Japanese Imperialism and the Road to War Lesson | Facing History & Ourselves
Japanese marines during the Battle of Shanghai, 1937

Japanese Imperialism and the Road to War

Students examine sources that shed light on the underlying causes of the outbreak of World War II in Asia.


At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • History




One 50-min class period
  • Genocide


About This Lesson

In this lesson, students explore primary and secondary sources that shed light on the underlying causes of the outbreak of World War II in Asia. Students examine the rise of Japanese Pan-Asianism, militarism, and ultranationalism, and the racial and imperialist ideologies underpinning them. They also consider Japan’s needs, as a rapidly industrializing country, for China’s natural resources, and its increasingly isolationist stance after what it perceived as mistreatment by imperial Western powers and in the League of Nations. Taken together, these sources give students insight into the complexity of the factors that led to the outbreak of war and provide a framework that will help students prepare to investigate the Nanjing atrocities in the next lesson.

How do nations create their identities by separating “us” from “them”? How might a sense of nationalism built around such ideas contribute to the outbreak of war, the dehumanization of enemies, and the perpetration of atrocities?

  • What are some factors that could fuel a nation’s desire to become aggressive toward its neighbors, expand its territory, and create an empire?
  • In Japan, how did a “we”-and-“they” attitude toward China begin to take hold? What were some of the causes for that attitude?

Students will understand the underlying causes of Japanese imperialism and wartime aggression, including the rise of militarism, ultranationalism, and isolationism.

This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-min class period and includes:

  • 3 activities
  • 1 teaching strategy
  • 1 video
  • 1 handout

In 1895, a year after the end of the first Sino-Japanese War, writer Lafcadio Hearn recounted:

The real birthday of the new Japan . . . began with the conquest of China. The war is ended; the future, though clouded, seems big with promise; and, however grim the obstacles to loftier and more enduring achievements, Japan has neither fears nor doubts. Perhaps the future danger is just in this immense self-confidence. It is not a new feeling created by victory. It is a race feeling, which repeated triumphs have served only to strengthen. 1

Japanese imperialism was not simply about increasing the nation’s territory. It was also fueled by a strong ideological sense of mission and racial superiority. These ideas were captured in a word widely used at the time but rarely heard today: Pan-Asianism. Advocates of Pan-Asianism in Japan believed that they were expanding their empire in order to liberate Asian territories from Western imperialism. 2 In the minds of many Japanese, expanding their empire into other Asian regions was somehow different from that sort of imperialism. They thought of their ambitions as bringing their Asian brethren together.

As was the case with many other imperial powers at the time, such differences were often framed in a language of racial, ethnic, and cultural superiority. Many Japanese nationalists, for instance, claimed that Japan’s rapid and successful modernization was a testament to the nation’s superiority and signaled Japan’s rightful place as the Asian leader in the region. Some believed that a necessary ingredient in furthering the expanding Japanese empire was to separate and distinguish themselves from neighboring China, despite the fact that a great deal of Japanese culture is rooted in traditions from China.

Despite the embrace of imperialist ideology in Japan, the country’s territorial expansion across East Asia unfolded gradually. Korea became a Japanese colony in 1910, and with the death of Emperor Meiji in 1912 and the ascension to power of his first son, Yoshihito, Japan’s Taisho era (1912–1926) began. In the midst of this transition, World War I broke out in Europe during the summer of 1914. Japan declared war in August 1914 and immediately sent troops to fight German forces in German colonial territories in China, including Qingdao (Tsingtao), points in Shandong, and German-held islands in the Pacific. Japan also sent naval ships to assist the Allies in the Mediterranean.

