The true story of why imperial Japan was so brutal and jingoistic during WWII


Japan, a true Jewel of the pacific. An island nation whose inhabitants have mysterious origins. An island nation that is nearly devoid of natural resources yet the people of this island nation managed to improvise and develop a fairly advanced nation that rivaled medieval Europe all while constantly being a divided nation constantly at war with itself. After commodore Perry arrived, Japan quickly realized that it needed to adapt or be conquered. This lead to Japan industrializing faster than any other advanced country at the time and scoring a major military victory against the Russian empire which made the world realize that imperial Japan could really punch above it’s weight class. At that rate, it’s no surprise that Japan today in the 21st century is one of the most prosperous and technologically advanced democratic nations in the world who also have the 5th most powerful military despite only having a self defense force without any nuclear armaments.

Japan today in the 21st century one of the few developed nations of Asia.
Japan today in the 21st century one of the few developed nations of Asia.

But let’s talk about a dark part of Japan’s history and that’s the aggressiveness of Imperial Japan during the 1930s and 1940s. It’s commonly believed that Japan became jingoistic and brutal the day it retired it’s samurai armor in favor of European style military uniforms during the Meiji restoration but the truth is that Japan didn’t become jingoistic and brutal until much later on.

The true story of why imperial Japan was so brutal and jingoistic during WWII

The confusion of Imperialism and jingoism: It’s a common misconception that imperialism is always synonymous with jingoism considering that jingoism simply means fanatical patriotism combined with aggressive foreign policies. While it’s true early imperial Japan annexed several of it’s neighboring countries, it did so through treaties without aggressively storming and pillaging the countries. The brutality and jingoism of imperial Japan wouldn’t become a thing until it’s final years.

Emperor Meiji, the man who helped turn Japan into the then modern world’s first non white world power
Emperor Meiji, the man who helped turn Japan into the then modern world’s first non white world power

Imperial Japanese Army’s conduct in WWI: A lot of Japanophobes like to ask why Japan wasn’t punished as harshly as Germany after WWII. And the answer is that Imperial Japan was actually an allied power in WWI. In other words, it was part of the winning team in WWI(something that is often forgotten). Furthermore Imperial Japan actually treated POWs humanely during WWI, unlike it’s WWII successors. One example of this was when the imperial Japanese captured German POWs after the battle of Tsingtao. These German POWs were taken to Bando Prison camp where they were treated humanely as fellow human beings and were allowed to create their own orchestra. After the war, the German POWs were allowed to return to their home country but some chose to stay in Japan because they liked it so much. There is even a Japanese movie about this camp called “Baruto no Gakuen” which shows the friendship between the German POWs and Japanese. Furthermore, the city of Naruto became a sister city of Lüneburg in 1974.

Orchestra of German POWs in Bando
Orchestra of German POWs in Bando

Post WWI spoils of war: Technically imperial Japan’s jingoism and brutality can trace it’s roots to the events after WWI, in which imperial Japan was given very little spoils compared to it’s European empire counterparts sitting at the winner’s table despite Imperial Japan playing a major role in the war. This is often attributed to the league of nation’s racism in which they refused to recognize Imperial Japan as one of the “big boys” because they couldn’t accept the fact that a non white nation was a world power. But even then, Imperial Japan only became bitter but not jingoistic or brutal until the 1930s. But this bitterness would cause many extremists within Imperial Japan to rise in the 1920s-1930s who would ultimately cause Imperial Japan to become a brutal totalitarian regime in 1936.

Saionji Kinmochi represented Japan among the league of nations
Saionji Kinmochi represented Japan among the league of nations

Control vs imperial: During the 1920s and 1930s, there were two factions competing against each other for control over imperial Japan. Both were expansionists but the difference is that one of the factions was less aggressive and smarter than the other.

Sadao Araki
Sadao Araki
Tetsuzan Nagata
Tetsuzan Nagata
  • The kodoha(imperial way) faction led by Sadao Araki advocated for a “Northern expansion doctrine” which primarily involved a preemptive attack against Manchuria and the Soviet Union. This faction primarily favored military discipline and morale.
  • On the contrary, the Tōseiha(control) faction led by Tetsuzan Nagata opposed any form of aggressive expansionism, instead it advocated for a more defensive stance against the Soviet Union and also believed in mechanizing the Imperial Japanese military in the event of a future war that would threaten Imperial Japan’s sovereignty. It still believed in expansion but instead it favored a less aggressive approach.

