Showa Period ( 昭和時代 ) 1926 - 89


a young Hirohito


The Showa period ( ironically named Illustrious Peace ) started in 1926 with the death of Yoshihito and the accession of Hirohito. There are questions as to how much real control the Emperor had over the Japanese military in the affairs that led to the invasion of china and the Pacific war. A combination of economic troubles and population pressure and the seeming success of the fascist model in Europe convinced many Japanese that it must expand and colonize Asia to survive .



 A tour of Japan in the 1930's.


For much of the world, the 1930s were bleak and somber years . To many people,

the democracies in the world seemed to be struggling in the aftermath of the Great Depression and the fascist states of Germany and Italy seemed to provide a means to provide national unity and greatness .The crisis of the democracies were not lost on the Japanese, where the roots of liberal constitutionalism were shallow indeed . America and England were absorbed with their own domestic problems, and Japan's seizure of Manchuria in 1931 was not followed by sanctions or intervention of the League of Nations .  Japan withdrew from the League of Nations in 1933 .


The Manchurian Incident



Zhang Zuolin


The Japanese army was a source of extreme right wing discontent in the late 1920s and 30s, and attempted military coups to overthrow the perceived corrupting liberal politicians and base capitalists . Some members of the army, especially younger officers felt that it alone could put Japan back on its ' true' course and serve the emperor . As the government lost control of the actions of the army, it became a lose cannon free to follow a policy of imperialist adventurism .One such act was the assassination of the Manchurian warlord Chang Tso-lin ( Zhang Zuolin ) in 1928, they hoped would start a war with China in which Japan could seize resource rich Manchuria .This attempt failed to ignite a war, but the super patriots would try again in 1937.


Within the state, the idea of a Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere ( 大東亜共栄圏 Dai-tō-a Kyōeiken ) began to foment itself. The ultra-nationalist believed that the "ABCD powers" ( America Britain China Dutch )were a threat to all Asians and that Asia could only survive by following the Japanese example. Japan had been the only Asian (and, indeed, non-Western power at the time) to successfully industrialize itself and rival great Western empires.


attempted army coup in Tokyo, 1936


There were many factions within the military, but two main groups are important . One group, led by General Arakai Sadao and Mazaki Jinzaburo led the kodoha or ' Imperial Way ' faction which emphasized direct imperial rule and opposed elected governments and very anti-communist. The other faction was the Toseiha or ' control ' faction led by general Nagata Tetsuzen ready to work with the zaibatsu in order to turn Japan modern military state .


The assassination of moderate Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi in 1932, marked the end of any real civilian control of the military. This was followed by an attempted military coup in February 1936, the February 26 incident, mounted by junior Army officers of the Kōdōha faction who had the sympathy of many high-ranking officers including Prince Chichibu (Yasuhito), one of the Emperor's brothers. The young officers hoped their actions would be the spark which would destroy the old order, but the senior generals did not take part .This revolt was occasioned by a loss of ground by the militarist faction in Diet elections. The coup resulted in the murder of a number of high government and Army officials, and was put down with Emperor Shōwa angrily assuming a major role in confronting them.


Events leading up to the Marco Polo Bridge incident


A banzai by Japanese troops on the Marco Polo Bridge


Events moved quickly in China, in 1932 the Japanese established the puppet state of Manchukuo in Manchuria. Fighting broke out among Chinese national and Japanese troops around Shanghai in but a truce was reached which lasted till 1937, when  radical Japanese army elements engineered an explosion on the Marco Polo bridge outside of Beijing to start another war.


 The weak Japanese government in Tokyo tried to halt military operations but did not have the power to enforce its will. An attempted coup in October failed, but it did intimidate civilian political leaders. The invasion led to a large scale war approved by Emperor Showa and called a "holy war" (Seisen) in Imperial propaganda.


 Women watching the stars, 1936


 The Marco Polo Bridge incident was followed by a massive invasion of China, and the Chinese Nationalist moving their capital and army to Chungking after the Japanese occupation of the Chinese coast. the nationalist Chinese army was hampered by inferior equipment and a civil war with Mao Zaedong communists . The atrocities by the Japanese Army during the war in China and Asia such as the rape of Nanjing ( with an estimated 340,000 killed ) biological experiment in north China by unit 731, comfort women ( forced sex slavery for Japanese troops ) has created a lasting resentment of the Japanese throughout Asia.



