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.

Nevertheless, the militarization of Japan escalated. Japanese historian Marius Jansen explains, “After decades of weakness, it was good to be a Japanese and to humble the mighty neighbor that had dominated the horizon for so long.” 1 In less than four decades Japan went from being a feudal society to a modern state, with sophisticated weaponry, a developed military bureaucracy, advancements in governing structures, and educational institutions.2 In fact, one of the only things that distinguished Japan from Europe at the turn of the century was its lack of engagement in any foreign war. While this does not explain the motivations behind Meiji Japan’s first belligerent act against China, it does highlight Japanese leaders beliefs that victory in war would elevate its global stature and position Japan as a dominant power in the region.

The Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895), Japan’s “first foreign war,” was fought between the Japanese Imperial Army and the Qing Empire. As Japan sought new resources and a position of power in the region, Japanese leaders viewed Czarist Russia, who already had much of Manchuria under its thumb and who was eyeing Korea for further expansion, as a serious threat. After a series of confrontations between pro-Chinese and pro-Japanese forces beginning in Korea on August 1, 1894, Japan’s military advanced  into China and occupied the strategically important Port Arthur as well as the Liaodong (Liaotung) Peninsula and Weihaiwei. China conceded defeat roughly one year after the war’s outbreak, signaling for the first time a significant shift in regional dominance in East Asia from China to Japan.

Japanese poet Takamura Kotaro’s poem captures the spirit of this moment.

Funds For Building Warships 

The Sino-Japanese War was over

but war consciousness rose still higher. 

To be prepared for the next war

Funds for building warships had to be scraped together.

First, His Majesty gave a large sum

and government officials were to have part of their salaries deducted

for some years to come.

Father told mother and me about it in detail

at night in the dining room.

The return of the Liaotung Peninsula the Emperor was terribly worried,

father feared from the bottom of his heart.

“So from now on, Mitsu, don’t be wasteful.


Following its defeat, China was forced to sign the Treaty of Shimonoseki (Treaty of Maguan), which had devastating consequences for the nation both in land and in morale. Just days after the signing of the treaty, three of the most active Western powers in China—Russia, France, and Germany—moved in quickly to establish their authority over certain ports and apply diplomatic pressure on the Japanese to return Liaodong to China. The three countries— known as the Tripartite, or Triple Intervention—were concerned about Japan gaining a solid foothold in China. Japan, with its military already stretched thin after 1895, could no longer defend the territory and retreated.

Within days, Russian forces occupied the area, gaining a clear path to the Yellow Sea. Great Britain then joined the Tripartite powers, and all occupied parts of China, continuing the carving up of the country that began decades earlier.

The loss had devastating consequences for China. To finance the war, China had been forced to take out large loans, mostly from Britain. To pay the debt, Russia, France, and Germany loaned money in exchange for the ability to lease strategic ports. These leases enabled the three imperial powers to have exclusive rights over much of China’s railroads, mines, and harbors. Known as the “scramble for concessions” or pejoratively as the “slicing of the Chinese melon,” this national humiliation encouraged Chinese reformers to accelerate modernization in order to defend them- selves against any future foreign occupation. After the Western powers intervened in China, Japan was forced to retreat from Liaodong. While they received a large payment from Russia, the Japanese lost what they perceived to be as their spoils of war.


  • 1 : Marius Jansen, Japan and China: From War to Peace, 1894–1972 (Chicago: Rand McNally College Publishing, 1975), 71–72.
  • 2 : Henry D. Smith, “Five Myths about Early Modern Japan,” in Asia in Western and World History: A Guide for Teaching, ed. Ainslie T. Embree and Carol Gluck (London: M. E. Sharpe Publishing, 1997), 517. Historian Henry Smith argues that Japan in the early nineteenth century was no lon- ger as “feudal” as many may think but much closer to European states, albeit without a foreign war.
  • 3 : Takamura Kotaro’s, Chieko and Other Poems of Takamura Kotaro, trans. Hiroaki Sato, (University of Hawaii Press, 1980), 134.

Connection Questions

  1. What was the relationship between Japanese imperial ambitions and militarism?

  2. Historian Marius Jansen said, “After decades of weakness, it was good to be a Japanese.” Japanese poet Takamura Kōtarō’s poem alludes to this national spirit as well. What changes in Japanese society might have contributed to the Japanese growing a sense of confidence? How do you think that growing confidence impacted the way that they thought of China?

  3. What was the impact of the Sino-Japanese war in China? What impact did it have in Japan? How did the results of war impact the way each country was seen from abroad?

  4. Former United States Ambassador to Japan Edwin O. Reischauer described how he believed attitudes in the West influence Japanese imperial ambitions:

    Westerners, far from condemning the Japanese for their aggressions, applauded them as being apt pupils. They also taught the Japanese how ruthless the game of imperialism could be and how unwilling Westerners were to accept other races as full equals.1

    What lessons might Japanese nationalists have learned from the Sino-Japanese war and its’ aftermath?


  • 1 : Edwin O. Reischauer, Japan: The Story of a Nation, (New York: Knopf, 1970), 147.

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