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?
In the opening lesson of this unit, students will begin to explore the factors that contributed to Japan’s invasion of China during World War II and the occupation of Nanjing. Through an exploration of primary sources, including a Japanese woodblock print and a political cartoon, they will be introduced to the history of Western imperialism in East Asia and how it influenced both the identities and ambitions of Japan and China. Students will also conduct a comparative analysis of timelines depicting major events in China and Japan during the nineteenth century, beginning to explore the two countries’ divergent responses to Western imperialism and how these developments affected the complexity of nation-building efforts in China and Japan. This lesson and the following one, on the rise of nationalism and militarism in Japan, are both critical for understanding the complex factors that led to the Japanese war crimes known today as the Nanjing atrocities.
Around the world, change, upheaval, growth, and creativity marked the first decades of the twentieth century. As industrialization continued to expand at a rapid pace, the colonial ambitions of European powers, fueled by beliefs of racial and cultural superiority, spread to Africa and Asia. In some ways, the relationships between foreign powers and their colonial holdings facilitated a global exchange that broke down traditional ideas of national sovereignty. But at the same time, being ruled by foreign powers inspired nationalist and pan-nationalist movements in Asia, which espoused the idea that Asian nations ought to rule themselves. Amidst this climate, both China and Japan continued to forge their own paths toward becoming modern nations.
By the turn of the century, China’s Qing dynasty had not modernized at the same pace as Meiji Japan. As a result, China lacked the infrastructure, military power, and political leadership to challenge Japan’s power in East Asia. After the first Chinese republic was formed in 1911, China began the process of building an industrialized and modernized nation-state, but it was a path fraught with internal strife, violence, and corruption. Across the Sea of Japan (the East Sea), nation building in Japan took quite a different form. After less than four decades of industrialization and modernization, Japan was a nation more unified and nationalistic than ever. Military, education, industrial, and governing reforms all contributed to Japan’s rapid rise. Japan’s victory in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895, followed by victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905, were key turning points in Japan’s emergence as the superior imperial power in the region.
Prior to learning about Imperial Japan’s further expansion into China in 1931 and the outbreak of war in 1937, it is important for students to consider the conditions that precipitated this escalation of conflict. In this lesson, students will begin to explore these factors, focusing specifically on the differing impacts of Western imperialism on Japan and China. This will help students understand the conditions that gave rise to Japan’s invasion of China and the Nanjing atrocities.
Evaluate students’ captions to see how they are understanding the history explored in this lesson. Students should cover the following details:
- 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.