 Manchuria under Japanese Control: "Manchukuo:

The Newborn Empire" circa 1937 Beaux Art Productions



A tour of the Chinese province of Manchuria in 1938.


In 1940 Japan entered the Tripartite Pact with Italy and Germany. America, placed Japan under an sanctions of oil and scrap iron as a result of the continued atrocities in china and an accidental bombing of an American naval ship in China. In an effort to discourage Japanese militarism, western powers including Australia, the United States, Britain, and the Dutch government in exile (which controlled the oil-rich Dutch East Indies) stopped selling oil, iron ore and steel to Japan, to deny it the raw materials needed to continue its activities in China and French Indochina. This was known unofficially as the "ABCD encirclement" ("American-British-Chinese-Dutch"). Japan saw these embargos as acts of aggression; imported oil made up about 80% of domestic consumption, without which Japan's economy, let alone its military, would grind to a halt.


Tokyo in 1943


Faced with a choice between economic collapse and perceived surrender, the Japanese Imperial General Headquarters began planning for a war with the western powers in April or May 1941 Japan estimated it only had 6 months of oil supplies left with the American sanctions felt it must seize the rich oil fields of the Dutch east Indies ( Indonesia ) to survive . Using that as a justification for war, Imperial General Headquarters launched the Greater East Asia War which began by a surprise attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941




view from Japanese bomber at Pearl Harbor


For the next six months, the Japanese had the initiative and went on the offensive. Hong Kong was overrun on December 8, 1941. By the summer of 1942, the Japanese had conquered Burma, Siam, the Dutch East Indies, and the Philippines.


poster for the Japanese Co-Prosperity Sphere, 1943



 Japan's War in Color


The decisive naval/aerial Battle of Midway that took place in early June 1942, however, changed the momentum of the war. Japan was put on the defensive as the Americans pursued their policy of island hopping at their leisure. Tokyo was repeatedly firebombed in 1945 and in the early spring and summer of 1945, Iwo jima and Okinawa were seized by the Americans.


Japanese Empire at its height


Defeat came in August 1945. On August 6, 1945, an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, killing approximately 200,000 people. On August 8, 1945, the Soviet Union invaded Manchuria. On August 9, Nagasaki was the site of the second nuclear attack in the history of mankind. Japan ordered an end to all hostilities on August 15.


Sailors singing ship song before abandoning ship

on the Zuikaku, Oct 25, 1944


Made in Occupied Japan



With the defeat of Japan, the Allied Powers occupied the Japanese empire. The Soviet Union was responsible for North Korea as well as islands that she had ceded to Japan during the Russo-Japanese war.



 Occupation Of Japan after World War II


The United States took responsibility for the rest of Japan's possessions in Oceania. China, meanwhile, plunged into civil war. General Douglas MacArthur was put in charge of the Allied Occupation of Japan as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers.


Japan was disarmed completely. Article 9 of the 1947 Constitution prevented Japan from ever waging war on a foreign nation. The Emperor also renounced all claims to divinity and was forbidden in playing a role in politics. To this day, the Emperor remains a mere figurehead in society. A War Crimes Tribunal, similar to those at Nuremberg were set up in Tokyo. Several prominent members of the Japanese cabinet were executed, most notably, former Prime Minister Tojo Hideki. Hirohito was not tried at the Tokyo trials, nor any members of the imperial family such as Prince Chichibu, Prince Takeda, Prince Higashikuni and Prince Asaka, much to the ire of some Allies.


At the same time, the Allies also tried to break the power of the zaibatsu but were not entirely successful. Japan was democratized and liberalized along American lines. Parliamentary party politics were established. Old left wing organizations such as the Japan Socialist Party and the Japan Communist Party reasserted themselves. The two dominant parties at the time were Liberal Party and the Democratic Party. The first post-war elections were held in 1946. In that election, women were given the franchise for the first time.

Yoshida Shigeru was elected as Prime Minister of Japan. His policy, known as the "Yoshida Doctrine" emphasized military reliance on the United States and promoted unrestrained economic growth. As Cold War tensions asserted themselves, the United States and Japan signed the Treaty of San Francisco which came into force on April 28, 1952. Japan became a sovereign nation once more.


On September 22, 1987, the Emperor underwent surgery on his pancreas after having digestive problems for several months. The doctors discovered that he had duodenal cancer, but in accordance with Japanese tradition, they did not tell him. On January 7, 1989 he died, he emperor's death ended the Shōwa era.






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