Rich, which was another source of World War II, was also in line with this judgment. And therefore, we think the report has significance for people beyond historians and IR scholars.

Mr. Pan Yu currently serves as a research fellow and the special assistant of the Chief Research at ANBOUND. He obtained his B.A. at the University of International Business and Economics at Beijing, and his M.A. at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University. Prior to joining ANBOUND, Tony served as a researcher among multiple research organizations in Beijing and Washington. His current focuses lie on geopolitics, Asian Affairs and U.S.-Sino Relations. Tony is capable of researching in both Mandarin and English.

Qin Zheng holds a master's degree in Public Policy Program from the University of Southern California. She obtained her Bachelor of Arts in Japanese and Journalism from the Communication University of China in 2018. She was responsible for tracking Japan-related research projects and supporting research work when she worked at Anbound. Her research interests include urban planning and economic policy. She can conduct research in Chinese, Japanese, and English.

© 2021 by ANBOUND. All rights reserved.

Please consult the PDF for references.


Contact ANBOUND Malaysia Office at :  Suite 25.5, Level 25, Menara AIA Sentral, 30 Jalan Sultan Ismail, 50250 Kuala Lumpur

TEL : +60 3-21413678       Email : ;