The two incidents of 1931: So what went wrong you may ask, despite the kodoha being the weaker of the two factions, the influence of the Kodoha had unfortunately already found it’s way into the imperial Japanese army by at least 1931 which was the year that the Japanese empire invaded Manchuria. But what many people don’t know is that the invasion wasn’t supposed to happen, at least not when it did. Prior to the invasion, two major incidents had occurred.

IJA marching into Manchuria
IJA marching into Manchuria
  • The first incident was a dispute between Korean and Chinese farmers. The Korean farmers managed to gain control to some land in Manchuria and decided to dig a ditch in it. But the local Chinese farmers were not pleased and even tried to violently drive away the Korean farmers, however Japanese police managed to repel the Chinese farmers. This became known as the Wanpaoshan incident.

  • The main incident that triggered the invasion of Manchuria happened a few months after the Wanpaoshan incident. What happened was that several members of the kodoha faction detonated a few explosives on train tracks owned by a Japanese company and blamed it on the Chinese. This amped up the tension between both the Kodoha and Tōseiha factions while the invasion commenced.

The Sakurakai: A somewhat of a sidekick to the Kodoha were the Sakurakai or “cherry blossom society” who tried to overthrow the civilian government of imperial Japan and install a “state socialist totalitarian regime” in March and October of 1931.Even though both coups failed and the movement was disbanded, many of it’s members “joined” or rather infiltrated the tamest Imperial Japanese faction the Tōseiha.

Kingoro Hashimoto tried to turn imperial Japan into a totalitarian state socialist regime.
Kingoro Hashimoto tried to turn imperial Japan into a totalitarian state socialist regime.

league of Blood incident: A militant cult known as the league of blood carried out two assassinations in 1932. The two victims were Junnosuke Inoue who led the constitutional Democratic Party and Dan Takuma of the Mitsui holding company. Many of the members of this cult were arrested afterwards.

Defendants of the “league of blood”
Defendants of the “league of blood”

The May 15 incident:In 1932, the Imperial Japanese military continued to show signs of extremism as a group of Imperial Japanese soldiers of the navy assassinated Inukai Tsuyoshi, a prime minister who was trying to halt the invasion of Manchuria. Tsuyoshi was shot to death by 11 Imperial Japanese Navy soldiers and league of blood members.

Inukai Tsuyoshi
Inukai Tsuyoshi

The Aizawa incident: In 1935 the leader of the more tame Tōseiha faction Tetsuzan Nagata was assassinated by Saburo Aizawa who belonged to the rival kodoha faction. Saburo Aizawa was then arrested and executed. While Tetsuzan’s death resulted in the imperial Japanese army to become more polarized, there was one more incident that ultimately turned imperial Japan into an actual totalitarian regime.

Saburo Aizawa the man that put imperial Japan on the path towards totalitarianism and jingoism
Saburo Aizawa the man that put imperial Japan on the path towards totalitarianism and jingoism

The February 26 1936 incident: Without the Tetsuzan’s guidance, the imperial Japanese army became more prone to radicalization. In fact, the kodoha being the more aggressive of the two factions launched a military coup on February 26 1936. The coup was unsuccessful due to the Kodoha being greatly outnumbered but they did manage to cause enough damage to radicalize the imperial Japanese government. Their goal was to restore the emperor’s power but in the process they assassinated several important Japanese politicians, some who even advocated the demilitarization of Japan. As a result of the destruction caused by the Kodoha rebels, civilian control of the military was rescinded in favor of the Imperial Japanese military becoming autonomous and calling the shots. And so after this coup, the empire of Japan officially became totalitarian and started to mirror it’s soon to be ally in the West, the third reich. Censorship, targeting of political opponents, fanatical Nationalism, brutality against subjugated territories all became common practices after the February 26 incident.