With European powers focused on the war effort, Japan in 1915 presented China with a diplomatic ultimatum known today as the Twenty-One Demands. Failing to agree to them, the Japanese threatened, would result in more war. With the political support and negotiating muscle of Great Britain and the United States, most of the demands were ultimately rejected by Chinese leaders, yet they still took a toll, further fracturing an already fragile republican government. Japan’s demands marked a new chapter in the nation’s growing militarism and expansionism. With the outbreak of World War I, Japanese manufacturing and trade experienced a tremendous boom as many domestic industries filled a large gap left by Europe’s devastated markets. As Japan’s economic prosperity grew, so did its population. In 1900, Japan’s population was 45 million. By 1925, it had reached 60 million, with the majority residing in cities rather than in the countryside.

This rapid population growth stretched Japan’s natural resources and food supplies, propelling the country’s leaders to look beyond the nation’s shores to meet domestic needs, including raw materials and space to settle for the growing populace. Ultranationalist groups within Japan’s government, military, and civilian population also advocated for the expansion of Japan’s territory to meet resource needs and to fulfill their imperial and ideological ambitions. 3 By the early 1920s, fearing China’s political consolidation as a possible regional rival, Japanese militarists and ultranationalists pursued an even more aggressive policy toward China. The ultranationalists and militarists demanded that Japan’s imperial forces prevent the Chinese nationalist government from controlling Manchuria, a Chinese territory where Japan held substantial commercial and political interests. By 1928, Japan’s militarist prime minister, Tanaka, sent troops to China. To him and his followers, expanding into Manchuria made sense politically, as additional territory would help ease Japan’s raw material shortage and offer a place to reside for the growing population.

With the Chinese government severely destabilized by the escalating conflict between the Chinese Communist Party and the Nationalist Party, Japanese Imperial forces capitalized on that vulnerability and successfully occupied the Manchurian city of Mukden (Shenyang) and the whole of Manchuria (in China’s northeast) by 1931. This marked the beginning of nearly a decade and a half of Japanese territorial expansion into the Asian mainland and is known by some Chinese as the start of the war of resistance to Japanese invasion that lasted from 1931 to 1945. For others, the occupation of Manchuria stands as the precursor and sets the stage for the outbreak of World War II in China.

  • 1John W. Dower, “Prints & Propaganda,” in “Throwing Off Asia II: Woodblock Prints of the Sino-Japanese War (1894–95),” MIT OpenCourseWare: Visualizing Cultures (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2008), accessed November 9, 2013. Lafcadio Hearn arrived in Japan in 1890 as a journalist and later was appointed to several universities to teach English. He married a Japanese woman, changed his name to Koizumi Yakumo, fathered four children, renounced his British citizenship, and “adopted” Japan as his home country. Hearn published widely about his life in Japan. He died of heart failure in 1904.
  • 2 These included territories held by the British, French, Dutch, and Americans.
  • 3Ultranationalism within Japan refers to Japan-centered radical ideas that encouraged a religious belief in the mythological history of Japan and sought to preserve the unique national character of Japan and its special mission to be the dominant power in Asia.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before you teach this lesson, please review the following guidance to tailor this lesson to your students’ contexts and needs.

This lesson asks students to define the term Pan-Asianism after watching a video that introduces the concept. Students may need extra support to learn and retain this term. As a substitute or in addition to watching the video, you might want to provide the following definition for students and place it on a Word Wall that they can revisit throughout the unit.

  • Pan-Asianism: A term for a set of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century ideas that held that all people in Asia—under the leadership of the Japanese nation—should band together to reduce Western influence in the region. It became a motivating ideology to justify the expansion of Japanese military efforts in Asia in the 1930s and Japan’s occupation of northern China.

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Lesson Plans


If you have graded the caption for the Imperialism Cartoon students investigated in Lesson 1, return it to students. If you did not collect the cartoon, ask students to retrieve it. Review the following concepts with students:

  • This French political cartoon, published in 1898, depicts China as a pie about to be carved up by Queen Victoria (Britain), Kaiser Wilhelm II (Germany), Tsar Nicholas II (Russia), Marianne (France), and a samurai (Japan), while a Chinese court official helplessly looks on.
  • By 1898, when this cartoon was published, China had made significant concessions in a number of unequal treaties, signed under duress after the country suffered defeats by various imperial powers. Note too that the cartoon shows Japan as an imperial power alongside the European countries.

