Nation Building

Nation Building explores the relationship between modern nation building and nationalism in China and Japan in the 19th and through to the begining of World War II in Asia. Reforms throughout this period contributed to the development of new national identities and a new relationship between China and Japan. Throughout this time both nations contended with a range of opportunities and critical decisions that would play important roles during World War II.

Essential Questions:

  • Under what conditions does nationalism lead to war?
  • How do external threats shape the way leaders think about their country and its place in the world?
  • How do changes in the world impact the way communities and nations view themselves?
  • What are the conditions that make a country strong? What makes them weak?
  • What were the critical events leading up to the outbreak of World War II in East Asia?

Nation Building Video Gallery

These videos explore the historical relationship between China and Japan and the ideas and institutions developed along their paths of modern nation building.

Readings in this Section

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Genocide & Mass Violence

Meiji Period in Japan

With Emperor Meiji’s ascension to the throne in 1867, Japan theoretically restored power to the emperor, but because he was only 15 years old he had little governing power. Instead, the power rested with the new government consisting of a small, close-knit cabinet of advisers. This new cabinet immediately began implementing a series of reforms to both strengthen and unify Japan. One of their largest concerns was that Japan would not be able to regain its sovereignty if it did not modernize. With the recent display of the superior armament of the United States military with Commodore Perry in 1853, such concerns were not unfounded.

Reading
Genocide & Mass Violence

Education and Nation Building in Japan

Japan’s efforts to build a modern nation considered both its history and adaptation of Western practices. This exposure to other nations paved the way for a new openness with the rest of the world and allowed for the emergence of a group of intellectuals who believed that adopting aspects of Western culture would only strengthen Japan. Kido Takayoshi (1833–1877), one delegate on the Iwakura Mission, wrote to his friend Sugiyama Takatoshi in 1873 and discussed the critical role of education in the United States.

Reading
Genocide & Mass Violence

Seeds of Unrest: The Taiping Movement

At the same time efforts of reform were under way in Japan in the mid-nineteenth century, China remained under the same dynasty that had ruled for more than 200 years. Qing rule, led by the ethnic minority Manchu people, were struggling to maintain China’s wealth and prestige in East Asia.

Reading
Genocide & Mass Violence

Rebels: The Boxer Rebellion

The Hundred Days’ Reform also coincided with an upsurge of anti-Western sentiment in the north of China directed, in part, at the growth of missionary settlements. Every major Christian denomination established a range of educational and church-affiliated institutions across the country after the Treaty of Nanking in 1842.

Reading
Genocide & Mass Violence

First Decades of the First Republic: 1911-1931

The Boxer Rebellion, and the repression of the Hundred Days’ Reform by Empress Dowager Cixi, ignited a more far-reaching, radical, and revolutionary approach to modernizing China. One prominent leader who emerged calling for revolution was Sun Yat-sen. Sun’s early years followed the path of many Chinese who escaped the country’s poverty and sought a better life by living abroad. In 1879, at the age of 13, Sun was sent by his father to live with his older brother, Sun Mei, in the Kingdom of Hawaii. Sun Mei was a successful rancher and entrepreneur, and Sun Yat-sen worked on his brother’s farms while receiving his first formal education at an Anglican missionary school called Lolani.

Reading
Genocide & Mass Violence

1911: An End of Two Millenia

Revolutionary writings and efforts by leaders such as Sun Yat-sen and Zou Rong played a key role in the end of Qing rule in China. By the early twentieth century, feudalism was on the verge of collapse. Years of humiliation and defeat at the hands of Western colonial powers and the Japanese, and a series of failed uprisings, set the stage for the end of the Qing dynasty. Two key events were seminal in this process.

Reading
Genocide & Mass Violence

Expressions of Imperialism

By the turn of the twentieth century, Japan began to develop its own imperial ambitions. With its growing population and need for natural resources, it began to pursue its expansionist ambitions more aggressively. It established a military draft in 1872, forcing all able-bodied males between the ages of 17 or 18 and 35, regardless of class, to serve a mandatory term of three years in the reserves and subjecting them to the military draft at age 20. Many Japanese, including peasants and samurai, opposed mandatory military service. For the samurai it signaled the end of their social standing, as they were now sharing military service with what they called “dirt farmers.” For the peasants, the expectation of military service was viewed as a “blood tax” since the idea of dying for Japan, the nation that gave them so little, was not welcomed.

Reading
Genocide & Mass Violence

Taisho Democracy in Japan: 1912-1926

With the death of Emperor Meiji in 1912 a great deal of uncertainty about Japan’s future followed. Many believed that Meiji Japan had flourished under the steadfast rule of the emperor who reigned for more than 40 years. Now his first son, Yoshihito, ascended to the throne and took the name Taisho, ushering in the next era. Those deeply loyal to Emperor Meiji and resistant to modernization efforts were particularly vulnerable. Some would hold fast to the centuries of Japanese tradition, rejecting any shifts in gender roles or education and military reforms, while other reformers embraced change.

Reading
Genocide & Mass Violence

Strengthening the Japanese Nation

The post–World War I economy wreaked havoc on many nations, Japan included. Due to the postwar production slowdown, increased trade barriers and tariffs imposed by the West, and economic strains caused by the Great Kanto Earthquake, Japan fell into an economic depression two years before the global Great Depression began in 1930.[2]  Thirty-seven banks were forced to close after Japanese citizens tried to cash in government-issued earthquake bonds that had been sold to raise funds for reconstruction. The economic crisis brought down the civilian government and brought to power the zaibatsu, family-controlled businesses that held monopolies within the Japanese Empire and kept close ties, and influence, with the civilian government.[3] When the Great Depression began, Japan was economically and politically vulnerable and increasingly unstable. Like other nations during such fragile times, Japan saw a rise in political groups promising to fix the problems of the nation.

Reading
Genocide & Mass Violence

Internal Strife in China

China in the 1920s was a new republic confronting great challenges—economic, political, and social. One of the most devastating was the early 1920s North China famine. Because this region of China was densely populated, the effects of this crisis affected millions. Triggered by a severe drought, the famine killed crops and devastated the livelihood of farmers in the northern plains of China. But dying crops was only one consequence. Thousands fled the area; others sold children into slavery, and upward of half a million people died. The areas decimated were largely governed by warlords, which further aggravated the situation since they used the crisis for their own political and economic gain.

Reading
Genocide & Mass Violence

The Road to War

For decades China endured the presence of military troops on her soil in accordance with the provisions of Article IX of the Boxer Protocol of 1901, allowing military guards to be posted and military maneuvers to be conducted at 12 specific points along this rail line. Chinese authorities were not required to be notified when such maneuvers took place. However, in the summer of 1937 Japan’s military presence had grown exceedingly large, causing alarm by the Chinese government. On the night of July 7, 1937, the Japanese Guandong Army, stationed on China’s South Manchurian Railroad, staged military night maneuvers. After several months of witnessing the growing presence of Japanese soldiers in the area (upward of 5,000), Chinese troops feared an attack was under way. Both sides fired blank shots at each other, and when the fighting stopped, a Japanese soldier was feared missing. In response, the Japanese commander ordered an attack on Wanping the next day. The Chinese were able to win this battle, but it is considered the beginning of World War II in East Asia.

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