“Revere the emperor, destroy the traitors” the flag of the Kodoha rebels
“Revere the emperor, destroy the traitors” the flag of the Kodoha rebels

Marco Polo bridge incident/ The invasion of China in 1937: Shortly after the new Japanese military government took over Imperial Japan, the imperial Japanese government launched a full out invasion of China after some miscommunication occurred during the Marco Polo bridge in an incident which involved an imperial Japanese soldier not returning from a military exercise and the Chinese army refusing to let the Japanese search for the missing soldier. Eventually the Chinese army attacked the imperial Japanese army prompting the imperial Japanese army to swiftly retaliate and launch a full out invasion of China.

IJA attacking Wanping fortress
IJA attacking Wanping fortress

So who won between the Kodoha and Tōseiha? Well, even though the Kodoha were promptly disbanded after the failed February 26 coup which allowed the Tōseiha to assume initial dominance, the Tōseiha also gradually declined as a result of being considered “pointless” and also disbanded. So technically neither side actually won anything significant. But the the most extremist members of both factions(Primarily Tōjō and Araki) continued to influence the Imperial Japanese military up until it’s surrender in 1945.

  • The Kodoha failed to accomplish their plan of getting the imperial Japanese army to invade the Soviet Union, failed at restoring the monarchy to the fullest, were ultimately disbanded and inadvertently caused Imperial Japan’s civilian led military constitutional monarchy to be replaced by a fascist totalitarian jingoistic regime.
  • The Tōseiha failed to prevent imperial Japan from aggressively expanding, failed to mechanize and update imperial Japan’s military and ultimately was disbanded. The Tōseiha’s Southern expansion doctrine was adopted by the Imperial Japanese government but it was used in a much more aggressive manner than the Tōseiha wanted.

What if either faction had gotten what they wanted? Things would have definitely played out differently during the 1940s. Today there is a lot of debate as to which side would have brought about more favorable conditions for Japan. Many actually believe that had the Kodoha rebellion been successful that Imperial Japan would have gone through a less jingoistic path during the 1940s. While other believe that Tōseiha would have prevented Imperial Japan from succumbing to a jingoistic military government. But here’s three hypothetical scenarios of what could have happened if things had gone differently for Imperial Japan.

  • If the Kodoha faction had gotten exactly what they wanted then the imperial Japanese army would have focused most of their resources on the invasion of the Soviet Union and ultimately the Soviet Union would have lost the war considering that the third reich would have eventually invaded from the west forcing the Soviets into a two front war all while the Soviets would have been both outnumbered and in bad shape.
  • If the Tōseiha has gotten what they have wanted then the imperial Japanese army would have gradually become more advanced than it was during WWII and would also be pushing towards south East Asia while promoting themselves as “liberators” via the “Greater East Asia co prosperity sphere” idea of unifying all Asian countries.
  • But if none of the incidents listed above would have happened, then chances are that imperial Japan would not have turned into a fascist totalitarian regime and would have gradually become a more democratic prosperous country on it’s own. The invasion of China would have been called off, the attack on pearl harbor wouldn’t have happened and the pacific theater wouldn’t have been a thing. It would have gone through a similar process that the UK went through after WWII.

A fresh start for Japan: As for post WWII Japan, you would assume that a country that was defeated by several superpowers at once would be a country of ruins today but on the contrary, Japan managed to quickly rebuild itself after WWII and gradually become one of the most prosperous, influential and technologically advanced nations that we know today in the 21st century. Most of the countries that were at war with Japan during WWII have reconciled with Japan and often trade with Japan. And yes, Japan has actually apologized numerous times for what happened during WWII but it rarely gets any publicity from the media.

Contrary to popular belief, Japan and South Korea have actually reconciled
Contrary to popular belief, Japan and South Korea have actually reconciled


The true story of why imperial Japan was so brutal and jingoistic during WWII
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Most Helpful Guys

  • N192K001
    Great research, man!

    It's way more of an answer than I got in Modern Asian History class back in university. (We had to focus on India & China, as well as Japan.) Our small Japanese History textbook mentioned parliament-members & even prime-ministers assassinated if they opposed too much the military's plans, before they eventually got consistently replaced by (current or retired) military-personnel.

    Plus, there was Tokyo's frustrated desire to be treated as equals, as with the Western powers. Apparently, they thought that the show of force was the only thing that foreigner-powers would understand and respect.