Tell students that one way to understand Japan’s ambitions as an imperial power (which they studied in part in Lesson 1) is through the concept of Japanese Pan-Asianism. Write the term Pan-Asianism on the board, and tell students that they will be recording notes on characteristics of Pan-Asianism as they watch the short video Japanese Pan-Asianism: An Introduction (1:45). Once students have watched the video, ask volunteers to share their notes, and write them on the board. Leave the notes on the board so students can refer to them throughout class. Be sure that students take away the following point:

Japanese Pan-Asianism is based on two contradictory beliefs. On the one hand, the Japanese argued that their expansion into other parts of Asia was for the greater good of their “Asian brothers” and justified their actions by distancing themselves from Europeans. At the same time, the Japanese invoked ideas of racial and cultural superiority that had justified Western imperialism in Asia in a previous era.

  • Tell students that one outcome of Japanese Pan-Asianism was the outbreak of World War II in East Asia, sparked by Japan’s invasion of China in 1937.
  • Tell students that in class today, they will be examining historical documents related to the underlying causes of the outbreak of World War II in East Asia. Divide the class into small groups of three to five students. Give each group the handout The Outbreak of World War II in East Asia Documents, which contains five documents.
  • Tell students the directions for the Little Paper teaching strategy (a variation of Big Paper): each member of the group begins with a different document. They should read and annotate the source, looking for information that helps explain Japan’s desire to become aggressive toward its neighbors, expand its territory, and create a Pan-Asian empire.
  • After a few minutes, students should pass their paper to the person next to them. This process is repeated until all students have had the opportunity to comment on every paper. All of this is done in silence. Then have students review the Little Paper they had first, noticing comments made by their peers. Once each student has read and annotated each source, project the following discussion questions and ask students to respond to them in their small groups:
    • Japanese professor Kazuki Sato observed, “As early as the 1870s, the idea of a distinctive Japanese national identity was intricately linked to imagining differences from people in China. In order for the Japanese to form their own national identity, the construction of the Chinese as racially different people was crucial to that purpose.” 1  To create a “we,” do we need to create a “they”?
    • Japanese historian Marius Jansen has said about the period of Japanese Pan-Asianism, “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.” 2  What changes in Japanese society might have contributed to Japan’s growing sense of confidence? How do you think that growing confidence impacted the way that the Japanese thought of China?
    • Former US ambassador to Japan Edwin O. Reischauer described how he believed attitudes in the West influenced Japan’s 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.” 3  What lessons might Japanese nationalists have learned from the experience of Western imperialism?
  • Be sure that students are touching on the following topics in their discussions:
    • Japan’s need for China’s natural resources, in order to speed the process of industrialization and modernization
    • The popularity of ideologies such as racial superiority and militarism in Japan
    • Japan’s previous history and ideology of expansion into China and other parts of Asia
    • Japan’s increasingly isolationist stance, after what it perceived as mistreatment by imperial Western powers and in the League of Nations
  • Then regroup as a class, asking a representative from each group to share one key takeaway from their small-group discussions.
  • 1Kazuki Sato, “‘Same Language, Same Race’: The Dilemma of Kanbun in Modern Japan,” in The Construction of Racial Identities in China and Japan, ed. Frank Dikötter (London: C. Hurst & Company, 1997), 125.
  • 2Marius Jansen, Japan and China: From War to Peace, 1894–1972 (Chicago: Rand McNally College Publishing, 1975), 71–72.
  • 3Edwin O. Reischauer, Japan: The Story of a Nation (New York: Knopf, 1970), 147.

Materials and Downloads

Quick Downloads

This is the handout that students use throughout the Japanese Imperialism and the Road to War lesson plan.

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