    Then, a sociologist I met a few weeks ago suggested that the troops were re-diverting their experienced abuses into the conquered peoples.

    But your explanation is much more detailed. Thanks for compiling and sharing!
    Is this still revelant?
  • winterfox10
    You should check out Dan Carlin's Hardcore History. I suspect you would enjoy his level of detail. Good take!
    Is this still revelant?

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What Girls & Guys Said

  • AshViper
    You're obviously neither Japanese nor been in Japan (and tourist attractions don't count).

    The Japanese were that way because that's how the Japanese are raised. Uniformity above all else. Everyone else is an undesirable foreigner. An interloper. A mongrel. The country kept its borders closed against foreign "mutts" for a very long time. The mentality has existed for generations & still exists.

    Take the Ainu for example. People complain of racism in America. The Ainu of Japan have been treated as dirt, as slaves, as servants for decades/generations even to this day politicians spout about the Ainu with a zeal that would make Hitler proud. Nobody cares. Because the Ainu are not "real" Japanese. They look more European & thus in the simplest Anglo comparison they are undesirable. Their only purpose is to marry into proper Japanese society & cease to exist.

    Japanese society is extremely structured. If you belong to X class or Y society, even today, depending on what class or society you may just be undesirable. The Burakumin society - butchers, undertakers, etc. - was often viewed as filthy & in essence subhuman during the feudal era and even today that mentality holds with descendants of the Burakumin facing discrimination. Just 30-50 years ago Burakumin communities existed not unlike the leper colonies of Europeans.

    I mean no offense. But it's amusing when an American with no clue of the inner workings of Japanese culture tries to rationalize their behavior from an Anglo's take. You can't. Japanese are Japanese. If you were like myself (family have lived in E Asia for 50 years) and have lived there often enough (23 years) and you were understanding/open minded enough to get what society is like then maybe you could.
    • ADFSDF1996

      It’s obvious you’ve never been to Japan or know anything about Japan either since just about everything you just said is incorrect. The difference is that I’ve actually done quite the research on Japanese culture and I just happen to be half Japanese myself.

      I know that you Canadians absolutely hate East Asian cultures, especially the Japanese so it’s not surprising that you assume Japan is some kind of a “backwards country” even though Japan has always been relatively advanced and even industrialized faster than you Canadians, not to mention that today in the 21st century it’s one of the leading countries in technology.

      Yes the early Japanese treated the ainu badly but then again every country has done bad things. Speaking of which, why it take you guys so long to apologize to the Japanese-Canadian community for the internment camps? Especially to the Japanese-Canadians who fought for Canada in the Great War.

    • AshViper

      @ADFSDF1996 - ROFL. Ignorant moron. Wherever did I say or imply Japan is a backwards country. I lived in Japan for 21 years. I speak the Kansai dialect of Japanese, which Japanese do you speak? None. My family has lived in E. Asia for 50 years.

      And no the "early Japanese" have not treated the Ainu badly. THEY STILL TREAT THEM BADLY. Even the so called " Aborigine" protection of Ainu between 1899 to 1997 was a pathetic joke. Much like the natives of America they were forced into little pockets and forced to farm, something that Ainu did not know how to do & as such many failed. Those who failed were sent to - well slaved out to is the proper term - factories.

      It is ONLY in 2008 that the Japanese even acknowledged the Ainu as been a legitimate ethnic group.

    • @AshViper

      Any fool can go live in a foreign country for a few decades and learn very little about their culture. Which seems to be the case for you. Not to mention that you contradict yourself. You say you don’t think they are “backwards” yet here you are generalizing them as “Xenophobic”.

      Tell me, if you know so much about Japan: did you know their land is nearly devoid of natural resources, yet they still managed to form a fairly advanced island nation pre Meiji? Did you know they are closely related to the Koreans? Did you know the first Europeans they encountered were the Portuguese? Did you know the Japanese traditionally used Hemp to make clothes? Did you know some of the Ainu have interbred with the Yamato Japanese? Did you know the Japanese invented the first Blue LED?

      And the status of the Ainu can be compared to the status of the native Americans. I never said the Japanese were perfect but I find it seriously annoying whenever a “Gaijin” tries to shift all the blame onto the Japanese while trying to justify or blatantly justify the dark history of their own countries (Cough cough the Japanese-Canadian internment).

      Obviously you didn’t even bother to read the whole article I wrote, you simply jumped to conclusions.

  • cth96190
    As a former Australian soldier, an amateur military historian and a qualified history teacher I am well aware of the subhuman savagery of the Japanese before and during World War Two.
    The Japanese actually changed the culture of the Australian Army.
    When I trained to become a mounted infantry platoon commander, we became acquainted with the idea of keeping the last round in our top right pocket. . . for ourselves.
    Under no circumstances were we to be taken alive. During my time, that idea had (unofficially) spread to all ranks.
    Australians do not surrender. Period.
    Nor do we take prisoners when fighting a non-European enemy, unless ordered specifically to do so.
    In Singapore (1942), the Australians who were there surrendered only because the idiot British ordered them to and the Australians were stupid enough to follow the order. The British thought that they were playing cricket against gentlemen on the fields at Eaton.
    They did not understand that they were fighting savages who delighted in inflicting subhuman cruelty for the sheer pleasure of it.
    Had I been in the Oval Office, in 1945, the Japanese surrender would not have been accepted.
    I would have treated the Japanese as they had treated others.
    There would have been a blockade, Japan would have been bombed back to the Stone Age, herbicides would have been sprayed on all crops and diseases such as bubonic plague and smallpox would have been seeded from the air.
    Then, sit back and wait.
    Today's Japanese are said to be different. Ask a whale or a dolphin what they think of the Japanese.
    • That’s because they let the extremists take power during the 1920s-1930s.

      The German POWs who were captured by the Japanese during WWI, were actually treated with respect. Some even stayed in Japan after the war. That was before the imperial Japanese became brutal.

  • Yeah Japanese people are quite lovely, but fighting them is not going to be a fun. So many factors contributed to the downfall of the Japanese army in WW2, mainly limited resources, Japan did not have the resources to supply an over extended army, and it's a fact that members of Japanese intelligence knew that the choices they had made would eventually cause them to loose the war in the end, they knew it before the first bombs were dropped on pearl harbour.
  • SuccessfulHornDog
    Nice writeup.

    My takeways

    1. Is Japan really the 5th strongest army today? I had no idea
    2. The danger of unintended consequences of regime change/coup. This type of thing happens a lot.
    • I just took some time to look into Japans Military ranking and I found a cool website:

      It allows the reader to slice and dice the different rankings to see why countries are ranked and who the leaders for specifics metrics are. Very cool

  • Gedaria
    This was how Japan was at war with the US.
    The US was fighting against the Japanese only they were giving backing. Like planes, and pilots. The Japanese said stop doing it or we are at war. It would seem they took no note.
    As they say the rest is history...
  • chc0009
    As a Korean, I will never forgive the Japanese for what they did. Hence why I don't watch anime, don't eat Japanese food, don't play Japanese games, etc. They were worse than the Nazis. Tojo made Hitler look like a choir boy.
  • Naydyonov
    I forgot I was in GaG. Felt like I was reading an article.
  • Nephilim000
    Brutality sucks no matter the reason. And apologies are nice and all but some things you just can't make up for no matter how many times you apologize
    • Boob_Boy

      At this point, all of the people involved in that are starting to die out so there isn't really anyone left to blame. Same goes for Germany.

    • If it only were that simple. Hate can be passed on pretty easily.

    • Boob_Boy

      Well all I know is the Korean youth still hate Japan. Burning JP flags and stuff in the open.

    • Show All
  • smahala1991
    It seems like America embraced Japan a lot quicker after WW2 than we did Germany
  • Warrior_Nun
    Didn't Japan invade Korea way back in 1592?
    • ADFSDF1996

      Yes, that was the Toyotomi Regime which lasted for 32 years. That 6 year war ended in stalemate and relations between both countries were mended.

      To be fair though, the Goryeo Korean Kingdom did help the mongols in the failed invasions of Japan before that.

  • Jersey2
    I like history. I will come back and read this.
    • Jersey2

      That was informative. Thank you!